What about the Animals?
Walk down this road very far, and soon you find yourself bumping into the question: does God care about justice for animals too? To think so was a bit of a worldview shift for me. I grew up understanding that God gave the trees, rivers, mountains, and animals to humans to subdue and use as needed. Dominating the Earth meant bringing it under the control of humans. Civilizing it. Making it useful. Yes, we should do so responsibly, but if people needed the trees, the Spotted Owl would just have to deal with it, and if Spotted Owls couldn’t just move on, how important could they be in the big scheme of things anyway? Certainly they weren’t as important as people.
Shifting my thinking toward believing that we are supposed to protect and foster the flourishing of life changes the focus a fair bit. Since we are the species given the capacity to manipulate and control the Earth to the largest extent, the flourishing of deer, lions, bees, dolphins, owls, and forests therefore depends on our choices. Theologian Steven Bouma-Prediger challenges the idea that animals and creation are primarily valuable because of their usefulness to us. He says:
God’s creatures are valuable not because of their usefulness to humans—though some are useful, indeed essential, to us. Instead they are valuable to each other—for example, the cedars are valuable as places for birds to nest, and the mountains are valuable as places of refuge and rest for wild goats—and most important rocks and trees, birds and animals are valuable simply because God made them. Value rests in being creations of a valuing God—not in their being a means to some human end.Steven Bouma-Prediger unpacks this in his book For the Beauty of the Earth (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2001), 141.
Value rests in being creations of a valuing God. Yes. So with some reluctance, my husband Mark and I let our vegan daughter expose us to the invisible world of animals in the food industry. The laying hen industry will provide one sufficient example.
Except where they are banned, hens in the egg-laying industry spend their miserable lives in what are called battery cages, small wire boxes with barely enough room for them to turn around. Their misery is evident if you’ve ever had the opportunity to pull alongside a truckload of stacked hens on the highway as we did, shortly after acquiring our first small flock of chickens.
Our hens’ eyes sparkle. They run to greet us when we walk anywhere nearby. They nest, scratch in the dirt looking for worms and grubs, dust bathe (they particularly glory in this activity of rolling in the dust and flapping dirt onto their backs on sunny, warm days), chase each other around trying to steal worms and tidbits from each other’s beaks, and otherwise flap, peck, and use their chirps, squawks, and coos to communicate. The hens in the truck were only biologically related to the hens in our barnyard. Mark wasn’t sure hens could register “misery” or “happiness” in their little brains until he saw those stacked and suffering birds. Animals with beaks clipped (because in their crowded confinement and boredom they’ll peck at each other mercilessly) flopped into each other as the truck stopped beside our car. Their feathers were worn away from stress and the rubbing of battery cages, and empty, lifeless eyes gazed at a world outside, a world they were likely seeing for the first time. I’m imagining these hens were headed to the slaughterhouse now that their egg-laying productivity had begun to decline. This was a truck full of chickens that had been living in squalid misery so I could buy cheap eggs. They were bearing the cost of my savings.
Does God’s desire for justice and mercy extend to hens? Does a full, embodied spiritual formation depend on my being willing to look at invisible processes that bring me cheap food, and then being willing to change the way I eat?
The good news is that the word is getting out about the poultry industry, and people are changing the way they think about hens. England and much of the European Union have banned battery cages. Increasingly restaurants and food service companies servicing schools and hotel chains in the United States refuse to buy from suppliers that use them. The state of California passed a bill last year banning battery cages for hens.
A few years ago, Mark and I moved to five acres near our childhood homes in Oregon and have grown our vegetable garden year by year, adding fruit trees and berries, giving away extra food to family, friends, colleagues, and folks at church. I sell the extra eggs to my colleagues, providing them the option of eating eggs from well-cared-for hens.
We have an interdependent relationship with our bees and hens. We feed and protect them from predators, and in exchange they pollinate (bees), offer grub control and fertilize (hens), and give us eggs and honey.
This year we expanded our gardens once again and are now small-scale farmers running our own CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). We’re growing food for six families. We chose to become farmers because we love good, just food, and we want to invite others to eat locally and seasonally and be in a relationship with a local food producer. On pick-up days our families are welcome to walk around the farm, stroll through the forest, and bring a picnic supper to eat at one of the picnic tables on the edge of the woods.
Meanwhile, we are strengthening relationships, fostering well-being for humans, animals, and the soil and water that sustain us all. We are remembering that we are nature rather than hovering above it. We both acknowledge and live in an interdependent relationship with God’s creation. And we are forming our spiritual selves through the active pursuit of shalom—a peace that comes because all is well when justice and flourishing prevail. We don’t try to convert folks aggressively to thinking about food and faith—we want to be winsome transformers who invite people to taste and see what God has made, to fall in love with God’s creation. We strive to lead from a place of inspiration.
Becoming a Responsible Shopper
Part of what makes this conversation challenging is an ingrained assumption most of us hold that being responsible shoppers means finding the best bargains and stretching our household’s food dollars. That definition of “responsible” comes from competitive big agribusiness that wants you to buy their inexpensive chocolate, rather than what is available elsewhere from fair trade businesses.
The prophets and Jesus show more concern about the use of honest weights and being fair than they do about stretching a dollar. A biblical understanding of “responsible shopper” considers the ethical and just use of money—not only when we donate it to the church or World Relief or International Justice Mission, but also when we shop for food.
Buying ethically might well mean we can’t afford as many Starbucks mochas or as much beef and bacon (which has other problems for the global food supply anyway). Maybe eating just food means we buy fewer clothes or shop for them at resale shops, and we learn how to negotiate Craigslist as effectively as we’ve learned to maneuver around the shopping mall.
Food conversations are particularly uncomfortable because eating is a private matter in our culture. I don’t like people scrutinizing my grocery cart as I stand at the checkout line. So challenging you to question whether buying cheap eggs is inherently Christian or not risks stepping on toes. But maybe we should be accountable to each other for how and what we eat.
We’re not bad people because we like a bargain. The costs of those bargains are simply invisible to us. We came to this point of spending less on food than did our grandparents and great-grandparents somewhat gradually—through agribusiness that exploded after WWII. Cheap food seemed like a social good. Raising doubts about its goodness sounds ungracious and elitist—shouldn’t we want lower-income people to be able to afford McDonald’s and have access to cheap eggs and chocolate? This question introduces a broader conversation.
We ought to be asking how a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke can cost less than a meal you make from basic ingredients bought at a grocery store. Given all the labor and materials costs that go into making buns; growing potatoes for fries and corn for animal feed and cooking oil; raising, feeding, and slaughtering cows; processing and transportation costs; marketing and paying store managers and employees who flip the burgers—how can that meal be cheaper than a burger and fries I make at home? Exploring farm subsidies for corn, and the high efficiency achieved by mass production of food (that passes the real costs onto animals; taxpayers through farm subsidies; and farm, factory, and store laborers) provides good starting places.
Cheap food is good for the pocketbook, and that good covers a lot of other bad in most people’s ledgers. But the cost of our cheap food is externalized and borne by others. That may be good for our personal finances, but at what cost to our souls?
Discovering True Freedom
One hundred years ago, sociologist Max Weber saw that industrialization had wooed the masses with rational, efficient, predictable ways of meeting our basic needs. We didn’t see that these rational systems created an iron cage around us and had irrational consequences. Contemporary sociologist George Ritzer calls it a velvet cage because we actually find living in our rational world rather comfortable and are not overly eager to leave it even when we see the irrational consequences of it. Mostly we prefer the irrational bits stay invisible.
Some years ago, Mark and I visited Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, a place that houses exotic animals like lions and tigers that people thought would make cute pets until they grew into seven-hundred-pound predators. Most of these pets are euthanized; a few make it to refuges around the country. Esmeralda and Sampson were two of the lucky ones. But having been caged their whole lives, they found the freedom outside the cage terrifying. They had a half-acre hilly playground full of shrubs, trees, grass, and dirt available to them, but they wouldn’t leave their concrete and iron cage to enjoy it. The caretakers forced them out with water hoses several times, locking the door behind them, and the animals paced back and forth in front of the cage, fearful, yearning to be let back in. After six months the caretakers gave up and offered the habitat to other captives more eager to be free.
Augustine defined true freedom as the ability to act right always. I long for such freedom and know it will most fully come in heaven. Meanwhile, I want to step out of my rational, predictable, efficient velvet cage to witness what better freedom is possible when I let myself be transformed by what I don’t yet fully understand. I want to listen to my neighbors around the world and relearn how to live in a more harmonious interdependent relationship with God’s creation, one that fosters the flourishing of all life, not just my own. I want to be spiritually transformed from the inside out, starting with what I put on in my grocery cart, on my plate, and into my mouth.
A mocha that contributes to the flourishing of communities by paying farmers a livable wage for the coffee and cocoa they provide tastes better than alternative mochas. Just food gives us an opportunity to practice shalom and to celebrate bounty and goodness. And embracing that kind of food, just food, transforms our souls.
Interested in Tasting Some Fair Trade Chocolate?
Divine chocolate is an African-owned company that ensures everyone involved in producing the chocolate is treated well and receives a fair and livable wage. Visit the website for divine chocolate at www.divinechocolate.com