The Case for Eating Compassionately
By Phil Mobley

The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. — Genesis 9:2

If there is any commandment of God that humanity has generally obeyed, surely it must be the directive to “be fruitful and multiply.” The United States Census Bureau estimates that there are currently 7.2 billion of us alive on earth, a number that grows by more than one person per second. From the beginning, eating has held tremendous spiritual significance for us. Even in our pre-fallen state, we were dependent creatures, not least indicated by our constant need to eat. As God does met our needs, He made provision by granting us the sustenance of the earth, first its plant life and then, famously, to Noah and his family, its animal life as well. From Eden to Passover to Communion, the seemingly mundane act of fueling our bodies has shown us much about ourselves, our God, and His grace. There has always been more to the meal than eating, something we have perhaps lost as our food-production methods have become vaster and less personal.

To realize the efficiency necessary to feed billions, farming has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. Very few of the pastoral family farms where so many of the Greatest Generation came of age still operate, and even those that do contribute only insignificantly to the total volume of food produced. As recently as 1940 in the United States, it took one farm worker to supply 11 consumers, and nearly a quarter of the population worked in agriculture. By 2002, one farm worker supplied 90 consumers, and only 1.5 percent worked in agriculture. In many ways, this is a marvel. At its best, this is a witness to God’s goodness and human achievement in His image. But, as with any human endeavor, it comes with costs.

What is Wrong with How We Eat?

The technical term for modern, high-output agriculture is “intensive farming.” When it comes to farming animals for meat, eggs, and dairy, intensive farming means housing enormous numbers of animals (sometimes tens or even hundreds of thousands) in a relatively compact space. Housing a lot of animals means feeding a lot of animals and dealing with an immense amount of animal waste. Intensive animal farms are therefore regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Water Act and labeled as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.

CAFOs are the “factory farms” that produce the overwhelming majority of today’s animal-based food. To many people concerned with animal welfare, including some Christians, CAFOs are notorious. More than simply being locations where animal cruelty takes place, CAFOs themselves are a systematized form of creature abuse. Matthew Scully calls them “negation” — negation of cows, pigs, and chickens as created beings and affirmation of them only as units of production.

Scully is a political conservative, a speechwriter by trade who has written for former President George W. Bush and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. He is also a Catholic Christian and an animal-welfare activist whose 2003 book “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy” is perhaps the definitive argument for a Christian ethic of compassion for animals. In researching this book, he visited a hog farm in North Carolina and wrote of what he saw there in “Fear Factories,” an article for the May 23, 2005, issue of The American Conservative:

“The visitor is greeted by a bedlam of squealing, chain rattling, and horrible roaring. To maximize the use of space and minimize the need for care, the creatures are encased row after row, 400 to 500 pound mammals trapped without relief inside iron crates seven feet long and 22 inches wide. They chew maniacally on bars and chains, as foraging animals will do when denied straw, or engage in stereotypical nest-building with the straw that isn’t there, or else just lie there like broken beings. …They lie covered in their own urine and excrement, with broken legs from trying to escape or just to turn, covered with festering sores, tumors, ulcers, lesions, or what my guide shrugged off as the routine “pus pockets”…Kept alive in these conditions only by antibiotics, hormones, laxatives, and other additives mixed into their machine-fed swill, the sows leave their crates only to be driven or dragged into other crates, just as small, to bring forth their piglets. Then it’s back to the gestation crate for another four months, and so on back and forth until after seven or eight pregnancies they finally expire from the punishment of it or else are culled with a club or bolt-gun.”

This is uncomfortable to think about, especially when one comes to accept that what Scully reports is not an isolated incident but standard industry practice. Cows, chickens, turkeys, and egg-laying hens are raised in similar conditions. Billions of animals are thus negated each year, denied the environment and context in which to live out their lives in the manner in which their Creator designed them: running, foraging, grazing, ranging, scratching, breeding, socializing.

As Christians, however, we must not be guided only by our emotional reaction, being called to test every spirit by the Word of God. Ben DeVries and Matt Halteman are two Christians who did exactly this and were changed by what they discovered.

Dominion is Not Domination

Ben DeVries was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., when he began to explore what he calls a “theocentric perspective on animals.” He was wary, and not only because animal welfare was associated in his mind with political extremism. “I remember thinking that the Bible didn’t seem to say much about animals as compared to, say, sexual morality,” DeVries told me in December. “There didn’t seem to be a developed theology, certainly not a priority.” As he studied, however, he became convinced that God delights in and cares for all the creatures He created and that His charge to Adam to care for them was not annulled by the fall of man. The result of DeVries’ study was a research paper published in 2008 entitled “Not One Sparrow is Forgotten: A Biblical-Theological Foundation for Animal Welfare.” DeVries also founded, intended to be “a Christian voice for animals” in the online world.

In his thought-provoking paper, DeVries reflects deeply on the Creation Mandate found in Genesis 1:28, specifically the call to “rule” or, as the ESV translates, “have dominion” over the animals. In practice, DeVries sees evangelicals using this passage to justify “doing with and taking from” creation, including the animals, as we please in order to satisfy our own needs and desires. Calling this approach “flawed and hugely disastrous,” DeVries instead finds that mankind’s rule over creation is much more appropriately thought of in the context of stewardship, with “modesty and service, tending and nurturing” as its hallmarks.

Citing the work of other biblical scholars, DeVries points out that the “rule” described in Genesis 1:28 corresponds to the “rule” of Israel’s kings, prescribed by God in Deuteronomy 17 with very specific limits that run quite contrary to “doing with and taking from” the people as the king may have seen fit. Though he ruled them, the people did not belong to the king any more than the animals belonged to Adam (or to us). As the cattle on a thousand hills belong to God, so too do the pigs in a thousand CAFOs. Furthermore, the example of Christ is instructive. He is our King, and we actually do belong to Him. But, though He has every right, His rule is certainly not about taking from us for Himself. Much the opposite, in fact. Biblical authority always keeps humility and the care of its subjects in mind, as Christ himself demonstrates. DeVries summarizes: “The eminent honor which God bestowed on humanity of … serving as vice rulers over His creation was precisely crafted to be expressed in a stewardship of respectful service, not proud dominance.” As it relates to animals, the old term husbandry comes to mind.

Reformed Thinking

Matthew C. Halteman was not always Reformed in his theology. A self-described “cradle Mennonite,” Halteman is now an associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. He has also written extensively on animal-welfare issues from a Christian perspective, including the pamphlet “Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation,” written in 2008 as part of the Humane Society of the United States’ Faith Outreach Booklet Series. “For me, it was exposure to the Reformed perspective that really brought animals to the forefront of my personal and scholarly concern,” Halteman told me when we corresponded, eloquently continuing as follows:

“The Reformed theological vision reflects a deep and abiding appreciation for the sovereignty of God over all creation, the goodness of creation at all levels, the mandate to its wise stewardship, the pervasive personal and institutional effects of human fallenness, the cosmic scope of Christ’s reconciling power (‘Every square inch!’ [referencing Dutch reformer Abraham Kuyper’s famous quote]), the call to be agents of renewal after Christ’s example in our personal and institutional lives and the common grace to look to others outside our traditions for God’s regenerating wisdom.”

If there is not a well-developed Reformed theology of animal welfare, Halteman concludes, it is not because our tradition lacks the theological framework for it. The idea that all of creation will be redeemed is indeed a glorious one, but it carries with it the idea that all of creation needs redeeming, and that includes our agricultural system.

How Then Should We Eat?

No serious conversation about Christianity and eating can begin with the assertion that killing animals for food is inherently sinful. This would contradict God’s statement to Noah in Genesis 9:3, not to mention the incarnate Christ’s example as a practicing Jew who kept the Passover and ate fish. Nor does it behoove us to attempt to lay all the responsibility for whatever is wrong at the feet of farmers and others who work in industries that provide the food we eat. Aside from being unloving and ineffective, it would be wildly inaccurate to shift blame for the effects of our collective choices onto others. On a personal level, then, what does all this mean for how the Christian in today’s America approaches food?

There is, of course, no single answer to this question. In “Compassionate Eating,” Halteman categorizes the continuum of alternatives into four buckets. “Reformers” would seek to reduce meat consumption while advocating for legal changes in farming practices. “Agrarians” would take this a step further, seeking to eat only those animal products which come from smaller farms that practice more traditional, humane husbandry. “Vegetarians” and “vegans” would seek to avoid altogether meat and animal products in their diets. As Halteman is the first to point out, there is much that is merely symbolic in these choices, though the symbolism is not without value. “We have no illusion that we can offset, much less absolve ourselves of, all the harm that is done to animals and fellow human beings on account of choices we make as participants in fallen social and economic institutions,” he says. “But we continue to try to live a life that models justice and mercy for God’s creatures even though our efforts are far from perfect.”

Where is the Church?

What Christians do as individuals is one thing. The collective voice of the church is something else. There are a variety of explanations for the lack of a strong Christian voice — and particularly an evangelical, Reformed voice — on animal-welfare issues. Perhaps chief among them is the fact that those who speak loudest on the issue tend to be very different from evangelical Christians in both the rationale and methods of their activism. Here Halteman reminds us of something very important: “We should be open to hearing what critics outside our faith traditions have to say about our habits, because common grace means that our critics may have wisdom in this regard that we haven’t fully appreciated yet ourselves.” By God’s grace, we can call good things “good” even when they start outside of the Christian community.

Christians need not endorse sensationalistic activities in order to fight for compassionate treatment of animals. And certainly we need not and must not equate animal life or suffering with that of humans. But neither can we treat animals as if they have no moral value whatsoever. Indeed, our worldview provides the strongest possible basis for acknowledging their value: They were created by our God and called “good” by Him before He ever created humans.

For some Christians, a question of priority arises when confronted with the suffering of animals: With so much human suffering in the world, how can animals warrant our time and energy? Scully formulated one answer in “Pro-Life, Pro-Animal: The conscience of a pro-life, vegan conservative,” written for the Oct. 7, 2013, issue of National Review: “Compassion for animals doesn’t drain away some finite reserve of moral energy and idealism, to the detriment of human welfare, but surely adds to the supply.” For those truly wrestling with this question, Scully’s answer may or may not suffice. For the rest, his sharp speechwriter’s pen offers this: “Cruelty issues like factory farming present specific moral choices. If we’re making the wrong ones, then to shift attention to other woes in the world is just as idle and evasive as when the abortion lobby tries it.” As we consider accepting the challenge in Scully’s words, DeVries points us to the body of Christ. “God has an interest in the totality of His creation. If each of us as Christians brought our own passions and callings to the table, we will complement each other.” By grace, none of us has to have all the answers.

Indeed, none of us could have all the answers — the problem is much too big for us. Yet surely the church cannot say and do nothing in the face of the industrialized negation of God’s good creatures. Surely putting our hands over our ears and saying “I don’t want to know!” cannot be the right answer. And surely, as God’s image bearers on earth, fallen as we are, we can do better than CAFOs.

Phil Mobley is a management consultant who lives in Lilburn, Ga. He and his family attend Parkview Church (PCA). They enjoy living with their pets, which include dogs, cats, and a flock of backyard chickens. They have been vegetarians since 2011.

Photography by Jill Greenberg

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