Maybe Food, Animal Ethics Start with Thanks

I have a confession to make.  Even as a food trucker and third-generation cheesesteak ninja, I’ve struggled with the ethics of meat.  I don’t eat pork, because I’m pretty sure pigs are smart.  But I do sell it.  That’s a contradiction, but it’s also an admission that I’m not really sure that there’s anything wrong with eating pigs in the first place.

I’m also keenly aware that my OCD and anxiety often center on food. My purity rituals (oh, the books we could write about the origins of purity rites in the undiagnosed chemical imbalances of the patriarchs!) are almost always about consumption,  Matthew 15:11 aside, and I’m forced to take my ethical qualms with a grain of salt as a way of keeping my compulsions in balance.

The Apostle Paul said things about eating meat and not eating meat that was or wasn’t sacrificed to idols.  He also said he’d avoid doing anything that would make it harder for others to embrace Jesus.  He’s an “it depends” kind of guy on a number of things. He also says “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.”  This seems in line with Peter’s vision of the end of dietary law. In both cases, Christians are being asked to envision human membership in the Kingdom of God as a transnational, multicultural imperative. Paul also calls maturing Christians to let go of the trappings of earthly traditions as they come to grips with the only culture that matters: The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Interestingly, he likens our readiness for deeper revelation to the transition from milk to…meat.

There are any number of ways we could go with all of this.  Anecdotally, it seems to me that more people of faith are asking questions about the ethics of meat than ever before.  The food supply system in the industrialized world is a far cry from the pastoral scenes we imagine playing out in generations past, and we’re right to worry about animal welfare and cruelty.  We’re right to worry about the commodification of food in general.

Sorry, I can’t get pigs out my head, even though I really want to get to a point about Karl Rahner, bananas, and original sin.

Sometime over the last year, I read an article about the origins of Jewish and Muslim aversions to pork.  Pigs are water-greedy, hard-t0-sustainably-raise foragers, and the article suggested that the ban on swine arose from how sinfully wasteful it is to use scare resources on that kind of husbandry.  On the contrary, the virtual lack of pork aversions in ancient Europe, to the point of celebration, arose from an opposite ecology:  boars forage mushrooms and roots and other things Neolithic peoples couldn’t spend precious time or energy painstakingly gathering for themselves. So they hunted and eventually domesticated the animals that did it best.  Ever time I think about how wrong it is to eat a pig, I think about that.  It’s damn clever, and it’s how thousands of other species function.  Animals exploit animals. Animals exploit plants.  If we start taking the research showing that plants feel pain, scream when being cut, and warn their friends about impending doom, we’d never eat anything again.

About the banana, then.  Karl Rahner described our corrupt, unjust, and broken market economy as a study in original sin.  The systems that get most goods to market, be they conflict diamonds or Dole bananas, are rife with injustice. They are sinful systems, and they’re the only ones we’ve got.  Every time we engage in the market, we take part in its sinful internalties and ripples. We can’t buy anything in good conscience when it comes right down to it.  The mass production of vegan foods isn’t possible without the creation of ecologically imbalanced monocultures, and the harvest of those grains isn’t exactly an animal-friendly affair. (Here’s another point and counterpoint on that).

Reasonable people will always find themselves tempted to insist that the answer to all of this isn’t something very much like being Amish.  But what if it is?  Sustainably-grown, hyper-local crops.  Sustainably-raised meat.  Giving thanks for the lives of both, and meaning it.  A big part of me thinks we started to get into serious trouble with our food culture and our food supply when we decided to stop saying thanks.  Ecosystems and sentient animals are easy to fetishize and discard when society isn’t thankful for them.

Imagine saying this before your next meal:

“Thank you, God, for the life of this animal.  Thank you, God, for the life of these plants.  Not ‘Thank you for this food, for getting out to us,’ but thank you for these specific creatures, your creatures.  Amen.”



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