Why Christians Should be People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

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Clandestine videos from inside industrial animal facilities have been in the news recently.

An undercover video taken at one of the nation’s largest pork producers shows pigs being dragged across the floor, beaten with paddles, and sick to the point of immobility. … “The actions depicted in the video under review are appalling and completely unacceptable, and if we can verify the video’s authenticity, we will aggressively investigate the case and take appropriate action,” said USDA spokesman Adam Tarr (source).

Another video followed shortly afterward, this one showing chickens being beaten and abused on factory farms in North Carolina. “We are appalled by the mistreatment and abuse by a contract catching crew and farm worker shown in the video. We are deeply disturbed that birds with obvious leg or health issues were left to suffer,” the corporate owner responded when the video came to light (source).

But this is the price of cheap factory meat. Even when at their best, farm animals raised in confined animal feed operations (CAFOs) are treated unnaturally and inhumanely. A laying hen will spend her entire adult life, for example, standing on a piece of wire mesh smaller than a standard sheet of paper. Once her egg production starts to fall, she will be slaughtered and turned into soup or dog food. Sows (mother hogs) spend their entire adult lives in cages 7 feet long and 22 inches wide. Unable to even turn around, they are artificially inseminated. After they have produced, on average, 8 litters of piglets, they are slaughtered.

No creature should be subjected to treatment like this. No one with an ounce of compassion for animals should be willing to eat animals that have been treated this way.

Most of us have chosen cheap meat over the humane treatment of animals.

But it doesn’t have to be this way of course. We don’t have to abuse and torture animals before we kill and eat them.

Things are changing, and that gives me hope. Even a few years ago, it was rare to see any reference to “ethical eating.” But now, an increasingly large number of people want to know more about the animal products they eat than just the price of them. So where did the notion of ethical eating come from? Was it just dreamed up by some sentimental hippies over the last few years?

At least in western culture, the idea that farm animals should be treated with compassion and respect goes back thousands of years. In one of the most famous poems of all time, the Psalmist says “The Lord is my shepherd.” He describes how “his shepherd” cares for and protects him. Of course, sheep weren’t pets. They were being raised to be sources of human food. Would a poet today choose a factory farm operator as a metaphor for God?

Likewise, Jesus famously told of the “good shepherd” who risked his life to defend his sheep. Countless stained-glass windows have the image of Christ gently carrying a lamb. But that animal isn’t a pet. It is intended for human food. Here again, the care of a farmer for his animals was seen as an image of the divine love and care for humanity. But is that what we think of when we see animals being beaten and dragged onto an assembly line where they’re being slaughtered at a rate of 1,300 per hour?

When Christ compared his compassion for Jerusalem to the love a hen shows for her chicks (Luke 13:34), he obviously did not have in mind hens confined to tiny battery cages, who exist only to crank out eggs as cheaply and quickly as possible, and who never even see a rooster, much less brood chicks.

John Wesley and his followers were often ridiculed for their insistence on animal welfare, but they considered it essential to their faith. In our treatment of animals, Wesley said, we should “imitate Him whose mercy is over all his works.” “The Lord careth for them…not one of them is forgotten in the sight of our Father which art in heaven,” he wrote.

Wesley taught and believed that when all things are redeemed and restored to their original and intended goodness, animal suffering will be no more, and that we should begin to live into that hope now. “Let us habituate ourselves to look forward, beyond this present scene of bondage, to the happy time when (animals) will be delivered therefrom to the liberty of the children of God.”
The belief that we have a moral obligation to treat animals decently is not a recent invention, even if nowadays our sensibilities have been numbed. We condemn people for abusing pets and wildlife, while ignoring systematic abuse of farm animals.

It’s easy to blame the corporate owners of these facilities for the abuse. And they deserve blame. But we need to step back and remember that corporations don’t have consciences. They exist to maximize profits to shareholders, while shielding them from liability. Period.
Industrial food corporations are just meeting a demand that we create. They are not moral gatekeepers. We are.

I choose to believe that the day is approaching when these disgusting facilities will be things of the past–embarrassing reminders of a less-enlightened time.

But how quickly that day arrives, or even if it arrives at all, is up to us. Every time we choose our food, we’re voting for the kind of world we want to live in.

Get Bill’s book, The Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith from our store.

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Bill is a graduate of seminary, a former attorney and now a full-time farmer in southern Virginia. He is the author of Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming and Faith, now available from Seedbed.

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