"Slaughter, Suffering, and Shame: An American Christian Reflection on Factory Farming"
we're wide awake now,
all we can do is watch,
You go into a deeper darkness
searching for the Father
trying to find a meaning
and wanting to be able
We sense you on the edge
and we know that the battle is joined.
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.
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.’
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?
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:
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.
animal rights activist Peter Singer believes that agri-business is a
particularly acute sphere of animal abuse. In the seminal Animal
Liberation, he writes:
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
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,
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).
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
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.
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.
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:
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).
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?
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:
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:
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
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:
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
segments at this same website discuss more details of shameful slaughter
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
The sheep are heaved down onto newspaper
Matted with fear, urine seeping down a leg.
precise blade which pauses
slopping under a shoulder
to eat your flesh drink your blood
© Shelli Jankowski-Smith
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.
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
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:
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:
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.
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
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.
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:
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:
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?
#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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
even eschatological orientations:
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.
Harold. 199. Animal Rights: History
and Scope of a Radical Social Movement. Carbondale: Southern Illinois
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.
Andrew. 1976. Animal Rights.
London: SCM Press, LTD.
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.
Robert. 1991. A
Theological Primer. Albany:
State University of New York Press.
R., and Chamberlain, L. 1993. Animal
Welfare & Human Values. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Peter. 1990. Animal Liberation.
New York, New York: Random House.
Lynn. March, 1967. “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”,
Science, vol. 155, no. 3767.
D. and Linzey, A. 1998. Animal on
the Agenda. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
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