catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 13 :: 2013.06.21 — 2013.07.04


The sacrament of meat

On the bulletin board in the cafeteria of my conservative Christian college, someone posted a note asking for more vegetarian options, to which someone replied with scrawl: “God wants you to eat meat! See Genesis 9!”

Genesis 9, an echo of the original creation blessing in Genesis 1, was, by that person at least (and many more, I suppose) taken as proof positive that God intends for people to eat meat:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (v.1-4).

Yet, this permission to eat meat is a concession, rather than God’s original ideal for creation, which appears wholly nonviolent — all animals were vegetarian as well, as they will be again in the New Creation. This seems largely uncontroversial: God’s ideal is a peaceful world without violence or death. Shedding blood — whether human or animal — is always treated with absolute seriousness within scripture. Meat eating may be permitted, but it’s not pictured in scripture as God’s ideal — either in Eden or in the New Jerusalem.

Nowhere does the Bible regard animals as objects for human use; rather, as New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham points out, the Bible everywhere regards them as subjects of their own lives.  The model of a shepherd caring for his sheep is the Biblical ideal: a relationship of caring responsibility. The prohibition following God’s permission for eating meat begins to hint at this: “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Old Testament scholar Daniel Block understands this ordinance as one that “forces hunters to identify with the creatures by touching them and personally bearing responsibility for their deaths.” Block and Bauckham each point to numerous passages in scripture that encourage compassionate and caring animal husbandry — passages requiring that animals are given rest (eg. Deut. 5:14), that lost animals are returned (Deut. 22:13), and that overburdened animals are relieved and allowed to rest (Exod. 23:14). Perhaps most succinct — and, in our present context, convicting — is Proverbs 12:10: “The righteous person knows the life of his domestic animal, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (Bauckham’s translation).

Block isn’t too forceful in pointing to this depressing passage in Hosea as a word of rebuke to us, who may spend billions annually to feed our pets but are largely oblivious to the suffering of animals “whose voice is not heard by those whom God has placed in charge”:

…the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or steadfast love,
and no knowledge of God in the land;
there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery;
they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns,
and all who dwell in it languish,
and also the beasts of the field
and the birds of the heavens,
and even the fish of the sea are taken away (Hosea 4:1-3).

Whatever you think about biblical vegetarianism or the possibility of compassionate carnivory, we can probably at least agree that factory farming as it is practiced in the U.S. falls short of even the omnivorous biblical ideal. Many people will, on this basis, follow a vegetarian (or vegan) diet. My family ate vegetarian for some time because we couldn’t find free-range meat. But eventually we decided to seek out the small farmers who raise and slaughter animals in ways that are sustainable and respectful — like Joel Salatin — and paying the true cost of quality meat means for many of us that we’ll eat far less of it, which is a good thing for our well being and that of the planet. (Plus, free-range meat is rich in the kinds of fats that are understood to be good for us, whereas feedlot meat — fed on corn — is rich in the fats that aren’t so good, especially in excess.) Further, we have chosen, for the most part, to eat whatever is served to us by other people, feeling that in a choice between offending our host and eating food that doesn’t reflect our values, love for our (human) neighbor takes priority. As the novelist Marilynne Robinson told The Paris Review:

I’m generally a vegetarian of the ovo-lacto type, minus the ovo, yet I’m keenly aware of the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian. When he visited Mussolini in Italy he rejected the state dinner. He didn’t drink or smoke. I hold him up as an example of how an aversion virtue can be a negative sign.

While it’s true the biblical vision of eating in the nonviolent New Creation (as in Eden) doesn’t involve animal slaughter, it also doesn’t seem to involve much agriculture at all: Adam and Eve aren’t fussing over their orcharding; they’re picking and eating what God appears to have already tended to. In both places, God does all the feeding; in both places, the earth spontaneously yields all kinds of plants that are good for food.  We’re familiar with what Eden looked like in that respect, and the tree of life, in Revelation 22, echoes Eden, but even better: it yields 12 kinds of fruit.

In the New Creation, something radically different — a new creative work on God’s part — will take place. Right now, it’s biologically impossible for a lion (or, for that matter, a house cat) to be a vegetarian; for “true shalom [to] reign over all,” God will do something entirely new. But in this present world, carnivorous animals are part of the ecosystem. Trying to change this would be impossible, and, possibly, dangerous. While some argue that we, unlike animals, can choose a vegetarian diet, this is true only of some — certainly not of all — people in the world. Many people — even those who were until a few years ago, middle class — don’t have the luxury of being choosy about their food. During my parents’ lean young-family years, our protein came from Spam and government cheese because that’s what they could afford, and that’s what was given to them in the bags of groceries they gratefully accepted from others. In many places, people have no access to supplies of protein and fat — and in the case of Inuit people, calories — that do not come from the bodies of dead animals.

Choosing not to eat animals that have been tortured strikes some people as a separate question from eating animals that have been treated with respect and allowed to live their natural lives as God intended. Eating that kind of meat — from animals that have been well cared for — can actually help change animal agriculture for the better. Barbara Kingsolver and Joel Salatin alike point to humane, well-tended farms whose respectful treatment of animals helped convince a number of vegans to diversify their diets so as to be able to support farmers who raise and slaughter animals with mercy and reverence. (You can visit to find humanely raised meat near you.)

Eliminating animals from human diets isn’t always the sustainable choice for the simple reason that animals are essential on a biodynamic farm. To put it in terms that my children find hilarious: their poop, so problematic when they live on CAFOs, replenishes the soil beautifully. Animals living on pasture also make it possible to turn grass or other inedible vegetation into nutritious milk, meat and eggs.  In many places, irrigation or soil conditions make growing lots of vegetables impossible, but hardy goats and other ruminants can live by eating whatever growing things they come across, and, in turn, they feed the people who care for them. So having an animal to use for milk, eggs and, eventually, meat, greatly improves both the lives of the people and the health of the soil, and thus the health of the ecosystem.  That’s why organizations like Heifer International, which do so much to return dignity and beauty to the lives of the poorest people on the planet, focus on teaching responsible animal husbandry.

Eating meat can be a part of a compassionate, humane and joyful relationship with food, but most of us would do well to eat less of it, and to purchase, when we can, sustainably and humanely produced meat, dairy, and eggs.

In The Gift of Good Land, Wendell Berry suggests that all eating — even that of plant-based foods — involves a kind of death; a damage to the earth:

To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration.

It is possible to eat in ways that shed Creation’s blood and break its body reverently. It might mean spending a little more money to buy vegetables, eggs or meat from a local farmer or gardener, or it might mean spending more of your time with your hands in the dirt, coaxing your own food from the earth. Eating with joy while loving God’s creation means humbly recognizing our place as members of creation, with a responsibility to cherish and protect biodiversity — in plants and animals. It means respecting animals as the divinely created subjects of their own lives while recognizing their legitimate use. It means remembering Eden and anticipating the New Creation while living here and now. It can mean eating local, gardening, composting, recycling, and more — but this will look different for city-dwellers as compared to country folk, as well as for the wealthier among us compared with those living on limited material resources.

At its heart, it means sitting down to the table mindful of God, respectful of the creation he loves, and believing that in eating this way — even if we’re forgoing things we’d normally have — we are pursuing our own best good; our own greater joy.

Adapted from Eat with Joy by Rachel Marie Stone. Copyright © 2013 by Rachel Marie Stone. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. 

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