Lent is upon us, the holiest time of the year for Christians -- a time for us to ponder the meaning of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, his proclamation of "Good News" for the poor and downtrodden, and the degree to which our lives align with Christ's vision. Many will make some small (or large) sacrifice, something that will remind us that this is Lent, and of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.
If you still haven't figured out what you're going to give up, some Anglican Bishops from the UK have a suggestion: Give up meat.
The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt. Rev. John Pritchard, calls meat consumption a "spiritual issue" and declares that he plans even after Easter Sunday "to make a more permanent change to eating less meat." The Bishop of Monmouth denounces what he calls "the damage caused by today's exploding and unsustainable demand for meat."
And closest to my own faith-based reason for adopting a vegetarian diet in 1987, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt. Rev. Stephen Cottrell, explains that "What I find intolerable and unsupportable is the way we rob factory-farmed animals of anything resembling a normal life, in order to furnish ourselves with cheap meat."
Bishop Cottrell echoes the sentiments of Pope Benedict XVI, who famously told journalist Peter Seewald that the question of animal treatment is a crucial one for the faithful. By any measure, what happens to farmed animals today is anti-Christian. For example, as His Holiness explained, "hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds." Similar abuse occurs in all of the farmed animal industries. Explains His Holiness, "this degrading of living creatures to a commodity contradict[s] the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible."
Indeed, it doesn't take much reflection to see that the Pope is right: God created humans and other animals out of flesh, blood, and bone. We share the same five physiological senses and the ability to feel pain -- God designed us this way. God designed all animals with a desire to enjoy sunlight, fresh air, fresh water, and the rest of God's creation. God designed pigs to root around in the soil for food and play with one another. God designed chickens to make nests, lay eggs, raise their chicks, and establish communities (the "pecking order").
Yet agribusiness today denies animals their most fundamental needs. Chickens are crammed into cages by the hundreds of thousands, each with less space than a standard sheet of paper on which to live. During pregnancy, pigs are stuffed into tiny metal crates so small they can't even turn around. Forget rooting in the soil or laying their eggs in nests -- these animals can barely move. The one natural thing they do get to experience is agony -- and lots of it.
Agricultural Frankenstein scientists "play God" by manipulating animals to grow so quickly that their hearts, lungs, and limbs can't keep up, often causing heart attacks, lung failure, or crippling leg deformities within weeks of birth. Modern farmed animals have their beaks seared off and are castrated without pain relief: painful mutilations that, if done without anesthesia to a dog or cat, would be illegal. Finally, those who survive these factory farms are trucked by the billions -- without food or water -- to a hellish death at a slaughterhouse. Chickens and turkeys have it the worst there -- nearly all of the 9 billion slaughtered each year are conscious when their throats are cut, and, according to the USDA, millions are boiled alive.
Jesus' message is one of love and compassion, yet there is nothing loving or compassionate about the modern industries that produce almost all of the chickens, pigs, and other farmed animals who are turned into meat in this country. Christians have a choice: When we sit down to eat, we can support misery and cruelty or we can make choices that support mercy and compassion.
Father John Dear, a Jesuit Priest from New Mexico, explains: "Many Christians who agree that harming a dog or cat is wrong think nothing of harming cows, pigs, chickens, fish and other creatures. We need to understand that if we're eating meat, we are paying people to be cruel to animals. . . . For the simple reasons that all animals are creatures beloved by God and that God created them with a capacity for pain and suffering, we should adopt a vegetarian diet."
Why Not Go Meat-Free for Lent?
This Lenten season, I'll be thinking a lot about what our fallen nature means about how we interact with animals, and what Jesus' arrival means for us and how we lead our lives. When Christians pray, "Your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven," the one prayer given to us by Jesus, it seems to me that this should obligate us to, as much as we can, make choices that are as merciful and loving as possible. We are a fallen humanity, but with regard to eating God's other creatures, this is one area where we can begin to live the eschaton vision of the prophets (and Jesus) -- right now.
Father Dear, explains: "Vegetarianism proves that we're serious about our belief in compassion and justice, that we're mindful of our commitment, day in and day out, every time we eat. We are reminded of our belief in mercy, and we remind others. We begin to live the nonviolent vision, right here and now."
It's Lent -- a time for reflection on Christ's sacrifice through small sacrifices of our own. If you eat meat, please consider giving it up for Lent, and maybe spend a bit of this most prayerful season of the year reflecting on whether eating God's creatures reconciles with our hope for God's peace on earth.
Wishing you a blessed Lenten season of prayer, reflection, justice, and tasty vegetarian food.