Five years ago, I watched a goat die in my arms. She was called Cinnamon, and her death was an accident. I was working at the time as a livestock volunteer at Heifer Ranch, a large farm and education center operated by Heifer International. My work was to help care for Cinnamon and all the other animals there. She had been in a temporary paddock with the other dairy goats. We used portable electric net fencing to set up grazing areas all over the Ranch. The goats helped us maintain healthy grassland by clearing foliage from brushy places. Sometime during the night, Cinnamon had become entangled in the fence. Normally, the pulse of electricity in the fence would give a shock that hurts about as much as being pinched or poked with a needle. Once she was stuck, that pulse became a torturous metronome in the pre-dawn hours. She was crying out in pain as we came to check the goats in the morning. Her eyelids and gums, normally flush and red, were ghostly white. A few minutes after we injected a dose of opiates, she died.
Cinnamon’s death took root in my heart and grew into a series of questions. If the work I had been doing was good, even godly, then why did such a creature die? If caring for livestock is such a good thing, why did I spend so many hours crying in guilt over a dead goat? If I am called by God to be a peacemaker, is it right for me to be an animal killer? The pavement was starting to crack.
Brothers and sisters, in the first chapter of Genesis we read God’s instructions, “Be fruitful and multiply...and have dominion over...every living thing that moves upon the earth.” I want to say that this instruction to dominate the earth is a mistake. It is wrong, it is the source of much suffering, and I wish it would be permanently removed from this book. We’ve already heard that God, speaking through Isaiah, gives us another command: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Even God acknowledges that dominion must be undone.
You see, the book of Genesis was written down at a time when agriculture and civilization had already existed for thousands of years. Animals and plants had already been domesticated for food, and humanity already had much dominion over the world. The writer of Genesis puts this command in the mouth of God simply to establish divine direction for what seemed to be the “natural” order of things. Humans had ‘always’ ruled over goats and cows, so of course God ordained it. Friends, this is not our faith. We do not praise the status quo, we do not make excuses for injustice, we cannot ignore violence.
And it’s time to be clear: dominion over animals has always involved violence. The domestication of animals required that humans devise means to control animal diet, mobility, and reproduction. Ropes, fences, various means of hobbling animals allowed humans to prevent them from straying too far. Baby animals, needing mother’s milk, were separated, or dressed with spikes around their mouth to make nursing painful. All this so humans had access to animal milk. And no longer were domestic animals free to choose with whom to mate; no longer did they have evolutionary freedom or genetic independence. To control reproduction, male animals were and are routinely castrated, female animals are impregnated by whichever male the breeder chooses, whenever the breeder chooses. And let us not forget that the endgame for every domestic animal is an unnatural, premature, bloody death at the hands of her caretaker, followed by evisceration, dismemberment, and being consumed by that caretaker and his relations.
Many of us might cringe when we think of what eating animal flesh involves. Many of us have reasons why continuing to eat animals makes sense, and usually those come back to some kind of argument for dominion over animals. I want to show us this morning that domination of animals leads inevitably to the domination of humans. Let’s go way back to when animals and plants were first being domesticated, about 11,000 years ago. Before this, humans survived by gathering, sometimes hunting, and living in small egalitarian groups. Life was truly like Genesis describes Eden, and there is real science to back this up. There was certainly still violence and bloodshed, but I want to stress that for many, many thousands of years before the dawn of agriculture, humans lived very well, in partnership with their places, without dominating animals or each other on any significant scale. We know about Mesopotamia being the cradle of civilization, the place where agriculture first flourished. We should also remember Mesopotamia for being the source of the earliest evidence of human slavery. In fact, wherever animal agriculture took root in the ancient world, so also did human slavery. Just as masters controlled their animals’ diet, mobility, and reproduction, they also controlled their human slaves. Ropes, chains, prods, castration, rape: these were and are still the means by which humans dominate their slaves and prisoners. Humans learned how to control humans by first learning how to control cows, sheep, goats, horses, pigs. Just as humans began to keep livestock as a kind of living pantry, they also began to keep slaves as living tools and labor.
We can trace this braid of parallel domination all the way up to today: what real difference is there between the accumulated bodies of cows in a Colorado feedlot and the accumulated bodies of men and women in our state and federal prisons? Are we surprised that a culture dependent on the forcible impregnation of millions of dairy cows every year is so plagued by sexual violence and so cold towards victims of sexual violence? Are we surprised that a boy in Charleston considers the lives of black neighbors worthless when the menus in our restaurants are built on the idea that humans are worth more than our animal neighbors? Friends, here is a truth we need to tell: the technologies employed by the Nazi regime in murdering millions of people during the Holocaust were inspired by, informed by, even copied from the technologies pioneered by American slaughterhouses in the early twentieth century.1 If the meat on our plates isn’t tainted, it sure as hell is tainting us. “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, and to break every yoke?”
We remember the Holocaust as an event: it had a beginning, and it had an end. We are deceiving ourselves. The roots of the Holocaust stretch back to when humanity first asserted its dominion over other creatures. And the Holocaust continues today: every year worldwide, more than 10 billion animals are raised and killed for food. Arithmetic tells us that divides into 27 million animals every day killed for food. Most of these are born, raised, and killed in a factory setting, surrounded by machinery and employees, deprived of sunlight, fresh air, and freedom of movement. Vast millions of acres of forest and prairie have been destroyed into monocropped plots of corn and soybeans to feed those billions of animals. I hope we can all begin to see this is not OK. I hope we can begin to call this by its right names: evil, horror, injustice, hell on earth. I hope we can all agree that factory farming of animals must be ended. “Let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke.”
- Taken from holocaust scholar Charles Patterson in his book Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. The title of that work comes from a line in a story by Jewish and Polish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: "for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."