Journal of Moral Theology will Focus on ‘Nonhuman Animals’

This Summer the Journal of Moral Theology, a biannual publication dedicated to Catholic moral theology, will be rolling out it’s issue on “nonhuman animals”. According to the journal’s website, it will be “the first ever issue of an academic journal dedicated to constructive approaches to ethics regarding non-human animals from the perspective of Roman Catholic moral theology.” The issue will be co-edited by three outstanding theologians: John Berkman, Celia Deane-Drummond, and Charlie Camosy (all of whom are featured on this blog’s “theologians” page, here), and will feature essays that

evaluate non-human animals as ‘subjects’ in some sense and not merely as ‘objects’ of analysis…essays that engage the significance of recent ethological or evolutionary studies; essays that engage the history of Catholic moral theology; ethical reflection on the ‘intrinsic’ goodness of a particular animal species in relation to its particular ends and capacities; ethical analyses of contemporary topics like non-human animals as pets and the factory farming of non-human animals.

From the looks of it, interested parties will be able to purchase hard copies of individual issues (no subscription necessary) for $25 through the website, or download a PDF of the issue for free. Be sure to check it out (along with the previous issues dedicated to topics such as Christology and ethics, virtue, and love, all of which are available for free online).

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Lamppost Farms: Slaughter as God Intended?

While reading a post written by a friend of mine for his church’s blog I came upon a statement, made only in passing, that nevertheless got me thinking. The author, Adam, notes the irony of a culture that is, on the one hand so obviously obsessed with blood and violence in movies, TV, and video games, and yet, on the other hand is so obviously repulsed by “the real stuff”. Adam then speculates, “I think this is why we let other people butcher our livestock,” noting that “we let them do it in places and institutions far, far away from our cloroxed and swiffered lives“.

All that Adam seems to mean by this statement is that most of us have a deep aversion to blood and violence and that this is evidenced in the way animal slaughter is carried out far away and behind closed doors. Nevertheless, I think his statement is also an implicit criticism of a certain artificiality, or hypocrisy, at the heart of our highly industrialized and impersonal modern way of life. Many people want to eat meat. But they also want to pretend as though that meat didn’t require the violent death of another creature; they’d like to imagine that they are somehow not implicated in the violence that their demand for animal flesh sustains.

Now, wholly apart from whether this is a criticism that Adam would want to make himself I think it’s an accurate one, as is indicated not only by the distance we place between ourselves and the slaughterhouse, but also in the very words we use to conceal the origins of our neatly packaged meat (e.g., we eat “beef” not “cow”, “bacon”, not “pig”, “veal”, not “baby calf”, etc.). Nevertheless, while I would be inbroad agreement with this implicit criticism, I do have some reservations about Adam’s particular juxtaposition of the violent reality of animal slaughter to the obvious artificiality of “cloroxed and swiffered lives”. For in framing things in this way, the author implicitly associates a certain kind of violence – for that is what the slaughter of animals is – with what is natural and authentic; qualities that we find lacking in our sheltered and domesticated lives. Again, these assumptions may or may not be anything Adam explicitly subscribes to himself. They are however implicit within his statement, and are in fact explicitly embraced by many people, including many Christians, who assume that raising and slaughtering one’s own animals, or at the very least buying locally-sourced meat, might be a sufficient antidote to the way in which our modern lives have become disconnected from the sources of the food we consume. For Christians, this may even have a distinctly theological flavor. Such a way of life might not only appear to be more authentic, more real and connected; it may also be taken as closer to life as God intended.

This in fact is the view taken in a recent article for Christianity Today. The title of the article asks, “Would You Kill a Chicken With Your Bare Hands?”, suggesting in it’s subtitle that, “it may be good for your soul”. In the article, author Bret Mavrich recounts his experience at Lamppost Farm, a family-owned, Christian-based “non-profit ministry”, owned and operated by Steve and Mel Montgomery in Columbiana, Ohio. Lamppost is not like other farms. The Montgomerys welcome visitors to come and learn where their meat comes from through hands on experience. Visitors, in other words, learn how to stun, kill, boil, defeather and process chickens themselves, transforming them from living creatures to “meat and bones” that will then be sold to local vendors and restaurants. For the Montgomerys however, Lamppost is more than just a way to make a living. Their ultimate aim is to impart to their visitors a sense of “the connectedness of creation and the goodness of the Creator—something most Westerners can miss when the sources of our food are obscured”. And according to Mavrich, the Mongomerys have found that “using tactile experiences like slaughtering hens, is the best way to teach this.”

“SLAUGHTER AS GOD INTENDED?”

Given these bold theological claims then, it’s somewhat disappointing to find that Mavrich offers virtually no theological justification for any of them. Besides a single vague and misappropriated reference to scripture, mentioned only as an aside, there is little that is recognizably Biblical about Mavrich’s various claims on behalf of Lamppost Farm. Take for instance his assertion that Lamppost teaches “slaughter as God intended”. How does this square with the Biblical vision according to which God did not create animals with the intention that they should be killed by humans at all? (See my brief discussion of Gen 1:29-30 and 2:18-19, here). My hunch is that it doesn’t, at least insofar as we are speaking about the God of the Bible. Biblically of course, no violence or predation of any kind can have a legitimate place within the created order that God speaks into being. These are realities that are utterly alien to the Biblical vision of life as God wills it. For death, however quick and painless, is an enemy of the God of life (1 Cor 15:26). To deny this, it seems to me, is to risk rendering the resurrection of Christ unintelligible. For it is in the resurrection of Christ more than anywhere else that death is revealed as being at odds with God’s will for creation. Of course if death is an enemy of God, it is to be an enemy of Christians who are called to be conformed to the image and likeness of God through their incorporation into the body of Christ who is the true image of God. Though some may be tempted to restrict “death” here to that which effects humans only, I can see no plausible ground for doing so, particularly when scripture seems to consistently refuse such ad hoc distinctions (e.g., Gen 9:8-17; Ecc 3:19; Jon 4:11; Hos 2:18).

Contrary then to Mavrich’s wholly misguided claim that Lamppost Farm is “as close to Eden as you could hope for”, scripture itself paints a very different picture; there Eden is portayed as a paradisial garden inhabited by herbivorous humans and vegetarian animals. It’s not until after the fall, according to the narrative of scripture, that humans or animals begin killing for food. However we understand the historicity of these passages, the relevant theological point remains the same: any slaughter of any animal, however humane, is from the perspective of Genesis 1, already at a far remove from life “as God intended”. Given this, it is shocking that Mavrich does not cite any Biblical support for his claims. What seems to be operative in Mavrich’s assertion is not so much a Biblical conception of the created order as much as an overly simplistic “natural theology”, that assumes what is closer to “nature” is therefore closer to God’s will. This is an especially problematic assumption for Christians since, as David Clough explains:

“Genesis 3 [the story of “the fall”] makes clear that…we can no longer read off God’s purposes by observation of the world in its current state. To insist against this that the life of the world we see around us is a reliable indication of God’s creative purposes is to privilege our own independent observation of the world over basic affirmations concerning the doctrine of God that are Biblically rooted and defended throughout the Christian tradition.” (Clough 124).

In other words, Mavrich’s assumption that what appears natural to us is closer to life as God intended it does not take sufficient account of the fall, which not only affects our ability to discern God’s will for us, but has devastating effects on creation as a whole (Rom 8:22).

THE LIFE IS IN THE BLOOD

Perhaps though, Mavrich isn’t thinking about God’s intended relations between human and nonhuman creatures before the fall. After all, despite the fact that such relations represent God’s ideal for human and nonhuman relations, much of what is apparently lost in the fall could not possibly be restored by any human effort alone (e.g., sin, predation among nonhuman animals). It would be as futile for us to try and mimic life as depicted in Genesis 1 and 2, as it would have been for Adam and Eve to attempt a return to Eden with the cherubim and the flaming sword guarding the way (Gen 3:24). Perhaps what Mavrich has in mind are the kashrut (or “kosher”) laws handed down in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which specify for God’s people not only which among the many existing animals may be killed for food, but also the conditions under which the life of even those animals may be taken. This would appear to be the case, since Mavrich’s only reference to scripture is found in his statement that “the life is in the blood”; an implicit reference to a phrase first appearing in Leviticus 17:11, and again later on in Deuteronomy 12:23, as the rationale for the Bible’s strict prohibition against consuming blood (or flesh with the blood still in it).

Mavrich refers to this Biblical phrase in the context of his first experience slaughtering a chicken himself. He recounts his visceral reaction to the experience of having just severed the chicken’s jugular vein and carotid artery in order to let it bleed out. “It’s disturbing” he says, recalling Montgomery’s reassuring words: “It’s supposed to be….We’re not supposed to take a life and then say, well, whatever. That’s not how we’re made.” Of course, as is indicated by our previous discussion of the opening chapters of Genesis, this is true as far as it goes. But my contention is that it doesn’t go far enough.

While a full discussion of the significance of the blood prohibition and related parts of the dietary law of the Hebrew Bible will have to be deferred to a future post, there are a few points that are relevant to my argument here. First, prior to it’s appearance in the Mosaic law, the blood prohibition first occurs in Genesis 9:4, immediately following God’s concession of animal flesh to Noah and his family (Gen 9:3). This, coupled with the fact that the blood prohibition is reiterated so often throughout the dietary laws (especially in Lev 17, where it is repeated in such a fashion as to make acute it’s importance), is evidence that this concession cannot properly be understood as a once-and-for-all permission to take animal life as we so desire, but can only be seen as an accommodation to a fallen and sinful humanity. In other words, Genesis 9:3 is not unlike God’s reluctant concessions of divorce (Matt 19:8), or the establishment of monarchy in Israel (1Sam 8). Though these are all reluctantly permitted and tolerated by God (an extension of God’s gracious condescension to a fallen world), none represents God’s ultimate desire for his creatures. Because Christians are not simply called to live according to the external precepts of “the law”, but are called to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, who’s sanctifying work draws us closer to God’s ideals, we therefore have every reason to move beyond the Pharisaical tendency to simply seize upon the opportunities afforded our fallen nature by a legalistic interpretation of Genesis 9:3, and to follow the Spirit as it leads towards the fulfillment of God’s eschatological promise according to which “the wolf will lie down with the lamb” and “the lion will eat straw like the ox” (Isa 11:6,7).

I recognize that there is much more that needs to be said concerning the significance of the Kashrut laws if I am to make my case compelling. These laws clearly do not outright prohibit the taking of animal life for food (at least certain kinds of animal life). A full discussion however would make this already lengthy post unreadable. Suffice it to say for now that I am in broad agreement with commentators on Leviticus, such as rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who has argued that the dietary laws of the Hebrew Bible comprise a coherent system, the aim of which is ethical rather than, as is often claimed, hygienic. The dietary laws of Leviticus, according to Milgrom, are part of an ethical pedagogy established by God to counteract humankind’s postlapsarian tendency toward violence, via the cultivation (in God’s people, at least) of a reverence for life (Milgrom 735).

While Mavrich and Montgomery hint at something like this reverence for animal life, as Christians, they stop too short of it’s logical conclusion. For if Milgrom is right about Leviticus, then the blood prohibition doesn’t simply require us to pay lip-service to the sacredness of animal life, but serves to remind us at a deep, visceral level, that death both human and nonhuman is inextricably bound up with human sin. Ultimately then, as Neil Messer notes, “A properly repentant attitude to human sin and the brokenness of the world should lead us to avoid the violent exploitation of non-human animals whenever we can.” (Messer 225)

While it may seem more natural, more real and down-to-earth, more connected with the rest of creation, the practices engaged at Lamppost Farm are, from a Biblical perspective, at a far remove from either God’s original or ultimate will for creation. This of course, is not to deny that Lamppost is a significant improvement upon the standard of factory farms. It is to say, however, that Mavrich’s claim that Lamppost represents the “Christian” alternative to factory farms is dangerously misleading. No doubt, we could all be more connected than we are to the rest of creation. But the connectedness glimpsed in Mavrich’s article can only be that which obtains between the human individual and the land. We can’t forget the importance of our connectedness to the lives of God’s nonhuman creatures as well. And while simply refraining from eating their flesh of course, does not on it’s own guarantee that we’ve established any real connection to them, if it is a practice rooted in a deeper recognition of the subjectivity of animals, and in their identity as fellow creatures of the same God, then it is my contention that it is much closer to the ideal than is possible if we are only ever able to relate to other animals as resources to be consumed. As Stanley Hauerwas has said ‘doing justice’ requires us to “reflect back to others what they truly are.” Indeed, it “demands that we see one another as God sees us.” Accordingly, if we fail to ask the crucial theological question of how it is that God sees the life of each animal, then we cannot but fail to do anything like justice to them.

Clough, David. On Animals Volume One: Systematic Theology. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Hauerwas, Stanley. “Doctrine and Ethics” in Colin Gunton (Ed), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. pp 21-40.

Messer, Neil. “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends.” in Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough (Eds), Creaturely Theology, London: SCM Press, 2009. pp 211-227

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1-16: A NewTranslation with Introduction and Commentary.