Saturday, February 16, 2008

Compassionate Dominion and Factory Farms

“The question is not ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’”
Jeremy Bentham

"A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite."
Leo Tolstoy

"The righteous care for the needs of their animals.."
Prov. 12:10

In the previous two blogs I've offered four reasons I became and remain a vegetarian. (By the way, there are many other arguments that others give to support vegetarianism --- such as its health benefits. I think some of these arguments are plausible, but I'm omitting them since they don't honestly affect my own decision one way or the other). I now want to share my fifth and final reason why I'm a vegetarian. It concerns the fact that we're called to reflect God's love and mercy by how we exercise dominion over the animal kingdom (Gen. 1:26-28).

5. Compassionate Dominion and the Factory Farm Industry

Because we've been conditioned to see them as products for consumption, few western Christians seem to appreciate just how much dignity and value God ascribes to animals. It was to animals, not humans, that God gave the first command recorded in the Bible (Gen. 1:22). Every animal was created by him, belongs to him, and is sustained and cared for by him (e.g. Ps. 50:10-11; Job 12:10). The Lord is often depicted as a compassionate care-giver affectionately tending to the needs of his pets. “All creatures look to you,” the Psalmist says, “to give them their food at the proper time” (Ps. 104:27 cf. vs. 11; 147:9). Jesus depicts his Father as personally attending to the needs of sparrows (Mt 6:26; 10:29; Lk 12:6).

The Lord’s heart is to preserve “both people and animals” (Ps 36:6), and he shows compassion on every living thing that he has made (Ps 145:9). For example, one of the reasons he gave to Jonah for wanting to have mercy on Nineveh was that it was home to so many animals (Jon 4:11). Clearly, God has a tender heart toward animals.

One of the clearest signs of the dignity and value God ascribes to animals is that he sometimes makes covenants with them. When God forged a new covenant with Noah after the flood, for example, he included animals. The Lord said the rainbow was “the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you [Noah] and every living creature with you…” (Gen. 9:12, cf. 16-17, emphasis added). So too, as we saw in the last blog, the covenant of non-violence God says he’ll make in the coming Kingdom epoch includes the animal kingdom (Hos. 2:18).

Now, the final act of creation, according to the Genesis narrative, was the creation of humans who were created to be God’s co-workers (I Cor 3:9; 2 Cor. 6:1) and co-rulers (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 5:10) carrying out his will “on earth as it is in heaven" (Mt 6:10). Our original mandate in the Bible centered on carrying out God’s loving dominion over the earth and the animal kingdom (Gen. 1:26-28; Psl. 8:4-8). We are entrusted and commissioned to reflect God's care for animals by how we ourselves care for them.

This original commission was never retracted by God. Carrying for animals is still one of our most fundamental benchmarks for how we’re doing as a species. And by that benchmark, I think it's obvious we're failing pretty miserably.

Over the last century we have reduced farm animals to commercialized commodities whose only value is found in how efficiently we can produce and slaughter them for profit. Consequently, we now have a situation where more than 26 billion animals each year are forced to live in miserable, over-crowded warehouses where there is absolute nothing natural about their existence and where they are subjected to barbaric, painful, industrial procedures. (I encourage readers to view the film Farm to Fridge [click here to watch] and read Matthew Scully's marvelous book Dominion to be informed on these matters).

Here are just a few examples of the typical treatment animals receive in our factory farms to satisfy our appetite for meat.

* Up to a dozen chickens are squeezed into sixteen inch cages, stacked four or five high, in which they cannot so much as spread a wing. This is how they spend their entire miserable lives.

* These over-crowded, over-stressed conditions produce hostile behavior. To prevent chickens from plucking each other to death and thus lose profits for the factory farm industry, these poor creatures are “debeaked” (as are turkeys and sometimes ducks). This involves using a searing hot blade to cut through the bone, cartilage, soft tissue and nerves of the beaks of these abused birds.

* Cattle are routinely castrated, have their horns cut off and are branded with a searing hot iron, all without the use of pain killers. During auction and shipping their movement is controlled by electric prods (called “hotshots”) that send painful, high-voltage shocks through the cow’s body.

* Because of the speed with which it must be carried out, the slaughtering of cattle is not always efficient. Some are consequently still conscious when they’re dismembered.

* Dairy cows spend the bulk of their existence in crammed quarters, hooked up to a milk machine. They are impregnated each year to keep milk production going and have their young taken from them almost immediately after birth, an act that is unnatural and traumatizing to both the calf and its mother.

* Once taken from their mothers, calves are frequently kept in tiny crates in which they cannot turn around or even lay down comfortably. To produce veal, male calves are fed an unnatural diet to keep them borderline anemic. This keeps their meat white and tender. When they’re just several months old, they’re slaughtered.

* The worst victims of the factory farm industry, in my estimation, are pigs. Gene research has recently revealed that pigs are one of our closest cousins in the animal kingdom. These poor beasts are routinely castrated, have their ears and tails cut and have their teeth yanked out all without the use of any anesthesia. The shrieks of pain heard throughout these ordeals are gut wrenching (see the film Farm to Fridge).

* Pigs are customarily kept in narrow stalls that allow them to do nothing more than stare ahead their entire lives. Because pigs are extremely intelligent creatures – more so than most breeds of dog – they often go insane in this confinement, sometimes gnawing at their own limbs (which is why many factory farms yank out their teeth). They are pumped full of hormones to stimulate unnatural growth, and many get to the point where their legs won’t support their body weight any longer. These must then be dragged to slaughter.

* Pigs are commonly packed so tightly into transportation trucks that many are crushed to death in the process. As with cattle, the slaughtering process is far from perfect, and some are yet conscious when they are scalded in boiling water to have their hair removed.

If you saw your neighbor torturing their dog the way factory farms torture pigs and other animals, you'd immediately call the police and the man would be prosecuted for cruelty to animals. If your neighbor did this to numerous animals over time, he'd eventually be locked up (despite how pathetic our laws against animal cruelty are). Yet when billions of animals are treated in this barbaric way on factory farms, we not only look the other way, we actually support it and fund it -- if, in fact, we consume the beasts these farms torture! And the only reason we do this is because we like the way they taste.

There’s no question that this calloused treatment of animals on factory farms is an efficient way of processing meat that helps keep its price down. But there's also no question that this represents the antithesis of the loving and compassionate dominion God intended humans to exercise over animals. We're called to reflect God's loving and compassionate character in the way we treat animals. There's nothing -- nothing -- loving and compassionate about the way animals are treated on factory farms. Their lives on these farms are a living hell.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am called to manifest the reign of God in every area of my life. Since torturing animals is not consistent with the reign of God, I feel I cannot help fund an institution that does this.

Undoubtedly, someone will respond; “What practical difference will it make for one individual to refuse to benefit from the butchery of the slaughter houses? They're going to continue to operate regardless of what you or any other individual does.” The same argument was used to justify Northern Americans reaping benefits from slavery before the civil war. For all their protesting, few Northerners boycotted the South's slave-driven cotton industry. This argument is simply a poor, morally vacuous argument.

But even if we grant that refusing to benefit from animal torture on factory farms doesn't make any practical difference, this shouldn't affect the behavior of followers of Jesus in the least. We are called to do what we do not because its practically expedient, but simply because we are called to do it. Faithfulness, not pragmatism, is our motivation. Our call is not to pragmatically fix the world, but to simply be the Kingdom.

At the same time, we have to remember that every Kingdom act we engage in, including our refusal to participate in unnecessary violence toward animals, is an act of resistance against the Principalities and Powers and helps weaken their stronghold on the earth. While we may not be able to empirically measure the impact our revolt against violence has on the world, we can trust that our loving revolt is, in fact, making a significant difference. (My forthcoming book Revolting Beauty will explore this idea in depth).

If you're a person committed to seeking first the Kingdom of God (Mt 6:33), please take God's mandate to care for animals seriously. Prayerfully reflect on your own treatment of animals and the treatment you support by your lifestyle choices. If you choose to eat meat (which, as I've repeatedly said, is not prohibited in Scripture), I encourage you to purchase it from free range farms that at least allow farm animals to enjoy a natural life in the open air. (By the way, this also applies to the consumption of all dairy products).

Yes, food from free range farms is more expensive. But consider the enormous price you force animals to pay when you insist on buying it a little cheaper.

Eat well.
Eat responsibly.
Eat under the reign of God.

Further Reading
For those who want to go further with this topic, here are a few good books.

Linsey, A. Animal Theology (University of Illinois Press, 1995). A hard hitting book that shows how the Christian tradition has tended to neglect God’s call to extend merciful care to animals. The book includes a great, biblically based, polemic against the modern “commodification” of animals, as demonstrated most poignantly by the creation of industrial farms.

Scully, M. Dominion (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003). An eloquent, compelling book that offers the best single expose I know of on how cruel humans tend to treat animals. A real eye-opening book! (Warning: This book may make you a vegetarian!)

Webb, S. On God and Dogs (Oxford University Press, 2001). If you’re willing to read only one book on the topic of the biblical view of the treatment of animals, read this one. Webb presents a balanced but compelling case that Christians have a responsibility to extend God’s grace to animals.