How Should We Then Eat?

cowsLast Sunday, I began a preaching series on Old Testament ethics with a sermon titled “The earth matters.” How do we understand our relationship to God’s creation and creatures? You can find the sermon audio here.

A main part of that message was on humane treatment of animals. This isn’t just humane activity. It’s divine. It’s acting as the living image of God, God’s representatives on the earth. It’s caring for God’s creation and the creatures of the earth as the good gift that they are––not to be abused or disregarded. We especially focused on the living and dying conditions of most of America’s “food animals.”

A little secret I let my congregation in on: the preacher doesn’t already have all these things worked out. My family is no exemplar of care for God’s good earth and its creatures. This isn’t to say we do anything intentionally abusive or negligent, but we’ve just not given it much attention. Whether this sermon convicted anyone else, it at least convicted the preacher.

I thought I’d share with you some practical tools we’re finding to do better. These are all resources to help us buy from places with an eye toward humane treatment of animals, rather than from factory farms. For what it’s worth, in addition to the benefit to the animals, these practices may also include health benefits, environmental benefits, benefits to farmers, and provide better-tasting food.

There are so many things to think about, and wholesale change can be difficult. Not to mention that many of these new choices will be more expensive. For those who are just trying to take baby steps, I’ve talked to some people who have decided to focus on switching one meat meal per week to a free-range/grass-fed/organic option. Others have talked about reducing the amount of meat they eat per week, and still others about starting with a move to organic or free-range eggs.

Sadly, the environment has become a political hot button issue. The mere mention of the word is likely to get our backs up about as quickly as words like gun control, abortion, same-sex marriage or immigration. If you find yourself in lock-step agreement with a certain political party on all of these social/ethical issues, you might pause for some reflection. None of our political parties (so far as I know) are seeking first to govern according to the will of God. They have many other agendas. Donors, pressure groups and philosophical commitments all influence their social agendas far more than a deep reading of the Christian faith.

Some people want us to avoid these topics in the church for the sake of “keeping politics out of church.” But more than American political issues, these are ethical issues. The church must speak and act on these things, and we need to be able to do it without the suspicion that we’re doing something as small as promoting a political party’s agenda. Our task is different, and bigger, than any of theirs.

7 thoughts on “How Should We Then Eat?

  1. Teddy:
    I’m sad to see your latest emphasis on “animal cruelty” and recommending resources from dubious sources such as the “Humane Society of the Unitec States.” (Did you know actual humane societies which do real work with actual animals and who go by local names such as “Humane Society of Jackson County” will have nothing to do with the group calling itself “Humane Society of United States?”)
    Before you get yourself any deeper in the manure you’re spreading. I would recommend you visit with actual local farmers who own and operate cattle operations, hog operations and sheep farms.
    Having grown up in South Dakota and pastored in the Dakotas, and now in Minnesota, I can introduce you to these people who have more respect for the animals they raise than any of the organizations you’ve been talking too. I can also introduce you to a few veterinarians who work closely with large cattle and hog operations (which have been ‘labeled’ confinement operations by the sources you cite)
    By the way, you might want to do some more research on what is labeled “organic” or “free range.” I can introduce you to the Donahue family of Howard, SD who raise certified “organic beef” and you might be surprised how they raise their cattle. They are one of the best farm families I know who have more respect and dignity for their animals.
    If you would like some accurate resources on where our food supply comes from, I would be more than happy to steer you in the proper direction.

    1. Hi Robert,

      I’m a bit confused by your comment. Could you clarify your objections? I did link to HSUS articles on deciphering egg and meat labels. I understand that you take issue with HSUS, and I’ve seen why some others have, as well. I don’t know that those issues make invalid their resources on egg and meat labels. Do you also consider the other resources I’ve referenced dubious? You tell me to do more research on “organic” or “free range,” but then suggest introducing me to a family that raises certified “organic beef” and call them one of the best farm families you know. Did anything I said here suggest that certified organic beef was not good?

      I do know local farmers, have spoken with some, have visited a CSA and talked with farmers who raise grass-fed cattle. I’m far from an expert and happy to talk to others. But at this point, other than your problems with HSUS, I’m having a hard time understanding what it is you’re calling “spreading manure.”

  2. Teddy, thank you for your article. Unlike the first response, I want to thank you for your work in providing the resources and for the content of your article. I am mostly vegan. My husband is a meat eater and we buy from a local farmer whom we interviewed. It was important to me that I see how he farmed as well as know where and how the animals are slaughtered.

    I’m not against eating animals on one hand. God has clearly left room for meat eating, though it’s not his perfect will for creation, his perfect will is the example of Eden where all were vegetarians, and one day, shall be again.

    In a fallen world, God must work with what he’s got. And I believe he does expect merciful treatment, and will judge us on how we treated his creation, including what we partake in. I’m all for models of farming that take us back before factory farming. And I can understand Robert’s sentiments, as well, for some factory farmers may very well take care of their animals better than most. At the same time, most factory farms confine animals in conditions that are not natural to them. Likely, even if they are not being abused by violent behavior from the workers like many are, they still undergo a slaughter process that is horrific for them; it is not economical for a farmer on a mass scale to take his animal one by one into a room, quietly and quickly slit his/her throat, then hoist them up so the blood can drain before removing the hide.

    I suspect that the writer of the first response to your article perhaps does not understand God’s standard of care for farmed animals and indeed all animals. What may appear to be good care under the guidelines set by the industrial farming industry itself, is flawed when compared to what God expects. Animals were designed first and foremost to please their Creator; to live outdoors with proper access for shelter and for grass they would naturally eat were they not confined into feeding operations where their food often is less than adequate by God’s design; care that does not force them to stand for hours on concrete while being milked (God made cows milk for cows, not humans – a substance designed to make baby cows grow big fast). I doubt God cares much that we mess with their DNA, remove their young right after birth or make male calves suffer to become veal, grind up male chicks alive just for being hatched male in the egg industry; nor does God’s standard likely expect them to be housed by the thousands in sheds the size of football fields to never feel the sun on their backs, grass beneath their feet, or experience rain drops on their bodies like today’s pigs. I doubt he cares much at all for the way we cram chickens into cages together so they are unable to stretch their wings, each having about enough space as the size of an 8 1/2 sheet of paper to live on to produce eggs for us to eat; there are 10’s of thousands of these birds in the egg industry in dark sheds who go blind and have respiratory diseases because of the stench of their own feces and urine, their cages housing about 8 birds per cage and stacked upon top each other. There is a whole lot more it appears the writer isn’t aware of.

    As for HSUS, I volunteer for them. I’m not sure why local humane societies would not want anything to do with them. HSUS in Minnesota does a lot of important work at the level of government, lobbying for better laws for animal welfare, raising awareness on the issues with regard to many areas of animal exploitation, animals raised for food is just one issue; they lobby for better protections for animals raised in puppy mills, and fight for protections for wild animals such as the wolf, and much more.

    Likely, all of us are going to find differences in opinion in what is considered “care” for animals. I think the wisest thing all of us can do is to look to the Creator, our Lord and Saviour, for the standards we should set. Since Jesus died and rose again to defeat all of Satan’s work upon this earth, setting us free from his oppression, why wouldn’t we embark upon a lifestyle that more accurately reflects the Father’s love for the creatures whom he died to redeem also? The Lord covenants with all of his creation, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (Psalm 24:1)

    If God’s people are going to eat animals, I think you are absolutely spot on, Teddy, in suggesting that they find sources that are local and humane. I encourage you to continue to teach your congregation Christ-like stewardship practices. There is such a need for Christian leadership in the animal welfare movement. Don’t be afraid to tackle the issues head on would be my strongest suggestion to you!

    I blog at Shepherding All God’s Creatures. Come on over and have a look! And thanks for your work on your blog!

  3. I’m not sure what happened, my message posted and I wasn’t quite finished. One more thing to say! I think pastors who want to begin the conversation about animal welfare, need support and encouragement, like all of us do, and that is what I hope that our blog does. We do call on the church (and by church I mean all of us as followers of Christ regardless of denomination) to step up and address these pressing, urgent issues. We support animal welfarists but we also try to bridge a gap that polarizes the issues and that can make the church hesitant to take a stand. I hope you will check it out and follow us.

    I’m hoping one day, the Lord willing, to be more instrumental between the animal welfare movement and the church in drawing the two together. The issues surrounding animal abuse transcends gender, religious perspective, politics, race. God is truly calling on his people to bring animals and the earth into church ministry; the Father’s love is indivisible!

  4. I won’t jump into the debate per se, but I wanted to make a few observations which relate to the initial post, but only as it serves as a springboard to some of my additional thoughts.

    First, St. Irenaeus is adamant that when humanity becomes fully deified (or, when the Kingdom of God fully comes) we will all be vegetarians. I personally find it hard to refute this as Irenaeus points to the prelapsarian paradise (Garden of Eden) described in Genesis. Kathy poignantly does the same.

    Second, there is a local, though historic, canon law in the East (which might take me some time to look up if anyone is interested) which forbids Christians to practice vegetarianism as the Church considered this practice a denial of the goodness of creation. Eastern Orthodoxy, it should be recalled, practices a strict vegan fast for nearly 1/3 of the calendar year. Many extreme ascetics apparently decided that unending vegan “fasting” should be maintained and that one should never celebrate feast days. The Church viewed such extreme ascetic practices as having a tendency toward Docetism rather than theosis. Not eating meat, as even the Apostle Paul observed, simply does not make one more or less Christian.

    Third, God himself killed/slaughtered animals for the benefit of humanity (Genesis 3). It is true this happened after the Fall, yet God does not commit “sin” in response to human “sin.” Does God Himself sin by creating garments made of animal skin for Adam and Eve to wear after the Fall? PETA might say ‘yes’, and I know many Christians who would seem to concur with this. Similarly, Jesus was no vegetarian. He ate fish. Did Jesus sin by doing this? Would it have been better if he didn’t? Was his act of eating meat promoting the Kingdom of God or was it denying it?

    Fourth, and this stems from my constant engagement with (and push-back against) eco-theologies and eco-theologians at Toronto (who strongly voice that humanity is not the center or apex of creation): I’m not sure if our job is to revert creation back to some pre-human, idealic, natural state; I think it is to move it toward redemption. I care little, for instance, if the domestication of cattle and sheep, is “natural.” Without it, these animals would simply go extinct. Medicine is also unnatural. Does this mean we should let sick cattle/sheep die? The “natural” state of creation is fallen because of our sin (e.g., Lions devour lambs), and in need of our human effort and creative capacity to redeem it. This is why I’m more of a proponent for the humanization of creation rather than its de-humanization, and this is why I think your (Teddy’s) post is so important. Once again, you avoid the pitfalls and extremes on both sides. Robert, I think, is rightly responding to an extreme position he has encountered (which is perhaps growing in popularity), but I don’t think it is one your post is encouraging.

    1. Thanks Kalev,

      What an interesting balance — that we could both embrace Irenaeus’ concept of new creation vegetarianism and yet remain omnivores without sin now. Thanks for sharing those.

      Yes — you’re right about my goals here. Neither to deify nature or attempt to revert to any Edenic state, nor to abuse and disregard God’s good creation (in the linked sermon, I shared a despicable quote from Ann Coulter about how the biblical view encourages us to “rape the earth”).

  5. I don’t understand all the talk about what the bible says that God and Jesus ate or didn’t eat, since the bible is pure fiction!

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