This is a gentle and muted description of the treatment of factory-farmed cows. You can watch videos online that show just how cruelly the cows are treated and just how grim the workers’ jobs are. There is no joy there.
This is not the end, the purpose, of creation. Scripture offers ample images to help us identify broken relationships and redirect us toward the radically harmonious relationships to come in the fullness of time.
The prophet Isaiah schools the people of God in faithfulness, calling out their failures and redirecting them toward rightly ordered relationships. When the whole world is transformed by righteousness in the Lord, Isaiah proclaims, no creature will need to suffer and die in order that other creatures may thrive. Humans will lay down their swords and machines of destruction; all animals will set aside their aggression, carnivory, and fears. Note the extra attention Isaiah gives to cows. He says:
The wolves, lambs, leopards, and goats will live comfortably together. Calves and lions will hang out and eat straw together. Cows and bears will graze together, while calves and baby bears nap together. Human children, still nursing, will play where the cobra lives, and weaned children will put their hands safely into the adder’s home. No creature will hurt or destroy any other creature.
Today, Isaiah might well add: ‘Cows will nurse their calves and humans will nurse their babies. Cows and humans will all enjoy fresh air and freedom from oppression’.
Unrealistic? Isaiah is not aiming at realism here. Realism claims that some creatures must destroy other creatures. Human animals use realism to defend the need to treat nonhuman animals as products. Isaiah names the brokenness that disrupts all creaturely flourishing, not just human flourishing. And he points to the fullness of creation freed from normative abuse. Even if the peaceable kingdom seems impossible now, it’s clear that industrial farming does not reflect or anticipate that kind of flourishing.
The Christian narration of salvation traces God’s creation through humanity’s persistent rejection of both God and the goodness of creation, and through the systemic effects of cumulative human brokenness—brokenness too pervasive for humans to fix. All of creation suffers together from human sinfulness and groans together in hope of a most unrealistic salvation.
Paul, in his letter to the Colossians that we heard earlier, proclaims the salvation of creation—the salvation of humans and cows—that comes through Christ who reconciles creation. Christ, fully human and fully the divine Son of God, dies a creaturely—and very realistic—death. That death does not bind Christ to the limits of death. He lives again, beyond death. He releases all of creation with him, from sin and the deathly effects of sin, in the reconciliation of all things.
Paul explains that
...all things have been created through Christ and for Christ.
Christ himself is before all things, Christ holds all things together in him.
For in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things--all of creation-- whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
So, Christ holds together the divisions we cause. And Christ establishes a creation-wide reconciliation of all relationships, that reaches beyond the divisions of species and the separation of death.
Christ’s reconciliation addresses every thwarted opportunity for joyful flourishing, for praising God—sibling rivalries, political infighting, warfare, hunters and their prey. It includes all those involved in the industry of intensive dairy farming—from corporate leaders, to factory workers, to cows, to consumers. Christ suffered and died for humans and for cows, so that both can flourish without harming the other, along with lions, leopards, little goats, and adders.