Food as Spiritual and Political Praxis Part 2: Continuing the Conversation between Autumn Brown and Nekeisha Alayna Alexis
Nekeisha’s note: As Autumn and I engaged in our first intentional exchange about the political and spiritual dimensions of our food choices, we realized that we not only had more to ask and to share than one post could reasonably contain: we also enjoyed our engagement with each other and wanted to more deeply understand the ways our food, politics and faith shaped our divergent eating practices. So we agreed to continue the conversation using the same question and answer model with which we began. Below is our second and final exchange for Jesus Radicals.
Autumn: Since I touched on this in my last response, I would return to the question of desire and survival. In our previous conversations, you have indicated that you believe eating meat is only acceptable if it is deemed necessary for survival. In my mind, this sets up a dichotomy of desire vs. survival in which desire is strongly associated with sin. I tend to be wary of direct associations between desire and sin because the church has a nasty history of instilling this kind of belief with psychologically and physiologically destructive consequences to human individuals and families. And while there are traditions within the church of fasting from meat at certain times, my theological study has led me to the understanding that scriptural and patristic teachings with regard to diet are usually about self-denial or mindfulness rather than the assertion that the practice of meat-eating is itself sinful. In your experience and beliefs, what specifically about desiring meat is problematic from a spiritual, theological or scriptural perspective?
Nekeisha: Although I understand your suspicion of dichotomies, I think being ethical creatures who want to tread lightly within creation involves recognizing the difference between “what I want” and “what I cannot live without.” I might enjoy flesh foods at most meals. But if I discover that inexpensive, abundant access to such foods is destroying the earth and institutionalizing torture, then I have to come to terms with the fact that I don’t need meat to live and ask whether my desire is enough reason to eat from those sources—or to eat meat at all. Or take fish. I might love eating fish because of the taste and the cultural references the practice evokes. But if I discover that commercial fishing is leading to an irrevocable oceanic collapse and has destabilized communities that actually depend on fish to live, then I again must confront the difference between what I need and what I want, and ask if my desire is enough to keep supporting that system.
Similarly, when I discovered that my vegetarianism was still part of a pervasive killing machine, I had to wrestle with what I desired and what I must have to live. Because I don’t have severe allergies that prohibit a vegan diet and I have access to sustainable plant-based foods in ways that people in other geographic locations don’t, I had to admit that I didn’t need to eat dairy and fish any more than I needed to eat meat. Although the switch was hard for me at first, I came to see that veganism isn’t about self-denial or crucifying desire. It’s really about exchanging one set of desires for another and considering other creatures’ desires alongside my own.
Another complicating issue for me is that I embrace other animals as my theological, biblical, biological, evolutionary and spiritual kin. Consequently, the driving question for me isn’t, “Is it right/good or wrong/evil to eat meat?” That question lacks nuance and ignores realities like geography. Instead, I ask, “When is it acceptable for me to eat my relatives? Under what condition is it okay to use my friends as food?” To me “I had no other option”—not “I take great pleasure in the taste of my relations” or “Eating her is deeply meaningful to me”—is the most justifiable reason to kill and consume another creature. It is because of this kinship perspective that I continue to challenge “humane” killing and hunting when plant-based alternatives are available and abundant. Humane killing when alternatives are present seems especially sadistic to me because one enters into a nurturing and even loving relationship with another animal only to violate that friend/ship with deadly violence that is motivated by what I want.
I look to several aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition to support this view of animals. The most obvious is Genesis 1 and 2. God makes humans and other animals from the same substance, calls them good, puts them in communion with each other and mandates that they eat plants and fruit for food. As I thought about this prohibition against predation, it occurred to me that the writers aren’t really trying to resolve the problem of death—nothing in the text indicates that the creatures in Eden are immortal. The problem seems to be with killing one another. This makes sense since the narrative is a theological argument about the true character of God that is written in response to the violent creation stories of nearby civilizations. Like Genesis 1-2, the ideal in Isaiah 65:17-25 is not that no one dies, but that no one, not even the wolves and serpents, kills on God’s holy mountain. In these texts, part of shalom seems to be that no one takes another life and no life is snuffed out prematurely.
I think another obvious but overlooked resource is Jesus. Christians are often so preoccupied with Jesus’ humanity and what his life, death and resurrection means “to us,” that we completely miss the implications of Jesus, “The Lamb.” On the cross, Jesus identifies most fully—not with humanity—but with all the sacrificed nonhuman animals of the temple system. He incarnates as a human being, yes. But in that cosmic moment, he is “the other animal.” Furthermore, by overturning the sacrificial system that destroyed countless nonhuman animals (Hebrews 9-10), Jesus liberates them from ritually bearing human sin and spares their lives. One might say that they too experience a kind of salvation through his work. Reading the Bible with other animals in mind has led me to see that God values them outside of their relationship to humanity and that they exist primarily for God’s delight. For that reason, I can no longer derive pleasure from eating a life that ultimately belongs to God when I don’t have to.
Before I ask my next question, I wanted to offer an alternative view to your earlier point about cultivating cows and chickens for food to ensure their survival. The reality is that many rescued animals are now living out of the wild andwithout the threat of slaughter thanks to farm sanctuaries across the US. There is even a new and growing chicken re-homing movement in Portland that is developing alongside increasing interest in urban farming. In this model, caretakers who come to see their hens as companions and friends (not economic or food units) are “retiring” those who can no longer lay eggs on farms where they won’t be eaten. To me, the argument that the ideal way to preserve animal species is to use their bodies for food justifies an agricultural model in which we are the powerbrokers and primary beneficiaries, and the other animals eventually lose. Although re-homing doesn’t deal with the ethical issues involved in making these hens available for urban farming in the first place, it is at least attempting a more symbiotic relationship that respects the needs, desires and lives of all the creatures involved.
Nekeisha: As I have grown in my vegan commitments, one of the things that strikes an unsettling chord for me is the use of sacrifice language in relation to killing other animals for food, particularly in instances when other sources are available. To me, phrasing like, “I thank the animal for its sacrifice” suggests a voluntary giving up of life rather than the taking of it, implies a kind of cosmic inevitability rather than a choice on the part of the human, and makes the animal an agent when s/he is really being victimized. This concerns me not only because it re-writes what is being done to the animal, but also because of the way some of the Christian tradition has used similar sacrifice motifs (particularly around the atonement) to sacralize involuntary suffering/victimization at the expense of marginalized human communities (women, people of color, etc). Can you say more about your use of sacrificial language, the role it plays in your food framework and/or what theological and biblical resources you use to support it?
Autumn: First, let me make sure we are both on the same page about my phrasing. In the comment I made on our previous exchange, the exact phrasing was, “I…recognize, value, and give thanks for the sacrifice of that animal’s life to feed my family.” This phrasing is in keeping with my understanding of what sacrifice is and the role I play in it. It has a wholly different meaning than your paraphrasing above, which would incorrectly imply a voluntary act on the part of the animal.
The literal meaning of the word sacrifice is “to make holy.” It is a word that comes to us from Latin by way of French and Middle English. Historically, “sacrifice” refers to the offering of an animal, plant, or human life, or of a material possession to a deity. It can also mean the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of a higher purpose. My environmental belief, as I have stated before, is that death is a critically important part of ecology. My spiritual belief is that death is a part of the sacred process of creation that cannot and should not be forestalled. I believe that the death of any living thing is sacred, and in particular that the death of that living thing for the purpose of feeding another living thing is a sacrifice. The sacrifice is on the part of the individual willingly and responsibly taking part in that animal’s death.
It is a cosmic inevitability that all things die and will be eaten, if not by humans then by other creatures. It is incredibly difficult to make an argument that death, and in particular death for food, was not an intended part of creation. In the first creation story, humans are instructed to eat fruit and animals are instructed to eat green food, but neither is actually prohibited from eating one another. I don’t think the absence of instructions means the presence of a prohibition. In the second creation story in Genesis, the punishment for eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is not death, but rather suffering. Death is only mentioned in a cursory way in the creation narratives – in Gen 3:19, “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” However, even if death was not a part of original life in the garden, we’re not in the garden. There are two chapters of the Bible that discuss how humans were intended to live before the eating of the fruit. The rest of the Bible is about how to live in the world as it is now. We live in a world in which animals eat other animals. We cannot both be co-creatures and equals with other animals, while at the same time denying that an inherent part of the co-creature relationship is consumption of one another.
Again, I am not arguing that the normal relationship should be what we see and experience within the industrialized food system. As I have said before, I do my damndest to limit my participation in that way in terms of all food that I eat. But I think locating judgment/blame/immorality on individual eaters who participate in the industrialized food system is problematic. We live in a capitalist economic system where close to all forms of food are commodities, and most people have to buy the food they can afford. In many poor communities, it is cheaper to eat burgers from fast food restaurants than it is to buy vegetables. That is a reality. So do I say to these people that they are behaving immorally, if they are buying what they can afford even when technically they have another choice? When any living thing is made into a commodity within the capitalist system, it can no longer be honored as sacred. That is what capitalism does. When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, he wasn’t arguing that it was animal sacrifices themselves that defiled his father’s house, but rather that the activity of making a profit from the sacrifices that defiled the temple.
Autumn: You have made the argument previously that you choose not to eat animals because you see them as biological and spiritual kin, and you recognize that they have internal lives and social relationships that deserve to be respected. When I hear this argument, I often wonder why the ethic of non-killing extends to animals and not to other forms of life. A poet I know of recently raised the question of whether humans have the right to consume anything at all, given the planetary destruction our species has been responsible for. She is not actually proposing species-suicide, but I think she raises an interesting question about how we determine what is ok to eat and what isn’t. There are many creatures – like ants and bees – who have demonstrably social relationships but are not usually afforded the same respect as co-creatures. And there is a growing body of evidence that many plants and fungi have social intelligence, that they can communicate information across vast distances, and that they respond to their environment. How do you determine what forms of life qualify as co-creatures and what forms do not?
Nekeisha: Although some animal advocates limit their compassion to particular species, consistent vegan praxis tries to respect as many creatures’ lives as possible. For this reason, veganism already includes abstaining from things like honey and silk because of the way bees, worms and moths are treated in those systems. Over time, my personal vegan practice has come to include transplanting earthworms from sidewalks to the soil; catching and releasing bugs I find at home; walking barefoot, which increases my attentiveness to the insects in my path; and being a Good Samaritan to animals who are suffering or in need. That doesn’t mean I am the Gandhi of the animal kingdom. I still haven’t figured out how to co-exist with fruit flies and mosquitoes, and as I acknowledged earlier, my food choices are not pure. But my veganism is not only about what I eat, nor is it about only showing mercy to animals with whom I relate closely. It runs much deeper and extends more broadly than that.
As I see it, veganism is not about escaping death or creatureliness—it is a posture of intentional, non-killing and compassion. Therefore, allowing other animals to break into my human sphere and responding to their needs in life-affirming ways has actually heightened my view of myself as an animal. For one thing, it makes me a conscious participant in interspecies cooperation, which is just as present in nature as predation. For another thing, such actions remind me of my human limitations and challenge my anthropocentric notions of control. For every animal I rescue and every body I don’t eat, there are billions of others I am unable to help and that I unintentionally kill. It is through living compassionately among other animals that I am compelled to see the reality of life and death on this side of glory. That is one of the reasons I contest the argument that people should kill other animals to achieve equality with them or to experience “the sacredness of life and death.” Life and death are already happening in creation, with and without our conscious participation. So although it is a cosmic inevitably that all creatures die, voluntarily killing more creatures to increase my connection to that reality is not.
In the case of plants, there are a number of ways I address that issue. First, eating plants fits my framework of differentiating between need and desire when consuming my friends. The human omnivore—including flesh eating ones—cannot survive without plant-based foods. So I don’t just eat them because I like to and want to. I eat them because they are necessary for survival. In this way, voluntary dependency on plants does not separate me from other animals: it bonds me to herbivores, other omnivores and carnivores alike. Second, we have discovered many things about plants, but I don’t think we’ve learned that they suffer. Because my view of Christian neighbor-love involves limiting cruelty, I eat plant-based foods as one way to do that. Third, killing plants is not inherent to a vegan diet in the same way killing animals is integral to flesh-eating. In fact, many plant-based foods consist of the fruit of plant labor, not the plants themselves. Admittedly, there are root vegetables that die when harvested. But I don’t think I can eat a vegan diet healthily by avoiding those foods, nor do I feel compelled to abstain from them for reasons I already stated. Finally, recent studies show that the most significant agricultural contributor to climate change is livestock production, and that includes the less cruel, less industrial alternatives. I’m not a statistician, but with 30% of the earth’s land surface already devoted to farming animals, it doesn’t seem realistic to advocate eating local, humane, grass-fed and/or hunted animals as the primary response to the coming ecological crisis or food injustice. Plant-based eating is has to enter the equation, so I’m just getting a head start.
Before closing, I want to make a few clarifying statements. First, I don’t believe Eden was a real place. My understanding of biblical scholarship is that Genesis 1-2 is making a statement about God that contrasts God’s constructive, nonviolent creative energy with the destructive, violent power of other creation accounts. Perhaps it is too strong to assert that God’s instruction to consume plants means “prohibition against predation.” But I don’t think one can argue for predation based on scriptural silence, especially in light of the text’s purpose.
While it is true that we are not living in the first two books of the Bible, we are also not living pre-crucifixion and pre-resurrection either. I believe that Jesus gives us a model for loving sacrifice that undercuts the need to make oneself holy through the killing of disempowered, blameless others. Instead, he exemplifies the sacrifice of Micah 6:8 in his life, chooses to lay down his life for all creation, and liberates us from bondage to death-dealing power and sin in his rising. Jesus breaks the closed life-death loop such that the story ultimately ends with life. So my anarchism, pacifism, and veganism extend from a desire to live into that Christological narrative and to live out the grace that is already present in nature alongside predation.
Finally, I want to be clear that I don’t judge economically oppressed people for the food conditions they are in. I locate that blame with the racism, sexism and other “isms” that create food injustice and instability. At the same time, I also don’t hold a fatalistic view that people in low-income situations must only live with the false choices of cheap, unhealthy fast-food and cheap, unhealthy meat from the supermarket. Our Kitchen Table is one non-vegan organization in Michigan whose model of teaching women to cultivate homegrown, organic, edible plant-based networks has increased food security for families and neighborhoods in the midst of a “food dessert.” Plant-based backyard, kitchen, container and community gardens are very affordable and effective ways to lessen reliance on poisonous food systems. They also demand less land and other resources from the poor than hunting and/or sustainably farming animals.
Nekeisha: My final question has been the hardest to articulate, not only because it is the last in what has been an amazing process, but primarily because the question I have could be taken as rhetorical or unfair when it really is a genuine attempt to understand what you mean and how you work with the implications. One of the things you said above is, “My spiritual believe is that death is a part of the sacred process of creation and should not be forestalled.” What I have been struggling to understand and feel compelled to ask in light of that statement is if death should not be obstructed or intercepted, and if doing so in some way violates a sacred process, then what grounds are there to resist war and violence between human animals, or to prevent ecological degradation that destroys all creaturely life, or even to prevent or cure life-threatening diseases? And related to that, if death should not be forestalled for any living creature, and individuals are made holy in the act of choosing to kill and eat others, regardless of whether the animals are willing participants, then what becomes the rationale for excluding human animals from consuming one another? I guess the question I am trying to get at behind these questions is do you apply this spiritual belief equally across species, and if not, how do you determine whose death should and shouldn’t be forestalled without reinforcing a speciesist human-animal divide?
Autumn: I totally hear your concern in the framing of this question, but I feel like this is actually fairly simple for me to answer. I distinguish between the nature of death, and the manner in which things die. I feel very strongly that death in and of itself is not wrong or evil. It is natural, an intended part of creation.
It is the manner of death that is often problematic, both for humans and animals. When death comes to animals thru a factory farming system, when they die for food en masse, after spending their short lives in a drug induced stupor designed to fatten them and destroy their natural instincts, after being denied a real life – that is evil. When death comes for humans through war, degradation, torture, and the death penalty—that is evil. The issue is that the manner of death is exploiting life for a wrongful purpose. It is the exploitative, disrespectful, and sometimes heretical situations that result in death that I find disturbing and wasteful.
When death comes naturally for humans, as it did for my grandfather this past summer, when he died surrounded and held by his wife and five of his children, on the same land where he was born, I think that is a sacred passing. It is not tragic at all. When it comes for animals after being bred and cared for by responsible working people, or being killed in the wild by a hunter, and that death is for the purpose of feeding and sustaining others, who chose to eat that food in full knowing of who they are eating and how it arrived on the table, that is a sacred passing.
I also want to clarify that my understanding of sacrifice is that the act of sacrifice makes the thing that is being sacrificed holy, not the individual or group doing the sacrificing. That feels like a pretty important distinction to me. Although there is certainly an argument to be made that from the perspective of the biblical narrative, both are true.
In the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is a sacrifice of bread and wine, which in the moment of sacrifice on the altar is transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. And that is what we are consuming. In a way, I agree with your earlier statement that Jesus identifies himself most strongly with the sacrificial lamb. But then he instructs us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, so again, I think it becomes difficult to read a prohibition against consuming the flesh of animals into this story. Like most of the biblical narrative, animal rights simply isn’t what the storytellers are up to. Our contemporary politics and values are not present in stories that represent an entirely different worldview, food system, and relationship to animal life. I am certain that many of the biblical narratives urge us to respect life and recognize all life forms as precious to God. I have not yet seen a passage that clearly states that we should not eat animals because those lives are precious to God, or even because it causes them suffering and death. God doesn’t seem to be all that scandalized by creation’s suffering and death. God became human to experience it, and promises an end to it when we enter the kingdom, but it seems that suffering and death are part and parcel with the creaturely experience.
So there is an ethical argument to be made against industrialized forms of acquiring meat that take no account of human and animal suffering caused in the process. But I don’t believe that that ethical argument can be made based on the values and worldview of the Hebrew Bible or the life and teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. I want to reiterate my earlier point that the human suffering is just as real of an ethical issue in this system. One reader didn’t take the idea too seriously, reframing it as a worker’s rights issue, but I think human slavery in the food system happening right here in our country calls for our attention and responsible action just as strongly as animal slavery.
I want to close by affirming how awesome it has been to do this exchange with you, Nekeisha! It is so rare for two people who have “polarized” views on food (or any issue) to engage in sustained, respectful dialogue motivated by genuine curiosity and grounded in a clear purpose. Thank you for being a part of this conversation with me, and thanks to all of the folks who have read the exchange for giving your attention to these issues!
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Nekeisha Alayna Alexis
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