Eating toward Shalom

Eating toward Shalom: Why Food Ethics Matters for the 21st-Century Church

My paternal grandfather was an egg and small-crop farmer. My maternal grandfather was an herbicide chemist who worked to promote the green revolution in agriculture. My dad, now an economics professor, is still a hardworking farm boy at heart. He never wastes food because he knows what went into raising it, and he can fix almost anything with just a few tools; all my home-improvement projects await his visits. My mom’s cousin is an executive at one of America’s largest pork producers. As an elementary schooler, I visited the processing floor of a meatpacking plant with a mixture of pride and wide-eyed bewilderment. I wasn’t raised on the farm, but favorite activities with grandparents included riding tractors, shucking corn, exploring the chicken houses, and playing freeze tag with cousins behind Great-Grandpop’s butcher shed. I can’t claim genuine farm-boy cred, but I do owe my existence, my spiritual aspirations, and many of my most cherished experiences to good Christian people in agriculture.

It might seem odd, then, that a healthy portion of my vocational bread and butter these days is asking tough questions about our food system and its unintended consequences for creation. The oddity is increased by the fact that I’m raising these questions from my position as a professor at a Christian Reformed institution whose constituency has deep roots and significant continuing influence in industrial animal agriculture. Many of the classes I teach include students who live on large family farms or have had summer jobs in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). I have taught and advised the children of industry leaders in the pork, dairy, and beef sectors and count them among those with whom I’m proudest to have worked in 15 years of teaching. I’ve even visited a large family farm at the invitation of a student’s parent and given a presentation on the animal welfare movement to the managers of the farm. I understand why some think I’m biting the hand that feeds me, but blaming farmers for problems to which we all contribute is certainly not my intention.

What I hope to be doing, at least on my best days, is something like what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “educating for shalom”—doing my small part as a philosophy teacher to inspire and equip the Christian community to live out our vision of a shared life of peace, justice, and deep enjoyment grounded in loving God and neighbor and caring for creation. If it seems that I think too highly of my profession, don’t be fooled. Being a philosopher often means being dreaded by students and avoided at parties. That’s because an occupational hazard of philosophy is asking people to reflect on cherished daily practices we usually take for granted, which can lead to uncovering inconvenient truths that require careful reconsideration of our habits.

I have fallen victim to this occupational hazard myself. If someone had told me 15 years ago that I would end up advocating for “greener” eating as a discipleship practice of shalom-inspired creation care, I’d have slathered up the nearest rack of ribs in defiant reply. My Mennonite background had taught me well that the active pursuit of peace and justice for human beings is central to living out the Christian vision. But it wasn’t until 2003, when I joined a Reformed community, that animals (and the good earth we share with them) came prominently into view as inherently valuable creatures of God whose flourishing shalom requires.

The Reformed theological vision is generous to animals, reflecting a deep and abiding appreciation for the sovereignty of God over all creation. It affirms the goodness of all creation and mandates that human beings follow the divine example of delighting in God’s creatures and taking loving care of them. It stresses the pervasive personal and institutional effects of human fallenness, the cosmic scope of Christ’s reconciling power (“every square inch,” as Abraham Kuyper famously said), and the call to be agents of renewal after Christ’s example in our personal and institutional lives.

Where some Christians are skeptical of science, the Reformed vision sees the findings of general revelation—what human beings discover about God and God’s plan through careful study of God’s world—as continuous with God’s special revelation in Scripture. And where some Christians shrink from engaging ideas and criticism from outside the church, the Reformed vision’s emphasis on common grace empowers us to look beyond our tradition for insight into God’s regenerating wisdom and our own shortcomings.

It is thus perfectly natural for Reformed Christians to declare that animals and the physical world are good and precious to God and that we have a duty to God to care for them. It is faithful to our vision to acknowledge that pedestrian things like our food system and eating habits aren’t just trivial matters of personal preference but are caught up in grander narratives of sin and redemption. And it is fitting that Reformed Christians, informed by confidence in general revelation and by humility as recipients of common grace, would seek counsel from environmental science, the study of animal behavior, and the animal welfare movement as we discern how to live out our biblical hope for shalom as 21st-century Christ-followers.

The good news is that the Reformed vision is theologically well suited to help us face the moral and environmental challenges raised by the need to feed almost 10 billion people by 2050 on a planet where arable land, water, and oil are increasingly scarce and the environment is increasingly unstable. But there’s no way to soft-pedal the bad news: There are strong reasons to believe that our collective default to the animal-heavy standard American diet is deeply out of resonance with our professed hope for shalom and our ability to live out this hope.

To appreciate how far-reaching the consequences of our food choices are, consider the implications of raising and slaughtering almost 10 billion land animals annually in the U.S. and Canada so that North Americans can eat almost twice the global average of meat per person per year (213 pounds for Americans, 154 pounds for Canadians). Feeding this many animals requires unsustainable amounts of oil, land, and water to grow grain—a commodity the subsidization of which causes political and economic problems for farmers around the world.

Raising these animals confronts us with dangerous concentrations of ecologically threatening manure and greenhouse gases and the risk of epidemic diseases such as bird flu. Processing this many animals at a profit means dangerous and often exploitative working conditions for a disproportionately minority workforce. And eating this many animals is strongly correlated with the rise of preventable diseases estimated to cost $314 billion a year for interventional medicine.

Counting the costs of the standard American diet to ourselves and our fellow human beings is a crucial step. But a truly shalomic imagination must count the costs to God’s other creatures too. Caring for animals was the very first responsibility bestowed to humankind by God—our very first chance to practice the capacities of love, power, and mercy that accompany the divine image within us. What, then, are the costs of our food system to the animals under our charge?

The vast majority of these 10 billion creatures are bred, housed, fed, transported, and slaughtered in industrial systems that consign them to short lives of crowded, sedentary confinement and deny them many of their most basic creaturely activities and enjoyments. The degree to which we bend every aspect of their existence to our convenience and profit raises the question of whether our dominion over them has become more about playing god than serving God. Consider the life of a chicken in the egg industry, a mother hen—a creature whom Jesus himself elevates in the gospels of Matthew and Luke as an emblem of his own love and protection for God’s people.

Mother hens in confinement farms never get to gather their young. They are genetically engineered to lay much more than natural quantities of either fertilized eggs for hatcheries or unfertilized eggs for human consumption. In hatcheries, their chicks are sorted by sex. Female chicks are sold to lay eggs. But male chicks—about a quarter billion of them annually—have no value and are thus ground up alive or suffocated in trash bags. Hens who lay eggs for consumers typically share a small cage with several other hens. They lack the room to spread their wings and the tips of their beaks are burned off to keep them from harming cage mates under the stress of confinement. When their egg production decreases after a year or more of laying, they are slaughtered.  

Unlike their ancestors in Southeast Asian jungles or the mother hens that Jesus presumably had in mind, confined hens can’t go outside for fresh air, feel the sun, breed or groom naturally, roost in trees, or establish social orders within a flock. By thwarting their creaturely capacities in these ways, we risk forgetting that they are living creatures, reducing them to mere egg-laying machines. Similar things can be said of the cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys raised in confinement farms.

These practices have drawn sharp criticism from ethicists and theologians since the mid-1970s. But major scientific advances since then in our understanding of the inner lives of animals have made confinement farming even more difficult to defend. The more we learn about other creatures, the more we realize that thinking, feeling, communicating, and forging bonds of social belonging are important parts of their worlds too. They are subjects of their own lives rather than mere objects of human utility, as we are often uncritically inclined to treat them.

For a church hoping to move beyond just envisioning shalom toward enacting it through discipleship practices that renew the world and cultivate fruits of the Spirit, these unintended consequences of our daily food choices raise some sobering questions.

Are we loving God, self, and neighbor when we knowingly consume a diet that degrades our health, marginalizes the poor, and causes needless suffering to animals? Is our joy increased by these things? Do we sow the seeds of peace or bless others with our generosity when we dine on such an inequitable and unsustainable distribution of resources? Are patience and self-control exemplified in breeding creatures who grow freakishly large unnaturally fast at the expense of their skeletal integrity so that we can eat unhealthful quantities of whatever tastes good? Are we consistently kind in welcoming dogs and cats into our families while treating cows and pigs with the same creaturely capacities as mere units of consumption? Are we faithfully striving to think and act upon whatever is true, honorable, just, excellent, and worthy of praise? Are we good shepherds, such that mercy characterizes our dominion over other creatures, all the days of their lives?

It is important to recognize that taking these questions seriously needn’t require the church to achieve consensus on what particular actions congregations and members should take in response. As with other discipleship issues, congregations can challenge members to discern how to live more mindfully in this regard without binding consciences inappropriately or lapsing into extrabiblical legalism. Ideally, there will be spirited discussion but still generous fellowship among omnivores, “reducetarians” (those working to eat less meat and more plants), vegetarians, and vegans, all committed to working together to set a more gracious and compassionate table in an age of resource scarcity, ecological degradation, and increasing awareness of the needs and capacities of God’s other creatures.

Theoretically, someone seeking to eat mindfully aspires to live toward the biblical ideal of shalom—the peaceful state of holistic flourishing that is portrayed first in Eden and last on the holy mountain of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a fully redeemed world. In practice, such a person strives faithfully if always imperfectly to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly in a world where excessive, unreflective consumption of the standard American diet increasingly seems unjust, unmerciful, and extravagant. The goal is not to attain personal purity but rather to provide glimmers of shalom, however humble, in whatever places we serve.

These glimmers can manifest in our personal lives as fresher, more nutrient-dense meals, improved health, lower carbon footprints, more engaged solidarity with oppressed people, deepened compassion for animals, and renewed relationships with the folks who grow our food and the places they grow it. At church, the glimmers might shine through in more inclusive fellowship dinners and in more holistic preaching and teaching about the implications of our fallen institutions and habits and the prospects for being agents of their renewal. At home, in church, and in the world, thinking and acting more mindfully on the question of how Christ-followers should break bread has great potential for a bountiful harvest of spiritual fruit and a more compelling witness to our guiding hope for shalom.

Action Steps

Further Reading

About the Author

Matt Halteman teaches philosophy at Calvin College and is a fellow of the Oxford Center for Animal Ethics. He is the author of Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation and co-editor of Philosophy Comes to Dinner: Arguments About the Ethics of Eating. He is grateful to Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology for permission to reprise some of the ideas and language from a previous article, “Knowing the Standard American Diet By Its Fruits: Is Unrestrained Omnivorism Spiritually Beneficial?”

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Comments

Thank you for such a thoughtful and careful discussion of this really important issue. 

We now have undeniable evidence that North American food choices are having a deterimental effect on public health and on the health of the planet. Seven out of the top ten causes of death in the U.S. are directly related to our overconsumption of ultra-processed foods and animal-based foods. Animal agriculture contributes significantly to greenhouse gas production (even more than all of the transportation sector), to excessive fresh water consumption, and to soil degradation. Adding to this, Matt Halteman raises important philosophical and ethical questions in this article that Christians should strongly consider as they make their daily decisions about what to eat. Those decisions contribute every bit as much to our integral mission and Christian witness as the testimonies we share about the gospel's redemptive power. 

Fortunately there is a significant role that animal agriculture can and will play in creation care and feeding the 10B people by 2050.  It hinges on doing animal agriculture better, atarting with a re-look at the creation order and how God created different animals.  An appropraite place to start is with ruminants that have a significant role in converting the sunlight that falls on our grasslands and savannahs, through grass and other plants that grow there, and that we humans can't/don't eat, into protein rich foods that ew can.  Ruminants belong on those lands - and by the creator's design should be fed there, rather than on a grain-based diet in feedlots.  By caring for the creation and creation's order in this way we can realize both a bounty of good food and overcome some of the imbalance we may have caused in the environment and our diet.  A few good resources to explore are Allan Savory's ted talk https://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change and the work of the Grassfed Exchange, a network of leading thinkers in this space https://grassfedexchange.com/about

This article suggests, at its core, "that animals (and the good earth we share with them) ... [are] inherently valuable creatures of God whose flourishing shalom requires."  Although the suggestion lacks a certain nuance of articulation, the context of the article leads me to the conclusion that the author insufficiently distinguishes human from non-human life, as God created it and described it.

The articulation of the article leaves little doubt that the author claims for animals an individual right to "flourish," rather than, for example, suggesting that human kind ought care for animals as a species (e.g., managing wildlife) or as a proxy for people (e.g., prohibiting cruelty to animals while noting the correlation of people who treat animals and people in similar ways).  Crossing this line -- the line of proposing an individual animal should has the God given right to flourish, is nothing less than a staggering claim.

So if what this articles says is correct, shouldn't we be:

    - Vegan?  After all, "flourishing" can't include being killed and eaten by people, can it?

    - Doing all we can to keep animals in the wild from starving (e.g., deer in harsh winters)?  After all, sins of omission count as much as sins of commission, don't they?

     - Rejecting all laws that "manage species."  After all, such management will inevitably, at times, reduce animal populations by allowing "nature to take its course" (see above re deer in harsh winters), the result of which is anything but flourishing.

     - Providing some sort of medical care assurance and "retirement" funding for all animals, domestic or wild?  After all, does not the absence of such terminate an individual animal's flourishing at some point in their lives, just as it would a person's?

     - Refraining from using live (or dead) bait when fishing?  After all, the earthworm on my hook cannot flourish by my using it to catch a fish.

     - Keeping some animals from killing other animals?  After all, how can we idly sit back and do nothing knowing that animal predators tear apart their prey every day in ways that are truly savage, not to mention a termination of the prey's flourishing. 

The list could go on of course.  No, these aren't silly questions.  They are questions that clearly arise when you posit the God given right of individual animals to flourish, and the obligation of people to ensure that flourishing (quoting from the article, "Caring for animals was the very first responsibility bestowed to humankind by God—our very first chance to practice the capacities of love, power, and mercy that accompany the divine image within us.)"

And then there are other forms of life.  Whether "a tree should have standing to sue" is a question some in society would answer "yes" to.  I'm surprised when it seems that some in the CRC would as well?  

It seems to me that a Christian perspective about humankind, animals, plants and things will inevitably vary significantly from any number of non-Christian perspectives.  Certainly, the unique biblical concept of stewardship applies to the question, but stewardship implied that humankind uses animals, plants and things.  No, not "abuses," but still "uses."  I don't know how you can "use" an animal or plant or thing and yet grant it the specific right to flourish.  This article describes being created in the image of God as having no more consequence than to impose the obligation of ensuring the flourishing of individual animals (plants too?), citing while so describing the observation that animals engage in "thinking, feeling, communicating, and forging bonds of social belonging" as well as people.

Along with this author, I describe myself as Kuyperian and a big fan of general revelation.  But I think we misunderstand the biblical message about who we are and what animals (and plants and things) are when we bestow on animals (and plants and things) the right to individually flourish as a matter of justice.  And of course, the concequences of that are beyond enormous.

God’s first command to mankind in the Bible is twofold: first to fill the earth and second to subdue it. The word “subdue” means to use the resources of the earth in service of God and man. It means to care for the earth and be good stewards. God’s first command was to be a farmer.  

Many farmers I meet believe in God the Creator. How could we not when every day is filled with miracles of His creation, whether it be through the birth of a calf or watching seeds we have sown sprout up through the earth. We take this calling very seriously and are just as concerned with animal welfare and land preservation as any ethics philosopher or consumer. Perhaps even more because it is not just the way we feed and clothe ourselves and our families, now and hopefully for many more generations, but it is also out Christian duty.

In the article entitled Eating toward Shalom: Why Food Ethics Matters for the 21st-Century Church, the author attempts to raise ethics questions regarding current agricultural methods and, while his cause is a noble one, the article is full of misconceptions, poor research, and fallacies. The CRC church has much of its roots in agriculture so it seems odd that the author did not verify his claims with someone more versed in current agricultural practices, the reasons behind them, and the effects of methods used by today’s farmers.

Jodi is personally involved in both dairy and vegetable farming. She is also a full time Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program technician (www.MAEAP.org ). Tessa has been a dairy farmer her whole life and, as a mother, has a passion for ensuring health within the food supply systems as well as sustainable welfare within agriculture. They both also have friends and advisors in various other sectors of agriculture including various types of farmers (beef, sheep, honey, various crops, etc), agronomists (crop/land scientists), animal nutritionists, veterinarians, and organizations dedicated to animal welfare and sustainable farming. 

In addition to animal welfare standards that apply to anyone who has a pet, agriculture has additions welfare standards that must be followed. According to the Animal Agriculture Alliance, (http://www.animalagalliance.org ), every sector within animal agriculture uses standardized, third party verification system to ensure animal welfare standards are met. As for the mistruths I mentioned earlier, I’d like to address a couple of them more specifically:

 Chickens are not genetically engineered. Selective breeding is used so chickens can be healthier and grow faster than the chickens of 50 years ago. This is similar to what Jacob did to breed stronger goats for himself while giving weaker goats to Laban (Genesis 30). Selective breeding has also occurred for generations with vegetables, grains, fruits, and even with roses and other non-food plants. Faster growth results in less feed used per bird, which means the amount of feed that would have only turned out 1 chicken 50 years ago now turns out 1.5 -2 birds, effectively cutting their carbon footprint by about 70%. What a blessing to have the ability to use less resources to feed a growing population!

Being an ethical livestock farmer means timely veterinary care with proper drug usage following all label instructions to keep your meat and dairy safe, and ensuring no treated meat enters the food production line (hefty fines are in place to ensure this regulation is followed). They work with a nutritionist to make sure all animals have a diet that allows them to thrive. There are very strict regulations regarding manure management to ensure clean housing, reducing food safety issues for humans, as well as the best environmental impact. Pork and poultry producers have not used steroids or added hormones for decades. Some beef farmers use a growth hormone that works like a multi-vitamin to give a calf a boost in growth to increase health and immune functions to improve mortality rates but, due to consumer misconceptions about the amount of hormones in beef (3oz serving of implanted beef has 1.2units vs not implanted has .85units and 3oz of peanuts is 17,000units), the industry is phasing out the added hormone. Added hormones in dairy (used in less than 15% of US farms and not at all in Canada) have been proven to have no effect on humans but are being phased out for animal welfare reasons.

Let’s talk about housing conditions. The author mentioned the “unnatural” conditions of confining animals. Farmers often choose to keep their animals in a barn to protect them from predators, diseases, and extreme weather. Numerous studies have been done to determine exactly how much space each animal needs, the perfect temperature, humidity, and air flow levels required, and the best management practices for flooring and bedding. Animals show their acceptance and appreciation for their living conditions by remaining content, staying healthy, growing strong, and providing the best quality of food (an abattoir can tell how much stress the animal was in based on specific qualities in the meat). It may not be where they would live if they were not domesticated but the same could be said for humans paving over the most fertile potions of the earth and building concrete skyscrapers to stack themselves in cubby-style apartments, one on top of the other.

The author posits that we as North Americans could do with not eating so much meat, he’s probably right on that account. Not necessarily because of its detrimental effect on our health but due to the fact that most people in N.A. overeat in general.  However, in the most impoverished communities in N.A. and in developing nations, a nutritionally dense meal includes meat and dairy. Meat and dairy are two of the most nutrient dense foods available to humans, which is why World Renew includes farm animals in its gift catalogue. One farm animal can change the life of an impoverished family. The bulk of their nutrients can come from animal by-products. In fact, there are certain nutrients that can only be obtained from animal by-products and others that are available in plants but must be consumed in much larger quantities or they are much easier for our body to convert into a usable form when consumed via animal by-products. God revealed this to us in Scripture both when Noah and his family disembarked from the Ark as well as to the Apostle Paul when He told us that the animals were there for us to eat. He knew what our bodies needed to thrive far before scientists learned why.

Philosophy is the love of wisdom yet the author wants North American farmers to ignore wisdom learned about agriculture through the generations and go back to farming the way of his grandfather. Why not go back further to farming as they did in the 1400s? Perhaps we could go back to methods used in the time when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ walked the earth? While that’s a romantic and quaint thought, using the methods of our ancestors would cause global starvation. One farmer in North America now feeds 155 people. In our grandfathers’ day it was 26 people. Going back even further, everyone was required to grow enough to feed their own families. That just isn’t feasible in this day and age.

Would you go back to using a landline or an Apple IIe computer? Do you use pharmaceutical medicines that are derived from various plants in God’s creation and have had active compounds isolated to be more effective? What about life saving surgeries and things like insulin or pacemakers? These are simple examples of engineered technology that we use every day with barely a thought. When used responsibly, technology is an amazing and life altering blessing! Farming is no different. Better genetics in animals and seeds means better environmental outcomes for the rest of the world. Better understanding of God’s creation, right on down to the microbes in our soil, is making farming more and more sustainable. Farmers are constantly learning how to use less natural resources while feeding our families and yours while doing it safely, humanely, and sustainably.

I could go on for pages on how much more efficient agriculture has become in just my lifetime. Instead, I challenge you to learn more about modern agriculture for yourself. How? Most people are 2-4 generations removed from the farm and only 1-2% of our society are active farmers. Thankfully we have the ability to connect with each other through various forms of social media or blogs. There are many farmers who are active on Facebook, Twitter, Snap Chat, Instagram, and YouTube and provide an insight into their operation and are more than willing to answer questions you may have.  Talk to the farmers in your congregation and ask for a tour sometime. Michigan State University offers Breakfast on the Farm on cooperating farms in Michigan and there are similar programs throughout North America.  There are also great books like, No More Food Fights by Michelle Payn or find a screening of Food Evolution, the documentary. Finding a farmer to talk to isn’t that hard and there is no place for such blatant misinformation and fear mongering within The Banner or the Christian Reformed denomination.

Please remember that many farmers are believers who feel God has charged them with caring for the land and animals and providing the healthiest possible food for the rest of the world. The farmers that aren’t believers may have slightly different motivations but also care deeply about their animals and land. None of us want to see animals suffering or land being stripped of nutrients as we know we are charged with caring for vast amounts of animals and land that will be required to feed our children and our children’s children. To accuse farmers of anything less is insulting and just plain wrong.

About the Authors:

Jodi DeHate is the daughter of dairy farmers, and works on a neighboring dairy farm, runs a vegetable farm with her husband and is an MAEAP technician. She lives in north Michigan with her husband and you can connect with her through Twitter (@FarmChicJodi) or through her blog (www.dehavenfarm.com)

Tessa Weenink is the daughter of dairy farmers and currently dairy farms with her husband while homeschooling her 4 sons in southern Alberta. You can connect with her through Twitter (@creamhouseCa)

Thanks Jodi, for taking the time to write a long response (with detail) to a long article.  Your response was needed.  I've watched the "animal rights" movement affecting our legal system and our cultural outlook for decades now, and it has caused me more than a little concern. 

I'm a farm boy from Iowa but was also a philosophy major in college and now have practiced law for nearly 40 years.  It seems to me that, even within the church, we have been moving toward unbiblical positions about the relationships between people, animals and plants (and things even), from a position affirming "stewardship" (people over creation, yes "over") toward a a position of radical "life/thing egalitarianism."  If that shift ever becomes societally dominant ... well, I don't think one can overstate the resulting consequences.

Thanks to all who have commented so far! I'm especially glad for the criticisms and insights coming from different perspectives and I hope to be able to have good conversation with some of you offline, as I'm genuinely interested in being as fair and accurate as I can be in thinking these issues through. I'm especially grateful to Jody DeHate for pointing out my mistake in using the term "genetically engineered" when I in fact meant "selectively bred" in this context, as she rightly observes. The point I hoped to get across was that selecting for economically-advantageous traits often has adverse side effects for birds, and I think that general point still stands. Nonetheless, I should have said "selectively bred" in that context, I regret the error, and I appreciate having it pointed out to set the record straight. Thanks again, Jody!

Though "selectively bred" was the right terminology in the above context, it looks like genetic engineering--and in particular, gene-editing technology--is poised to have a more significant influence in the industry moving forward. Here's an interesting article about what some scientists in Great Britain are up to in this regard: https://www.mirror.co.uk/science/brit-scientists-create-genetically-modified-9842348.

I just realized that I misspelled your name, Jodi! My sincere apologies! That'll teach me to make comments after bedtime!

Thanks for responding Matt.  I'd love having an offline conversion with you.  My email is doug@vandegriend.com if you would like to pursue that.

Great! Thanks, Doug! Just dropped you a line. Good to make your virtual acquaintance, and I look forward to corresponding. :)

Fellow Reformed Christians: It is so refreshing to see a debate on this topic!

I grew up a Wisconsin dairy farm boy. I’ve practiced vet medicine exclusively in the dairy industry for over 20 years…so my opinions are borne from that background & experience.

Mr. Vande Griend: You make an eloquent case for the silliness of animal rights (though I am not entirely certain that Mr. Halteman is advocating for animal rights…). What you fail to do, however, is establish any bounds for the life/treatment/wellbeing of the animals within our agricultural systems. I think we clearly have a greater responsibility as humans to insure a level of shalom/flourishing of the animals within our agricultural systems (after all, we have taken a very active role in everything from their conception to their death) than the wildlife in some distant locale where human interaction is nonexistent.

So what is that responsibility? I think it clearly originates in humanity’s call way back in Genesis: we are called to care for the garden and its animals. The cows that populate my industry’s dairies are in a sense to be cared for under that very mandate. I love the quote by C.S. Lewis in his book “The Problem of Pain”: “Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right”. Agriculture in general would do well to consider that quote on a daily basis…

I am not advocating that animals should not be used. I do believe that the dominion entrusted to humanity allows us to use animals (as I write I have a package of bacon thawing for my family’s Saturday breakfast). I would argue that the very biology humanity has been created with seems predisposed to eating animals. So there, in a nutshell, is the balance we must find: we use them AND bear responsibility for them.

The products produced by North American agriculture are, for the most part, commodities. Milk, beef, eggs, chicken, pork, cheese: they are bought and sold primarily as commodities. The single most important factor necessary to succeed in a commodity market is efficiency. Efficiency drives a business to squeeze more out of less. That can be good…it’s what American Agriculture claims will feed a growing world population. It can be bad…I have seen firsthand the animal suffering that results (this is probably not the proper context to share my “war stories” though I have experienced situations to back the premises I debate from). This suffering, in my experience, is certainly not rare – too often I see it as endemic. It is not difficult to understand how this could be: simply consider the best and worst fallen humanity could accomplish in a commodity business environment.

 

Nonetheless, my hope would be that Christians (especially Reformed Christians from my denomination) would be leaders in demonstrating the proper balance contained within the biblical mandate of dominion. There can be no doubt in my mind that the Sovereign Lord would enable us to feed the world with systems that care for each animal according to His will.

Terry: Thanks for joining.

You are right that I didn't make my case for "estatblish[ing] any bounds for the life/treatment/wellbeing of the animals within our agricultural systems."  That would be a pretty big case to articulate, which is why I declined.  What I think is more immediately important -- and understand I come from the perspect of making civil/criminal law -- is to decide whether animals should be given 'individual rights' such that humans interacting with animals takes on a new dimension from the historic approach.

You also suggest you aren't entirely "certain that Mr. Halteman is advocating for animal rights."  I wasn't either, and said so, but I tend to look carefully at words used and I read words in this article that at least suggested (strongly even if not conclusively) the positing of 'individual rights for animals.'

Yes, I agree that the Genesis account requires people, the only created creature "made in God's image" to be a steward of creation, including all that is in creation.  At the same time, people are clearly different than all other "things" of creation (animals included I would argue).  The first needed discussion, I would think, is about what scripture says about what we call "stewardship" and what scripture says people having dominion over all of creation.  Those were not discussed by this article, to my disappointment.  Rather, the article seemingly stressed the generic "animal rights" idea that "animals are people too," or, at least, like people, e.g., "major scientific advances since then in our understanding of the inner lives of animals have made confinement farming even more difficult to defend".   Frankly, I don't think we have any idea about the "inner lives of animals" -- and if we concluded that they must be like people (God's image bearers) because of this physical composition, we would make the mistake of being religious/philosophical materialists.  Indeed, both philsophers and scientists are still baffled by the existence of "human consciousness" (aka: self-awarenes, reflexis thinking, consciousness of consciousness).  PETA does conclude that animals = people.  For that matter, some would also, at least privately, declare that plants = people, that differences between plants and animals and people are merely quantitative if you will, not qualitative.  My conclusion is that the difference between animals and people is qualitative, not merely quantitative (indeed, animals are superior to people in many ways if analyzed from a quantitative perspective).

I cringe when Biblical concepts like shalom and flourishing are used to suggest people have the obligation to assure the shalom and flourising of animals "for all the days of their lives" (and to a prior point, that and other references in this article seems to be talking about individual animals and their rights).

Understand I approach this discussion from the perspective of law.  I see articles like this as serving the function of being a logical/conceptual prelude to "legal/political advocacy" (a popular activity in the CRCNA these days) for the formal -- and power of the sword enforceable -- establishment of individual rights of animals, as if they were the creature equivalent of people (cuz they are don't you know, modern science is telling us that).

So lets come from the other side of the question: how would I treat animals?  First, would I tolerate their torture (without defining that for the moment)?  Answer: no, but predominantly because people who torture animals generally do so as a proxy for torturing anything and everything, people included.  I probably would as much not tolerate the gleeful, gratuitous destruction of a brand new Ford Mustang.  The tougher question is whether I would make either illegal, or at least if so, a felony (as opposed to a misdemeanor).  These days -- in Oregon at least -- if a financially struggling family doesn't have enough money to feed their pony such that the pony's ribs are showing, they will be as much or even more condemned by the legal authorities (including sheriff's dept and prosecuting DA's) than if their child's ribs are showing for the same reason.  Should the law be silent about a pony's ribts showing (and no, I'm not exagerating here)?  Probably not.  Should the law consider the pony and the child as the same kind of victim (each deserving shalom and to flourish after all)?  Are you kidding? (my perspective at least) -- but PETA would disagree with me.  And I'm not sure whether the author of this article would agree or disagree with me.

Should animals have the "right to life?"  I'd say absolutely not.  And out killing of animals (for food, for species management, or other "dominion" reasons) clearly denies their "right to life," but also their shalom and their flourishing.

Yes, much more to discuss but I'll stop here.  I think the conversation is good because these are cultural and legal questions the world is taking up right now.  And the answers we give to these questions are, as I've said, enormously impacting.

Mr. Vande Griend:

Are there ANY bounds for the life/treatment/wellbeing of the animals within our agricultural systems?

Consider the following scenario:

  1. Someone intentionally slashes the tires on your new Ford Mustang and keys the paint on the doors. Result: $1800 damage…

  2. Someone working on a dairy farm is driving a skid steer behind a group of cows and is frustrated with their belligerent behavior so he intentionally runs the skid steer into one of them. The owner of the dairy finds the cow later that day: she is wounded and unable to get up. She must be euthanized. Result: $1800 loss to the owner of the dairy…

Which of the 2 scenarios represents a greater evil? Most reasonable people would say the second for obvious reasons: the damage was done to a living animal, the cow experienced pain & suffering, etc.

Certainly, the vast majority of animal suffering that occurs in animal agriculture is not intentional of the nature described in the example above. Which makes it a thorny topic to deal with…(“Yes, much more to discuss but I’ll stop here” :-) )

Nonetheless, I think my example illustrates the divide between your concerns and mine. We each have written of concerns that pertain to the opposite ends of the spectrum. You have written of concern about elevating the status of animals to the level of humanity. (Clearly, in both of our views, scripture establishes humanity in dominion over animals.) But my concern is that animals are being relegated to the status of mere machines in modern production agriculture (i.e. the animals are the production widgets in the industrial systems). That too is a departure from the historical approach and, I would contend, equally at odds with a scriptural interpretation of dominion.

Matt, no worries. I've had it spelled a million ways, called both my mom's or sister's name. :D 

I'm with Doug. I'd love to chat with you or show you what I do. You don't have to go very far from Calvin College to find awesome farms. Between my connections with Farm Bureau and my job we could find something. my email is jodi.venema@gmail.com

Thanks again.

Hi Jodi! (Spelled correctly and QUADRUPLE checked this time!) Thank you for this very generous response. I just dropped you a line and I'm looking forward to future discussion! 

Here's an interesting article by Carol J. Adams, a self-described Calvinist in the Presbyterian tradition, that dovetails well with this discussion: "A Christian Considers the Hamburger".

I took a look at Carol Adams website.  Under the "Articles" link (at the home page), she links to an article that reviewed very positively PETA's Superbowl 2018 TV commercial.  I would suggest, given Carol Adams' review of that and other website content, that she is in lockstep with PETA on the subject of animal rights.

I would suggest that Carol Adams thinks little of God's pronouncement to Noah that animals were given to humanity for food, as well as God's commands to sacrifice and hundreds and thousands (millions?) of animals that the OT Israellites sacrified, or the directive of Peter's vision to rise and kill, but now "unclean" animals as well -- and then Paul's suggestion that eating meat, even when offered to idols, was an OK thing to do.

What I notice in the "arguments" of pretty much all the "don't eat meat" advocates on this is the same litany of debate points: denials of animals' rights to a good life (with some variation); bad for the environment because of greenhouse gases; bad for the environment because of resource utilization; bad for health; bad for human health; concentrations of waste; the meat industry inherently creates bad working conditions for people.  In other words, the strategy seems to be a shotgun strategy, and thus in my calculation, very much a political strategy.  Take this position for that reason, and if you're not sold by that one, try this one, or if that doesn't sell you either, how about this one.  Many (most?) will be overwhelmed with the shotgun pellets they have to defend against.

Just to push back a bit on some of the "secondary arguments":

   Yes, herbivore animals do create methane gas, which is a green house gas.  But the pitched solution for that is for people to eat beans, which is a bit interesting in that bean eating creates methane gas in humans (although I'm certain no one has tried to quantify the trade-off).  But in addition, were people to decide to allow and enable herbivores to lead a life that is a flourishing life, I'm not sure how doing that doesn't result in the same methane problem, or perhaps more of it?  Of course, the cows-make-for-methane argument presumes that animal generated methane production is in fact a substantial climate problem.  I don't believe it is (which is part of a very large question of course), but if it is, then the greater methane production problem should also be addressed, which is the methane problem created by the global production of rice.  But there is virtual silence on that methane source -- at least from PETA and those who are in the PETA camp on the animal rights question.

   Human health?  That's an interesting argument, and one that is outdated actually.  Although the US Government has in past decades discouraged the eating of meat -- red meat especially, for the reason of avoiding heart disease especially -- the more recent trend in culinary wisdom suggests perspective to be dated and quite wrong, and that the following of that advice by the American population is in part what has created the current Type 2 Diabetes epidemic.  In fact, the culinary mistake that we've made is eating too much carbohydrates (sugars, grains, even beans, etc), all of which causes the overproduction of insulin, the human hormone that when produced in excess (as over-consumption of carbs causes) promotes obesity, especially as we get older.  The US government's "food pyramid" changed the American diet and the food industry marched along with the change.  We reduced our consumption of fats (including especially saturated fats like animal fats) and meat, and increased our carb intake.  Results: skyrocketing obesity and increased (not decreased) heart disease.  Want to learn more?  Read "Why We Get Fat" or "Good Calories, Bad Calories," both by Gary Taubes.  And there is an increasing number of publications out there that confirm what Taubs says.  The verdict is in on this and the verdict (and the science) does not support the "eat less meat" argument from the animal rights folk.

    Resource allocation?  Grasslands feed cattle and other livestock.  While is it easy to say that eating cows is less resource efficient than eating grains, the hard fact is that while people can eat grains (but not necessarly without negative consequence, see Gary Taubes and other on that), they don't eat grass.  Of course, the animals rights argument is that we raise cattle on grains.  Well, that's not entirely true.  We tend to finish on grain but often raise cattle on grass,  not just the "grass fed cattle" that is the culinary eco-style these days, but cattle that are finished on grain but grown on grass (that is, their final diet is grain in order to create fat marbling).  So what do we do with all of those western grasslands (and other grasslands) if livestock doesn't eat the grass?  Certainly, some land could be converted to strawberry fields and brocolli patches and the like, but certainly not all.  And bottom line is this: we are capable of producing the quantify of food that the world's population needs.  Maybe political problems create starvation problems in some places, but we don't have the starvation problems we have for lack of ability to produce food for the world.

    Bad working conditions?  This is just a silly argument.  The existence of good or bad working conditions isn't dictated by whether an industry is the dairy industry, or the meat packing industry, or the construction industry, etc.  Certainly, one can claim that the meat producing industry or the dairy industry is causally connected with poor working conditions, but again that's just silly.  Where I live, the worst working conditions might be those connect with the strawberry industry (they have to be picked by hand) and other such industries that grow the supposedly "healthy foods," the harvesting of which requires the US to have migratory workers come from third world countries to do seasonal work.  At least dairy and meat processing are non-seasonal industry that don't require migratory worker conditions that are typically worse, for inherent reasons.  And I have dairy clients who hire milkers and other worker.  I certainly don't see the "bad working conditions" from my vantage point.

    Consentrations of waste?  My area has lots of dairies -- big daires.  Certainly, things have to be done differently when there is a concentration of animal waste (like on big dairies).  On the other hand, things are done differently when there is a concentration of animal waste.  Did big dairies always use what today we'd call "best practices" for handling waste.  No, but then the human race is always changing things, and in the process creating new problems when they solve others, and then as the process goes along, figures out how to solve the newer problem.  I would call this humanity having dominion (see the book of Genesis), and accomplishing it (necessarily) in significant part by trial and error.  In fact, at least where I live, the dairy industry waste is simply not a significant problem.  Indeed, the industry is now seeing an increase of facilities that re-use every bit of "waste" that their dairy produces: converting the methane in the manure to energy; converting the solids int he manure to a manufactured product; using some of the manure for good ol' fertilizer.  I'm just a lawyer living in the city (Salem) but I've had truckloads of dairy manure brought to our (somewhat large) back yard to fertilizer our (somewhat large) garden.  Works great.  If most people want cow (or other animal) manure for their gardens, they have to pay good money for it.  There's nothing like a market for something to solve the problem of having too much of it.  That happened many years ago out my way in the wood bark industry too.  It was once a bothersome forest industry waste.  Now you have to pay pretty good money for it.

Thanks for continuing the conversation, Doug! I really appreciate your commitment to digging in and laying out your case. A few things:

Carol Adams is a very vocal critic of PETA (http://caroljadams.blogspot.com/2012/02/sigh-sexual-politics-of-meat-once-again.html), and so I think the rhetorical strategy of framing her work as guilty by association is unfair. She is also one of the more vocal critics of "rights-based" approaches to animal ethics, so it is very odd and certainly misleading to frame her as an "animal rights" theorist. She is an outspoken vegan, to be sure, but so are many, many people who reject PETA's philosophy and advocacy approach. Moreover, to say that "Carol Adams is in lock step with PETA on the subject of animal rights," even if it were true (which it is not), is about as informative as saying that "Barack Obama is in lock step with George W. Bush on the subject of domestic violence." Lots of people who vehemently disagree with one another on important matters are nonetheless "in lock step" with one another on other important matters. 

It's also unfair to say that Adams "thinks little" of important Biblical texts in this regard. On the contrary, Adams has thought A LOT about these topics, lectured extensively on them (including offering The Animals and the Kingdom of God Lecture at Calvin College and keynote lectures on Christianity and Animal Ethics throughout the world), and published important works in this area, not just in the academic and advocacy literatures but for liturgical practices for use at home and in church. Suggesting that Carol "thinks little" about things on which she is a documented and internationally-recognized expert seems to me to be both an uncharitable and under-informed strategy for engaging her work. One can surely vehemently disagree with her and reject the views that she has arrived at on theological or philosophical grounds and believe her work to be seriously problematic for a wide variety of reasons. But none of those reasons seem to be on offer here.

To posture Adams's work as though her concern for animals is somehow unbiblical, though, is very misleading. In fact, Adams's journey into concern for animal abuse grew out of her deep biblical concern for women and children who are victims of domestic violence, and her groundbreaking work in founding the Christian literature in this area has been an enormous gift to the church. She and her colleagues quite literally wrote the book on Christian theological sources for combatting domestic violence: *Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook*. And she and her husband Bruce Buchanan, a Presbyterian minister, have been pillars of the Christian community in the fight against homelessness in Dallas for three decades. In short, whatever one may think of Adams's work, there is no defensible way to write her off as a PETA-crank who instrumentalizes Christianity as a covert strategy for advancing the cause of animal rights. Her concern for animals grows out of Christian concern for the least of these, extending that compassion to God's other creatures. Though fellow Christians may disagree with her on principled grounds about whether animals should count as such, they should refrain, on my view, from posturing her as someone she is not in a public forum. 

Regarding your concern about the "shotgun" approach to taking a case for taking animal and food ethics seriously: I have a hard time seeing why someone would view it as a defect of a position that the plausibility of the position is well-established on a wide variety of fronts. To me, that is a feature rather than a bug of this position. Imagine protesting the so-called "shotgun" approach in any other area: Margo says "I believe that home ownership is a good thing for a wide variety of reasons: it builds equity, establishes good credit, can teach responsible stewardship of resources, can help one to develop a sense of pride of place, etc., etc." to which Mike replies, "You're giving me too many reasons to think that home ownership is worth taking seriously as an option; that's a "shotgun" approach and I'm not buying it." I guess I'm inclined to see Margo's approach here as a pretty sensible one and to see Mike's skepticism as odd, though I recognize that we may just have different intuitions on this score about stratgies for motivating interest in a particular position.

One other point to keep in mind, at least if one is thinking about these issues from within a Reformed frame of reference, is that fallen systems and practices have a way of radiating their fallenness throughout the culture and across every square inch of our experience. So if our fallen food system really does have genuine problems, then from a Reformed perspective, one should fully expect to see the consequences of those problems radiating out into all areas of human experience: our personal and public health, our environment, the places where people in the food system work, the way we treat God's other creatures, etc. In former Calvin Seminary President Neal Plantinga's book *Engaging God's World*, Plantinga describes these radiating effects of fallen systems like this: 

Corruption breeds further corruption—page 57:

    1. Individual à Institutional—“When we sin, we corrupt ourselves, but we corrupt others too…In fact, abuse fosters abuse…[victims] victimize others and even themselves. In this way sin gains momentum. Worse, all sinful lives intersect with other sinful lives—in families, businesses, educational and political institutions, churches, social clubs, and so forth—in such a way that the progress of both good and evil looks like wave after wave of intertwined spirals.”
    2. Institutional à Individual—“Where the waves meet, cultures form. In a racist culture, racism will look normal. In a secular culture, indifference toward God will look normal, as it does in much secular education. Human character forms culture, but culture also forms human character. And the formation runs not only across regions and peoples but also along generations. A boy can “inherit” his fathers sexist idea that men ought to dominate women. A daughter can inherit her mother’s sexist idea that women ought to let men do it.”

If Plantinga is onto something here (as a lot of Reformed educators seem to think that he is, given that his book has been standard reading for college and seminary students at any number of Reformed institutions for over a decade), then it seems to me that what you call "the shotgun approach" to making a case for the importance of food ethics is better described as "the systemic institutional fallenness" approach to making a case for the importance of food ethics. When fallen systems go badly wrong in one area, it is perfectly expectable on this view that they will begin to go wrong in many other connected areas too. And I think it is beyond dispute that our food system is deeply connected to almost everything we human beings do. 

But your concern about "the shotgun approach," to be fair, is not just a concern about this argumentative method for making a case. You've also offered input on why you believe that the various arguments that proponents of the importance of food and animal ethics put forward are dubious or outright sprurious. Fair enough. I'm happy to put your input here up against the considerable evidence to the contrary that is on offer on each of these fronts:

Comprehensive report on health, environmental, animal welfare, and rural economic development issues:

"Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America" (Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health)

Environmental concerns and global development issues:

Livestock's Long Shadow, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Personal health:

Position of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) on Vegetarian Diets

If readers are interested in more detailed academic or popular literature on any of these topics, please feel free to ask for specific recommendations in those areas and I am happy to offer more specific input or provide topic-specific bibliographies. There's also a bibliography on "Eating as An Act of Justice" available at the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship that I will post here when I can find the link.

Thanks a million again, Doug, for pushing this discussion along! It's a blast to think about these issues in community with interested folks who push back hard! Let's keep the dialogue going!

This is a good discussion.  I think Matt’s offering is respectful and offers much to think about, though like others here I differ in perspective and belief on a number of points being raised or how they are framed. 

Whether the animal welfare movement is a subset of the animal rights movement or vice versa is difficult to parse, but suffice it to say there is considerable overlap.  The majority element within each group also are not pursuing their ends with the same worldview as Christians, so importing their arguments, methods, and rhetoric is a fraught proposition.  There are several examples in this article where I would caution the author to think further about how he frames and expresses his arguments.  The animal welfare/rights movement is very practiced at emotional manipulation, much of it dishonest.  Take for instance, the language used by the author to describe chick culling.  The author uses the emotionally charged phrase “ground up alive”, which conjures up images of a homeowner getting trapped in his backyard brush chipper more than the entirely humane industry practice known as maceration.  Maceration is the majority industry practice for chick culling in the U.S., and is recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association as a humane method of culling.  Maceration is basically instantaneous, so it really does not match in any way the emotion-laden picture of being ground up alive.  Sound intellectual/philosophical persuasion should not have to stoop to using emotional manipulation.  I would also suggest that the author should be celebrating the process of culling in the egg industry, because it recognizes a reality of production agriculture: efficiency reduces waste and impact.  Since the author is concerned about environment impacts of production animal agriculture, the fact that producers seek ways to maximize protein production while minimizing inefficiency can easily be viewed as good.  Why are day-old male chicks culled? Not because we don’t eat chicken meat, but because laying breeds do not grow and produce protein efficiently like broiler breeds.  By culling male chicks in laying operations, efficiency is maximized and impact is reduced.  In any event, the practice will likely become obsolete as sex detection of fertilized eggs will likely become the industry standard as it becomes more honed and affordable. 

To the extent that it is fair (and it certainly is) to point out dissimilarities in Carol Adams and PETA (or animal rights groups in general), it is also fair to point out similarities.  When Matt says that Adams' "concern for animals grows out of Christian concern for the least of these", my ears perk up.  If correctly attributed, this philosophical underpinning indeed shares considerable common ground with PETA, inasmuch as it begins to erase or deny the disctinction between image bearers the the rest of creation over which we are to have dominion.  The phrase "the least of these" is a very recognizable phrase to Christians, but in the Bible it refers to "brothers and sisters" (Matthew 25:40) and is nowhere applied to animals.  Using such phraseology is an introductory philosphical step in the anthropomorphizatoin of animals, which erases distinctives in the same way the PETA does. 

Thanks, Eric, for this criticism and for the generous spirit in which you offer it. I agree that this has been a very good and fruitful discussion. With the world at large right now modeling a "culture wars" approach to philosophical and empirical disagreements (where personal attack and ideologically-motivated talking points are often the best we can hope for from public exchange of ideas), I'm really delighted and proud to be part of a community that aspires to dealing with our differences in a more loving, patient, and respectful way. What attracted me to teaching at a Reformed institution of higher learning was precisely the intentional vision of fearlessly but hospitably engaging the world, in all its complexity and variety, as rigorously and charitably as possible. We have our problems, of course, like all human institutions. I can go on about those too! :) But shortcomings aside, I have really benefitted from the hospitable environment across differences that I have observed and experienced where I teach and go to church. 

Let me say first that I understand where you're coming from, both in your concerns about emotionally-freighted language that attempts to manipulate readers and in your concerns to have a food system that is as efficient as possible. I agree that emotionally-manipulative language can cloud the issues at hand, and that efficiency in a system, all things being equal, is better than inefficiency in a system. 

But I disagree, and very strongly, that it is emotionally-manipulative to describe mascerating a living creature shortly after birth because the system has no use for him as "grinding up chicks alive." The chicks are alive on the conveyor, and if contemporary cognitive ethology is to be believed (as I think it should be), those living chicks have mental and emotional capacities. When they tumble off the conveyor into the blades, they are indeed ground up, much like any substance that is put into a high-speed blender or food processor. So, quite literally, they are alive and they are ground up. People who doubt that this is the case are welcome to view one of hundreds of easily searchable videos. Here is one that I believe to be in line with current practice, though I am happy to be corrected: Masceration. I should add that if there were a maceration video available that was industry-approved, as there are videos for beef, pork, lamb, and turkey processing (put out by Temple Grandin and American Meat Institute), I would have linked to that video. I have no interest in putting the industry in an emotionally manipulative light, and I would genuinely prefer to present readers with industry videos (even though I think there is value in watching advocacy videos as well to learn from a different framing perspective). I'll leave it to readers to decide why there isn't a maceration video available on The Glass Walls website, or why, if the practice is so innocuous, YouTube requires age verification to view the videos.

What I do think is emotionally manipulative, on the other hand, is using jargon like "efficiency" and "maceration" to hide the common sense fact that a living being is ground up alive by this practice. Imagine if you discovered your child putting a chick into a blender and when you asked, "Why are you doing that?", the child were to reply, "Look Dad, it's maceration. It's efficient." The fact that an industry has normalized this practice so that grinding up living creatures alive is plausibly described as a morally defensible "efficiency" strategy strikes me as a very compelling example of how institutional fallenness normalizes practices that really should leave us emotionally shaken. One is not being emotionally manipulated when one responds with horror to something that is horrifying. Indeed, we generally believe that something has gone wrong when a person surveys something horrifying and is not emotionally moved. In my opinion, being emotionally moved by the suffering of someone who is capable of suffering is what happens when we are functioning properly as God's agents of renewal in the world. 

I also think it is a bit counterintuitive to call "efficient" a practice that allocates plant protein resources into building 250,000,000 male chicks annually in order then to destroy them right after they are born. All those bodies, built with plant protein that arguably could have been allocated differently and more efficiently, built from scratch and then destroyed immediately using expensive physical plant, equipment, and human resources. If that practice were really an efficient one, my guess is that the industry wouldn't be developing the sex detection technology that you observe will soon be standard practice. 

It's a separate question whether Christians should applaud "sex detection" as a way of engineering God's creatures moving forward, but we can leave that aside for now. 

Thanks again, Eric, for these important points and for giving me an opportunity to clarify my intentions here. I really don't want to manipulate people emotionally and work hard to say things that are true.

I would also push back against the author’s conception and use of the idea of “natural” or “unnatural.”  Several times this idea is used in the essay, such as: “Mother hens in confinement farms never get to gather their young. They are genetically engineered to lay much more than natural quantities of either fertilized eggs for hatcheries or unfertilized eggs for human consumption.”  “Unlike their ancestors in Southeast Asian jungles or the mother hens that Jesus presumably had in mind, confined hens can’t go outside for fresh air, feel the sun, breed or groom naturally, roost in trees, or establish social orders within a flock.”  “Are patience and self-control exemplified in breeding creatures who grow freakishly large unnaturally fast at the expense of their skeletal integrity so that we can eat unhealthful quantities of whatever tastes good?”  My reactions are as follows:

  1. I struggle with the idea that what happens in the wild is “natural” and assumedly good or “shalomic”, while what happens in domesticity is posited as unnatural.  Are humans part of natural systems or not?  If it is not in keeping with shalom that a chicken does not get to gather her young, then what of our pet dogs who never get to hunt with pack members for their survival?  Cannot any level of domestication, under this standard, be viewed as not in keeping with shalom because animals are deprived of some (any) “natural” function?  What about a goldfish in a bowl? 

  2. If shalom can be described as the “peaceful state of holistic flourishing”, then it is arguable that production agriculture animals have a much more shalomic existence (on balance) than creatures in wild or “natural” conditions.  Do we really think that the short and brutish life of wildfowl is more peaceful than a fowl kept in captivity?  How many ground-nesting birds live for hours after hatching?  They are in constant fear of predation, and the elements they live in are brutal.  Flourishing is defined as by Webster as to “grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment”.  Now, to be sure, Biblical flourishing encapsulates more than this, but it seems like it at least includes this idea.   The work of causing animals to grow and develop vigorously in a favorable environment is an apt descriptor of the daily work of production agriculture in the U.S.  The “natural” world around us is no picnic for animals and is not an inherently better place them to live necessarily.  Scripture gives us little reason to believe that the domesticated and slaughtered animals depicted were victims of a lack of shalom because of their domestication.  When the lion lies down with the lamb (a picture of perfect shalom), there will be no more killing or death at all.  Until then, it is equally as natural for man to keep, kill, and eat animals as it is for them to exist in our broader environment and do so to one another. 

  3. If we are to celebrate the achievements and findings of science (which the author seems to want us to do) why is rapid weight gain in production animals somehow not in keeping with shalom and derogatorily described as “unnatural”?  Is not the ability for animals to be bred for such characteristics part of God’s created natural world being unpacked for us by scientists?  How does the author decipher a natural (and assumedly acceptable) growth rate for a particular animal?  What about corn, which has been selectively bred to grow and produce in ways that can be described under this standard as unnatural?  Is this inherently bad or not in keeping with shalom?  Are advances in grain production due to scientific discovery good while the same in animal production is bad? 

Hi Matt.  Thanks for the reponse.  It is quite nice to see you take the time to interact here, and I also appreciate that spirit in which you are interacting. 

I do not at all take it as established fact that the chicks suffer in any appreciable way, which you seem to.  You seem to want to suggest that the chicks are somehow aware of and horrified by their fate as they ride on a conveyor belt.  The instant that they are killed is so quick that it is hard for me to imagine that there is any sort of human-caused death of an animal that would be acceptable to you if you feel that chicks in this procedure are suffering in any appreciable way.  The fact that you find this practice horrifying and the fact that I do not find it troubling at all probably reveals that we might be at an impass in what type of language we find appropriate or helpful in describing it. 

Your counter-example of what you believe is manipulative is not convincing to me.  We speak to eachother as adults differently than we speak to children.  And you also posit a situation that is odd and terribly unlikely.  If I had an animal to dispose of quickly at home, I would do what I had to do and speak honestly to my children about what I did.  There would be no need to lead a child on to believing that an animal suffered needlessly and carelessly when in fact they did not. 

As to the question of efficiency, you are missing the point.  What would be inefficient would be to feed them out for consumption, because it would use much more resources than feeding out a broiler.  To say that this is a decision in favor of effiency is not to say that there is zero ineffciency in getting to that point in the first place.  There is no perfectly efficient system.  Sure, it is not as efficient to have the male chicks produced at all, but until sex-selected chicken semen is economically viable, we'll keep getting fertilized male eggs.  So, no, it is not at all counterintuitive to label the choice to cull male chicks as being about efficiency. 

And also, you've fallen back into the trap of describing biological and genetic selection as "engineering" ("engineering God's creatures"). 

Thanks for the continued conversation Matt.  In this comment, I'll note only that while you defended the argument shotgun approach useded in your article, you did not respond to the substantive arguments I made against your (and others') "supplemental reasons" (shotgun pellets) for veganism (or variations on that perspective, which yours might be). 

You perhaps also misunderstand the core of my objection to the "shotgun" approach.  If each one of those "other reasons" are well researched, well understood, and competently presented, that would fine (not objectionable) but my distinct sense, after reason the same shotgun pellet presentations from various authors, is that they are mere passing appeals to "other politically driven hot button issues" designed to catch agreeing fish on those issues (e.g., hey, this author thinks too much meat eating causes heart disease and so do I so she must be right in all she says) on the "main question."

Thus, I responded to the shotgun pellets, knowing that doing so would certainly broaden the discussion beyond what could be meaningfully had in this kind of forum, but hey, allowing shotgun accusations to remain without any response, tends to cause readers to agree with them, for lack of any response.

As to my comments about Carol Adams' article/thinking, Matt, it seems to me you are suggesting my comments represent an ad hominem because you see my comments are suggesting "she is like PETA."  I'll be more clear.  Carol Adams' thinking is "like PETA's," I would indeed claim, as to the core question, that being whether animals are essentially comparable to people when discussing the question of whether we should kill and eat them.  

I don't say this to personally disrespect Ms Adams but I do say it to articulate my evaluation of what she thinks and claims and writes, presumably for the purpose of getting others to believe likewise, to conform their behavior accordingly, and even persuade governments to adopt policies in accordance with her sense of reality.  She cites some scriptural passages but then in her final analysis on the core question, seems to give them no regard when reading conclusions.  I suspect you disagree with that and that's OK.  I would encourage readers to go to where you link and read for themselves.

To further clarify, and again, respectfully, I see your position as PETA-like is essential respects as well, which again is that animals are essentially comparable to people when discussing the question of whether we should kill and eat them. 

As I indicated initially, I think you grant individual animals the "right to flourish."  I further think that grant of rights contradicts the biblical perspective (I.e., God giving animals to eat and ordering their slaughter for sacrifices contradicts, by my evaluation, a theory of animals that grants them a people-like individual right to flourish).  Your recent articulation of opposition to the instantaneous grinding up of baby chicks supports my conclusions I believe.  Further, I took note of your articulated emphasis on the book of general revelation, which you claim has increasingly demonstrated that in fact, the "inner lives" of animals are roughly the same as that of people.  That is a core PETA perspective, not to mention a conclusion that is without the basis you claim for it. 

In fact, I would say, we have no cause, by science (which is general revelation) or otherwise, save perhaps scriptural hints, what is going on in the minds of animals.  In fact, the human mind is still poorly understood by the general revelation book (science).  The question of how a quantitative complexity of material configuration gives raise to "consciousness of consciousness" (I put that in quotes because we can't really even agree on the words used to describe this baffling reality) is still completely, totally unanswered, except perhaps by science fiction.

Indeed, if you and Carol Adams are right about what animals are, we will face the same question when software development becomes advanced enough to give the impression that the machine running the code is "sentient" (again, replace that word with any number of words that are used to describe the indescribable reality of "human-ness").

To me, the Sciptural account strongly suggests that people are very different than animals (only people are created in God's image), even if our projections on animals cause us to sometimes conclude otherwise, and that God gave to people explicit permission to kill them and eat them, to kill them and sacrifice them, and to manage them as species (have dominion over them, along with plants and things), not irresponsibly (packed word) of course, but in a way that is inconsistent with a posited "right to flourish," as beings created with "inner lives" that are qualitatively similar to the "inner lives" of people.

Doug and Eric--Lots of great things to think about and explore here, and my first impulse as someone who LOVES to discuss and debate these things is to think: I've got an answer for that, and that, and THAT, and definitely that, awww rats, they're misrepresenting me on this! And that! And I need to clarify this, this, and THAT. :)

But then I look and it is 3:45pm and I just got out of class and I have a bunch of stuff to do before 5:00 pm and aggggh! So I'll have to return to most of these things in due time and respond in a trickle as other commitments allow. But suffice it to say for now that I'm really grateful for all this thoughtful and respectfully-offered criticism, and I will take it under advisement and add to the discussion when I can. I so appreciate your time and input!

Having now read the Carol Adams article that was referenced, I would say that of all the vegan/vegetarian/no meat articles that I have read throughout the years, this one was one of the least convincing.  My background involves being trained in biology at Dordt College and Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies.  I have seen the inside of CAFOs and feedlots in general, both by being employed (no, I was not exploited, but it was hard work) at them and also as a government regulator where my primary duty was regulation of feedlots.  I have read considerably on the topic over the years, including quite a bit by authors with whom I disagree, but who have informed my thought process nonetheless.  In this context I do not find Adams' article to be very convincing. Paragraphs like the following render the article somewhat banal:"The hamburger in the twentieth century was a symbol of progress; now we should view it as a symbol of profligacy. We are never just eating a hamburger we are eating violence, mastery of nonhuman animals and the Earth, climate space, and an unimaginative and standardized food delivery system."

In support of what Doug has been observing, I see a PETA echo in the phrase "nonhuman animals", which is a rhetorical choice mean to flatten or reduce fundamental differences between humans and animals.  Like Doug, I don't know if Adams has really grappled with the mastery of animals by humans that we see portrayed affirmatively in scripture.  Thoughtless, mindless, careless, cruel mastery? No.  Thoughtful, useful, planned, efficient mastery? Yes. 

There is also an element of curious and comical naivete in which Adams seems to want to slide in some falafel for a hamburger, as if this represents a mere lateral move.  There are questions of palatability that perhaps Adams believes are unimportant, but acting as if this is a lateral move will be less than convincing to the average reader and may affect her overall ability to be effective in communication. She will likely have a hard time convincing people that plant-based "meat" serves as reasonable facsimile to animal flesh. 

Matt,

You've been very gracious to interact as you have to this point.  For an author to engage like this in this forum is quite rare.  On top of engaging, you are being asked to engage on multiple fronts, which makes it difficult I know.  Respond (or don't) as you are able and feel it is profitable. I have tried not to misrepresent you in any fashion, but as is always the case, we are no doubt speaking past eachother on some portions of the discussion. 

Ditto Eric's above, Matt. :-)

Matt, Doug & Eric – this discussion is invaluable to me… and long overdue, in my opinion, within our denomination. So a sincere thanks to each of you! I might appear to be a bit of a “weekend” responder – but I did skim the discussion & keep up during the week and found it fascinating…

Doug – on 3/6 you went through a lengthy rebuttal (quite sound, I might add) to the many facets of the “PETA perspective” including the typical arguments related to greenhouse gases, human health, resource allocation, working conditions, manure concentration, etc … but my mind was left screaming: what about THE COWS?

Eric Van Dyken (how could any contemporary student of the Bio Dept at Dordt forget him??) then joined in. Through much of his response, he referred to the role of humanity in creation: noting the differences in world view of the PETA types who tend to reduce the distinction between animals and God’s created image bearers versus the Christian worldview that places humanity in distinct dominion over creation. Doug again contributed by arguing that granting animals the “right to flourish” is unbiblical and went on to argue that the scientific incomprehensibility of what an animal actually is relative to how “sentient” robots could become in future years – this notion of granting animals any rights is a bit preposterous… (sorry if any of that summary is an oversimplification).

I would like to turn the discussion to focus on the animals only. And I would suggest that we consider shifting the obligation of agriculture, and humanity’s role in dominion, from giving animals the “right to flourish” instead to (borrowing the phrase from Matthew Scully) an obligation to provide the animals “a merciful life and a merciful death”.

Mercy, in this context, will certainly mean that the animals are spared some suffering. Which means that we ought to deal with suffering in and of itself at the outset.

1.       That the notion of mercy should even exist within an agricultural system is a profoundly ethical consideration. We cannot look to science to give us answers for how much or how little mercy, or if any at all, should be extended to the animals. Science is wonderful for figuring out efficiency…and much of what agriculture has become and how it treats animals is a result of scientific advancement. Science has yielded agricultural systems that excel at efficiency. But our Christian ethics rooted in a biblical ideal of dominion should prod us to ask “what ought they be?” For those ethical considerations we ought first look to the Bible: not only for specific texts that pertain to animals but general themes for living as Christians. We might refer to C.S. Lewis including the quote I mentioned previously. We might consider views of the saints over the years (Saint Francis of Assissi, etc.). We might even consider thoughts on the subject of animal use by the popes in recent years (I know, difficult to do for protestants!...)

2.       Suffering: that it exists in agriculture is non-negotiable. It most certainly does. How to deal with it is a thorny topic. That it hasn’t been dealt with, to me, explains the absolute disconnect between the animal welfare nutjobs on the one side versus the agriculturists on the other side (please note that I consider myself to be at least a bit of a nutjob yet unashamedly within agriculture). The nutjobs on the one side scream “there is so much cruelty” and the Christian agriculturists on the other side absolutely cannot stomach the notion that they are being cruel: because they are not! Cruelty contains within it a notion of intentionality…and most Christian agriculturists are working hard - very hard! - to pay the bills and support their Christian communities and provide food for the world… they bristle at the accusation that they would intentionally cause suffering. Yet suffering most certainly exists… I would suggest that we approach animal suffering in an analogous fashion to how we legally approach human suffering: 1st degree intentional homicide is worse than unintentional manslaughter is worse than intentionally causing bodily harm is worse than unintentionally causing bodily harm. If we have a scale by which we can allocate relative moral “badness”  of the given animal suffering, then we have a bit of a scale to consider the good against it (for example: does the suffering caused by docking a cow’s tail justify the good it yields within our system…).  I believe this approach can handle my assessment that the majority of the suffering that exists in our systems is an unintentional side effect of the pursuit of efficiency.

The spectrum of thought on how to approach animal welfare that exists within our culture spans between the following 2 extremes:

1.       The animals have an equivalent moral value to humans. Peter Singer being the example of this view in his notion of boy=pig=rat, etc. I would argue it is clearly inconsistent with Biblical dominion

2.       The animals have moral value equivalent to that of an industrial widget in any similar industrial production system. It seems obvious to me that this as well is inconsistent with Biblical dominion.

As Christians, especially we Christian Reformed types whose roots & current membership are entrenched in agriculture, it should be our obligation to discern what is Right…with a capital R! And we might agree that the goal of “what is Right” might be a phrase like “we have an obligation to provide the animals from which we derive our food & fiber a merciful life and a merciful death”. It would be my sincere hope that we would then use that ideal to discern between the extremes of animal=human and animal=machine. We would discern instances when the need for a bit of mercy outweighed the need for a bit of efficiency... We might prophetically point out where human greed is causing animal suffering…etc.

I’ll finish with a Matthew Scully quote with which I whole heartedly agree: “Treating animals decently is like most obligations we face, somewhere between the most and the least important, a modest but essential requirement to living with integrity.”

Matt, Doug, Eric – I cannot beg enough for your comments on what I have written.

Thanks for continuing the discussion, Terry. I have just a minute between soccer games here, but a few (too few!) things:

1. I agree that "cruelty to animals" is not the best way to frame the problem with industrial animal agriculture, though I think that there is indisputable evidence that cruelty to animals does happen, as various video evidence and prosecution and conviction of perpetrators of the abuse has shown. 

2. I think the best way to frame criticism of the harm to animals done by industrial animal agriculture is to focus on procedural and institutional harms to animals that are endemic to the system even when farmers treat animals as well as they possibly can under current methods. I have written the following article on this topic: "Varieties of Harm to Animals in Industrial Farming"

3. I think that PETA is functioning as a bit of a "boogie man" in this discussion, and of course I can understand why people who are in the animal farming industry or sympathetic to it wouldn't think very highly of PETA. But lumping all people who are vociferous critics of animal agriculture with PETA is both inaccurate and unfair. There are many Christians who hold traditional views of the human/animal relationship and are still vocal critics of the exploitation of animals that happens in places like hatcheries, gilt-multipliers, CAFOs, transport trucks, and slaughterhouses. Here are a few such Christians who uphold the traditional distinction between human beings and animals and still think that industrial farming is morally indefensible:

Professor David Clough is a Methodist animal theologian from the UK (University of Chester) who is among the most knowledgeable people in the world on what the Bible says about animals and the human/animal relationship. His book *On Animals, Volume I: Systematic Theology* is a tour de force of biblically rigorous Christian theological reflection on animals. I advise anyone who believes that the Bible would sanction the husbandry methods used and living conditions for animals on today's farms to read this book with haste. I have read a full draft of *On Animals, Volume II: Theological Ethics* (which will come out later this year, hopefully) and my prediction is that these two books will become the gold standard on Christian ethical discernment regarding the human/animal relation. Clough was the 10th Annual Animals and the Kingdom of God Lecturer at Calvin College last year and gave an address that you can watch online titled "Eating Peaceably: Christianity and Veganism"

Professor Karen Swallow Prior of Liberty University is a Baptist English professor, a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States, and an outspoken critic of industrial animal agriculture.

The Reverend Dr. Andrew Linzey is an Anglican priest and theologian at the University of Oxford who is also the Director of the Oxford Center for Animal Ethics. His books *Animal Theology*, *Creatures of the Same God*, and *Why Animal Suffering Matters* are classics in the genre of Christian reflection on the human/animal relation.

Professor Charles C. Camosy is very traditional Catholic Christian and a theologian at Fordham University who argues in a variety of places that pro-life Christians have good reasons to be critical of the way that animals used for farming are treated. His book *For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action* is a terrific place to start for anyone looking for an accessible introduction to the Christian critique of industrial animal agriculture. 

And there are many, many more such people. One book that does a really nice job of gathering many Christian critics (fifteen of them, in fact) of industrial animal farming together in one volume is *A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Care for Animals*

With just 2,200 words to work with in the article I wrote for The Banner, I had to make many difficult decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. Those interested in exploring what I believe to be a very serious tension between orthodox Christian theological ethics and industrial animal farming will find resources o'plenty for deepening their views on the matter in the above resources. There is also this set of free resources from the faculty and staff working group on "Eating as an Act of Justice" that took place at Calvin College back in 2011-2012. 

Sorry I can't get to everything that has been mentioned here! Maybe I'll use this thread to continue to gather questions and criticisms and then try to write a short book for Calvin College press that would address all the concerns raised here. We'll see. 

Hi Terry.  I hope the remembrance that you speak of is not all bad!?!  I have fond memories of those days, you included.  I hope that you and your family are well.  I suspect we could have some fun conversations reminiscing about those days and also talking about vocations, given your line of work and some of my history in dairy and swine production. 

I appreciate your perspective and your contribution to the discussion. As to broad framing, I suspect that you and I would have little on which we differ.  I wholeheartedly agree that we ought to provide a “merciful life and a merciful death” for agricultural animals.  I would go so far as to say that modern animal agriculture in the U.S. is indeed carried out largely with this ethic in mind.  There are numerous local, state, and federal regulations that attempt to accomplish just this goal.  Additionally, there are numerous private agricultural associations that spend much time thinking about these questions and seeking to constantly raise industry standards.  As a veterinarian, I’m sure it is no secret to you that cow comfort translates into milk production.  Similarly, comfort across the board for production animals generally leads to efficient translation of feed into protein.  The industry generally has economic as well as altruistic and public relations reasons for pursing and maintaining mercy in the treatment of animals.   

But the devil is in the details, and perspectives will vary wildly on what is indeed merciful.  Take for instance the discussion above regarding the culling of day-old male chicks within the egg laying industry.  What the industry, AVMA, and government regulators see as an humane (merciful) method of death for chicks is seen as wrong, even horrifying, by Matt.  Matt clearly does not view maceration as merciful. 

Stepping back even a bit more to speak of suffering, I think we would again be in substantial agreement.  To the extent possible, humans should seek to alleviate or minimize suffering for captive animals.  It is important in this context, I believe, to have a reasonable expectation of what that will look like.  I do not subscribe to the notion that the mere fact/presence of any amount of animal suffering in an agricultural setting is prima facie evidence of a failure on the part of man.  For some, this seems to be their default position, and they spend considerable time and effort displaying suffering found in animal agriculture and making the explicit or implicit argument that the presence of this suffering is sufficient evidence to condemn animal agriculture.  I know you have not made this argument, but it is prevalent.  Simply put, in a world marred by sin, there will be suffering.  Humans suffer continuously despite our best and most complete efforts to make it not so.  The question for reasonable people becomes this: how much suffering is acceptable and how much alleviation is reasonably attainable?  In my time in animal agriculture, I was aware of no producer who did not desire to minimize animal suffering and exercise mercy in life and in death.  You no doubt know many of the same types of producers, and yet clearly you have seen things that trouble you.  Specificity of concern (such as your tail-docking example) can lead to examination of practices that some find troubling yet others find acceptable.  The dairy I worked at did not dock tails, but calves (if kept back) were dehorned.  Was there temporary suffering there for the long term greater good of the animal and the operation?  Yes.  When I used to dock the tails of piglets, was there suffering?  Yes.  Was it best for the pigs so that they would not end up with greater suffering due to chewed tails?  Yes.  Did my son suffer at the hands of doctors when they re-set the displaced compound fracture of his broken arm? Yes.  Did he protest? Yes.  Did I protest? No, though I felt sympathy.  Similarly, I think we can have a sympathetic heart for the suffering of animals while also recognizing that a certain amount of suffering is unavoidable, both in agricultural settings and even more so in the wild.  The fact that humans display mercy in our care for animals that we raise for our use is indicative of our image-bearing status and is one of the numerous distinctive attributes we display that separates us from animals.    

I'll try to commont further on your specific numbered points as I am able.  Thanks for the conversation.

Hi Terry.  Attempting to respond to your numbered points:

 

  1. I again agree wholeheartedly that science cannot tell us everything we need to know, and I would further agree that science (and/or math) can at times lead us to considering only the element of efficiency, thus totally commodifying the life of the animals. We definitely need to ask more and deeper questions than: Will this decision make me money (lead to efficiency)? It is inescapable that animals are a commodity, but we must also realize that they are not inanimate commodities.  We buy and sell cattle as a commodity in ways that we would not (should not, but people historically have) buy and sell humans.  Yet, there always has been even broad societal recognition that animals are more than commodities, otherwise we would have no reason for animal cruelty/welfare laws.  It can also be noted that efficiency/profitability decisions will always include a great degree of animal welfare consideration.  Producers can and will discover quickly that animal abuse/neglect does not pay.  Profitability dictates a great amount of humane practice.  Animals simply don’t flourish under conditions that are filled with suffering and pain, and producers do not profit when animals don’t flourish.  When a person begins to anthropomorphize animals, then all sorts of psychological suffering and a whole different idea of flourishing is introduced.  Yet I also don’t completely dismiss the inner workings of the brains of animals.  Flourishing is not completely physical.  A person can cause fear in an animal, and I think such should be avoided to the extent possible.  But I do not place a cow’s ultimate physical or mental comfort over the needs of humans.  Nor do you, likely, or you wouldn’t palpate cows, which is neither physically nor mentally comforting. J

     

  2. As to suffering of animals in agriculture, you say: “That it hasn’t been dealt with, to me, explains the absolute disconnect…”  I think perhaps you state this more absolutely than is warranted.  I cannot agree that suffering of animals in agriculture “hasn’t been dealt with”.  Has it been dealt with completely, sufficiently, or to the satisfaction of everyone?  Clearly no.  But I don’t think it will forward a constructive conversation among Christian producers (or at large) if we act as if animal welfare/suffering has not been and is not currently an ongoing consideration.  Statements like that might lead to some of the defensiveness that you posit is common from Christian producers.   I think a better question is: Have we done enough, or can we do more?  I do agree with your concluding statements in that paragraph: “We would discern instances when the need for a bit of mercy outweighed the need for a bit of efficiency... We might prophetically point out where human greed is causing animal suffering…etc.”  I do think that care must be exercised in projecting greed and other motivators upon others, though.  I find flippant application of negative motivators to others to be untasteful and ungracious.  As for a suffering “scale” or violation categorizations, I’m not sure how something like that would ever receive widespread recognition, though the concept has merit. 

Your concluding quote from Matthew Scully is entirely unobjectionable, if somewhat vague.  As noted before, the devil is in the details.  Who would not agree with treating animals “decently”? Only the most deviant of persons.  Who defines “decently”? Now you’ve got something that needs to be parsed, and even the most far reaching conversations are likely to still conclude with greatly differing judgments.

Hi Matt,

A few more notes in continued conversation:

1. That cruelty to animals happens in agriculture is certainly indisputable, and also I would say unsurprising, to the extent that we understand the nature of human depravity.  Animal abuse statistics reveal that a high percentage of abuse involves “man’s best friend”.  The fact that such abuse occurs (regularly) with dogs is not indicative of a systemic problem with pet ownership, but rather a problem with the human heart.  If humans cannot demonstrate the uniform ability to treat even fellow image bearers properly, we should not be surprised that people will be cruel to animals in all sorts of settings.  In your referenced article “Varieties of Harm to Animals in Industrial Farming” you argue that abuse in “industrial farming” (which you do not define) is “fully expectable” due to conditions present in such settings.  I disagree. You also argue that farm workers will not likely view animals with empathy because to do so “would likely compromise one’s ability to do the job”.  Such a statement betrays your lack of real knowledge of animal care in agricultural settings.  Farm workers are no more prone to cruelty to animals than nursing home workers are prone to cruelty to the elderly.  Actually, the exact opposite of what you contend is true.  Any animal worker worth his/her salt knows that working with an animal is more productive that working against them.  Lashing out in anger or frustration is counter-productive to doing your job well.  I speak from a myriad of experience with animals in CAFOs and a confinement setting (both of which I will assume you would classify as “industrial farming”).  I think you lack the practical experience to reach a proper conclusion.

2. I disagree with your contention that PETA is operating as a “boogie man” in this discussion.  No one has lumped “all people who are vociferous critics of animal agriculture with PETA”.  It is not surprising at all that you can produce a list of people who you believe are distinct from PETA in human/animal distinction, yet share your sentiments.  No one in this conversation stated otherwise. Rather, similarities were pointed out by myself and Doug in your approach and Carol Adams’ approach and philosophy and that of PETA.  We disagree with the areas where you/Adams share common ground with PETA, and we feel it is good and proper to point out those areas of disagreement.  As I understand the concerns of Doug and I in pointing out commonalities with PETA, they related particularly to two areas.  First, a “rights” based approach to concern about animals.  Second, the flattening/reducing/erasing of distinctions between image bearers and animals over which we properly exercise dominion.  It is entirely fair to point out these areas of common rhetoric/approach and to contend that they are wrong.  As to the issue of animal rights, you hint at it in this article, but other sources make your advocacy for animal rights more distinct.  For instance, in the following quote from your referenced paper, you note your desire to move people into “serious consideration of the rights position.” 

“But if I have elected to set aside some of the more contested suggestions regarding animals’ institutional oppression—the suggestion, for instance, that the deprivation of freedom entailed by their status as property is the most foundational harm of all—I maintain that even a limited discussion of some of its more obvious examples can serve, upon reflection, to nudge at least some skeptics beyond welfare concerns into serious consideration of the rights position. After all, for those who come to realize that animals are institutionally oppressed in these less controversial respects, it is often just a matter of time before they discover that the central moral question on their minds is no longer “How should we treat the animals we use?”, but rather “Should we be using animals at all?”.”

Also, you have worked considerably in collaboration with the Humane Society of the U.S., who as far back as 1980 declared that “there is ample evidence and support for the position that [animal] rights naturally evolve from long-accepted doctrines of justice and fairness…there is no rational basis for maintaining a moral distinction between the treatment of humans and animals.”  They went on to say that they resolved to “pursue on all fronts…the clear articulation and establishment of the rights of all animals…within the full range of American life and culture.”

These quotes serve to reinforce our contention that there is significant common ground.  We find that common ground to be troublesome, and we fundamentally disagree with both the granting of and arguing for rights for animals and also rhetoric (as was quoted in previous comments) that flattens/reduces/erases the human/animal distinction inherent in God’s created order. 

It is also interesting that in pointing to Karen Swallow Prior as one who maintains a “traditional view on animal/human relationship”, you link to an article with this quote from Prior: “I think years from now when we face this issue and look back at it in history, we will wonder how we could’ve tolerated it so long in the same way we wonder today how people could have tolerated slavery”.  Now, to be sure, Prior is not making a full equivalence, but in drawing such a parallel she does more to break down traditional distinctions than she does to reinforce them.  

3. In your original article you did a nice job, I believe, of seeking to persuade without impinging on Christian liberty.  Specifically, I point to a quote such as the following: “As with other discipleship issues, congregations can challenge members to discern how to live more mindfully in this regard without binding consciences inappropriately or lapsing into extrabiblical legalism.”  I appreciate that sentiment.  But in what matters do Christians have liberty?  Do Christians have liberty to choose to do what is unjust or immoral?  Certainly not!  What appropriately binds our consciences?  The avoidance of immorality and the demands of justice. 

Digging deeper, it is concerning to me that your viewpoint, when fully laid out, does not allow for liberty, despite what you advocate for in your column.  In your comment above, you begin to introduce a shift from persuasion without binding the conscience to a question of what is moral/immoral, which is not a distinction open to liberty.  In your last comment you approvingly point to a number of Christians who “think that industrial farming is morally indefensible.”  To say that something is morally indefensible is tantamount to saying it is immoral.  And if it is immoral, it is not something in which we have freedom. 

In addition, the lengthy quote that I offered under point number two concludes with the idea of people asking the “central moral question…”Should we be using animals at all?”.”  Going even further, in a different forum you were asked if you “categorically object to the eating of animals as a violation of God’s mandate for creation care”, to which you answered as follows: “I do not categorically object to the idea that there are instances in which eating animal products is morally permissible. But the pressing question for Christians, as I see it, is not whether eating animal products is *permissible* in some abstract set of circumstances (seems pretty clear that it is), but rather whether it is *beneficial* in a particular disciple’s specific circumstances.”  Beyond that, you expressed an unwillingness to state the “abstract set of circumstances” in which you believe it is morally permissible for Christians to eat animal products.  At a minimum, then, we can conclude that you believe there are circumstances in which it is not morally permissible for humans to eat animals (or animal products, assumedly such as cheese and milk), and the inference is that the situations where it is morally impermissible outweigh the situations where it is morally permissible. 

So we are faced with a dilemma: If indeed modern farming practices (the majority of which I presume would fall under your category of “industrial farming”) are “morally indefensible”, then we do not have liberty to engage in such practices or support them.  If indeed the central moral question we should be facing is “Should we be using animals at all?”, then we are not speaking about a question of liberty.  If indeed it is sometimes or often morally impermissible for Christians to eat animal products, then our consciences should be bound, and we ought not exercise liberty to engage in immorality.  It seems to me to be much better in this conversation for us to lay all of our cards on the table and be as plain and straightforward as possible about what is at stake. 

Hi Eric,

Thanks for these follow-ups. 

1. I'll take these points under counsel. As I say in the paper, my real concern there is not the character of farmers and meat plant workers at all, but rather the procedural and institutional harms that animals endure in these systems. It seems to me that what you've said yourself about the human heart is more than enough to generate concern about how fallen human beings might occasionally express frustration in settings where daily dealings with stressed and resistent animals are common. That stressed and resistent animals are common seems impossible to deny; Temple Grandin and the North American Meat Association have produced lots of materials that say as much and spend a great deal of time, energy, and money worrying about how to reduce that inevitable stress and resistence. I certainly respect your personal testimony about the experiences you have had in these settings. But I also respect the personal testimony of many other people I know and trust, including many students, people in my own family, and professional contacts who have worked on farms and in slaughter plants and whose testimony differs markedly from yours (this should not be a surprise, given that not all facilities and equipment are created equal and different settings often have a different professional ethos). And I also respect the personal testimony of many authors who have worked in such contexts whose work is published in well-regarded newspapers, magazines, peer-reviewed journals, and books whose testimony differs markedly from yours. So though I don't personally have a lot of firsthand experience in these settings myself, many, many of the people whose experiences I have listened to and whose work I have cited do have the personal experience to make a credible judgment and I am persuaded by their judgments and qualified by my credentials to report their judgments and build arguments from them (which is not to say that I don't make my fair share of mistakes in my good faith efforts to say things that are true!). So far as I can tell, we're all making judgments on the basis of other people's credible testimony about things we haven't personally experienced all the time. For instance, though I didn't take the measurements myself, I believe the Earth is round because there's a lot of credible testimony that the Earth is round. If people wish to draw the inference that the things I say should be disregarded because I have not personally worked in agriculture, I certainly can't stop them. But that doesn't make their inference a good one, I'm afraid. Finally, I would be very happy to be shown as many facilities as people would like to show me to expand my firsthand experience and to attempt to build good faith and better understanding across differing perspectives. 

2. It seems to me that you use the term "image bearer" as though you have a crystal clear idea both of the rights and privileges that come with image-bearing, as well as of the uses and treatment to which non-image-bearers are entitled or not entitled. But the theological discussions around what image-bearing and non-image-bearing creatures are like and what attitudes and actions toward them are warranted or not are complex and controversial. And smart people of good will have drawn very different conclusions about what image-bearing amounts to and about how it should bear on our ethical discussions. In quite a bit of reading on this topic, I have never come across a good reason to accept the following principle: "Image-bearers, by virtue of being image bearers, may confound, frustrate, and destroy the most basic interests of non-image-bearers in order to satisfy their own comparatively trivial interests." In my experience, anyway, there's no good reason to think that the trivial interests of an image-bearer should always outweigh the most basic interests of a non-image-bearer. In fact, it's far more intuitive to think that image-bearers, by virtue of being deputized as God's agents of renewal, have special obligations to protect non-image-bearers from unnecessary harms (Leviticus certainly seems to suggest this, among many other Biblical texts). And though it's too late to go into too much detail on this point now, I think there are a lot of good reasons to think that much of the harm done to animals in agriculture is unnecessary.

3. On the liberty question, I'm not sure I understand the alleged dilemma. Don't Christians debate and disagree all the time about what is and is not morally defensible? Can't one Christian deeply believe that something is morally indefensible and structure her life as though that were the case, and yet understand and respect the view of another Christian who disagrees? Take the conflict between just war theory and pacifism. Many Christian pacifists believe that Christian participation in the activity of killing enemies is morally indefensible. And many Christian just war theorists diasagree and believe that Christian participation in war is morally defensible and in some cases morally obligatory. But I can't see any reason to think that their conflicting views on these matters should prevent them from respecting each other, being in communion with one another, and even loving one another. Where does the conscience-binding come in here? What am I missing?

Concerning my personal views on these matters: of course I have my own opinions and hopes--seen through a glass darkly--on where these discussions will lead in the longer term. I'm happy to talk about those in personal conversations and to offer my studied views in print. But I often find that in discussions like these, at least at this stage of the game, it is important to communicate in a way that makes it possible to avoid unnecessary polarization, to find as much common ground as possible, and to pitch a very big tent. I think that we are getting to a place where the need to have this discussion has become urgent enough that we no longer have the luxury and comfort of being able to splinter into our various tribes and quibble over who is a member of the status quo, who is a system reformer, who is a welfarist, and who is an abolitionist. Our food system is causing serious problems, those problems have been widely and credibly documented, animal agriculture is known to play an outsized role in those problems (as many impartial, non-animal-rights-focused groups and authors have credibly argued) and the church's lack of engagement with these issues is compromising the integrity of our witness with young people within our ranks (and leaving our ranks in part because of our inattentiveness to these and related matters), with neighbors outside our ranks, and with the world at large. I'm not looking to bind any individual consciences here. I'm looking to get a vigorous conversation going among people of good will from a wide variety of outlooks and walks of life that it is well past time to have (or so it seems to me). 

Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful and rigorous input.

Hello again, Eric!

Reading back over my reply to your reply in the light of the morning, it seems to me that I was not at my most eloquent or careful at 2:00 am after a long day when I originally responded (Surprise! Not the sharpest tool at 2:00 am! At least I didn't spell anyone's name incorrectly this time). :)

So, because there is no "comment edit" feature here, and no way, that I am aware of, to take a comment down and replace it with a new, revised comment, I am going to try to take my own advice to "communicate in a way that makes it possible to avoid unnecessary polarization" and make a couple of retractions followed by some friendly amendments that I hope make the points I was seeking to make in clearer ways.

1. I say above, "As I say in the paper, my real concern there is not the character of farmers and meat plant workers at all, but rather the procedural and institutional harms that animals endure in these systems."

Having read "Varieties of Harm to Animals in Industrial Farming," you probably caught my meaning there, but since most others will not have read that piece before reading this comment thread (if, indeed, anyone but us is reading it--a person who works in a discipline where the average readership of peer-reviewed journal articles is 10-15, I don't make too many sanguine assumptions in this regard), I want to revise that statement as follows: "As I say in the paper, my real concern there is not the character of farmers and meat plant workers at all; indeed, my basic assumption in the paper is that it is wildly implausible to try to ground a critique of our food system on smearing the character of people who work in agriculture, who the vast majority rightly believe to be good people on balance (that certainly has been my experience with the farmers I know). The reason I choose to focus on procedural and institutional harms to animals, in other words, is that I think that farmer-blaming and trying to convince people that folks who work in the industry are generally cruel, unfeeling people is unfair, uncharitable, and wrong." Hopefully, that provides a bit more context. I have to confess to being very frustrated that the passage in my online Banner article that eschews farmer blaming didn't make it into the print version, but I had no personal control over that omission. 

2. I say above, "That stressed and resistent animals are common seems impossible to deny; Temple Grandin and the North American Meat Association have produced lots of materials that say as much and spend a great deal of time, energy, and money worrying about how to reduce that inevitable stress and resistence."

What I should have said is this: "It seems to me that the existence of some stressed and resistant animals in our food system is inevitable, or at least that is what I have gathered from the site visits I have made, the reading I have done (Temple Grandin's work stands out here), and the videos I have watched from the North American Meat Association's Glass Walls Project. These engagements suggest to me that the industry and its consultants acknowledge that handling stressed and resistent animals is, at least at this point (who knows where plant-based, clean meat, and other technologies will take us over the next 100 years), still an inevitable feature of doing business and that they devote significant resources to thinking about and implementing systems that they hope will reduce that stress and resistance."

Having made those amendments, I'm going to leave the discussion there for now, given that I am off for a week and will then return to the busiest time of the academic year. I have deeply enjoyed and been significantly challenged by this conversation and I hope that we can continue it in other formats and venues moving forward. As I have said above, I very much appreciate receiving feedback, whether positive or (very!) critical, and I am grateful for the significant time and effort that all contributors have put into this rich and challenging thread. It is a great testimony to the decency and kindness of members of this denomination that this article has been up for almost a month, and though I have received a lot of both positive and critical feedback, the rude and openly hostile communications have been very, very few (just one email, as it happens). From what I've gathered from threads elsewhere on the internet on topics such as these, the rudeness and hostility often far outweigh the respectful efforts to engage and understand one another across considerable differences of opinion. So I am really grateful for the civility and kindness exemplified by my interlocutors here, and to the good folks at The Banner for their willingness to solicit the article and host the discussion. Thanks so much to all!

 

Hi Matt,

Ah, yes, the edit button.  Would that we all had ready access to one of those!

This is just a quick note to say that I see you have continued the conversation (which I much appreciate!) and that I intend to read and digest what you have said as I have time.  I see that you close by noting that you will likely exit the conversation at this point, which I respect.  Whether you read this comment or any further follow-up response to your latest offering that I may post, I cannot know.  But please know this above all if you do happen back to read: I love and appreciate you as a brother in Christ, and no amount of difference in how we view these matters can change that. 

Thank you SO much for this article.  It very eloquently and sensitively states everything that we as vegetarians have tried to explain to others!  

Matt & Eric,

Sorry for my absence from the discussion for the past week... Thanks a ton to both of your inputs.

Matt - did the Banner really edit out content of your article submission without your permission? That is disheartening considering the importance of this topic to our denomination...as entrenched as we are in the CRC in animal agriculture it seems to me that this issue is crucially important for us to discern truth. 

Eric - how can we connect? I'd love to catch up on your career since our days at Dordt and discuss this topic more. I  believe it needs not only Christian debate...but also humble courage to be part of change in the every day monotony. Hope to talk soon.

t

Hi Terry.  You can reach me at eric.vandyken@yahoo.com.

I've bowed out of the discussion for now, but I'm popping back in very quickly to dispel any notion that The Banner "edited out content of [my] article submission without [my] permission." The Banner staff has been absolutely professional and wonderful throughout the process.

In most publications, it is not at all uncommon in the lead-up to a print-run for editors to make even significant content changes in the clutch if word count is long or formatting is difficult, and all contributing authors must sign waivers allowing for these kinds of changes when they sell a comissioned piece to a publication. My understanding is that what happened in this case is that The Banner's new formatting system led to a situation in which the print version of the essay that was originally published online on February 19 came through the formatting process as a significant overrun in terms of the space available. As such, some tough cuts were necessary at the last minute, and even though The Banner was not obligated to consult me, they were kind enough to do so and they proposed a solution to the problem that, while not perfectly ideal, seemed the best "all-things-considered" solution. And since the entire essay is very easily accessible online, anyone who is concerned about the omitted paragraphs in the print version can simply check the online version to find them. When I admitted to being frustrated above that the whole essay didn't appear in the print version, I did not mean to be expressing frustration at The Banner--more just frustration at the situation that there wasn't enough room for it to go to print with everything. Apologies if I gave a misleading impression. 

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