By: Kyle Sumner
According to traditional Christian thought, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus lays out a framework of sacrificial love for both God and neighbor. The Gospels of the New Testament are centered on the idea of a God who forsook Heaven to dwell among and restore a fallen creation. Rather than using power to rule in a top-down fashion, God took the form of a servant and chose to embrace the brokenness of the world. Biblical restoration, in essence, starts from the bottom up. This view of the biblical narrative supports a theology of liberation that has influenced black, feminist, womanist, and queer theologies in recent history. This view of a Messiah who stands in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized has provided a foundation for many human rights campaigns and social justice issues, but many theologians who claim to be motivated by a God of liberation have largely glazed over issues of animal exploitation. This lack of concern for the non-human animal world has caused me to ask quite a few questions: Are animals to be considered fellow Creatures deserving of respect? Does a faith that is rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus demand of us a new way of living in relation to non-human animals? Is it possible for one to consider ones self on the side of the oppressed if they consume the flesh of those they seek to liberate? In order to answer these questions we must first look at Jesus’ unique relationship with food.
When Jesus came eating and drinking with the sinners and the tax collectors, his radical notion of inclusion shocked the individuals who had long awaited his arrival (NRSV, Mt. 11, Lk. 7). History lends us to believe that eating a meal with one’s neighbor was as much of a social event then as it is today. Not unlike our views of class and social status in the twenty-first century, a first-century Jew was often defined by whom and in what circumstances one chose to dine with (Feeley-Harnik, 72). Jesus’ association with the socially unacceptable around the meal was an extension of the good news that he proclaimed. Gillian Freeley-Harnik goes as far as to suggests that most of his disciples did not understand what he was saying until he finally spoke to them through his actions that revolved around food (Feeley-Harnik, 167). When Jesus chose to eat with those who were actively being oppressed by religious communities of that time, he was intentionally redefining what it meant for one to dine with one another. Jesus used the table as a means of breaking down barriers that had been constructed by oppressive systems of power at the time. His use of food served as a means of common ground to establish a community of love and inclusion. Based on this understanding of Jesus’ interaction with the meal, we begin to see that if one is to model their life on the actions and teaching of Jesus, one must construct an ethic that is based on who one chooses to associate with. I would press even further to argue that there are also ethical implications revolving around what one chooses to eat. Jesus sets an example of power that is not used to assert dominance over others of a different race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation, but rather a power that empowers. This power is reserved for the oppressed, the abused, and the marginalized. This standard of radical inclusion and love that Jesus expresses around the meal extends to both those we consider our neighbor, and to those who we consider our enemy (NRSV, Mt. 5:43). What does this mean for the non-human animals that we find dismembered on our plate while we sit at the very table that Jesus used to define what it meant to love our neighbor?
Neighborly love is a commonality among people throughout the Christian tradition, but it is difficult for many to comprehend the introduction of theological evidence that suggests that it is practical to extend this same love to the non-human world. When issues of animal exploitation are brought into light, however, perspective allows individuals to better grasp the ethical implications that this issue has on an individual’s faith. Humans have flourished on the exploitation of animals for hundreds of years, buying and selling their bodies for food, clothing, and experimentation, thus allowing us to grow insensitive to the fact that they are also creatures created by the Creator God. Carol Adams suggests that this absent referent separates those who consume flesh from the animal, and the animal from the end product (Adams, 13). This functions as a way to, ”keep our ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep the “moo” or “cluck” or “baa” away from the meat, to keep something from being seen as having been someone” (Adams, 13). This suppression of the reality of these issues allows individuals to justify horrific acts of violence and shape their theology accordingly in order to prevent a change in tradition. When addressing issues of animal rights through a Christological lens, much like issues involving the rights of humans, we see that a valid theology must be rooted in a Christ-like love. This makes it an incredibly hard task to shape one’s theology around an ideology that exploits and suppresses the rights of non-human animals.
With industrial agriculture on the rise after World War II, technology allowed for the production of meat to increase in incredible proportion. Animals moved from pastures and barns into highly sophisticated sheds and feed lots where vitamins, growth hormones, and antibiotics boosted their growth rate (Roberts, 5). The focus on quantity rather than quality reduced the significance of the life of an animal into a commodity. This shift in the way animals were viewed has allowed for tremendous violence to be deemed acceptable in the name of profit. There are many instances of violence directed towards animals in the meat, dairy, and egg industry, but for the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the inhumane treatment within the pig industry. 90 percent of the pigs that end up on our plates spend the majority of their lives within cages of steel and concrete that allow them little to no room to move or turn around (Singer, 46). These intensive hog production facilities are referred to as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which often hold thousands of hogs at a time (Cole, 225). Inside, mother pigs are forced to reproduce. Nursing is kept to a minimum, as nursing would prevent the sow from becoming pregnant, which would ultimately decrease productivity (Singer, 50). Teeth clipping and tail docking are common procedures that piglets endure just after birth with little to no anesthetics to prevent them from biting and chewing on each other’s tails, a phenomenon that does not happen outside of confinement (singer, 50). In 2000, a group of researchers set out to study the effects that these CAFOs had on the local environment. What they found was astonishing. When studying a hog production facility in North Carolina, researchers found that slurry, or waste runoff from these feeding operations, threatened the health and quality of life for individuals who lived nearby (Cole, 225). The inherent health risks associated with the ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, endotoxins, and other volatile organic compounds that are released into the air show us a connection between the abuse and mistreatment of animals with cases of environmental racism. After examining the approximately 2,500 CAFOs in North Carolina in relation to levels of poverty, and race, the research concluded that the facilities are disproportionately located in communities with higher levels of poverty, and in areas that had higher proportions of nonwhite persons (Cole, 229). This research allows us to have a greater understanding of the depth of a problem that is uniquely connected to many other systems of violence.
It is adequate to say that if we are to challenge the systems of oppression inflicted on one group of individuals, it seems mandatory for us to understand the relationship that all forms of violence have with one another. In doing so, we find that the oppression of human and non-human animals are deeply related, and to regard violence as a means of treason against one is to do the same for the other. What does this mean then for a faith that is based on the example set by a first-century Jewish messiah who used the meal to set an example of inclusion and love? An example of love that extended beyond one’s friends and family and actively considered the rights of the underprivileged demands for us to reconsider what and who we eat, and to extend the same basic rights to the rest of creation.
Accepting a theology that grants rights to animals does not mean that one must deny that there are differences between the animal world and the human world. Throughout both the old and New Testament we find that humans are made in the likeness of God (NRSV, Gen. 1:26-27). For many, this ultimately infers a value that holds humankind above the rest of creation. In order to understand what it means to be created in the image of our Creator, it is implicit that one reflects on the essence of who God is. God as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, along with the concept of sacrifice and humility, are perennial themes throughout scripture. A greater understanding of God’s rule over creation is important for us to understand what it means for mankind to reflect God’s rule amidst God’s creation. Stanley Hauerwas tells us that, “ At most, the concept of dominion can only mean that God has chosen humanity to be an image of God’s own rule in the world…Christians must not understand “image of God” to be based on any metaphysical or morphological difference between humans and other animals but must reconceive “image of God” in terms of the particular purposes that God assigns to humans (Berkman, 205).” A purpose that gives humanity the opportunity to reflect Gods Kingdom through loving and serving all of God’s creation.
The framework of love constructed by Jesus and his disciples challenged the systems of power that existed at the time. Radical notions of neighborly love, caring for the poor, and calling others to tag along made others feel uncomfortable. People do not like change, I do not like change, but Jesus shows us that pushing our boundaries and extending compassion to others is life giving. Christians can no longer hide and ignore cruelty directed towards non-human animals. We must question the systems of abuse that we support in having flesh on their plates. To consume the flesh of non-human animals suggests a lack of consideration for the sanctity of all life. Both human and non-human lives are affected by one’s choice to eat the bodies of animals. If we are to seriously consider what it means to follow Christ in light of the abuse and eventual death of billions of animals a year, a massive shift in the way we view food should be considered. Jesus portrayed the meal as a means of ushering in the Kingdom of God and building community. In order to effectively do this today, cruelty must be taken off the menu.
Adams, Carol. 1990. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory
Berkman, John,. Hauerwas, Stanley. The Chief End of All Flesh
Roberts, Paul. 2009. The End of Food
Cole, Dana., Grant, Gary., Wing, Steve. 2000. Environmental Injustice in North Carolina’s Hog Industry, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 108, No. 3, pp. 225-231
Feeley-Harnik, Gillian. 1981. The Lord’s Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity
Singer, Peter. 2006. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version, Fourth Edition, 2010
Kyle Sumner is a co-founder of The Christian Vegan Podcast. He is currently pursuing a Masters of Arts degree in Social Justice and Ethics at ILIFF School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. His main interests are in practical theology, animal liberation, and environmental ethics.
The viewpoints expressed in each reader-submitted article are the authors own, and not an “official Jesus Radicals” position. For more on our editorial policies, visit our submissions page. If you want to contact an author or you have questions, suggestions, or concerns, please contact us.
Nekeisha Alayna Alexis
Liza Minno Bloom
Eda Ruhiye Uca