This article is in dialogue with “The Bonds of Animal Agriculture” by Friend Joe Snyder in the May-June 2013 issue of Western Friend. I commend Friend Snyder for highlighting the destructive aspects of the prevailing system of plant and animal agriculture, which fail to respect God’s creation. To my mind, Friends cannot overemphasize the seriousness of such threats to our health and global sustainability.
Like Friend Snyder, I grew up on a family farm and found it an important learning experience, but I cannot agree with him that returning to traditional agricultural arrangements is the answer to factory farming. Snyder’s image of a mutually beneficial “contract” between humans and farmed animals is appealing, but it is not accurate. For a contract to be fair, both parties must agree to all provisions. However, farmed animals are given no choice in the matter, because we humans have all the power.
Farmed animals do not “give” us their wool, milk, skins and flesh; we take these things, often violently. Even taking a cow’s milk involves psychological violence, because the farmer takes her male calf away from her. Most cows are deeply bonded with their calves, and they bellow in great distress when their calves are taken away (usually to be killed).
In normal circumstances, cows and pigs (I am unfamiliar with sheep) form lasting bonds with their fellows, not just with their infants. (Like humans, they may also make enemies.) Hens, too, bond to their baby chicks; and both hens and roosters can form friendships. Perhaps we do not call this bonding “love” because it disturbs us to think of ourselves as destroying loving relationships for our own advantage.
It is true that farmers fulfill their side of “the contract” by providing their animals with the benefits of shelter, food, protection from predators, and medical care. At the same time, we humans control their sexuality, their relationships with their infants and each other, and usually their deaths, chiefly for our own benefit. These factors suggest that a better analogy for this ancient arrangement is not “a contract,” but “slavery.”
As with human slavery, the extreme power imbalance between us and our animals does not bring out the best in us. Growing up, I saw this especially in my father and brother, who did most of the animal-related work. I have seen my father, ordinarily a cheerful, friendly person, taking out his occasional stress on the animals with kicks. After he retired, one of his favorite amusements was to attend farmed animal auctions, oblivious to the suffering caused by the separating of animals who felt attached to each other. My brother, very tender-hearted as a small boy, had to numb his better self to learn to kill chickens, some of whom he had cradled and petted under his coat as he carried them about. If he had revolted and refused, he would have been thought a failure as a man.
I think it likely that Friend Snyder’s father was among the admirable minority who are able to handle great power over others without abusing it. And since Friend Snyder’s own career was the healing of animals, he evidently did not himself undergo the corrupting processes of wielding undue human power over farmed animals. But many anecdotes suggest that these corrupting processes happened more often than not on traditional farms, as it often did on slave-worked plantations. Abolitionist Friends in pre-civil war days opposed the institution of slavery not only because of its harsh violation of the Light in enslaved persons, but because it also tended to darken the Light in slaveholders. Lord Acton was right: power tends to corrupt, and most humans cannot be trusted with power in very unbalanced relationships.
There are other reasons why replacing the destructive factory-farm system with traditional animal husbandry is not a good idea. Although the small-farm system of past centuries was far more sustainable than the present setup is, this is largely due to the reason that most farming people in past centuries ate little meat because they could not afford to devour their scanty capital. At the same time, however, an elite minority feasted frequently on flesh, two or three times a day, even consuming several meat courses in single meals. Their health suffered proportionately; cartoons of eighteenth century aristocrats show many obese figures. As long as the rich were few and the human population was relatively small, the traditional system of agriculture was sustainable; but family farms cannot feed the millions of people who can now afford to eat large amounts of meat.
There are various reasons why many people want to eat large amounts of meat. One reason is that meat contains a stimulant, hypoxanthine (similar to caffeine), to which many people are susceptible. Another reason is that meat is hard to digest compared with most plant food, and thus “sticks to the ribs” and gives a prolonged feeling of fullness. For these and still other reasons, people become dependent on meat, and when they try to cut their consumption, many experience cravings and feelings of depletion that convince them they need meat for their wellbeing.
My spouse experienced this depletion when we became vegetarian for the six weeks of Lent in 1971, and we concluded, unsurprisingly, that he was not getting enough protein. So we celebrated Easter – the feast of the transcendence of love and life over death – by eating the flesh of a violently killed animal. I reflected at the time that this was acceptable because life comes out of death, as new shoots come out of the death of seeds, and one human generation succeeds another. My thinking was somewhat akin to that of Friend Snyder when he points out that plant agriculture unavoidably involves the death of insects and moles and organisms in the soil, and of wild animals displaced from their homes. He suggests that for us to (occasionally) kill and eat animals is continuous with this profound principle, and that those who reject flesh-eating are thinking simplistically because they are out of step with the natural order.
It is quite true that new life arises out of death. Plants burgeon after they have been fertilized, pruned and ”weeded.” Human populations thrive better, too, when over-populated areas have been thinned-out by war or natural disaster (as happened for European peasants after the "Black Death" of the fourteenth century). We have no problem approving “life-out-of-death” in the case of weeding plants, but we know we would be monsters if we recommended wars and pandemics for human benefit. Most people in our culture associate the killing of animals for food with the killing of plants for food, rather than associating the killing of animals with murder. But why?
In countless ways, farmed animals are closer to humans than they are to plants, yet we treat them more like plants than we do like humans. We act as if all animals, except humans, are expendable. In the West, the religious justification for this position has rested on the idea that humans, but not animals, are made in the image of God. Using a different image, we Friends speak of all humans as bearers of the Divine Light, and therefore we reject the killing of our fellow humans even in self-defense. In this regard, we have the courage to defy the broader culture. We know we must accept our own and our loved ones’ deaths as an inevitable and tragic part of nature, but we hold that we have no right to take the process into our own hands, and end human lives for our own or other humans' benefit.
A few leading Friends of former times have urged kindness to individual animals, but seldom have our forebears declared that animals are also bearers of the Light, and that we owe them the reverence for the Light that we owe to our fellow humans. Some Friends today, however, are venturing to profess that all animals bear the Divine Light. This is complex and difficult. Not many of us claim that we directly perceive “That of God”/the Divine Light/Love/Spirit in others, at least not in the vivid way Fox and other first-generation Friends described. Even so, Spirit seems to be continuous with the spirits of finite beings and with consciousness. But consciousness in physical beings is not a black-and-white matter. It’s not a matter of either having it or not, but rather, consciousness varies in degree across different kinds of animals.
So consider the Golden Rule: love your neighbor as yourself. We don’t always know how to follow this Rule in concrete situations with animals (nor, for that matter, do we always know with humans). But there are many situations in which we do know. Farmed animals may appreciate the shelter and food we give them, but we can’t really doubt that, like us, they want to associate freely with their fellows; that they do not want their infants, parents, siblings or friends torn away from them for any reason, especially not to be killed and eaten by beings claiming to own them. Perhaps we cannot completely avoid participating in violence against animals, but we can minimize it.
There may be other blessings yet undreamed of. It is possible that when a critical mass of us follow the Light of Love – by engaging in regular silent worship, meditation, and prayer; by abjuring violence against our human and animal neighbors; and by acting lovingly towards all our neighbors to the best of our ability – we might reduce human violence and other crime in our cities. Such a result is strongly suggested by repeated successful experiments by practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, many of whom are vegetarian. Considering the apparent effect of increasing peace though these experiments, perhaps we might even be able to influence the spiritual evolution of our planet away from predation in nature, and begin to realize the Peaceable Kingdom envisioned by the prophet Isaiah twenty-seven hundred years ago.
This vision may seem quixotic, but I call it daring. Animals cannot by themselves transcend the eons-long patterns of predation and parasitism in which they are trapped. Perhaps, as Kathryn Hulme put it, they are waiting for us to climb the rungs of Jacob’s Ladder so that they can follow. The apostle Paul also embraced this vision: “the creation itself shall be set free from its bondage to decay and attain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” If it is ever to happen, it is human beings in the Spirit of Love, symbolized by the small but powerful child in Isaiah’s wonderful scenario, who must lead the way. ~~~
Gracia Fey Ellwood is a member of Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, CA, and worships with the Ojai Worship Group. She edits the monthly newsletter, The Peaceable Table, which can be found at http://www.vegetarianfriends.net/.