In my new book, Burger, released on 8th March, I take a skeptic’s view of the hamburger.
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is raising eyebrows with its new commercial, as Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell portrays a priest hearing the confession of a meat industry marketing executive in a video entitled Redemption. Watch the full advert below:
In this advert, the meat industry executive enters a church confessional booth and tells Cromwell’s priest that he is seeking forgiveness for “lying to the world”. The executive claims to be responsible for inventing euphemisms such as “free-range”, “all natural”, “sustainable” and “humanely killed” in order to cast a veil over the cruel and horrific realities of the meat industry. He says to the priest:
I have pretty much tricked millions of people into believing that the animals they eat all lived good lives, didn’t suffer or die a bloody horrific death. But to be fair, those people all want to believe what I am telling them because everyone wants to feel good about where their food comes from.”
Concluding his confession, the executive, seeking absolution, asks what penance he is to pay. Yet Cromwell’s priest, shocked and disgusted, responds by saying there is no penance because there can be no forgiveness for what he has done.
Redemption’ highlights the plight of animals who are violently killed, and it encourages meat-eaters to forsake the ‘humane meat’ myth, go vegan, and sin no more.”
– (PETA US Senior Vice President, Lisa Lange)
Despite its powerful message that the cruel realities of the meat industry can be concealed through some sly marketing tactics, for a faith audience, is this advert merely a secular organisation’s imposition of secular beliefs? Since we know that God does forgive the sins of the repentant, can we not dismiss James Cromwell’s priest as wrong and this advert’s message as theologically irrelevant to Christians? After all, we answer directly to God not PETA! Yet, it is in the fact that God does offer forgiveness that this advert compels us to look deeper, not away.
In the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix, the main character Neo is offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill by rebel leader Morpheus. Should Neo choose the red pill, it would free him from the enslaving control of the Matrix, a manipulative but comfortable and alluring dream world, and allow him to experience reality, with all its hardships and challenges. On the other hand, in choosing the blue pill Neo would stay in the snug, simulated delusion of the Matrix. Explaining to Neo that the Matrix is an illusory world created to prevent humans from discovering that they are slaves to an external influence, Morpheus holds out a capsule on each of his palms:
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”
There is something distinctively Christian about taking the red pill; the act of choosing the adversity and the brutal truth of reality over the blissful ignorance of illusion. Indeed 1500 years before The Matrix, St Augustine wrote that true freedom is not about being able to do anything you want regardless of consequences. Rather, Augustine explains in The City of God, that true freedom is discovered in becoming the person God intended us to be; liberated from all the compulsions that force us to live in ways that go against our deepest being and true identity:
He that is kind is free, though he is a slave; he that is evil is a slave, though he be a king.”
Nonetheless, when it comes to the food on our plates, the desire to embrace knowledge and mental freedom can wane before the temptation of a comfortable life. Indeed, when sitting down to dinner, the assuaging thought that “well, it had a good life, was sustainably sourced and humanely slaughtered” can seem much more palatable than the reality that one’s food was once an animal that was mutilated without painkillers, had her young snatched away on the same day as their birth, was kept and transported in crowded, filthy conditions before being hung upside down to have her throat cut, possibility while still conscious and aware of her impending death.
To consider the terrible suffering inflicted upon animals within the meat industry leads to the even more unsettling notion that we, through our lifestyle choices and for the sake of gastronomic whim, are supporting this suffering. Rather than experiencing the guilt of our participation in this suffering, surely it’s much easier to swallow a blue pill before each meal?
But there is a red pill available which we can choose to take; the promise of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness, which is freely available to all who express remorse and wish to bring about lasting change in their lives, can lead to liberation for animals and humans alike.
In withdrawing our support of the cruel treatment and slaughter of God’s creatures, they can enjoy the freedom from bondage brought by His forgiveness (Romans 8:21). That is to say, the freedom to be their true selves; each praising God according to their kind.
For humanity, we need not fear facing our past actions and considering their impact on others. For the promise of forgiveness unburdens us from the anxiety of knowing about the horrors of the meat industry and transforms our guilt into hope. The hope that in overcoming our fear of the truth and changing the direction of our lives, we can discover the freedom to become our true selves; reflecting God’s love and compassion through our actions and on our plates.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
– (John 8:32)
Dr Simon Kittle, researcher in philosophy at the University of Innsbruck, explores relational theology; the idea that love and relationships are central to understanding God, His creatures and how we are to relate to others.
Relational theology takes seriously the idea that God is love, and that because love requires relationship, relationship is central to who God is and how God operates. Dr Thomas Jay Oord, theologian and lecturer at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, says that two ideas can be seen as essential to any relational theology:
- God affects creatures in various ways. Instead of being aloof and detached, God is active and involved in relationship with others. God relates to us, and that makes an essential difference.
- Creatures affect God in various ways. While God’s nature is unchanging, creatures influence the loving and living Creator of the universe. We relate to God, and creation makes a difference to God (Oord 2012: 2).
Relational theology stands opposed to the Aristotelian idea – embraced by Aquinas and some Reformed Protestant writers – of an unmoved mover: a static God who is unaffected by, and not strictly speaking related to, any creature or creaturely occurrence.
By contrast, relational theology, in taking love to be one of God’s primary characteristics, envisages God as being dynamic, loving and responsive. Dr Kevin Lowery, lecturer of ethics, philosophy and theology at Olivet Nazarene University, applies this relational understanding of God to ethics:
No matter how we describe and systematise ethics …, it always aims at relationship. … Theologically speaking, ethics is relational, because God is relational. Ethics recognises the connection between our relationship with God and our relationship with one another. … Love for God and love for neighbour go hand in hand”
(Kevin Lowery 2012: 90–1).
But what is love? What is it to love? Oord, who has written several books on the subject, suggests the following:
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being”
(Oord 2010: 17).
Let’s unpack this a little. Oord uses the term ‘well-being’ to capture a number of biblical ideas: benefiting, helping, or doing good towards someone; it is meant to capture Jesus’s idea of “abundant life” (Oord 2010: 17). Oord includes the term ‘overall’ to remind us that, while it is often right to direct our love exclusively towards particular people (e.g. close family members), this should not “undercut the good of the whole”. We can’t do good to some if we are “unnecessarily unfair toward the many or the few” (Oord 2010: 19). It is in this way that justice is seen to be an aspect of love.
Oord’s definition applies most directly to the love that humans display toward God and other humans. Nevertheless, writers in this tradition have shown that the above understanding of love can provide a basis for the care of creation. Dr Sharon Harvey, author and lecturer on environmental science at the University of Idaho, writes the following:
Relational theology says that God relates to the world as one intimately connected with all creation. God is involved with the world, experiencing the world in ways like we experience it. Because nature affects God, it really matters to God’s experience”
(Harvey 2012: 114).
This provides a general basis for the care of all creation. But it is, if you like, an indirect view of the value of creation: creation is valuable, and to be valued, because God experiences how creation is treated. This basis for creation care already includes, of course, a reason to be concerned about how non-human animals are treated, for such animals are an important part of God’s creation.
Happily, relational theology has much more to offer when it comes to the care of animals. Here’s why. The central insight of relational theology is that relationships are valuable because they allow love to be expressed. But it is not just any kind of relationship that facilitates this. The relationships that relational theology takes to be central are what we often call personal relationships: relationships between two conscious people, who recognise each other’s needs, experience each other, respond to each other, communicate, and so on. This kind of relationship is qualitatively different to the way in which I might relate to the night sky, or the way in which an insurance claim relates to an accident.
Now, it is a hotly debated topic in science, philosophy and other fields, whether any non-human animals should be counted as people. The good news is we don’t need to settle that question in order to apply the insights of relational theology to the care of animals. It’s clear that many non-human animals are sentient, conscious creatures who feel things, desire things, and have rich mental and emotional lives. As experiencing subjects, non-human animals enter into relationships with each other and humans. These relationships are clearly much more like the personal relationships humans have with one another than they are to the relationship an insurance claim bears to an accident.
We could call relationships between two sentient, conscious individuals, experiential relationships. The personal relationships that we humans value so highly could then be seen as a type of experiential relationship.
Why is this important? Because the considerations that lead relational theologians to focus on personal relationships also apply to the wider category of experiential relationships. Anyone who has had, say, a pet dog, will be able to attest to the depth and quality of the relationship that we humans can have with non-human animals. Such animals can play, seek companionship, come to another’s aid, and so on. Animals, in short, have a well-being – and it can either be frustrated or promoted. Relational theologians, then, have an excellent reason to understand ‘the other’, not just as other humans, but as other sentient, experiencing creatures.
Making this move leads naturally, I think, to embracing a plant-based diet. That’s because in our current context, the vast majority of non-human animals consumed by humans are subject to horrific conditions in industrialised farming systems. Here is one example: British egg production requires around 40 million hens each year. The hens are bred in hatcheries which, having no use for the male chicks, “dispose of them” soon after hatching. Healthy, living creatures “disposed of” – killed – as if they were rubbish: 40 million per year in the UK alone. It is impossible to think that such a system promotes the flourishing or the well-being of these chicks. It exists for one reason only: to produce eggs at an extremely low price-point. The conclusion is clear: we cannot consume such eggs while also loving the chickens involved in their production; more generally, we cannot consume produce from industrialised farms while also loving the animals who are farmed to make it.
Harvey, S.R. (2012) ‘God’s Relation to Nature’, in B. Montgomery, T.J. Oord, K.S. Winslow et al. (eds.) Relational theology. A contemporary introduction.
Kevin Lowery (2012) ‘Ethics as relational’, in B. Montgomery, T.J. Oord, K.S. Winslow et al. (eds.) Relational theology. A contemporary introduction.
Oord, T.J. (2010) The nature of love: A theology . St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice Press.
Oord, T.J. (2012) ‘Introduction’, in B. Montgomery, T.J. Oord, K.S. Winslow et al. (eds.) Relational theology. A contemporary introduction.
With Veganuary in full swing, a record number of people in the UK are trying out the vegan lifestyle! The Veganuary campaign encourages people to go vegan for at least January, the month most commonly associated with resolution and change, and ideally for the rest of the year.
The mental capacities and social lives of farmed animals is explored by Professor Barbara J King who uncovers what modern science teaches us about the minds of animals, how the issue of animal sentience is regarded in society and what practical steps people can be take in favour of animals.
How have recent scientific advances helped us to better understand the minds of animals?
The questions scientists ask about how big-brained social mammals think and feel have been the leading edge of a revolution in animal-behavior science. Recent work shows the complexity of cultural traditions in the ocean among whales and dolphins, for instance. Populations of whip-smart orcas differentiate themselves by what they select to eat to the extent that researchers refer to their “cultural identities.” Chimpanzees, to take another example, cooperate in solving tasks when tested in the appropriate way for their species: the old saw that humans work together well and chimpanzees just can’t overcome their competitiveness to do the same is quite wrong. We scientists are getting really good at expanding the depth and scope of our questions, focusing now too on birds, octopus, and even insects — after all, we can only uncover what we first think to ask about!
How do know that farmed animals can suffer and grieve?
I love this question because it brings together the two projects I’ve been working on for the last five years – reflected in my two most recent books How Animals Grieve and Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat. The criteria I use to assess the expression of grief in animals are an altered behavioural profile from the typical, that is, a surviving animal expresses distress through facial, vocal, or postural signals; social withdrawal; and/or altered sleeping or eating. We can’t assess the presence of grieving just through a photograph or short video clip. It’s clear that dairy cows, for instance, may emotionally suffer— they tell us this clearly through some of the signs I’ve noted—when they are repeatedly separated from their newborn sons and daughters (the former to be sold off for veal, the latter to become milk producers themselves). Pigs, ducks, and chickens may mourn when their friends die. And of course, we have known for quite a while that factory-farm situations cause great suffering through crowding, other poor conditions, and slaughter sites where the animals are too often not properly stunned before they are killed. (I’m not saying that smaller-farm slaughter is necessarily humane— that’s a question I think about a lot because animal lives are cut drastically short even on “kind” farms.)
What do we know about the mental capacities and social lives of farmed animals?
Attention to farmed animals’ lives (aside from how to manage them as commodities) is much more recent but thankfully this is changing in a big way. One of my favourite studies shows that pigs who learn to distinguish between blocks of wood cut in X versus O shapes transfer their learning when next presented with two-dimensional X and O symbols on a T-shirt. That’s not an easy cognitive feat: it involves a complex cognitive transformation, using symbols imported from the human world. I have already mentioned the octopus, who are unfortunately becoming more and more popular to eat. They are brainy invertebrates who use coconuts shells on the seafloor to shelters (that’s tool use) and flash their moods by colour changes (a red octopus is an aroused, excited, attentive octopus). So many compelling examples exist: fish who signal each other while hunting, goats with amazing memories, chickens with all kinds of different personalities.
Why are concerns surrounding the sentience of animals bred or caught for human food not addressed more openly in our society?
It may be really uncomfortable for us —I include myself here because while I eat a lot of vegan meals I am not fully vegan—to reflect on how our behaviour causes harm. No one enjoys feeling guilty and it is guilt that often results when we connect the dots between farmed animals’ thinking and feeling, and what we put on our plates. Here’s a more hopeful outlook though. Vegan meals are ever more mainstream— after all the food really is delicious! Promising new technologies are in development for clean meat grown from cells without animal slaughter. The reducetarian movement is on fire in the best way, showing that all of us along the vegan-vegetarian-omnivore spectrum committed to eating less meat and fewer animal products are a collective force!
Do you believe that discoveries in regards to animal sentience necessitate a response from faith communities?
Much of the work on behalf of animals coming from faith communities is inspiring. One of the most moving experiences I’ve had was to attend and write about the Blessing of the Animals ceremony at the magnificent Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. I will never forget the reverend’s words to the animals in attendance: “Live without fear; your creator loves you.” Still, we know that animals—hunted or dealing with extensive habitat degradation in the wild, confined for our entertainment, slaughtered for our food– have much to fear from our species. Aren’t all of us, the faithful, the agnostic, and the atheist together, morally compelled to respond? When faith leaders and people who serve their church, temple, or mosque speak and act against animal suffering, it’s social-justice work and a beautiful thing.
How can people respond to the plight of animals and take practical action in their daily lives?
Here are a few ideas: Speak out, in letters to the editor, on social media. and in person against animal cruelty where you see it locally, nationally, or internationally. (Join me on twitter at @bjkingape). Work to ensure that adopted pets, including those living with people without lots of financial resources, are spay-neutered. Refuse to give your money to “entertainment” activities that exploit animals, including poorly managed zoos and theme parks, even films or shows that use live animals on set. Volunteer time or money to animal charities (Animal Charity Evaluators is an excellent resource). To the extent you are able, make a commitment, for animals or for your health or to combat global warming or for all three reasons, to eat less (or no) meat and fewer (or no) animal products. It’s incredible what good we can accomplish at mealtimes each day.
Barbara J King is emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and a freelance science writer.
Shared with her husband, Barbara’s cat-rescue work brings her happiness every day.
For more information about Barbara and her work, please see her website.
To say that Dr. Melanie Joy is a key influencer in the animal rights movement would be a massive understatement. Known for coining the term carnism, she is a psychologist, speaker and author of three best-selling books including Strategic Action for Animals (2009), Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (2011), and her most recent, Beyond Beliefs: A Guide to Improving Relationships and Communication for Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Eaters (2017).
With the astonishing growth of veganism in the UK being driven by young people, how are Christian students responding to the increased awareness in animal issues and plant based diets? Tim Lornie, recent graduate from Cambridge University recounts his experiences of becoming vegan, student attitudes to animal advocacy and Christian faith.
Dr Kris Hiuser, discusses his new book Animals, Theology and The Incarnation which explores how the life and work of Christ applies to non-human animals and humanity’s relationship to the rest of creation.
Professor John Berkman argues that the language of ‘environment’ is problematic in that it presupposes that humanity being at the centre with everything else as a backdrop. He also warns against the evils of factory farming and reveals how Pope Francis’s Laudato Si has encouraged new, positive thinking in regards to environmental and animal issues.
The Rt Revd John Arnold, Roman Catholic Bishop of Salford, speaks on contemporary animal issues and explains how Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si has triggered new, pioneering thinking in regards to animals.