March 15, 2013 1 Comment
(A Faith Embracing All Creatures is the second book in The Peaceable Kingdom Series being published by Cascade/Wipf and Stock. I reviewed the first book in this series, A Faith Not Worth Fighting For, here.)
“The Peaceable Kingdom Series is a multi-volume series that seeks to challenge the pervasive violence assumed necessary in relation to humans, nonhumans, and the larger environment.” Each individual volume is set up in such a way so that each chapter is a response to a commonly asked question skeptical about the topic at hand. Each chapter is written by a theological scholar or engaged Christian practitioner versed in the topic. In this way, the series is one of the best examples of “public scholarship” that I am aware of. It brings some of the best thinking on pressing issues into the hands of “everyday” readers. For this, I applaud the editors and publishers.
The second volume in the series sets out to answer questions about and argue for the Christian call to “embrace all creatures.” The primary focus of most of the essays is advocating for Christians to eat a vegan, or at least vegetarian, diet. However, other instances of human-animal interactions (such as laboratory testing) are mentioned as well. The primary thrust of the book’s argument is that God’s eschatological kingdom is one which will know no violence – including violence against animals. The Church and Christians, called to embody this kingdom in the here and now as much as possible, are thus called in their discipleship to reject violence against their fellow breathing creatures. Faithful kingdom discipleship is discipleship that rejects violence of any kind.
The book begins in Genesis 1 and the question of human dominion, proceeds through questions about the covenant with Noah, animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, and Jesus eating fish and lamb. If God called on humans to sacrifice animals or if Jesus ate animals, for example, why are Christians supposed to abstain from eating animals? These are the kinds of questions that Christian vegetarians and vegans often face and that the authors attempt to answer. The advocates of Christian vegetarianism are meeting meat-eating Christians on their own terms.
In my opinion, the chapters that address specific biblical texts generally fail to convince. For example, in chapter 9 Annika Spalde and Pelle Strindlund take on the story of Jesus healing the man possessed by a “legion” of demons who then, with Jesus’s permission, leave the man and enter into pigs which commit mass suicide. “Clearly,” skeptical Christians say to Christian vegetarians, “this shows that Jesus values human life more than animal life. Indeed, here Jesus views animals as mere property that can be killed at a moment’s notice. How can you then affirm that humans shouldn’t kill animals for food when Jesus “killed” a multitude of animals in this story?”
Spalde and Strindlund, in my opinion, do a wonderful job of presenting an anti-imperial reading of the text. Naming the demon(s) “Legion,” for instance, is clearly an allusion to the Roman imperial army. Also, several of the Greek words in the story (such as apostello, agele, and epetrepsen autois) are words that had military connotations. And the pigs in the story act in ways quite unnatural to pigs; for example, rushing forward in unison rather than in multiple directions. Clearly, something out of the ordinary is up. For Spalde and Strindlund, then, this story is best read (metaphorically?) as a story of Jesus challenging imperial violence. They say, “That Mark and the other authors depict the destruction of animals is unfortunate. Yet it is also the case that no moral lesson regarding our relationship to animals can be derived from this text since it is really about Jesus’s interaction with a powerful military regime…This text is about a person possessed by a military spirit, whom Jesus freed; God Almight versus imperial might – that is the structure of this text” (107).
While I find this interpretation intriguing and plausible (and exciting!), it is clear that Mark and the early church also understood this event to be something that actually happened. And most Christians today will read it in the same way. Jesus gave permission for demons to kill pigs. Likewise, God did command ancient Israel to sacrifice thousands of animals, Jesus as a Jew who spent much time in Galilee likely did eat fish, and occasionally lamb, etc. There may indeed be reasons for these actions that point to a deeper meaning, but these animals were harmed according to God’s action, most Christians believe. The interpretive moves taken to explain away these likely historical facts are, in the end, unconvincing.
However, those places where the authors bring out themes in scripture which support a contemporary vegetarian diet are compelling. Specifically, the authors collectively argue that 1) the dominion given humans in Genesis 1 is to be a dominion exercised in a spirit of servanthood rather than dominance, imitating the loving and sacrificial dominion of God and lordship of Christ, 2) God clearly cares for animals and we are called to care for them as well, 3) the kingdom of God will be one where wolves lie with lambs, and natural predators no longer eat their prey, so that should be modeled in the here and now, and 4) it appears that Adam and Eve had only a vegetarian diet before the fall and the killing of animals for clothing and food only comes after sin enters the world. All of these are compelling themes which, if nothing else, teach us that we should treat animals with more compassion and care than we currently do.
And here is where the volume is at its most compelling: In chapter 11, titled “Are We Addicted to the Suffering of Animals?” John Berkman paints a picture of factory farms that is deplorable. This picture is not new to those familiar with this field or who have watched Food Inc. or other such documentaries. Simply speaking, the mass production of animals for food in developed countries is inhumane. This, in conjunction with the negative effects such food production has on the poor around the world, is a compelling reason for Christians to remove themselves as much as possible from the system to maintain some semblance of moral purity.
About five years ago my wife and I began lessening meat in our diet for exactly these reasons. First, we stopped buying red meat. Then we stopped buying chicken breasts. Then ground turkey. Now, we only buy fish on occasion, and usually from local vendors, and we typically only eat meat when eating out or at the home of another family. We are now calling ourselves “social meat eaters.” We have done this for a combination of reasons, but one dominant one is the gross amount of injustice tied to the factory farming of animals. This stance, for us, has meant a drastic reduction in meat consumption, but we still do partake at holidays, celebrations, and as an act of hospitality to those who host us. (Interestingly, there is a chapter in the volume that argues that Christian hospitality does not require accepting the gifts of others when in their home, but actually requires hospitality to those who enter your home – including animals.)
Unfortunately, there is relatively little space in the volume outside of Berkman’s essay devoted to these issues – though they are the most powerful argument for contemporary vegeatarianism. Also unfortunate is a lack of elaboration upon a few statements made by ecologist and evolutionary biologist Mark Bekoff in the preface. Bekoff says that “Once we realize the common bonds of compassion we share with other animals…[we will make] different choices about who (not what) we eat and buy, how we educate, entertain, and amuse ourselves, and how we conduct research” (xi). He says that animals “are rational, sentient creatures who care as much about their lives as we do our own” (xii). I wish more had been said about this topic.
And it is here that we find the greatest weakness in the book. In its laudable determination to answer the questions many Christians are actually asking it focuses disproportionately on questions of biblical interpretation. This approach is not compelling, however, because these are the wrong questions. The average person will not find several of the arguments made throughout the book convincing because to ask such questions is to read the Bible differently than the authors in the text. It is clear that the “biblical world” is one that assumes the owning, killing, and eating of animals. There may be, and I am convinced is, a biblical move in the direction of compassion and care for all of God’s creatures, but it is not one towards a principled veganism. To imply that there is such an ethic in the Bible seems to be imposing modern concerns upon an ancient text. This weakness in the book exposes a broader weakness in some strands of Christian theology and ethics; simply speaking, the Bible doesn’t have an answer for everything we face in the modern world.
The factory farming of animals didn’t exist in the world of the Bible. The links between the food industrial complex and climate change, global poverty, and obesity in wealthy countries were unthinkable. The production of animals too big to walk because they are so overfed and pumped full of steroids was centuries away. The Bible is not all we need when doing ethics. We need the Wesleyan quadrilateral or the hermeneutical circle or Ernst Troeltsch/H.R. Niebuhr’s triadic approach to faith, history, and ethics. We need more than the Bible to tackle the ethics of how humans treat animals. In short, we need to take seriously historical experience, the natural and social sciences, and other forms of knowledge available to us. The authors recognize this, and several incorporate such analyses into their chapters. However, these detours from the questions that drive the text are too brief to convert the unbeliever.
In my opinion, questions of social justice should push American Christians to limit their meat consumption and to challenge the existing system of food production. It is unjust, unhealthy, and inhumane. However, this doesn’t necessarily lead one to totally abstain from eating meat. If one can find and afford sustainable and humane meat, cheese, and eggs, I see no reason why eating them should be avoided from a social justice perpective. Indeed, we should encourage Christians and others to participate in these alternative and local forms of food production and economic systems. The case for totally abstaining from eating animals, it seems to me, rests on Bekoff’s claims about what we have come to know about animal rationality and emotions and our “bonds of compassion” with them. I am not well read in the science that is beginning to show that animals are more “human” than we have imagined, but I know that it exists. An accessible summary of that research would have been more compelling than an essay arguing that Jesus might not have eaten lamb at the last supper.
Still, taking seriously the eschatological vision of predators lying with their prey and God’s loving care of all creation are important biblical themes that Christians should more seriously consider. And many of the passages Christians point to to justify their harsh treatment of animals, like Genesis 1, are misused when used that way. These are important corrections to much popular understanding of the Christian faith. However, I am unconvinced that the Christian faith requires a plant-based diet for all Christians across time and culture. If this is not the case, then the contextual argument for contemporary vegetarianism/veganism in the developed world must be made by answering different questions. Berkman’s essay is a step in this direction. To find answers to similar questions one must look elsewhere.