Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Toward a Divine Diet

Author: 
Bruce Friedrich

Meat and Jell-O: These were the main food groups for gatherings at the Oklahoma church where I was confirmed and, as I learned later from family experience, at church events across the Midwest. Of the two, Jell-O doesn’t raise much religious or ethical alarm. Meat, however, has found itself increasingly in consumers’ culinary crosshairs. Pastor Rick Warren recently co-wrote The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life (Zondervan, 2013), advising the faithful to eat primarily plant foods to lose weight and be healthier.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early 1990s, I spent six years running a Catholic Worker house in inner-city Washington, D.C., where we housed homeless families, distributed food to the hungry, and provided winter blankets and jackets to people in need. Despite our constant focus on living out faithfulness to Jesus, food production never came up as a justice issue.

The Meat of the Matter

For the past 20 years, I have focused professionally on opposing one particular aspect of the industrial food system – turning God’s animals into meat for American dinner tables. There is a lot wrong with modern animal farming: It takes a heavy toll on the environment and hurts the global poor by diverting resources from crops for humans to crops for animals.1 As Oxfam America has explained, “eating less meat is a simple way to reduce the pressure on global resources and help ensure that everyone has enough to eat. To say it simply, eating less meat helps fight hunger.”2

Turning animals into meat is also bad for the animals themselves, and that is my vocational and spiritual focus.

In Animal Theology (Illinois, 1995), Anglican priest and theologian Andrew Linzey points out that other species are made of flesh, blood, and bone – just like we are. They share with us the same five physiological senses and the same capacity for pain. They are more like us than they are unlike us. Our differences are of degree, not kind.

When we’re talking about dogs or cats, most Christians will agree that these animals should be protected from harm, that they are individuals, and that we should not eat them. But most Americans simultaneously eat farm animals, despite the fact that they are also individuals, and despite the fact that what happens on modern farms makes a mockery of God’s plan for them.

It may be no surprise to readers that animals on most modern industrial farms are treated without mercy. Almost all are tightly confined in cages, crates, and warehouses, doing little for which God designed them. Most never even breathe fresh air until the day they are loaded onto trucks and taken to the slaughterhouse.

Supporting Abuse

These animals are also drugged and bred to grow so fat that many cripple under their own weight. A 2014 report on modern chicken “husbandry” by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals notes that “most of the nearly nine billion chickens raised in the U.S. each year are selectively bred to grow so large so fast that many struggle to move or even stand up. [With] bones and organs that often can’t support their huge and distorted bodies, many of these birds spend much of their lives lying down in their own waste, with open sores and wounds that act as gateways to infection.” They are “bred to suffer,” the ASPCA concludes.3  

Those who continue to eat conventional meat – which is more than 99 percent of available meat – support this sort of abuse.

Some consumers may purchase exclusively heritage breed chickens and grass-fed beef. Though these types of products involve less cruelty than most meat on the market today, these are still, from a biblical perspective, half measures.

Most Christians know that God told us to “fill the earth, and subdue it …” (Gen. 1:28), but how many know that in the next verse, God commands vegetarianism? “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.’”

Eating in the Eschaton

Even the animals who are now carnivorous were vegetarians in the Garden of Eden, as they will be again in the eschaton, when no one will harm anyone else, whether human or not. As Isaiah 65:25 declares:

“The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says God.

The idea of avoiding meat is a familiar and reasonable one to most Americans already. We all understand it intuitively when the meat comes from dogs or cats – we see those animals as members of our families, as individuals. We would all recoil at the idea of Fido in the frying pan.

At Farm Sanctuary, we have been providing lifelong care to farm animals for more than 25 years. Every animal on each of our three farms is an individual, just like – for most readers – every dog or cat is an individual. We would no more harm (or consume) a chicken than we would harm (or consume) a cat.

There is a scientific as well as anecdotal basis for our understanding of farm animals as individuals. Science now tells us that chickens and pigs, for example, outperform dogs and cats on tests of behavioral and cognitive sophistication.4

No Justification

In short, no tenable argument, theological or otherwise, exists to justify eating a chicken or a pig but not a dog or cat. For the same reason most of us would never eat a pet, more and more individuals are now leaving meat off their plates because they recognize that there really is no difference.5

Most people of faith spend very little time thinking about the ethical implications of their food choices, no matter the issue involved. Most of us have not thought deeply or prayed about what we are supporting when we make our dining choices.

Yet slowly but surely, faith communities are recognizing that food matters – that food choices are not just political, but spiritual too. And as more of us do, the dire ramifications of meat consumption, as well as the inevitable cognitive dissonance of expressing mercy for animals while habitually killing and eating them, will disintegrate.

Choosing a vegetarian diet takes seriously the Apostle Paul’s call to “pray without ceasing.” With a plant-based diet, every meal involves an explicit choice of compassion over cruelty, of mercy over misery – every meal becomes a prayer for a kinder world.

Eating connects us to the processes that go into producing our food, and by choosing to eat plants, and not animals – as it was in the beginning and as it will be – we can all begin to live God’s peaceful vision for all of God’s creation.

Bon appétit!

Bruce Friedrich is director of advocacy and policy for Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal protection organization. It operates three sanctuaries – in Watkins Glen, NY, Los Angeles, and Orland, CA.

Notes

1 See, e.g., Bruce Friedrich, “Pray Ceaselessly & Eat Justly,” Prism magazine (Evangelicals for Social Action), 2012, available at http://prismmagazine. org/eatjustly.

2 Avoiding meat is also cheaper. The cheapest thing on a menu is usually the vegan option, because grains and beans are easier and cheaper to produce than meat, even factory-farmed meat. Much of the world is vegetarian by obligation, because they can’t afford meat. Although it’s true that the poor cannot afford to buy meat from animals who are welltreated, they can afford to buy grains and beans (if they can afford anything).

3 See www.aspca.org/fight-cruelty/farm-animalcruelty/ the-truth-about-chicken.

4 For species-by-species ethological information, see www.SomeoneProject.org.

5 Marine biologists confirm that fish feel pain with the same intensity as land animals, and also that they are ethologically sophisticated. See the fish section of www.SomeoneProject.org.

Issue Title: 
At Risk: Our Food, Our Water, Ourselves
Issue Year: 
2014