Category Archives: animals

Disguising power as piety

In an article for Christianity Today, Bret Mavrich recounts his visit to Lamppost Farm. Lamppost was founded by Steve and Mel Montgomery as a nonprofit “ministry” where Steve attempts “to kill chickens as God intended—and, by that, connect people with the goodness of God and his grace that overcomes human sin and limitations.”

Mavrich describes the chicken slaughter process and recalls how Steve coached the various participants past their disinclination to kill. After the second killing doesn’t go as smoothly as the first, Mavrich admits to Montgomery that he is disturbed. Montgomery replies, “It’s supposed to be. We’re not supposed to take a life and then say, Well, whatever. That’s not how we’re made.” Mavrich writes:

That simple truth resonates long afterward. Everything at the farm, from Steve and me to the chicken to the land, has a Creator. And because of this, I hold no ultimate mastery over the bird I have just killed, because it wasn’t mine to begin with. The hen was a gift. I’m intimately bound to a chicken in a relationship because I took its life, in the sight of God and with my own hands, to nourish mine.

Suddenly, I’m thinking new thoughts, the kind the Montgomerys had hoped for. Food doesn’t come from a grocery store. The grocery store delivers to me, a consumer, not chickens but pieces of chickens, without a trace of the process, much less the living animal. Food doesn’t even come from Lamppost Farm, a sustainable, gmo-free, free-range paradise that’s as close to Eden as you could hope for in Ohio. No, food comes from God.

Here, at Lamppost, knowing this enhances what you’re eating because every hen is a gift, and has been received as such and treated as such every step of the way. And if we’ve overlooked gifts as bountiful as these, where else have we missed God reaching out to us in small ways, maybe all the time?

This is pious sentiment designed to obscure a relationship of power and dominance.

Mavrich claims not to have mastery of the chicken he killed. But he clearly does. He took the chicken from the cage, hung it upside down, and slit its throats. He’s holding the knife; he has the power. I’m sure there were God-fearing Southerners who regarded their African slaves as gifts entrusted to their care by a gracious God. It doesn’t make it true.

The chicken was not a gift. It did not offer itself and God did not hand it to Mavrich. Mavrich willingly participated in a system that raises and slaughters chickens simply because we enjoy the taste of their flesh. We have engineered this system – even to the point of altering the DNA of chickens so that they will produce more white meat. We use chickens to satisfy our desires. Invoking God as giver is pure post hoc rationalization.

Yes, I’m a vegan. Yes, I’m involved in efforts to rescue farmed animals. And, yes, many people regard those things as slightly crazy. But let us at least be honest about the exercise of our power and not pass it off as God’s design. That’s been done before, with disastrous results.

Montaigne on animals

[Montaigne] was not the only writer of his time to oppose hunting or torture. What is unusual in Montaigne is his reason for it: his visceral rapport with others. When speaking to the Brazilian Indians in Rouen, he was struck by how they spoke of men as halves of one another, wondering at the sight of rich Frenchmen gorging themselves while their “other halves” starved on their doorstep. For Montaigne, all humans share an element of their being, and so do all other living things. “It is one and the same nature that rolls its course.” Even if animals were less similar to us than they are, we would still owe them a duty of fellow-feeling, simply because they are alive.

There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.

This obligation applies in trivial encounters as well as life-or-death ones. We owe other beings the countless small acts of kindness and empathy that Nietzsche would describe as “goodwill.” After the passage just quoted, Montaigne added this remark about his dog:

I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.

He indulges his dog because he can imaginatively share the animal’s point of view: he can feel how desperate the dog is to banish boredom and get his human friend’s attention. Pascal mocked Montaigne for this, saying that Montaigne rides his horse as one who does not believe it to be his right to do so, and who wonders whether “the animal, on the contrary, ought really to be making use of him.” This is exactly right – and, as much as it annoyed Pascal, it would have pleased Nietzsche, who final mental breakdown is (unreliably) reported to have begun with his flinging his arms around a horse’s neck on a Turin street and bursting into tears.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live, pp 179-180