Book Review: A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals

December 31, 2012Katherine Annemarie

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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.

  • Nekeisha

    Thanks for a great and thorough review, Katherine. Your affirmations as well as your challenge is much appreciated. :)

  • http://www.jesusradicals.com/ Andy A-B

    From Cascade: For a limited time, purchase A Faith Embracing All Creatures on our website and receive a 40% discount off the retail price by entering the following coupon code at checkout. For all other titles enjoy our
    standard web discount of 20% off the retail price.

    CREATURES

    Offer Expires: 1/20/2013

    Read an Excerpt: http://library.constantcontact.com/download/get/file/1100961166233-688/York_Excerpt.pdf

  • Kathryn Price

    Towards the end of my internship at a local church, I was asked to give the blessing before a potluck meal. I found it difficult because of the suffering I knew the animals on that table had endured. It felt dishonest to me to ask for a blessing on our table and fellowship. I have tried to consider this problem from a hospitality angle — of being hospitable towards the offerings of all who bring food, regardless of what they bring. But I do not think I can bless such tables in the future. I wrote a poem called, “Sacred Heart Table,” that questions what we are doing when we bless some foods — writing off with a few words the hours of suffering in factory farms and then cruel transport and slaughter as if this is grace? I appreciate Hobgood-Oster’s assertion that hospitality should include all creatures. And I appreciate the review of this book.

    • http://www.jesusradicals.com/ Andy A-B

      We’d love to post your poem. Geez Magazine accepts poetry submissions as well.

      • Kathryn Price

        Andy, thanks. I’ll submit the poem as time allows (maybe this weekend). I want to look it over to see if it needs a bit of revision here or there. I’m currently taking a concentrated Winter Term course in The Theology and Spirituality of Nonviolence. The workload is a term’s worth packed into three weeks… so of course I have spent some time stopping by Jesus Radicals and other sites for a break and some good reading, and/or some good procrastinating strategies!

    • Nekeisha

      The grace before the meal where bodies are present (and yet also absent) is often the most uncomfortable part for me as a Christian who is vegan out of a commitment to compassion and resisting oppression (among other things.) The grace I say before my vegan meals usually includes some variation of “Thank you [God] for the grace that we extend from our plates and the grace that you extend to us in Jesus.”

      • Kathryn Price

        Nekeisha, that seems like a good way of naming grace around a meal, extending grace from our plates and receiving the grace extended to us in Jesus. Thanks.

  • http://www.jesusradicals.com/ Andy A-B

    For Swedish speakers: Pelle Strindlund talks about the book in this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gXJH79xVjw

  • Frank

    So, if I choose to “break bread” with other Christians it can only be a meal of, “bread” (plant matter). No steak and potatoes, just plankton and lemon rinds?

    I am a Christian, not a Jain or a Hindu. I do not say this to mock these religions (my over-arching metaphysical perspective is perennialist/traditionalist) but because their ethic about eating animals is far closer to a vegan or vegetarian ethic than anything traditionally Christian. Though I should mention that for members of Dharmic religions they do not avoid eating flesh because of “sentimental” reasons, but rather because it is just another attachment to this world – they would also not want to have any emotional investment in the living animal as that is also an attachment to this world.

    I understand fully that from an environmental perspective our modern factory farming system has distorted meat production, but then again it has also distorted the production of plant food.

    In a pre-fossil fuel setting whether or not it is good to eat animals (from a strictly environmental perspective) would depend on the particular situation. From the Christian perspective, it doesn’t really matter. If I am a farmer and I have waste food that I feed to pigs, then I slaughter the pigs and eat them, this is acceptable. One says grace, and sincerely thanks God for the food, and all is well.

  • Chris Petruzzi

    I believe that the Bible tells us to be kind to animals, and I support anyone who chooses to be a vegan. Nonetheless, I believe that not eating animal flesh cannot make someone more Christian. Jesus prepared and ate fish after the resurrection. God told Peter to “kill and eat” all four legged animals, reptiles, etc. No one can be more Christian than Jesus, nor can anyone out do the commands of God. it is an error to even try to do so. It repeats the error of the Jews who tried to go beyond the instructions of God with their traditions, while failing to keep what was important.

    • Kathryn Price

      For me it’s not about trying to be “more Christian” or about a legalistic sense of what I can or cannot do. It is about being compassionate and exercising moral responsibility and refusing to support systems that are, in quite hideous ways, not kind to animals.

      • Chris Petruzzi

        I agree with you “about being compassionate and exercising moral responsibility and
        refusing to support systems that are, in quite hideous ways, not kind to
        animals” The question, however, is what constitutes unkindness to animals. I fish and eat the fish I catch. Three of Jesus’ miracles involved telling Peter where or how how to catch fish. Consequently, I do not see how there is anything reprehensible about fishing and eating fish. Would you agree with that application?

        • Kathryn Price

          Chris, reprehensible is a strong word and I would not label your actions as such. However, how does one determine what is kind to animals? From whose point of view? I don’t think the kindness frame goes far enough. From the book review it seems that the what is under consideration here is extending nonviolence to all of creation. For advocates of nonviolence, can there be an immediate and arbitrary line drawn when it comes to animals, who are not considered at all? Some scriptures indicate that all of creation longs for reconciliation.

          • Chris Petruzzi

            ” how does one determine what is kind to animals” As in all matters, read Scriptures and follow the example of Jesus.

          • Kathryn Price

            I am looking at some resources that indicate vegetarianism among groups of early Christians and perhaps Jesus — texts that didn’t make it into the canon — and that indicate Jesus may have been objecting to animal sacrifice when he drove the money changers out of the Temple. But regardless, I think that to say that all we need to do is follow the example of Jesus can be a cop-out. I don’t believe that Jesus’ role was merely to be an example or to demonstrate a program to follow. I think he asked us to start thinking with our hearts and our imaginations, to bring into being “God with us.” What would Jesus say about factory farms?

          • Chris Petruzzi

            I believe in the validity of the texts which are part of the Bible and, cosequently, I believe that any text which contradicts the Bible is incorrect and probably evil. The Bible states in no uncertain terms that Jesus ate fish. Any text which says that Jesus was a vegetarian should therefore be strongly rejected.
            I would infer fromJesus teachings that he is opposed to any unnecesary cruelty to animals, but God’s mesage to Peter makes it clear that we should “kill and eat”. This does not mean that it is wrong for an individual to choose to be a vegetarian, just as it is not wrong for an individual to choose to eat meat. If factory farms have unnecessary cruelty to animals, then I believe that Jesus opposes them.

          • Kathryn Price

            Regarding Peter’s vision, “While Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision,” subsequent events showed him its meaning: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” There was controversy in the early church over whether Gentile believers had to conform to Jewish practices, such as circumcision and dietary laws. When the Holy Spirit fell on even the uncircumcised believers, all were amazed. That was the meaning of Peter’s vision, that the Holy Spirit was given to those formerly considered unclean.

            And to clarify again: my concern is not about a notion of personal purity, it is about the animals and their concerns and about nonviolence towards all of creation. As for texts outside the canon, why should they be considered evil? The canon itself didn’t exist during the time of these groups. I do not consider their practices and their writings evil; they were simply trying to live out their understandings of the way of Jesus. The canon came later, and there are variations on what constitutes it.

          • Chris Petruzzi

            Every word in Scripture is important and, as you say, part of the meaning of Peter’s dream was that we do not need to follow dietary laws.
            Texts outside of canon are evil if they contradict Canon. Luke 24: 42-43 states that the disciples gave Jesus a piece of boiled fish and He ate it. A text that states that Jesus was a vegetarian is, by implication saying that Luke 24 is false. Since the statement that Jesus ate the fish was part of the demonstration that Jesus had a bodily resurrection, the contradictory text is saying that Luke’s statement showing this is a lie. It has the implication that Luke lied to demonstrate bodily resurrection, so it becomes reasonable to infer that this resurrection did not take place. It calls into question the entire Gospel. It would make Christians, as Paul states, the worst of fools.

            This is not something on which I should try to mince words. The text stating that Jesus was a vegetarian is evil.

          • Kathryn Price

            We’re getting off topic here, but I disagree on whether contradictory texts are evil. As I’ve stated, those communities may not have had those texts yet. The Bible and the gospels contain contradictions so by that definition, the Bible would be evil. I don’t worship the canon and it is my responsibility to try to understand and live out the way of Jesus in my time as well as understand it in the first century context.

          • Chris Petruzzi

            I know of no contradictions in the Bible. I have participated in numerous debates with atheists over this issue. Certainly there are interpretations which some readers make of some passages which contradict their interpretations of other passages. My way of reading the Bible, however, is that when there is ambiguity in a passage, the passage should be interpreted in the way which does not contradict other passages. I think that makes sense. it is simply the respect which any reasonable reader or listener would normally give to another person. Rather than look for a contradiction, you make the interpretation which does not contradict.
            Following that has not required that I make any stretch of language beyond what is made in normal conversation and reading.

          • Kathryn Price

            I take it as multiple voices over the centuries of their experiences of God, voices that can’t always be summarily coordinated, not a how to manual or a set of propositions. Taken as the latter, you can eat boiled fish, bread and wine, but nothing else, since that’s what the scriptures show that Jesus ate.

            What do these many stories point towards? In regard to animals, what were our first relations with them? Initially we didn’t eat them, according to Genesis. Isaiah anticipates a world where all beings are in harmony. One could look at the issue in those scriptural terms as well.

          • Chris Petruzzi

            I agree that Scriptures are multiple voices over centuries, but I also believe that the Holy Spirit has coordinated and even directed what they said and wrote. I suspect that Isaiah, for example, did not understand some of the things that he said.

            While I know that Jesus consumed boiled fish, wine, and bread, I suspect that he consumed other foods as well. Either way, I am not limited to eating only what Jesus ate. Jesus probably never had potatoes, but there is no reason to not eat those.

            I agree with you that “Isaiah anticipates a world where all beings are in harmony”, and, since the lion will lie down with the lamb, lions will not be carnivores in this world. While I generally do not agree with the dispensationalists who apply different parts of the Bible only to different periods, I do believe that lions need meat today.

          • Kathryn Price

            Frankly, then, I wish the Holy Spirit would have aimed for more clarity. Unless clarity is not the point. It is true that Isaiah’s assertion that “they will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain” goes unrealized daily, but that doesn’t mean we just go ahead with the unrealized program instead of aiming to bring the vision about, beginning with our part in it.

          • rdhudgens
          • Kathryn Price

            Ric, yes, that’s about right! We all just have to agree on which parts are the parts for then and which parts are the parts for now and then we will all agree! Or something like that!

          • Chris Petruzzi

            I have hypothesized that Paul could have written one more letter with under 1000 words to resolve all of the important differences between our Christian denominations (infant baptism, military service, etc.). Why did he not write that letter?
            Possibly it is to give us a better opportunity to show what is more important: our love for each other. With that in mind, I hope that you foregive me if any of my discourse on this blog was too harsh and accept that I feel genuine love for you as a Christian believer.

          • Kathryn Price

            Chris, I have not considered your discourse too harsh at all. On the contrary, I thought it was kind and respectful. Likewise, I hope mine has not been overly sharp; I tend to speak in a straightforward way when that might seem inappropriate for religious discussion; but since my journey back to God started with this challenge to God: “I have had it with you. I am ready to take you on” — I figure God isn’t exactly surprised by my questions. One of my professors told me that challenging God is actually pretty classic in the Hebrew tradition. And I do believe God considered it an invitation and took me up on it. I ended up in seminary!

            I appreciate your thoughts and I believe that you do feel love for me as a Christian believer, as I do for you. The clarity issue — sometimes I wonder if that’s what it is even about. Clarity, or truth with a capital T… I wonder if we’re supposed to struggle or wrestle with these texts and with our own journeys, as the biblical characters did.

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