Advent is upon us. It's a particularly holy time of the year for Christians, a time for us to ponder the meaning of Christ's birth, his proclamation of "Good News" for the poor and downtrodden, and the degree to which our lives align with Christ's vision. And so I view Advent as a key time to reflect and consider whether I'm living up to my Christian call to service on behalf of a more compassionate world.
From 1990-1996, I lived and worked in a "hospitality house" in Washington, D.C., sharing my life with the city's most down and out people, as a part of the Catholic Worker movement. We provided shelter to homeless families, as well as food, clothing and blankets to the city's poor. While I was there, a friend gave me Christianity and the Rights of Animals by the Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey, an Anglican Priest and professor of theology at Oxford University. It changed my life.
As a result of my prayer over Linzey's work and conversations with my spiritual director at St. Aloysius Catholic Church, my focus turned to animal protection, where it's stayed for the last 15 years. Since that time, I've occasionally been asked why I focus my efforts on protecting animals, rather than humans. So, as this Advent season begins, I decided to offer some thoughts on why I view working on behalf of animals -- and especially farmed animals -- as God's work.
Pope Benedict XVI stated in an interview 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, 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.
Michael Specter, writing for the New Yorker, described his visit to a modern chicken shed: "I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe. ... There must have been thirty thousand chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn't move, didn't cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way."
I beg you, if you haven't, to see for yourself how God's creatures are treated to make "meat." Alec Baldwin recorded a video, "Meet Your Meat," which you can watch here:
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 that 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. Shouldn't that be an easy decision for us?
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."
He continues: "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."
Living Christ's Message, Not the Status Quo
In Animal Theology, Rev. Linzey writes that "[a]nimals are God's creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God's sight. ... Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering."
So this Advent season, I'm thinking a lot about fallen humanity, 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 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."
All the questions that are put forth in favor of eating animals (e.g., "Didn't God put animals here for our use?" and "What about animal sacrifice in the Bible?" and "What about the loaves and the fishes?") don't address the fundamental fact that eating God's creatures causes needless suffering. None of the common rationalizations address the points I've discussed above. None of them respond to the fact that today, eating God's creatures is inextricably linked to their abuse. If you are eating meat, you're paying others to deny God's animals their natures, and to abuse them. Even the very few organic and small farms abuse animals in ways that would be illegal if done to dogs or cats. Watch this video (also posted at the end of this reflection), if you're not sure.
And of course, these same justifications for animal slaughter or eating meat fall to the side when one is challenged to directly partake in the process: Would you want to sear the beaks off of baby chickens or castrate pigs and cows without painkillers? Would you want to cut a pig's throat and eviscerate him? Would you want to personally stuff eight hens in a cage the size of a file drawer and lock it shut for 18 months?
It might be boring, but we could all watch grains being tilled or spend an afternoon shucking corn or picking beans, fruits or vegetables. But how many of us could spend an afternoon slitting open animals' throats? If we wouldn't do it, where is the basic integrity in paying others to mete out these cruelties on our behalf?
Thankfully, the Church is showing signs of life on the issue, marked in part by Pope Benedict's condemnation of factory farming. Rev. Linzey writes in Animal Theology: "[G]o back just two hundred years, and we will find intelligent, respectable and conscientious Christians supporting almost without question the trade in slaves as inseparable from Christian civilization and human progress."
The challenge is not, of course, to point out how morally backward so many Christians were just 200 years ago. The challenge is to ask what's happening now that in 50 or 100 years will warrant similar ethical incredulity. It is a simple fact that all animals are God's creatures, and that what is happening to them today, with widespread Christian support, is ethically indefensible.
Father Dear continues: "I am convinced that society will look back on human arrogance and cruelty toward other animals with the same horror and disbelief that we presently reserve for atrocities committed against human beings." And more and more people of faith are waking up to the fact that modern farming practices warrant both suspension of our support and Jeremiah-level denunciation.
And that latter understanding, that people of faith should be speaking out for justice for all God's creatures and not just the human ones, explains my role, given to me by God through mindfulness and prayer.
It's Advent, a time for reflection on our lives. I hope that if you eat meat, you will spend some of the season reflecting on whether eating God's creatures reconciles with our hope for God's peace on earth.
Watch "Glass Walls," narrated by Sir Paul McCartney:
Watch "Free Range: A Documentary" here: