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"Slaughter, Suffering, and Shame: An American Christian Reflection on Factory Farming"

By Suzanne Woolston

Prelude: "Battle Joined" by Ken Taylor


Section I: The Problem of Factory Farming

Fowl Facts

Cattle Facts

Interlude: "The Killing of Sheep" by Shelli Jankowski-Smith

Section II: Theological Reflections

Model 1: The Anthropocentric Orientation

Model 2: The Eschatological Orientation

Model 3: The Intrinsic Orientation


Works Cited

Photo Credits


Battle Joined
By Ken Taylor (From Praying the Passion, Kevin Mayhew, 1996)


we're wide awake now,
but we can't share this;

all we can do is watch,
holding our breath with wonder.

You go into a deeper darkness
than we can imagine,

searching for the Father
in the deep, deep darkness,

trying to find a meaning
in all you know is waiting,

and wanting to be able
to accept what you find.

We sense you on the edge
of a black abyss —

wrestling with desolation,
assailed by doubt
ravaged by depair,
facing death . . .

and we know that the battle is joined.


The question of non-human suffering is an interesting exigency for moral debate today, due in no small part to the relative silence on the subject historically from the Judeo, Christian, and Islamic faith traditions, each a major ethical force in the West. It could be stated that the post-Enlightenment rise of urbanization—with its concomitant surge of industrialization, capitalism, and scientific inquiry—has both contributed to the problem of animal abuse in very particular ways, while paradoxically creating a culture prosperous enough to contemplate the subject with an unprecedented degree of seriousness.

Upon even cursory examination, examples of human collusion in animal suffering abound, such as the destruction of animal habitat through pollution and over-development, the illegal poaching and trapping of endangered species, the depletion of entire schools of aquatic life (such as the collapse of the cod population of Georges Bank), inappropriate use of animals in vivisection and medical experimentation, and technologically enhanced agriculture that has contributed to an animals-as-commodity norm which has assented to, if not directly created, what is now termed ‘factory farming,’ or ‘agri-business,’ or ‘intensive farming.’ 

Yet, even if these assertions are true, does it follow necessarily that theologians should allocate time and resources to grapple with animal suffering, when there are so many other urgent human tribulations at hand? How would we even quantify such a discussion? The subjective nature of such an analysis is readily apparent—for instance, upon observation it could be posited that human beings view animals complexly, perhaps as generally falling into one of three categories: pets, wildlife, or food. Our ideas on animal suffering are likely colored by the categories engaged; we are more likely to feel greater compassion for a Golden Retriever than an armadillo, and less still for a Perdue broiler. Additionally, we may object more to the mistreatment of animals that possess human-like features or are beautiful—such as deer—versus animals we don’t find attractive, like skunks or snakes.  The size of the animal might matter in the discussion as well--we might find an elephant stepping on a land mine more tragic than a squirrel getting hit by a car.  The issue of telos could likewise come into play--the death of an animal raised specifically for slaughter could be seen more dispassionately than perhaps a beached whale. Despite the myriad of complexities, however, a theologian or religious person must nonetheless press onward. At heart the question remains: what does God have to do with this human-animal matrix?

The methodology of this project is restrained in scope: I will select a single component of animal suffering, specifically “intensive farming” in this case, describe it in relation to the topic of animal suffering, then reflect briefly upon its possible theological implications. Accordingly, I will divide my analysis into two parts: a brief sketch of the relevant facts of agri-business, followed by some theological deconstruction, looking specifically through the lens of American Protestantism, although the Church at large shares similarly in both implication and connectedness to the issue. As we begin, a few question immediately spring to the fore:

  • Is there really a widespread problem of ‘animal abuse’ on American farms, or are opponents (such as vegans) exaggerating their claims with extremist, inflammatory rhetoric regarding political correctness?

  • With hunger a well-known problem globally, isn’t “intensive” farming a good thing, since there are six billion of us on this planet? Don’t humans have to eat?

  • Isn’t the Christian Bible clear on the fact that animals are placed in subjugation to humans, for our use and pleasure?

In light of these questions and assertions, how therefore could farming ever be considered a theological concern?  Let us look more closely at the relatively new phenomenon of agri-business.

Section I: The Problem of Factory Farming

Acclaimed animal rights activist Peter Singer believes that agri-business is a particularly acute sphere of animal abuse. In the seminal Animal Liberation, he writes:

For most human beings, especially those in modern urban and suburban communities, the most direct form of contact with non-human animals is at mealtime: we eat them. This simple fact is the key to our attitudes to other animals. The use and abuse of animals raised for food far exceeds, in sheer numbers of animals affected, any other kind of mistreatment. Over 100 million cows, pigs, and sheep are raised and slaughtered in the United States alone each year; and for poultry the figure is a staggering 5 billion. It is here, on our dinner table and in our neighborhood supermarket or butcher’s shop, that we are brought into direct touch with the most extensive exploitation of other species that has ever existed (Singer, 1990, 95).

Indeed, the sheer numbers of animals involved is extreme, which makes the practices of intensive farming all the more alarming. Let us now turn to a brief overview of just what kind of living (and dying) conditions exist for animals in this realm. A detailed look at the myriad of species involved in factory farming is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, a brief sketch of a few pertinent facts regarding two representative populations—chicken and cattle—will set the stage for subsequent theological analysis.

Fowl Facts 

Poultry is the most popular meat in America, a veritable farmyard icon. In our collective consciousness, we have cultivated a sunny picture of Old MacDonald’s farm, where chickens roam and roost and cluck under blue skies, with perhaps only an occasional fox in the henhouse to worry about. Unlike the darker specter of eating higher on the food chain (red meat), poultry is seen as less complicated. It would seem that chickens, with their smallish birdbrains, live and die rather simplistically. We seldom wonder about the interior life of chickens, unlike horses or even pigs (re: the film Babe, the beloved children's book Charlotte’s Web). 

This idealized farmyard scene was perhaps reality at one time. No longer. The genesis for changing farmyard chickens into manufactured commodities came, according to Peter Singer, with the advent of confining the poultry to indoors.

“A producer of broilers gets a load of 10,000-50,000+ day-old chicks from the hatcheries, and puts them into a long, windowless shed. Inside the shed, every aspect of the birds’ environment is controlled to make them grow faster on less feed” (Singer, 98-99).  Preece and Chamberlain state that the average chicken population in a large shed is between 60-90,000 chickens, all piled cage upon small cage. How small is a small? Data released by the British Houghton Poultry Research Station, for example, concluded that a hen needs 260 x 260 inches of space in order to turn around with ease if kept in a single cage. In North America the customary space in which the whole life is spent is a shocking 46.5 x 46.5 inches, however, which prevents a bird from stretching, walking, scratching, or nesting (Preece and Chamberlain, 218). 

Added to the restricted space is the fact that ‘layers’ (egg producers) live on a perpetual slant, their cages tilted to allow eggs to roll forward for collection; even the ‘broilers’ have no place to perch or stand. In the United States, under the Animal Welfare Act of 1970, “standards have been set up for animals to provide sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement,” but there’s a big caveat to this law: it does not apply to animals being reared as food (Singer, 111).

The cages have gotten smaller on factory farms, all the while artificial technology pushes for bigger chickens. Singer notes that the chickens are forced “to multiply their weight 50-60 times in seven weeks,” and that the growth may happen “so fast that they are on the verge of structural collapse” (104).

Another intrusive fact of this environment is the practice of continual darkness, which is believed to lessen the stress on the birds, caused by overcrowding. Basically the chickens “never see daylight until the day they are taken out to be killed” (Singer, 103). The large windowless sheds, therefore, are dim and artificially ventilated, so that tiers and tiers of small cages create an unimaginably noisy, stressful environment that typically reeks of ammonia from cumulative excrement. Standing for hours on ammonia-saturated litter causes many birds to suffer from “ulcerated feet, breast blisters, and hock burns” (105). Additionally, the air quality is typically so harsh that chicken farmers are cautioned by researchers to wear respirators.

At the end of this horrific existence, the road to the slaughterhouse is described in many reports as being absolute “pandemonium,” with thousands of birds hanging upside down on a conveyor built in a processing plant, often for several hours, waiting for death. It is worth noting that, for most slaughter enterprises, a still-beating heart enables the blow to drain more freely and speedily from the carcass once the throat is cut. This likely adds to a less than painfree death.  

How is this extreme environment rationalized? One historical test comments: “From a producer’s perspective, housing the birds in cages protects them from the often fatal effects of mass panic and insures that each bird gets the correct amount of food. Caging increases hygiene, decreasing the need to give antibiotics.” (Guither, 1998, 93). Likewise this book offers the producer’s stance on another standard practice of controlling poultry behavior: debeaking.  Ostensibly done to reduce pecking/fighting, industry insiders refer to debeaking by the more benign term “beak trimming,” likening the procedure to trimming the nails of a dog. This practice is cited as humane, in that it "aids in reducing cannibalism in crowded chicken pens", which is therefore is a “benefit” to the birds (Guither, 1998, 93). Peter Singer offers a dramatically different view on the procedure:

"First started in San Diego in the 1940’s, debeaking used to be performed with a blowtorch. The farmer would burn away the upper beaks of the chickens so that they were unable to pick at each other’s feathers. A modified soldering iron soon replaced this crude technique, and today specially designed guillotinelike devices with hot blades are the preferred instrument. The infant chick’s beak is inserted into the instrument, and the hot blade cuts off the end of it. The procedure is carried out very quickly, about fifteen birds a minute. Such haste means that the temperature and sharpness of the blade can vary, resulting in sloppy cutting and serious injury to the bird" (Singer, 101).

This procedure is often performed more than once on ‘layer’ chickens, in that their life expectancy is much greater—a full year, versus only 8-10 weeks average for broilers--yet still well short of the natural lifespan of 15+ years for a domestic chicken. Perhaps this hastened death is a blessing, compared with such a stark existence: suffocating darkness, no ability to nest or mate or even perch on level ground, force-molting, beak & toe clipping, the immobility of a tight cage lined with urine-saturated, burning litter.  The facts seem clear: chickens suffer on factory farms. What of other animals?

Cattle Facts

Along with chickens and other animals, big corporations also intensively farm veal and beef, and these mammals experience equally harsh conditions. Preece and Chamberlain describe just one aspect of cattle farming:

On many farms 80-120 cattle are kept in a single barn, remaining in their stalls throughout their lives, often tethered on chain leashes. Such cattle are forced to stand on slatted floors so that their feces and urine will disappear—or partly disappear anyway—through the slats. Since farmers put cattle grids on the roadways because hoofed animals would not cross them, we can imagine how cows feel about the slatted floors (222).

Calves, in particular, suffer mercilessly during their short lives due to the criteria of the marketplace: iron and exercise must be avoided altogether to render the slaughtered flesh its characteristic paleness and tenderness. Early on, the calf is taken from its mother and placed in a small enough stall so as to prevent all exertion, even in the form of the baby cow licking itself or turning around. Raised in utter darkness (once again, in an attempt to keep the restless animal calm) and solitariness, the calves are fed all-liquid diets and are given no hay for bedding, to prevent the ‘danger’ of the animal trying to consume it for roughage. The lack of being able to turn is important, too, in that the craving for iron becomes so strong that the calf would drink its own urine if allowed, a typically repugnant act for free animals. This solitary immobility (lack of activity, lack of contact with other cows or any other visual stimulation) leads to a life of unimaginable boredom and deprivation. Singer cites a Dutch researcher’s observation:

Veal calves suffer from the inability to do something [since] the food-intake of a veal calf takes only 20 minutes a day! Besides that there is nothing the animal can do . . . one can observe teeth grinding, tail wagging, tongue swaying and other stereotyped behavior. Such stereotype movements can be regarded as a reaction to a lack of occupation (135).

As we move higher up the food chain, deplorable conditions take on an added emotional depth in relation to the level of consciousness an animal possesses, although intelligence should not be a factor in validating or repudiating suffering, which we will discuss later in this project.  In any case, the bleakness of a cow’s life is met by a rough and terrifying death.

In theory, mammals are supposed to be rendered unconscious before slaughter, usually by a blunt trauma to the head or via electrocution (called “stunning”),  which sounds good in theory if one overlooks the fact that electric shock is not a painless experience. For more information on stunning, see "The Slaughter of Animals for Food". Studies cited in Singer denote the fact that electroshock therapy on humans is now “normally administered under a general anesthetic,” and electric currents often render victims “paralyzed but not unconscious” (Singer, 152). While unconscious, as is mainly but not exclusively the case, the animals are then hung by hind legs upon a moving conveyor belt, in deference to laws (such as the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906) which guard against the contamination or intermingling of slain animal blood. Thus, a typical slaughter scenario can be summarized in this way:

At a standard beef slaughterhouse, 250 cattle are killed every hour. As the assembly line speeds up, workers are rushed, and it becomes increasingly difficult to treat animals with any semblance of humaneness. Prior to being hung up by their back legs and bled to death, cattle are supposed to be rendered unconscious. This ‘stunning’ is usually done by a mechanical blow to the head (a ‘pistol’ is set against an animal’s head and a metal rod is thrust into its brain). The procedure is terribly imprecise, and inadequate stunning is inevitable (a struggling animal is a moving target). The result of poor stunning is conscious animals hanging upside down, kicking and struggling, while a slaughterhouse worker makes another attempt to render them unconscious. Eventually the animals will be ‘stuck’ in the throat with a knife, and blood will gush from their bodies whether or not they are unconscious. (See Factory Farming.)

Another website lists details from graphic books such as Slaughterhouse, by humane investigator Gail Eisnitz, who comments on one processing factory: “It was a plant where squealing pigs were left straddling the restrainer and dangling live by one leg when workers left the stick pit for their half-hour lunch breaks; stunners were shocking hogs three and four times” (Vegan Outreach).  Other segments at this same website discuss more details of shameful slaughter suffering:

According to Steve Cockerham, a USDA inspector at Nebraska slaughterhouses, and former USDA veterinarian Lester Friedlander, some U.S. slaughterhouses routinely skin live cattle, immerse squealing pigs in scalding water, and abuse still conscious animals in other ways to keep production lines moving quickly. The men stated that the federal law requiring slaughterhouses to kill animals humanely has been increasingly ignored as meat plants grow bigger. Cockerham said that he often saw plant workers cut the feet, ears, and udders off cattle that were conscious on the production line after stun guns failed to work properly. “They were still blinking and moving. It’s a sickening thing to see”, he said (Reuters, 4/2/98).

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) reports that 250 animals are killed every second in the USA alone (see "Meat Stinks").

What are humans to make of such details?  Traditional justifications seem frail in the face of the overwhelming probability of great suffering in factory farms and slaughterhouses.


The Killing of Sheep

By Shelli Jankowski-Smith

The slaughterer heaves two sheep
down into a barren room. Pure meat, halal meat,
is hard to get here, only a man trained in the ways
of Islam can supply meat pure in His sight.

The sheep are heaved down onto newspaper
like unopened buckets
of paint, their legs bound
in a fray of nylon twine and curls.

Matted with fear, urine seeping down a leg.
They stare blankly at walls. They stare
and blink at the wall where a shadow of
one throat is stretched back, back to this

precise blade which pauses
slices down right to left in one slow rip and
withdraws from the inevitable twitch
of spray, the pool now thickly

slopping under a shoulder
the slight warmth of that shoulder.
"Bism 'Allah in the name of Allah
I do this thing I ask your forgiveness I ask

to eat your flesh drink your blood
I ask your understanding
as God is my witness I always wait
for the restraining hand."

Shelli Jankowski-Smith

Section II: Theological Reflections

For the purposes of this essay, a subtle distinction should be made between theology and ethics. While there exists a patent civic notion of duty, ‘oughtness’ and legalities wholly apart from religion, my task here is to more narrowly locate the issue within the context of the principles of Christianity. Even that focus is uncomfortably expansive, as it suggests the development of a complete historical survey with attendant, systematic answers. This scope of our inquiry here is far more modest: how can we connect God, as defined in this case through the language and symbols of Christianity, to animal suffering? Although this remains a multifarious, highly-nuanced subject, broadly speaking there appears to be three very general modes of theological thought that attempt to answer the “where’s God?” question:

The Anthropocentric Orientation. . . which leaves God significantly out of the fray. This mode of thought says that animals are simply lower life forms, created to be used for human needs and desires, and therefore any debate on humans vs. animals is outside of the categories of morality and spirituality. This orientation theorizes that animal-human relations do not call for sacred attention, that farming (intensive or not) is a distinctly secular practice. Almost ironically, a common refrain here is that violence is “natural” . . . the strong kill the weak as part of a predator/victim cycle (“food chain”).

The Eschatological Orientation . . . which restrains God’s active presence until the end when divine judgment is issued. In the meantime, God is like a heavenly court stenographer, cataloging the actions of humanity on the great stage of Planet Earth, with a view to the great day when all injustices will be righted. In this model, animals are spiritual canvases upon which humans paint their fate in either sinful or salvific colors. The question is: How will God regard the way human beings treated animals under their care?

The Intrinsic Orientation . . . which places God squarely into the debate by positing God’s presence not only at the very beginning of natural history but also at every moment and every place throughout nature. In this model, God—as Divine Author and Sustainer of all living things—has a vested interest in the on-going well being of the Godly creation. Accordingly, human beings should value non-human life because God does; God is the ultimate valuer of everything in nature. This kind of theology envisions a ‘great web of being,' an interconnectedness of all things . . . we all spring from the same source and will return to there one more.

In order to assess these positions, we should first turn to the Bible, as it remains the significant Christian moral compass. What does the Christian faith tradition have to say regarding the treatment of animals? The answer is that the Bible is strangely silent on the subject. For a religion defined by such a heavy emphasis on practical social issues (feed the orphan and widow), there is a dearth of teaching on non-human justice. In fact, it has often been said in the last decade that not only is Christianity less than adequate as a foundation for dealing with eco-justice issues (from bio-devastation to animal considerations, et al), it has in fact been a potent force against ecological and species integrity.

Model One: The Anthropocentric Orientation

A catalyst for this critique of Christianity came in the late sixties, when Lynn White published a scathing text which claimed, among other things, that the Bible fostered a Anthropocentric exploitation of nature, primarily via Genesis exhortations for humankind to “subdue the earth” and “have dominion” over all living things. White stressed that Christianity bears a “huge burden of guilt” for bio-devastation and animal abuses:

[Christianity] not only established a dualism of man and nature, but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends (White, 1967, 1203-7).

Two points raised in this particular quote are worth noting: (1) the positing of humans over against nature, i.e. separate and apart from; and (2) the use of the so-called dominion mandate as a basis for unchecked human avarice. Both of these constitute hierarchical thinking as a core motif, and most of the arguments cited against Christianity’s effectiveness as an animal-compassionate religious model are clustered here. This line of reasoning demonstrates the first orientation of theological reflection on animal suffering. Tucker and Grim, in Christianity and Ecology, also note:

For the most part, the worldviews associated with traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have created a dominantly human-focused morality. Because these worldviews are largely anthropocentric, nature is viewed as being of secondary importance. This is reinforced by a strong sense of the transcendence of God above nature (Tucker and Grim, 2000, xxv).

A refinement to this kind of frank system occurs at least by the Middle Ages. Just as theological thinking arcs from the simplified, rigid dualisms of the material/spiritual toward positions of greater complexity and adequacy, so we can see greater subtlety emerge in the corresponding ethical issues. Indeed, following but not limited to apologists such as Francis, animals are seen to be useful to humans in a slightly more sophisticated way than simply supper.

Model Two: The Eschatological Orientation

St. Thomas Aquinas, via Aristotle, considered animals ‘dumb brutes,’ hardwired for action and without rational capacity, and as such, important only insofar as the animals serve as foils to mankind’s (sic) ethical status:

If in Holy Scripture, there are found some injunctions forbidding the infliction of some cruelty towards brute animals, this is either for removing man’s mind from exercising cruelty upon brutes, should it go on hence to other human beings; or because the injury inflicted upon animals turns to a temporal loss for some other man, either the person who inflicts the injury or some other (Aquinas, I-II, Q cii, a.6)


Beings that may be treated simply as a means to the perfection of persons can have no rights and to this category the brute creation belongs. In the Divine plan of the universe the lower creatures are subordinated to the welfare of man. . . (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, as seen in Turner, 1964, 24).

Because animals were thought to be lacking in reason, they were thought to lack souls, and by extrapolation, moral rights. Many theologians today fall into this mode of thought. In fact, in initiating this paper, I overtly suspected that animal suffering could/should be at heart a direct comment on “anthropodicy,” or the nature of the human condition. In this way I sought another avenue for taking animals seriously: sanctification. I believed that all repercussions and potential solutions in the animal debate had to do with the rupture and repair of the Covenant that God formed with all creatures, human and non-human. For a long time, I have counted the addressing of cruelty as sin as one of religion’s greatest potential contributions to the debate.

Though not classified as an eschatological theologian, and belonging in the intrinsic camp with regard to his view of animals, Robert Neville offers a finely crafted tenets for the argument at hand. In particular, he describes sin as distortion of the covenant in his systematic theology. One example, he claims, is impiety, which can be seen as a strong component in animal suffering. Neville defines impiety as:

[The] rejection of finite things involved in processes of nature/society as bearers of the Divine. As God is creator of everything determinate, every such thing is a terminus of the divine creative act, and an expression of the divine. Therefore, God is in each thing. Impiety is the treatment of a thing as a mere thing, perhaps useful to human life, but irrespective of the fact that the thing is a creature of God, bearing the creator’s presence, and expressing a worth. Impiety is the attitude that treats things only from one’s human perspective, not from the divine perspective (Neville, 1991, 66-67).

Although the eschatological orientation offers more promise to animal quality of life than the strictly anthropocentric model (it at least implies culpability for humans who are cruel), I have discovered that it is nonetheless quite limiting for true animal liberation. It still misses the point, in that it is still strongly focused on human beings and their interests.

One key component that can be found in both of the first two models, as opposed to the final orientation, is the position that animals have no souls. This distinction creates a wellspring of justification for all kinds of abuse. But is this age-old adage really true? Is it rational to perpetuate Christianity’s hallowed notion that only humans go to what Muir has called a 'stingy heaven'?  Linzey offers a striking refutation:

There is something theologically odd about all discussion of immortal souls—the plain absurdity, no less, of humans deciding for themselves which essential or substantial qualities qualify them for eternal life and which may or may not exclude animals. Despite the colossal weight placed on these discussions . . . I suggest that they are theologically a false trail. Eternal life is God’s own gift; it is not something which we can merit. The divine prerogative is total and absolute here. Instead of reducing immortality to theological anthropology we should concentrate our vision on how the Christian God is simultaneously Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer. If full weight is given to God’s gracious and wide-ranging activity in creation, then it is inconceivable that the God who redeems will be less than the God who creates. That said, there is not a weaker but a stronger case for animal redemption that must be drawn from the nature of God revealed in Christ, for that God is pre-eminently a God who has taken sides with the weak, the vulnerable, the innocent (Yamamoto and Linzey, 1998, 119).

Indeed, I believe there is a subtle danger present in perpetuating the notion that animals serve human needs, even spiritual needs. This is an important distinction: if our treatment of animals is important merely because it speaks to the depth of our own holiness or ultimate salvation, then once again animals are seen as being only of instrumental value in the human-controlled world. Can't animals have an intrinsic value, in and of themselves, apart from any comment upon humanity’s agendas?

Model Three: The Intrinsic Orientation

Model #3 considers animals to have an inherent worth and dignity, as created by and for God, completely separate of their relationship to humans. Process Theology’s ideal of a great web of life is one manifestation, and Hessel and Ruether add another helpful viewpoint in this mode:

All of the earth community is valuable to God, who. . . understood in holistic, organic terms, relates directly to and cares for the well being of everykind, not just humankind. Otherkind exist to enjoy being in their own right, not only to function as companions or helpers of humankind (Hessel and Reuther, 2000, xxxv).

Sallie McFague’s essay An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have It? reaches some of the same conclusions presented in the intrinsic model. She purports that an ecological Christology must include:

the realization that solidarity with the oppressed will result in cruciform living for the affluent; the recognition that God is with us, embodied not only in Jesus of Nazareth but all of nature; the appreciation of the intrinsic worth of all life-forms, not just of human beings; the acknowledgement that human salvation or well-being and nature’s health are intrinsically related (MacFague, 2000, 33). 

Related not as co-dependents, with humans feeding off of non-humans for spiritual brownie points, but rather, related as siblings, tumbling and falling together in the great dramatic sweep of the galaxies, all created by God.


Reformation is needed in our culture regarding the status and rights of animals to be treated with respect. At the final analysis, I do not take a hard-line stand on sweeping and resolute vegetarianism per se. Although I believe health benefits and global consciousness in equitable distribution of resources eventually point to vegetarianism, I nonetheless do not take that stand theologically. I do believe that the Christian faith tradition absolutely precludes cruelty as an ethical principle, however. This sense of justice must be brought to bear against the pressures of capitalism. The pursuit of profit in agri-business, coupled with the rise of animal-as-commodity mentality, have created an unprecedented level of suffering, one which Christians must face with courage and thoughtfulness.

This last point could be considered a first step in concretely addressing animal suffering from a religious stance. It can be stated with a reasonable degree of plausibility that most Americans are only vaguely aware of the mechanisms by which the agricultural industry stocks our grocery shelves and refrigerator units. We acquiesce into an unspoken agreement that the details are best left unsaid: animal flesh is then offered for purchase already disassembled (sans eyes or ears, etc.) in shrink-wrapped packages labeled “Pork” or “Veal” (certainly not “pig” or “baby calf”).  Preece and Chamberlain elaborate:

We like our meat to bear as little resemblance to the outward appearance of an animal as possible, and the lack of direct reference to the animal makes meat more palatable. We couldn’t choose a live lobster from a tank but have no difficulty enjoying it served anonymously. We feel what the Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith meant when he wrote, ‘They pity, and then eat the objects of their compassion.’ (Preece and Chamberlain, 1993, 212).

Our culturally approved alienation from the true reality of the source of meat is a leading factor in the abuse of animals through intensive farming. We are de-sensitized. We must quite literally come back to our senses. Certainly we have evolved far from the days of hunting and gathering, where the male hunts and the female cleans and cooks the carcass, each a very visceral experience. Our estrangement continues through the collective perpetuation of stereotyped ideas of farms: rolling hills and fresh hay, sunshine and feeding troths meticulously filled by kindly farmers in clean overalls. The disparity between the idealized picture of farming and the reality of United States agri-business is vast. We must awaken from our comfortable illusions.

The lethal factor our current and ongoing animal holocaust in America is deceptively simple: economics. Greater profits can be realized by increasing the number of animals living per square foot in any given farm space, as well as an increased speed at the time of slaughter and processing. Compassion is costly, in both time and space. Compassion therefore, is a luxury. This truth should be sobering: our capitalist system is a powerful tsunami, a sweeping wave of undeniable momentum. Would-be ethical impulses for good are overcome, covered over, and swept away by the great pounding of an incessant rationalization: how much return on the investment per square head? for the corporations, and how much will it cost me to feed my family this week? for the general public. Cruelty is cheap, in dollar terms, but is costly in the currency of human culpability.

Can Christianity make the turn towards solving this very modern problem, or will churches hide their collective heads in the sand?  Theologians like Hessel and Ruether call for a re-thinking of Christian ethical and moral priorities, a throwing aside of Anthropocentric and even eschatological orientations:

The need for ecological reformation arises from fundamental failures of Christian and other religious traditions [re:] to adapt to the limiting conditions of life; to recognize intricate and interdependent relationships involving humankind with the rest of nature; and to respond with benevolence and justice to the theological and biological fact of human kinship with other creatures (Hessel and Reuther, xxxvii).

All living organisms require food to sustain their life. Within that absolute, human beings must grasp with compassion the nuanced complexity of interdependence: the use of animal protein for sustenance does not require the brazen cruelty of factory farming. Alternatives to factory farming must be sought out. This may involve using biotechnologies to mass-produce non-animal protein for human consumption (see David Pearce, "The Hedonistic Imperative").

Theologians must reasonably appropriate Biblical teachings for our changed, modern context. Contrary to criticism levied, Christian Scriptures are a veritable treasure trove for a responsible moral system. We must return to the Old and New Testaments of the Christian canon and rediscover core values for justice for non-human beings: love of neighbor.

Who is our neighbor?

All living beings.

For more information about you can get involved in animal activism, visit the following sites: PETA, Factory Farming, and Vegan Outreach. Also, see the links listed at Vegetarian Central.

Works Cited   


Guither, Harold. 199. Animal Rights: History and Scope of a Radical Social Movement. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Hessel, D., and Ruether, Rosemary Radford. 2000. “Introduction: Current Thought on Christianity and Ecology,” in Hessel and Ruether, eds. Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Linzey, Andrew. 1976. Animal Rights. London: SCM Press, LTD.

McFague, Sally. 2000. “An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have It?,” in Hessel and Ruether, eds. Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Neville, Robert. 1991.  A Theological Primer.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Preece, R., and Chamberlain, L. 1993. Animal Welfare & Human Values. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Singer, Peter. 1990. Animal Liberation. New York, New York: Random House.

White, Lynn. March, 1967. “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”, Science, vol. 155, no. 3767.

Yamamoto, D. and Linzey, A. 1998. Animal on the Agenda. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Web Pages

Factory Farming

The Hedonistic Imperative

Meat Stinks


The Slaughter of Animals for Food

Vegan Outreach

Photo Credits

Photos pertaining to animals are used gratefully with permission from the photo galleries of the Factory Farming and PETA sites. Other photos appear to be in the public domain. Please notify me at the feedback address if you have information to the contrary.

The information on this page is copyright 1994-2010, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.