This is the fifth and final installment of a series outlining a Christian ethic of eating. Previous posts have discussed the need for Christians to consider the effects their food choices have on their bodies, on other people, and on the environment.
The fourth and final category for developing a framework for ethical eating is to consider the animals that are being killed for food. This section could’ve been incorporated into the previous one, but the issue of animal treatment in the food industry is such a large issue that it merits its own post. As always, let’s see how the Bible addresses our treatment of animals.
For many—though not many from my home state of Mississippi—the question is not how should people treat the animals they will eat, but should Christians be eating animals at all? Believers will often point to the fact that New Covenant Christians are a part of new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and should, in turn, be picturing new creation in this present life. The logic goes, then, that since death will not be present in the new heavens and earth, Christians should not participate in it now. While these proponents seem to be rightly motivated, they are going against the example of the New Testament. In Acts 10, God gives Peter a vision of unclean animals, and He tells the apostle, “Kill and eat (v. 13).” The primary point of this passage is the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s people, but it is a valid implication that God is not opposed to the killing and eating of animals. Simply put, He wouldn’t have told Peter to do something that was inherently sinful, even in a vision.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, seems to clear up the matter when he writes, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (1 Cor. 10:25–26).” Therefore, it is obvious from the teachings of the New Testament that meat-eating is an acceptable activity under the New Covenant.
This series has already discussed God’s proclamation that mankind has dominion over the rest of creation. God did not intend for man to selfishly and harshly exercise this dominion. Rather, man is called to care for his animals. Proverbs 12:10 says, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” Mankind’s care and provision for animals should picture God’s compassion and provision for them. Humans are to care for animals because they are valuable in the sight of God. This is seen when Jesus compares the worth of man to the worth of sparrows (Matt. 10:29–31; Luke 12:6–7). This is a classic lesser-to-greater argument, but the inference is clear: animals are valuable in God’s sight. Thus, as God’s vice-regents, man must glorify God in his treatment of animals, even when they are destined to be slaughtered and eaten.
In light of the droves of animals slaughtered each year, this is an important discussion. In her essay, “Virtuous Meat Consumption,” Beth Haile explains the gruesome scene in some slaughterhouses, “The slaughtering processes themselves are…quite atrocious, with practices of cutting the beaks off of chickens and the tails off of cows pre-slaughter commonly utilized. As slaughter lines run at rapid speeds, mistakes are recurrent, with many animals left suffering for long periods of time before slaughter.” While this is not true of many meat corporations, it is far too common of a practice. Christians would do well, then, to ponder how that chicken breast or sirloin steak from the supermarket was treated before death. Was it treated humanely and honored as a gift from the Lord or was it simply rushed down the line to meet a gruesome death? Discovering this information will take more time and energy that most people will be willing to spend, but it is an important part of glorifying God in all areas of life.
Just to be clear, I’m not proposing that every chicken in the coop have access to a poolside lounge chair and an unlimited stream of margaritas. Rather, we should do our best to ensure that the animals’ existence is not one long, torturous walk to the slaughter house, and it also means making sure their death is as quick and painless as possible. As brush strokes from the hand of our brilliant Creator, we need to honor animals as valuable, even in the face of death.
Pursuing an Omnivorous Compassion
There are many ways in which an individual can ensure that their meat products were treated in a manner fitting for holy creations. Here are a few ways you may pursue a Christian ethic of animal treatment:
- The best way to make the ethical treatment of one’s animals a certainty is by personally raising them. As Lisa McMinn and Megan Neff write in their book, Walking Gently on the Earth, “The farther removed we get from the growing and harvesting of plants, and the raising, slaughtering and dressing of animals, the more we lose touch with ethical questions surrounding responsible production and consumption of food.”
- What about those of us who are not in a position to raise livestock? There are a growing number of opportunities for ethically-minded consumers to purchase meat from farms and companies that treat their animals humanely. Visiting the local farm or doing a quick Internet search can easily help a person discover how the animals are treated.
- One other option is to do your own hunting. Hunting can seem barbaric and cruel, but, oftentimes, a skilled hunter can harvest an animal much more effectively and humanely than the large slaughter houses. So go sign up for a hunters’ education course. Take the test. And start hunting. (This option will also help out your bank account since buying meat from the grocery store is so expensive.)
As this series draws to a close, I hope it has been helpful for you in considering how the gospel affects all of life, including your daily eating habits. What are other ways that we can apply our gospel lens to our dietary decisions. I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments sections.