Toward Ethical Eating
“Are you vegetarian for health reasons or ethical reasons?”
Unfortunately, this question is often posed after someone has invited me over for dinner and has grilled up a sirloin steak just for me, because I failed to tell them that I don’t eat meat anymore. (Sorry, friends! You know who you are). I’m getting better, though. Just the other day, my sister invited the family over after church for a barbeque. When I reminded her that I don’t do meat, she considerately bought a package of tofurkey sausage. I’m so special and such a pain of a dinner guest these days.
A little social awkwardness is worth it, however, because my answer to the question is the latter: I am a vegetarian for ethical reasons.
But I’m no St. Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of the environment and animal welfare), because, for one thing, I don’t believe that eating meat per se is wrong. Furthermore, I’m pescetarian, which means I eat seafood. For purists, that’s just a subcategory of carnivore. So if I don’t think that eating meat is bad, and I in fact eat “meat from the sea,” in what way is my annoying new diet ethically based?
The decision to go meatless was and is entirely based on the horrible truth of factory farming. An intensive approach to mass-produce meat, milk, and eggs at the lowest cost, factory farming is hell on earth for cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals. There are probably factory farms that have better records than others regarding animal care; but as a whole, this kind of farming, which has all but replaced family farming, has had disastrous consequences for animals. Space won’t allow me to paint the picture, and that has already been done convincingly by others, even within the pages of PRISM. So as to why I've removed meat from my diet, I resonate with the simple response offered by the musician Moby, who states, “I love animals, and I don’t want to be a part of anything that…contributes to their suffering.”
It would be a gross understatement to say that factory-farmed animals suffer; the treatment they endure is both savage and severe. In order to mass-produce meat, milk, and eggs for an increasingly demanding public, factory-farmed animals are subject to excruciating procedures including branding, clipping, de-teething, and castration (all without benefit of anesthesia, of course). They are also subjected to overbreeding, unnatural diets and medicine, and deprivation of sunlight. And all of this is before they’re mass slaughtered by less-than-precise methods. What really gives me nightmares, however, is how many of these animals are confined to spaces just slightly bigger than themselves for most, if not all, of their lives. For example, breeding pigs, by far the most intelligent of farm animals, are placed in gestation crates, a space so small that they cannot even turn around, for the duration of their pregnancy (four months). After they give birth to piglets, they are transferred to farrowing crates, which are no bigger than the gestation crates, until the piglets are weaned—at which time they are impregnated again and placed back into gestation crates. This process continues until they go to the slaughterhouse. Many develop diseases from having to sleep in their own feces and sores from lying down all day. Not surprisingly, many also display symptoms of madness. They endure this suffering so we can eat bacon for breakfast and pork chops for dinner.
And what about calves prepared for veal? Not only are they placed in extremely small crates, their heads are often tethered by a short chain, essentially immobilizing them except to move toward their food bowl located in front of them. They are in this tortured state for several months before being slaughtered. This, so we can enjoy tender beef called veal. The truth is, factory-farmed animals never get to live before they’re killed.
I don’t want any part of that! It is an affront to my sense of human decency, and it violates my understanding of the compassion and justice of God.
It is animal cruelty, not eating meat, that is evil. Although a strong biblical case for vegetarianism can be made, I don't believe the Bible ultimate prohibits eating meat. For example, Peter’s vision in Acts 10 had Jesus saying, “kill and eat” from a spread of animals that Jewish law forbade (v. 13). Of course, read in the context of the passage, Jesus simply used “unclean animals” as an object lesson to convey to Peter the great truth of Gentile inclusion in the plan of God. But eating meat was certainly not frowned upon here. And did not Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000 begin with five loaves and two fish? Evidently, Jesus felt fine about serving fish and bread to the hungry masses.
So in essence, if animals get a chance to live before we “kill and eat” them, I don’t have an ethical problem with it. Hunting and fishing for food are different from factory farming.
I’ve only just begun to align my eating with my ethics. But it is a beginning. For two years running now, my pescetarian diet has been but a part of the journey toward living according to God’s shalom, which includes just relationships with creation and its creatures. I’m not all the way there yet, but the trajectory feels very right. Al Tizon is Ronald J. Sider Associate Professor of Holistic Ministry and co-president of Evangelicals for Social Action.