A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals edited by Andy Alexis-Baker and Tripp York, The Peacable Kingdom Series. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012.
A couple months ago, the church I attend held a men’s barbecue event. I can’t remember exactly what was cooked, but it was something that required hours on the grill. The gathering’s host saw this extended time as an opportunity for fellowship. I don’t doubt his good intentions or his generous spirit. However, my husband (who keeps a vegan diet) felt alienated by the event, and we were both troubled and saddened by the deeper implications present. The idea that somehow consuming the flesh of another creature reinforces and bonds masculinity is troubling, as is the fact that a church that has a consistent nonviolent history is still so wedded to traditional dietary practices that are steeped in environmental and intersubjective violence. Yet, we remained silent. It can be difficult to broach this issue because it encroaches normal thinking and behavior and engages people in their own complicity with systems that utilize sexism, racism, speciesism, violence, power, and oppression. I am pleased that a book like A Faith Embracing All Creatures is now available to assist in bridging this divide, offering some assistance, and hopefully beginning some conversations grounded in love and compassion.
This book is an excellent, comprehensive theological examination of the place of nonhuman animals within creation, and the extension of Christian nonviolence to all of creation. All chapters, with the exception of one, are titled with a question. Readers are likely to have encountered these questions from others or asked them themselves. The chapter titles are handy in case a reader wants to key in on a specific issue. If the reader is interested in a more comprehensive reading, the book is laid out in a way that builds upon itself well. Where the first half of the book focuses primarily on Old and New Testament scriptural interpretation, the second half breathes a bit more, and is more expansive in its exploration. By injecting philosophy, political science, biology, and spiritual practice into a varied theological framework, the book is able to become greater than the sum of its parts.
Malinda Elizabeth Berry’s chapter, “What about Animal Sacrifice in the Hebrew Scriptures?” examines the relational function that animal sacrifice served within its historical and theological context, and how it illuminates systems of violence. This chapter left me fruitfully musing on ideas beyond the boundaries of the issues presented within the essay itself.
While the book’s authors are united in their opposition to the view that nonhuman animals are created exclusively for human use, Berry sees it as a central component to understanding the ancient Hebrews’ use of animals in sacrificial ritual. Her openness to a deeper understanding of these agents within their historical context allows for an honest and enlightened assessment of a difficult topic. Further, I found her meditation on the three levels of personal, structural, and predatory violence present in sacrifice to be extremely compelling. In defining the levels, she states that, “an example of structural violence is the instrumentalist view of nonhuman animals in which violence is woven into the fabric of religious life, making is impossible to have moral integrity without participating in a structure that raises animals to kill them as a part of worship” (p. 31) This keen observation can easily be transferred onto how we view sacrifice in our own culture, especially as it applies to religion, nationalism, and militarism. Berry then identifies predatory violence (stemming from the fear of the Other), as key to the creation of relational distortions, which in turn contribute to systemic violence. This is crucial to understanding not only the oppression and exploitation of nonhuman animals, but of other humans.
Berry concludes with the events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion, and reads them metaphorically. As Jesus is being sought in a predatory manner, just as prey is sought by big-game hunters or wolves that have broken into a sheep pen, he resists predatory violence, and “it is in his resurrection that Jesus challenges this pattern of the stronger overcoming the weaker. He overcomes the personal, structural, and predatory violence of his death” (p. 37). In Jesus’s death and resurrection, he has completed the sacrificial narrative, calling us to “serve a community full of plants and creatures—human and nonhuman.”
To mend distorted relationships and reduce violence, we have to reflect on our own complicity in suffering. In chapter eleven, “Are We Addicted to the Suffering of Animals?”, John Berkman explores the factory farming system’s abuse of pigs in parallel with dogfighting’s abuse of dogs, which most people find morally indefensible. This chapter highlights our culture’s ethical contradictions where one act is illegal and the other is not only legal, but encouraged by a market place hungry for cheap meat. The crux of Berkman’s moral investigation lies not with those who commit and profit from these acts of abuse, but with consumer complicity. Using the Catholic moral tradition’s idea of cooperation with wrongdoing, Berkman claims that, “Christians have a particular obligation not to cooperate with the wrong of factory farming, not only out of respect for God’s laws, but also because such participation, once recognized and understood, corrodes their character and undermines their ability to criticize or resist other kinds of evils” (p. 127).
While the theological and philosophical treatises in the book are thoughtful and necessary, this visceral essay is vital. Berkman describes the horrific living conditions and tortuous deaths these beautiful, intelligent creatures undergo at our hands. Through a well-financed, heavily-legislated system of protection, industrial farming operations are able to engage in egregious animal abuse far from most people’s view and awareness. By bringing these hidden evils to light, Berkman places the reader in a position where they are faced with the very real predicament of whether or not to cooperate with wrongdoing. Here the rubber meets the road, as it were. Although challenging, I think Berkman’s essay is one of the book’s most important chapters.
Whether a person is still discerning about their relationship with other animals or already maintaining a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle, how does one remain faithful to that decision while living among others who haven’t made a similar choice? Addressing this common issue, Laura Hobgood-Oster writes about radical hospitality in chapter seven. Living in community with others requires us to consider everyone’s needs and safety, particularly those considered “the least” among us. Going a step further, she concludes that hospitality should include all creatures, especially “in an increasingly interconnected world, marked by a period of massive extinction of species” (p. 85). Eliminating animal products from the table—an abundant, suffering-free table—extends this hospitality. Beyond this, Hobgood-Oster explores other issues around a lived Christian hospitality, such as whether, in the name of hospitality, a vegan should eat animal flesh at another person’s table (spoiler alert: she gives reasons that we should not). This chapter is very helpful for those of us wrestling with how our ethical choices affect our relationships with other people, and how we accept and extend hospitality in love.
This book has many strengths. I am pleased that the editors sought gender, racial, and cultural diversity in the contributors. Half of the authors are women, three of whom are women of color. This offers a robust theological vision, throughout. I am disappointed, however, that this did not produce any theological exploration of gendered language and how it translates into lived hierarchies of power and exploitation that directly lead to the distorted relationships and multiple layers of violence that Berry so eloquently writes about. Closely related issues were explored in many chapters. For example, Pelle Strindlund and Annika Spalde deal with racism and speciesism within their chapter on Jesus and pigs. Yet the connection between speciesism and sexism was never directly addressed. I found this surprising, because one of the contributors is Carol J. Adams, who wrote the seminal work The Sexual Politics of Meat on the intersection of sexism and speciesism. While I don’t expect Adams to always contribute on this specific topic, the topic needs to be addressed, especially within the context of a book that addresses common questions in an accessible manner and could be the only book on this topic some people ever read. Sexism is woven into the fabric of our rituals, theologies, and communities, and is directly related to the oppression of nonhuman animals and the environment: women’s and animals’ bodies alike get reduced from their created goodness to commodities, and sexist language often undergirds the oppression and violence we seek to end. It is clear the authors of this book want to move towards an egalitarian ideal that is extended to nonhuman animals, but I would like to have seen somebody specifically deal with this topic.
Nevertheless, this book is a valuable addition to the literature on animal welfare and Christianity. The target audiences—Christians who want to engage scripturally with others around this issue; flesh-eating Christians who want to expand their theological understanding of nonhuman animals; and animal advocates who see the Bible as a tool for domination and oppression, for they may find that the opposite is true—will all find something challenging. While there are a few titles available that look at animal ethics through a Christian lens, this is the first one I have seen that approaches the topic with such depth.