Consistency is important in our treatment of all God’s creatures, including the ones we eat.
In a certain part of the world they like to eat a certain animal. It’s a delicacy but how it’s produced is far from delicate. After primates, whales, dolphins and elephants, this creature is one of the most sociable and intelligent in all of the animal kingdom, yet it can spend much of its life crammed into a metal crate not much bigger than its body. Its sense of smell is incredibly powerful, and people have used it for this reason for generations. But in the squalid conditions that it is raised for consumption, it knows only the stench of its own excrement.
The situation described above is true. The animal in question, however, is not the domestic dog and the people are not East Asians. The animal is, in fact, the domestic pig and the people are Western Europeans, North Americans and others like them. Why is it that a sense of horror and outrage at the thought of man’s best friend being factory farmed to produce a real-life hot dog fades into an uncomfortable acceptance of this state of affairs when it involves the pig? This blog addresses this inconsistency in our Christian food ethics, outlining the reasons for it as well as an alternative perspective. It will also reflect this debate in my own journey from committed carnivore to ethical omnivore.
Every year, around the world, sixty billions farm animals are slaughtered for food. This includes nearly 53 billion chickens and 1.3 billion pigs, the majority of which are farmed in intensive systems, in conditions similar to those outlined in the scenario above. Contrast this with our pampered pets. Every year, around the world, hundreds of millions of creatures are being kept as companion animals. This includes 171 million dogs and 202 millions cats, two of the most popular species, and results in a pet industry worth $81 billion in 2010.
The numbers are staggering. But what does the bible have to say about our relationships with these animals, be they pets or livestock? Is there any particular guidance on eating animals, whether domestic dogs or domestic pigs?
In the beginning, God gave people only plants to eat. However, after the flood, in Genesis 9:3-4, God gave human beings the right to eat other living things:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.
There are two key points in this passage. Firstly, all species of animal are legitimate food items for people. This includes familiar and comfortable species such as cattle, sheep and ducks. More controversially, though, it also includes those animals that, from a Western perspective at least, are regarded as either too majestic or too unpleasant. Kangaroos and monkeys, and locusts and spiders, all spring to mind in these two categories.
The second point here qualifies the first, as it sets out the conditions under which we may eat ‘every moving thing’. The most important factor is that all animals, and all plants too, are given by God. Even when they are eaten by people they belong to Him, as Psalm 24:1 reminds us. Consequently, how they are viewed and treated by people should be on God’s terms, not dictated by society or the market. Psalm 104, for example, demonstrates some of God’s interactions with various creatures, and illustrates both His provision for, and joy in, them. The end of the Genesis passage above would seem to corroborate this perspective. Rather than an admonition against eating black pudding, it is believed to be a reminder than even in the eating of an animal, its life, its blood, its very being belongs to its Creator.
The powerful logic of this argument suggests that all animals are worthy of respect and humane treatment, in life and in death. It also suggests that consistency in this regard is important too, as divisions of the animal kingdom into acceptable and unacceptable dietary items are not outlined here (the clean and unclean animal classes of the Old Testament are no longer relevant in the New). Based on this rationale, it could be argued that it would be better in God’s eyes to eat a dog that has been raised and dispatched humanely than a pig which has not. But whether dogs or pigs, pets or livestock, Genesis 9:3-4 encourages us to let our treatment and consumption of all animals, and their products, be guided by this consistent biblical wisdom rather than convention, convenience or tradition. This is as true of consumers and retailers as it is of food producers and processors.
There are four main barriers to this state of ethical omnivory (see Unhappy meals for practical suggestions for this approach), each of which I passed through on my own personal journey. The first is ‘don’t know’. Even in the digital age, there are many who are unaware of where their food comes from and how it is produced, a situation often exacerbated by misleading marketing and packaging. The second barrier is ‘don’t want to know’. If knowledge is power, and power means responsibility, then the realisation of how food animals are treated may entail an awkward and unwanted obligation to act.
‘Don’t want to change’ is the next obstacle to consistency. The urges to carry on as usual, to not be different or a hassle, and of diet and taste, are all powerful parts of the socio-cultural package that encourages conformity to the status quo of eating animals. Fourthly, ‘dont want to pay’ is the final barrier. Too often the stifling pressure to consume excessive and trivial products and services leaves little aside to spend on food that is produced humanely.
My love of animals has been a defining feature of my life. It has influenced my education, my career and my spare time. I have had the privilege of seeing, keeping and working with all sorts of animals all over the world: in the wild, in captivity and in my own home. I’ve also eaten many animals, from elephant and kudu, to grasshopper and tadpole. Over the last few years, the final piece of this puzzle has fallen into place for me, after too long spent battling the excuses outlined above. The careful biblical consistency with which I now treat all animals – those I keep as pets and those I eat – gives me peace, as I seek to care for all God’s creation. While I still have no desire to ever eat dog, however it is produced, Genesis 9:3-4 is a good guide for Christians on where to start.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Edited versions of this blog were published on the Breathe Network’s website and the April 2014 edition of the Presbyterian Herald.