New Animal Welfare Standards for Organic Meat and Dairy Products Are Withdrawn. Now What?

by Lois Godfrey Wye

On January 19, 2017, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final rule imposing new requirements on suppliers of organic meats and dairy products. The new rule set certain standards for animal care, to “create[] greater consistency in organic livestock and poultry practice standards” and “to assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent and uniform standard.”[1] The effective date of the regulations was repeatedly delayed, however, and on March 13, 2018, the USDA announced it was withdrawing the rule. No new standards for animal care will be required for organic meat or dairy products. Why did the agency change its mind? And what does it mean for us, as Christians who care about how animals in our food supply are treated?

 Sprinkles | Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals 

Sprinkles | Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals 

The Rule

First, let’s take a quick look at what the regulations would—and would not—have done. Kitty Block, Acting CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, summarized the requirements this way in her blog, A Humane Nation:

[The regulations] encompassed an array of housing, husbandry, and management standards, standards that consumers expect when they buy organic products. The rule prohibited cruel practices like “tail docking” of cattle and transporting animals too sick or injured to endure the journey. The rule also ensured that animals raised under the standard could not be tightly confined, and it set minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for egg-laying chickens. Importantly, the rule closed a loophole in current regulations that allow large poultry companies to skirt the law and use screened-in porches to satisfy “outdoor access” requirements.[2]

Gene Baur, of Farm Sanctuary, however, points out that even these protections were “minimal,” that many cruel practices would have been permitted, and “and ultimately, animals raised for organic certification, like other animals exploited for food, are treated more like commodities than like living feeling animals . . . The updated organic rule limits some of the abuses routinely endured by farm animals, but it still places commercial interests above ethical considerations.”[3]

What Happened?

So why are these improvements, minimal or otherwise, not going into effect? After the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the new administration wanted to review the rule, so it delayed the implementation date, and took public comment on whether or not the regulations should be withdrawn. Public comments overwhelmingly favored allowing the regulations to go into effect—by a margin of 63,000 comments supporting the rule to 50 comments opposing it[4]—but the USDA determined, after reexamining the statute under which the regulations had been issued, that it did not have legal authority to impose requirements regarding animal care.  Instead, the agency believes its authority is limited to restricting use of chemicals or synthetic substances in feed, nontherapeutic use of medications, and similar activities for organically-produced meats and dairy products. It also believes that the costs and benefits of the regulations had been inaccurately calculated and that the costs of the regulations outweighed the benefits.

In assessing the benefits of the regulation, the agency did not consider benefits to the animals themselves, which it called “speculative.”[5] The issue is addressed only in the context of economic benefits, and the agency observed that “it is uncertain that organic farmers and consumers would see positive impacts from implementation of the OLPP rule. The assertion that the OLPP final rule would result in economic benefits from healthier animals is not supported by information or research linking outdoor access on pasture or vegetation to improved economic outcomes for producers.”[6] Consideration of what may or may not be humane treatment does not appear to have entered into the calculus.

A Christian Response

It is, of course, heartbreaking to lose an opportunity for real improvement in the way at least some of the animals in our food system are treated. But, without debating the correctness of the agency’s decision, what does this mean for us, as Christians who care about animals? 

First, as Christians, we do not have the luxury of giving up hope. Writing this on Holy Saturday, I think of the words of Fr. James Martin, “We are called to the wait of the Christian, which is called hope. It is an active waiting; it knows that, even in the worst of situations, even in the darkest times, God is powerfully at work, even if we cannot see it clearly right now.”[7] Because hope is an “active waiting,” we can and must continue to work for change and to support animal welfare improvements whenever the opportunity presents itself. This is the work of caring for God’s creation and bringing God’s kingdom nearer.

Second, even as we continue to work for institutional change to benefit animals, both the rule and its roll back underscore the limitations of that process. As Gene Baur explained, the rule “still place[d] commercial interests above ethical considerations,” and the animals were still seen as commodities rather than living beings. While the rule would have meant definite improvement for some animals in the food system, they were limited changes for a limited number of animals. We cannot depend on Caesar to implement our ethics for us. Many organic farmers who supported this rule did so because of consumer demand for a reliable organic label that would provide assurance of certain standards.[8] This is a testament to the importance of personal choices in driving change. Our choices and our behavior matter—not just to us, but to those around us. We need to live our ethics. 

If we choose to eat meat or dairy products, we have to do the research to find suppliers who meet our ethical requirements. That means we need to know what food labels really mean—which can be a challenge, because they are often misleading.[9] It also means we need to look past the labels to find out whatever we can about the brand. We are responsible for our choices, and we cannot pass the implications of our actions on others.[10] 

It also means that—whether we choose to eat meat and dairy products or not—we have an opportunity for education. We can make sure that people who do so choose are aware that “organic” does not mean “humane,” and if they are concerned about animal welfare, they, too, need to understand labels and suppliers. There is a great deal of misunderstanding among consumers, and if we have lost an opportunity to see some industry-wide standards implemented and clarity in labeling, we have not lost the opportunity to continue to speak out to our friends, our families, and others to help them understand what labels mean—and what they do not mean. 

For Christians, loss is never defeat, and as we live in hope and gratitude, we will continue to seek ways to bring the Kingdom nearer.   

Cropped photo - me at WARL event.jpg

Lois Godfrey Wye has a Masters Degree in the Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary, where her studies focused on the intersection of animal welfare and Christian theology. She is an environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the Board of Directors of the Humane Rescue Alliance. She blogs (occasionally) at Dominion In The Image of God

References

[1] 82 Federal Register 7042 (Jan 19, 2017).  

[2] A Humane Nation, March 13, 2018.

[3] Farm Sanctuary, Compassionate Communities Campaign, Modest Organic Farm Animal Welfare Standards Draw Ire of Agribusiness, undated, https://ccc.farmsanctuary.org/organic-standards-draw-ire/.

[4] 83 Federal Register 10775 (March 13, 2018)

[5] 83 Federal Register 10779.  https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2018-05029/p-56

[6] Id.

[7] Father James Martin: Holy Saturday Teaches Us The Right Way to Wait, America, The Jesuit Review, April 15, 2017, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/04/15/father-james-martin-holy-saturday-teaches-christians-right-way-wait.

[8] 83 Federal Register 10779.

[9] The Animal Welfare Institute has this helpful guide.

[10] There is a confession of sin used in the Episcopal Church which asks forgiveness for “the evil done on our behalf.” Enriching our Worship, p. 56.  Reprinted here. https://www.facebook.com/stcolumbasmaine/posts/499669426761028 I cannot say this without thinking of animals on factory farms, fur farms, in labs or circuses, or other places so terrible for them for the supposed benefit of humans. 

Objections to a Christian Food Ethic Treating the Consumption of Animals

The following is an excerpt of a paper ("Consuming Animal Creatures: The Christian Ethics of Eating Animals") written and given by David Clough at the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics annual meeting and published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics. Read the full article

by David Clough

 David Clough

David Clough

We are rightly sceptical about ethical arguments for radical positions, so before presenting arguments in favour of my position, let me consider three potentially fatal points that would quickly defeat the argument I am seeking to develop.

First, it seems unlikely that the vast majority of Christians today and in past generations could be in error in failing to recognise that their faith required abstention from most animal products. There is a strong and plausible argument from conservatism that should make us pause before accepting this judgement, and a parallel requirement on anyone advancing such a claim to provide an error theory explaining how things could have come to such a pass. My explanation for this is that the ways in which farmed animals are raised has changed radically and Christians, together with others, have been inattentive to these changes. I was shocked when I first came across the claim, not so long ago, that the first large-scale rearing of farmed animals exclusively for meat was in England in the late eighteenth century: up to that point meat was largely a by-product of keeping animals for other reasons, such as milk, eggs and wool. Meat was a cash-crop made possible by the Highland clearances in Scotland and the enclosures in England, displacing the largely arable agriculture of the poor, and, as Percy Bysshe Shelley noted in 1813, causing wastage of food productivity ‘absolutely incapable of calculation’.(1) The intensification of farmed animal production has developed over the past two hundred years since, but accelerated rapidly from the mid-twentieth century. Most farmed animals are now raised in ways that would be unrecognisable in comparison to conditions only a few decades ago. Broiler hens are a particularly extreme example: bred through intricate multi-generational programmes to reach slaughter weight at only 35 days old, their young legs unfit to support their unwieldy bodies, living the entirety of their lives in warehouses with artificial night and day, automated feeding and climate control, with human interaction restricted to a daily patrol to remove the dead, and finally stuffing them into crates for transport to slaughter. I still remember the experience of holding a straggly 16 day old hen in the midst of a huge broiler shed, surrounded by 26,000 of its fellows, with 23 similar sheds nearby, filled with the 600,000 birds that had been delivered together as day-old chicks two weeks previously. I had the strong sense that these animals were not being treated as animals, but as a crop, grown for harvest. The hen I held had only just lost its fluffy yellow chick feathers, yet was nearly halfway through its life. Pigs fare little better: most are also raised indoors in crowded conditions where farmers often resort to cutting off their tails to reduce the injuries from aggression and boredom that such intelligent and socially complex animals experience in such a monotonous environment.

 Organic, free-range, family run chicken farm. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Organic, free-range, family run chicken farm. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

My point is that most of what now generates the need for radical changes in the Christian ethics of consuming animals is radical changes in farmed animal practice—changes which the farming industry has understandably not been active in publicising to consumers, and of which most consumers have therefore been unaware.

Therefore, the act of eating chicken today is different ethically from the act of our grandparents eating chicken, which they did much less frequently because before the invention of broiler hens chicken was a luxury compared with cheaper alternatives such as beef.(2) My position does not imply a retrospective judgement that our grandparents were wrong in eating farmed animals, but that the nature of the industry now is that we almost always are. It is also helpful to note that my position is also not a retrospective judgement in relation to what Jesus ate, which is commonly raised in discussions of Christian vegetarianism. Animals were not raised intensively in first-century Palestine, so my argument that intensively raised farmed animals should be off the table for Christians do not apply to Jesus’ dietary choices. In summary, I am arguing that the primary reason most Christians have not recognised the ethical problems associated with eating animal products is that farmed animal practice has changed comparatively recently and we have failed to attend to and appreciate the ethical implications of this change.

 Rescued rooster. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Rescued rooster. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

A second potential way of defeating my argument that Christians should not consume products derived from farmed animals that have not been allowed to flourish as fellow creatures of God begins from New Testament teaching. ‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Mk 7:18-19). These scatological words of Jesus recorded by Mark and echoed by Matthew (Mt. 15:11, 16) seem to short-circuit any Christian food ethics, especially as Mark adds the parenthesis that in saying this Jesus declared all foods clean. Other New Testament passages echo this license to eat freely: Jesus allows his disciples to pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath and eat them (Mk 2:23- 24 and par.); Paul states that only those weak in conscience are concerned about eating meat offered to idols, and states that eating or not eating is irrelevant to our relationship to God (1 Cor. 8:4-8; cf. Rom. 14:2); and Peter receives a shocking vision in which he is told to kill and eat all kinds of animals, because God has made them all clean (Acts 10:9- 16). Clearly, the very particular context of early Christian communities negotiating their relationship with Jewish food practices is a crucial background here, and is inappropriate to determine Christian food ethics entirely within this context, but the texts do not encourage Christian attention to the ethics of eating. Given this early history, it is surprising that Christian monastic movements so often made stringent dietary demands of their members, and that traditions of fasting became so widespread, but the Reformation questioned this practice, with Luther reemphasising Paul’s position that neither eating nor fasting counts for anything,(3) and much more recently in 1966 Roman Catholic fasting requirements were relaxed.(4) All this seems an unpromising context for Christian attention to the ethics of what we eat.

What we consume, including what we take in through our mouths, has obvious and problematic impacts on other humans, on non-human animals, and on the wider environment.

Yet what we eat is of very clear and direct relevance for Christian ethics, as captured memorably in the title of Ron Sider’s 1978 book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.(5) What we consume, including what we take in through our mouths, has obvious and problematic impacts on other humans, on non-human animals, and on the wider environment. To take one example: we currently devote 78 per cent of all agricultural land to raising farmed animals, and feed more than one third of global cereal output to those animals.(6) Philosophers and theologians from Plato onwards have noted that raising animals for meat is an inefficient use of land, and it is abundantly clear that fewer people would go hungry and thirsty if the land were used to grow crops instead, where this is possible.(7) We may disagree about the ethical implications of this observation, but we cannot reasonably use the biblical passages cited above to deny its relevance for Christian ethics.

As the growing literature in this area confirms, twenty-first-century Christian ethics cannot therefore afford to leave food ethics beyond its range of concerns.(8) There is nothing wrong in eating an apple as such, but if food is scarce and eating it would be to take more than our share, then the decision to take and eat it is obviously an ethical one. Similarly, if the apple has been produced under conditions that fail to provide adequately for agricultural workers, or using pesticides that poison sources of water, or do other unwarranted damage to other animals or the environment, this wider context makes the decision to purchase and consume it relevant to ethics. In a Christian context what we eat is an ethical question because of the implications of our consumption for fellow creatures of God. This is the basis for a Christian ethics of food.

 On dairy and veal farms, babies like this one are taken from their mothers within hours of birth and placed alone into small crates. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

On dairy and veal farms, babies like this one are taken from their mothers within hours of birth and placed alone into small crates. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

In this article, I want to focus on a particular part of this issue: the ethics of consuming animal products. Here we encounter a third possible defeater to the argument I announced. You may agree that Christian food ethics should properly take account of the implications of our consumption for our human neighbours, but deny that we should be concerned about the impacts on other animals. There are good theological foundations for such a lack of concern for animals. In Augustine’s discussion of the Decalogue prohibition of murder in The City of God, he notes that some people have said that the prohibition of killing should be extended to beasts and cattle, but that this would lead to a reductio ad absurdam because if it is unlawful to kill animals, why not plants as well? To avoid involving ‘ourselves in the foul error of the Manichees’, Augustine draws on the Greek idea of the soul as threefold: plants have a nutritive soul, animals have a sensitive soul in addition, but humans uniquely have a rational soul. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not refer to plants because they are not sensitive, and does not refer to animals because they have no society with us in reason, he argues, and because God has ordained that their deaths and lives may justly serve our use.(9) When Aquinas considers whether it is permissible to kill any living thing in the Summa theologica, he cites Augustine’s argument about animals being irrational, and adds Aristotle’s view in the Politics that plants were created for the sake of animals and animals for the sake of human beings.(10) Aquinas draws on Aristotle to argue that, just as some human races are ‘intended by nature for slavery’ so that it is just to go to war to enslave them, so we can see animals as naturally enslaved for the use of others.(11) Elsewhere in the Summa, Aquinas argues that animals are excluded from consideration in relation to both justice and charity.(12)

Christians have biblical and theological grounds for recognising animal creatures as different from plants, and these differences have implications for how we treat them

Let us agree to agree with Augustine and Aquinas that the Decalogue does not prohibit killing animals, and agree to disagree absolutely with Aristotle and Aquinas in their view that there are humans who are naturally ordered to be slaves to others. What should we make of the argumentation between these two points? First, while Augustine is right that killing animals is not prohibited here, he is wrong that we have no way of recognising the difference between killing animals and plants. As we shall see below, Christians have biblical and theological grounds for recognising animal creatures as different from plants, and these differences have implications for how we treat them. Our rejection of Aquinas’s analogy from races naturally destined to be slaves ought to lead us to question the analogous Aristotelian logic that plants were created for animals and animals for humans. Genesis 1, notably, provides no basis for such a claim: the creatures of each day are declared good in themselves without reference to their utility to any other creatures.(13) Genesis 1 gives humans dominion over other animals, but its specification of plants as food both for animals and humans suggests that this dominion does not include the taking of their lives, and the peaceable coexistence of humans with the animals in Genesis 2 strengthens the case for a dominion that does not involve killing. After the fateful events of Genesis 3, and after the flood God causes in eventual response, God gives permission for the first time for humans to eat other animals provided they do not consume their lifeblood (Gen. 9.3-4), but we might well follow Luther and many other theologians in interpreting this as a departure from the ideal of Genesis 1, especially in the light of prophetic visions of an end to animal sacrifice and the Messianic reign bringing peace between humans and animals, and Paul’s anticipation of the whole creation freed from its groaning bondage.(14) We should also question Augustine’s use of the criterion of reason to identify creatures we may and may not kill: there are human beings not capable of reason whom we rightly wish to protect, and we need to recognise that the abundant examples of animal reasoning offered in contemporary animal studies—such as the politicking of chimpanzees, the abstract logic of parrots, the innovative tool-fashioning of crows, and the ability of dolphins to parse grammar, to take a few of myriad possible examples—mean the Greek idea of a binary divide between humans and other animals on the basis of rationality is unsustainable.(15) The early fourteenth-century English commentary on the Ten Commandments, Dives and Pauper, seems preferable to Augustine and Aquinas’s discussions at this point. It notes that Genesis 9 must mean animals are excluded from the Decalogue prohibition on killing, but interprets not consuming animals with their blood as prohibiting cruelty, ‘For God that made all has care of all, and he shall take vengeance on all that misuse his creatures’.(16) Karl Barth, influenced by Albert Schweitzer’s vision of reverence for all life, recognised the serious ethical attention Christians need to give to fellow animal creatures, stating that animals belong to God, not to human beings, and that therefore any human treatment of other animals must be ‘careful, considerate, friendly and above all understanding’.(17) While Barth considers that this could include killing other animals for food, he judges that such killing could only be obedience to God where it is done under the pressure of necessity. Otherwise, Barth comments strikingly, such killing is nothing less than murder.(18) Augustine, Aquinas, the author of Dives and Pauper, and Barth are right to recognise that Genesis 9 is a strong argument against the idea that vegetarianism is a universal requirement for Christians, but their positions do not indicate that animals are of no moral account, and we are clearly not necessarily guilty of the ‘foul error of the Manichees’ in considering that Christians might have faith-based reasons to be concerned about their treatment of animals.

 Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

My judgement, then, is that there are no convincing fundamental objections to a Christian ethics of food, nor to thinking Christianly about the ethics of eating animals in particular. I will return to some more specific objections to my argument below, but in the next section I proceed with my positive argument for the position that Christians have strong faith-based reasons to avoid consuming animal products derived from animals that have not been allowed to flourish as fellow creatures of God.

You can read the full article by following this link. 

Footnotes:

1. Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006), p. 403; Shelley’s A Vindication of Natural Diet quoted by Stuart, pp. 405–406.

2. A. Godley and B. Williams, Democratizing Luxury and the Contentious ‘Invention of the Technological Chicken’in Britain, Business History Review (Reading: Centre for Institutional Performance, University of Reading, 2009), p. 1.

3. See, for example, Luther’s commentary on Gal. 6:15 in Lectures on Galations (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, eds Helmut T. Lehmann, and Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), vol. 27, p. 138).

4. In Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini he allowed local bishops to replace Friday fasts from meat with other forms of penance. Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini: On Fast and Abstinence (Rome: Vatican, 1966), ch. III.

5. Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997 [1978]).

6. David Clough, On Animals: Vol. II. Theological Ethics (London: T & T Clark/Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2017), ch. 2.

7. Stuart, Bloodless Revolution, p. 402, citing Plato’s Republic, 373d; Clough, On Animals II, ch. 2.

8. See, for example, Stephen H. Webb, Good Eating, The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001); Rachel Muers and David Grumett (eds), Eating and Believing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology (London: T   & T Clark, 2008); L. Shannon Jung, Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004); Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

9. Saint Augustine, The City of God, ed. R. V. G. Tasker, trans. John Healey (London: Dent & Sons, 1945), I.19.

10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Blackfriars, 1963), II-II, 64.1, citing Aristotle, Politics, trans. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998), I.8, 1256b.

11. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, 64.1.

12. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.2, qu. 102, a. 6; Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2.2, qu. 25, a. 3. It is important to note that there are other much more positive dimensions of Aquinas’s thought for engaging theologically with animals. For discussion of these, see Judith A. Barad, Aquinas on the Nature and Treatment of Animals (San Francisco, CA and London: International Scholars, 1995) and John Berkman, ‘Towards a Thomistic Theology of Animality’, in Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough (eds), Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals (London: SCM, 2009).

13. Gen. 1:4a, 10b, 12b, 18b, 21b, 25b.

14.  Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1–5, Luther’s Works, vol. I, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1958), p. 36; Isa. 1:11; 66:3; 11:6-9; 65:25-26; Rom. 8.19-22.

15. David Clough, On Animals: Vol. I. Systematic Theology (London: T & T Clark/Continuum, 2012), pp. 30, 69–70.

16. Priscilla Heath Barnum (ed.), Dives and Pauper (Oxford: Early English Text Society/Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 35 (my rendition in modern English).

17.  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. III/4, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. A. T. MacKay et al. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), p. 352.

18.  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4., pp. 354–55. As noted above, I am not arguing in this article for Christian vegetarianism or veganism, but Barth’s argument here seems to be the most promising starting point for such an argument, given that for most humans today, killing animals is not necessary to gain adequate nutrition.

Throwing Rocks at Giants

by Michael Gilmour

My daily commute takes me south of Winnipeg into an area with several intensive hog operations. Manitoba produces somewhere around 8 million pigs a year, more than any other Canadian province, and each day, whether minus 30 C (-22 F) or plus 30 C (86 F), I pass one, two, three, four transport trucks carrying pigs to slaughter. I catch glimpses of them through air holes as I whiz by at 100 kilometers an hour, and they at the same speed in the opposite direction.

  Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

They’re cold or hot, tired, thirsty with no access to water, often crowded, and certainly distressed owing to the noise, wind and newness of the experience. Most have never seen sunlight until this day. I always react. Sighs. Muttered prayers (“May the Lord bless you and keep you ...”). Curses directed at industrial-scale cruelties. And a sense of utter helplessness to do anything about it.

  Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

But during one grumpy commute, I remembered there are others making their way to Providence University College where we work and study also thinking about those distressed pigs. So began the Friendly Food Challenge.

One day a week we urge employees and students to choose a meat-free meal or meals. It is a small gesture and those participating do so for a variety of reasons: health and weight loss; environmental concern; foodie curiosity (our supportive cafeteria staff offer up tasty vegetarian fare); a “team spirit” willingness to support campus initiatives; and for a number of students (bless them), animal compassion.

By most measures, the scale of what we’re doing is inconsequential. Providence serves around 340 meals each Wednesday and since starting on November 1, 2017 (World Vegan Day), members of our community chose meat-free meals around 250 times. That won’t show up on any company’s ledger sheet, but no matter. It is instead a quiet, largely symbolic protest against cruelties inherent in factory farming. A handful of students at a little evangelical university on the prairies, surrounded by large livestock producers, bearing witness and saying this is not right, we refuse to participate.

  Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

Many animal (and other) advocates know what it is to be overwhelmed. The problems are enormous, the suffering endless, the cruel Goliaths too big to take down. A “why bother” defeatism is a real risk as a kind of compassion fatigue sets in. But maybe we ought to measure success in smaller increments. If the ultimate prize is out of sight, beyond the horizon, any move toward it is good news. Calls to service do not always come with an assurance of success. Prophets are to speak though few listen to them (Jer 7:27; Ezek 2:5, 7), we’re to serve the poor even though poverty itself seems an undefeatable scourge (cf. Matt 26:11).

There is mystery here. Willingness to take up a task, even if not wholly successful on the surface, matters. Unlike the story of David’s exploits, what constitutes victory is not always so obvious as a dead giant on the battlefield. Trucks still roll down the highway leading to our school, but it seems our students have accomplished something big. Confronting any form of systemic violence with only a few small stones in hand takes courage. Their willingness to do something acknowledging the pains and distresses of farm animals is indeed a victory worth celebrating.

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Michael Gilmour teaches English and biblical literature at Providence University College. His current research considers the convergence of animal welfare movements of the nineteenth century and animal-friendly creative writing. His most recent book is Animals in the Writings of C. S. Lewis.

Friends House in London Signs Up to CreatureKind

We were delighted to be at Friends House in London, the centre for Quakers in Britain, to celebrate their signing up to be a CreatureKind institution. Friends House have been leaders in the ethical sourcing of food products, and were the first religious organization to be awarded Compassion in World Farming’s Good Egg and Good Chicken awards. They were enthusiastic about CreatureKind because of our focus on getting institutions to commit to a cycle of identifying strategies to reduce overall consumption of animal products and identify opportunities to move to higher welfare sources for remaining products.

 Photo: Friends House / Quaker Centre Cafe

Photo: Friends House / Quaker Centre Cafe

At the launch event, we were joined by Quaker Concern for Animals (QCA), an organization with its origins in Christian opposition to vivisection in the late 19th century. Thom Bonneville of QCA expressed his warm appreciation for this commitment of Friends House and their previous hosting of QCA World Animals Day events.

Friends House provided samples of new vegan items from their menu, which included cashew nut curry, falafels, sausage rolls, and snacks and chocolate. The catering staff at Friends House were recently able to enhance the organization's plant-based offerings with help from a chefs’ training event provided by Humane Society International. The results were quite delicious. 

 Photo: Friends House / Quaker Centre Cafe

Photo: Friends House / Quaker Centre Cafe

 Photo: Friends House / Quaker Centre Cafe

Photo: Friends House / Quaker Centre Cafe

In his remarks, David described how the current unprecedented extent of livestock farming was bad for humans, bad for animals, and bad for the environment. He noted that in 1900 the total biomass of domesticated animals was around 3.5 times that of all wild land mammals, but by 2000, a fourfold increase in domesticated animals together with a halving in wild animal numbers meant the biomass of domesticated animals had grown to an astonishing 25 times that of wild land mammals, with dramatic effects on increased land use and environmental problems. Unlike many other global problems, David noted this was something we can act to address immediately, as individuals and members of institutions, by reducing consumption of animal products and moving to higher welfare sourcing.

David gave an enthusiastic welcome to the commitment Friends House have made to reduce their consumption of animal products by 20% over two years and look for additional opportunities to move to higher welfare sources for remaining animal products. As part of their commitment, Friends House will also launch a new vegan CreatureKind menu for their events catering.

CreatureKind is in conversation with a number of other institutions and organizations in the UK and North America about signing up to CreatureKind. If you belong to one we should be talking to, do let us know!

Ferdinand and the Practice of Nonviolence

by Elrena Evans

I first learned about nonviolence from a bull.

ferdinand-bull-bullfighter.jpg

My childhood copy of Ferdinand was beautiful—the red cover, the flowers, even the lettering. I remember very clearly the way the light and dark shading of the font played together in perfect harmony in the title on the cover.

What I remember most is the picture of Ferdinand sitting, all by himself, under the cork tree. And how the story tells us that “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”

Ferdinand’s mother doesn’t appear in the new film Ferdinand, but her kindness and understanding are reimagined in the character of a little girl named Nina. Devotees of the original book will find many remembered elements present in the movie—the cork tree, Ferdinand’s height measurements as he grows, the flowers at the bullfight, and of course, the bee—but on the whole, what Ferdinand has to offer audiences is so much more.

I’ll admit I went into the movie a bit skeptical. From the trailers, I feared an hour and a half romp through size gags (“Have you seen these hips?” Ferdinand asks), poop jokes (“I can’t wait to show you to the rest of the guys,” Lupe the goat enthuses, “They’re going to fertilize the yard!"), and a nonstop loop of a Ferdinand version of The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird. What I experienced, however, was a wonderful entré into a child-friendly discussion of nonviolence, with additional themes of intentional family and animal welfare running throughout.

The film’s reimagining of Ferdinand’s story starts in a bullpen, where Ferdinand, the flower-loving youngster, is bullied by his peers (the root for “bully,” as the movie points out, is of course “bull.”) It’s hard not to fall in love with Ferdinand’s big-eyed character as he looks the bully in the eyes and simply states, “I won’t fight you.” Ferdinand’s character in the movie is more intentional in his commitment to nonviolence than his counterpart in the book—rather than being a lover of flowers for whom fighting just isn’t on the radar, the film version of Ferdinand is explicit about his beliefs. He is not made to fight, and he will not fight—anyone, anywhere, at any time. Even when his life is on the line.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Ferdinand’s big-eyed character as he looks the bully in the eyes and simply states, “I won’t fight you.”

Ferdinand’s beloved cork tree grows on a flower farm in the movie, where Ferdinand arrives unexpectedly in the middle of profound loss. The human flower farmers become family for him, along with their dog Paco, who denies the affinity he soon feels for Ferdinand.

“Dogs are dogs and bulls are bulls,” Paco says, as Ferdinand lifts a trough of water with his horns to water the flowers. “That’s normal.”

“If I was a normal bull,” Ferdinand replies, “I would have never found this farm. And we wouldn’t be brothers!”

“A dog and a bull can’t be brothers!” Paco insists. “That would be weird.”

“Really?” Ferdinand asks. “Then why does your tail wag when I call you ‘brother?’”

The most intense scene in the move takes place not in the bullring, or even the bullpen, but a slaughterhouse. Known as the “chop house” among the bulls, I was unsure at first whether the movie was trying to play the scene for laughs—because I wasn’t finding it funny. When one of the bulls is sent to the chop house, though, it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t intended to be humorous. As the camera pans from an ominous-looking, dark building set in the background right up to the chop house doors and inside, the grim machinery clanking away on the screen caused one young moviegoer in the audience with me to lean in toward a parent and ask, “Mommy, is that actually how they kill them?” An excellent moment to start a conversation on being CreatureKind.

Although Ferdinand concludes (spoiler alert!) with a happy ending, it’s clear throughout that Ferdinand’s practice of nonviolence isn’t rooted in the ends justifying the means. He isn’t refusing to fight because he thinks it’s easier or safer. On the contrary: at multiple points throughout the film, Ferdinand stares danger in the face and renews his affirmation that he was not created to be a fighter. With strong messaging around nonviolence, chosen family, and being who one was created to be, Ferdinand is not only a fun and engaging family movie, but an excellent touchpoint for family conversations afterward.

Elrena Evans is Editor and Content Strategist for Evangelicals for Social Action. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State, and has also worked for Christianity Today and American Bible Society. She is the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, and co-author of the essay collection Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She enjoys spending time with her family, dancing, and making spreadsheets. This post is reprinted with kind permission from Evangelicals for Social Action. 

Living with God’s Other Creatures

Adapted from a sermon delivered by David Clough at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland, Oregon on January 7, 2018.

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Scripture

Romans 8:18-24: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creations waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but ty the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?"

Advent and Christmas

How was your Advent and Christmas?

I have to confess to you that Advent brings out a fundamental conflict among my family. My starting point is that the celebrations of Christmas begin on Christmas Day, which means my preference would be to put up Christmas decorations on Christmas Eve. My wife Lucy and our three children are keen to get things started sooner, so we have an annual tussle about when our decorations go up. This year we compromised on the weekend of the 16th December.

There’s another difference between us about expectation during Advent. The other members of my family are impatient for Christmas to come. I tend to be more aware of all the work I have to get done before Christmas, so confess that I sometimes find myself wishing it further away, rather than closer. It’s the same with my domestic preparations: I’m always late with shopping for Christmas presents, and deciding what we’ll eat, and what we’ll need to buy to cook it.

Traditionally, Advent was a time of repentance for Christians, second only to Lent, a time for Christians to consider God’s judgement and prepare themselves, to make sure they were ready to receive the Christ child. This has something in common with my more mundane sense of feeling like I’ve got a lot to get done before I’ll be ready for Christmas. But I’m sure I’m not getting Advent right: I spend too much time on the mundane jobs I need to do, and nowhere near enough time on preparing my heart for the coming of Christmas. That means I often have the feeling of being in church and unready to celebrate the coming of the Saviour, caught off-guard by a moment in a nativity service where we sing with our children a familiar song and suddenly the story fills my eyes with tears and sends a shiver down my spine, once again.

Epiphany: Living after Christmas

I hope you had a good Christmas. We did: everything did get done, somehow, we sang the final verse of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ celebrating Christ born this happy Christmas morning and in the days that followed continued the celebrations with family and friends during Christmas and New Year. But that was a week ago.

Today is Epiphany, when we traditionally remember the visit of the kings to the Christ child, and Herod’s massacre of the male babies in Bethlehem.

Epiphany confronts Christmas with the realities of political power, and its cruel abuse of the vulnerable. The question Epiphany presents us with is, what does Christmas mean in the everyday world as we know it, the world where Christians are killed leaving church in Nigeria, where famine still threatens millions of lives, where controversies still rage about the exit of Britain from the EU, and where President Trump remains true to form in boasting about the size of his nuclear button amid growing evidence of mental incapacity?

Epiphany challenges us to consider how Christmas makes a difference in the real world. That’s our challenge this morning: what does it mean to live as Christians after Christmas?

Surely the transporting vision of our God taking on vulnerable creaturely flesh like ours and our celebration of God taking up the cause of God’s creatures by becoming incarnate in our world, should make a difference for how we live in it? How do we return from the holidays to our everyday life and bring what we have seen and felt of Christmas to the world as we find it?

Romans 8

I think the words we have heard from Paul in the 8th chapter of the Letter to the Romans can help us with the Epiphany challenge of bringing Christmas to the everyday. Paul is writing to Christians in Rome who were living through difficult times, subjected to persecution on grounds of their faith. Neither Jesus’s birth nor his resurrection had been an escape from tribulation for these early Christians. Their faith in the victory won in Christ was maintained amidst many signs that all was not yet right with the world. Paul acknowledges the depth of their sufferings. He compares what they are going through with the pain women feel in childbirth. I can only claim second-hand knowledge of this pain, through being with Lucy as she went through labour three times over. Paul’s experience of labour pains is likely to be one step further removed, but his comparison must be meant to acknowledge that the sufferings of the world are extreme, demanding, and costly, and call for serious courage and resilience to endure. To live in a world going through labour pains was never going to be comfortable.

But the comparison Paul makes is not just about the depth of the suffering involved. It links to our thinking about the progression from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany because it’s suffering with a meaning, with a direction, and with a trajectory. The groaning of a woman in childbirth is unlike the groaning of someone who has suffered injury because the pain is a result of something hoped for, the birth of a new child. The pain is almost unbearable, but the bearing of it takes place in the expectation that it is the means to bring about nothing less that the gift of new life. That’s what Paul means the Christians in Rome to know, too. Neither Christmas nor Easter means they are freed from the suffering of the world, but Christmas and Easter mean that this suffering is not the final truth about God’s world: these sufferings are the birth pangs of a new creation, liberated from its bondage to decay to be brought into the freedom of the children of God.

This doesn’t make the suffering ok, of course, especially when its burden is unjustly redirected in our world by the powerful to the burden the powerless, by the rich to the poor, by men to women, by white people to people of colour, by straight to queer, and so on. We must continue to work to resist these injustices, while knowing that such efforts cannot bring the groaning of creation to an end.

Here is Paul’s answer to the Epiphany challenge of bringing Christmas into our everyday world: Christmas doesn’t mean killing will end, or famines will not take place, or leaders will not fight futile wars, or the strong will stop exploiting the weak, but it does mean that such dreadful woes are not the final truth about God’s ways with the world. Christmas means that Christians engage with those woes of the world in faith that in doing so they witness to the mighty work of God in redeeming creation.

Living with Other Creatures

After Christmas, we encounter the world anew in the context of a Christian hope that the coming of God into our world in the form of a baby means that God has taken up our cause and will not allow evil to reign triumphant. We are left, though, with the question of how we are to live as Christians in this post-Christmas world, and in the final part of my sermon I want to consider one particular aspect of the Epiphany challenge of bringing Christmas into our everyday life in the world.

When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church to which I belong, preached on this passage from Romans in 1772, he was struck by the way Paul’s vision included not just human beings, but the whole of creation. He saw the plain sense of the passage as an affirmation that God would redeem all creatures, and was drawn immediately to reflect on the many cruelties he saw inflicted on animals in the streets. Christians who believed in a God who was their creator and redeemer have reason to oppose such cruelties in the strongest terms, he said.

There’s another link with Advent and Christmas here. Christians often recall the prophecy in Isaiah 11 during Advent, where Isaiah prophesies the Messiah coming from ‘the stump of Jesse’. The first sign of the coming of the Messiah is peace between humans and other animals, wolves, lambs, leopard, kids, calves, lions, and little children (vv. 6–9). This new peace is made present in the Christmas nativity scenes in which the animals in the stable are the first to recognize the coming of the Christ. One part of making Christmas present in our lives, therefore, might be to seek ways to witness to the peace God seeks between humans and other animals, and to the redemption of all creatures described by Paul.

But as soon as we acknowledge this connection between Christian Christmas faith and animals, we must recognize, just as Wesley did, that the ways we are currently treating animals are at odds with this Christian vision, subjecting them to many unnecessary cruelties. We have bred broiler hens to grow to slaughter weight in windowless sheds in just six weeks, suffering pain from legs too immature to support their unwieldy bodies. We ignore the complex social intelligence of pigs, and confine sows in stalls that do not even allow them to turn around, raising their piglets in monotonous sheds that prevent most of their natural behaviours. We raise cattle intensively in feedlots, subjecting them to castration and other mutilations without pain relief.

And, as Gretchen Primack’s heart-breaking poem reminds us, following the labour pains of their mothers, we take calves from their mothers, sometimes before they have even met, and force the mothers to eat constantly so we can take the milk meant for the calves we have killed, often keeping them confined without being able to graze grass, before they are culled for beef after 3 or 4 lactations when their milk yield drops. Those who live near dairy farms describe the loud groans of grief and protest from mother cows who have had their calves taken from them, which can go on for days. I can’t think of a more direct example of the groaning of creation Paul wrote about, and in this case, we’re the cause. These are modern animal cruelties, unknown in Wesley’s day, which should appal Christians today just as the eighteenth century cruelties appalled Wesley. It seems to me that we have sleep-walked into farming animals in ways that are a practical denial that they are fellow creatures of our God.

And it’s not as if it’s good for us, either. The unprecedented amounts of animal products we are eating are bad for our health as well as theirs, are wasteful of land and water resources, and are damaging to our environment. We currently devote 78% of agricultural land to raising animals and feed 1/3rd of global cereal output to them, when growing crops for human consumption would be a far more efficient way to feed a growing human population. And raising livestock contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than transport globally, but has been largely ignored in climate change policy-making. Reducing our consumption of farmed animals would therefore be good for humans, good for animals, and good for the planet.

The good news is that this is an issue where our actions make a difference. I don’t know how to stop Donald Trump threatening Kim Jong-un, but I do know that if I and other Christians cut consumption of animal products, fewer animals will be drawn into the cruelties of intensive farming.

CreatureKind seeks to encourage Christians to take steps to reduce their consumption of animals and to move to higher welfare sources of any animal products they do use. Doing so makes a practical connection between our everyday practice of eating, our relationship to the wider creation, and our faith. I offer the possibility to you as a late Christmas present, the opportunity to reconceive even our ordinary eating as a sacramental. We have a six-week course for churches that would be ideal to run in Lent to help Christians think more about what their faith means for animals and how we treat them. Perhaps first steps could be communal, rather than individual: thinking how the food you share here at church could reflect the recognition of animals as fellow creatures.

Conclusion

So I’ve suggested that the challenge of Epiphany is how to bring Christmas into the everyday world, how to live a Christmas faith day to day. I’ve suggested that Paul’s vision of the groans of creation as labour pains of the new creation God is bringing forth can help us make sense of the suffering world we engage with as Christians. And I’ve suggested that as Christians we have reason to care about the suffering we currently inflict on farmed animals, and that we have faith-based reasons to stop contributing to its cruelty in our everyday life.

May God gift us this Epiphany with a new vision of how to live out an expectant Christmas faith in the everyday world we encounter and the disturbing and inspiring presence of the Holy Spirit as we seek to align our lives with God’s ways with our world. Amen.

Dwelling in the Wild Places, Welcoming the Light

Advent Meditations on Multispecies and Interspiritual Encounter

by Ed Sloane

For the last several months—since June—along with my friend and colleague, Michael, I have been involved in a spiritual adventure. Oddly, this adventure doesn’t require going anywhere. It is an adventure in the arts of dwelling. Out of a desire to live in greater spiritual kinship with all life in a place and to deepen our sense of justice to include more-than-human beings, we began an experiment in faith and worship in and around our home of Wheeling, WV (situated in the Upper Ohio River South watershed), which we have come to call Wild Church West Virginia. You can read more about our adventure from Michael here

 Cows at the New Vrindaban Temple Goshalla (Cow Shelter) | Photo by Ed Sloane

Cows at the New Vrindaban Temple Goshalla (Cow Shelter) | Photo by Ed Sloane

We began this experiment in “rewilding our faith” out of a conviction that encounter with God and one another should not be limited or bounded by institutional walls. By stepping outside and going to the margins we can more readily encounter the mystery of God. ‘Re-wilding’ builds bridges where boundaries have caused division, cultivates an expansive sense of community and belonging, and honors difference while attending to points of commonality.

As we begin to know and feel with the human and more-than-human others with whom we dwell in a place we see that we are more connected and share more in common—something we would have never experienced if we chose to remain hermetically sealed in our own little institutional containers. Rewilding allows us to live in a more connected and capacious world, or, better, to acknowledge that the world is a composite of worlds and worldings. It has been such a joy to cultivate interspiritual friendships and to expand our sense of justice and kinship to include the more-than-human cohabitors with whom we share our place. Dwelling in the wild places, those dark corners of self, society, and season where the dividing lines are less visible and where the marginalized often make their home, forces us to focus our attention, or to pay attention, in a different way that seems especially suitable for the season of Advent. We have to slow down and let our eyes adjust. We have to pull others closer so that we might gently warm one another.

At our last liturgy, as Michael recounts, this praxis of dwelling occurred in beautiful fashion. We celebrated Advent/Christmas alongside our Vaishnava Hindu (often referred to as Hare Krishna) friends in their Goshalla (Cow Shelter) alongside many of the cows who call this place home. Happily, the cows were often vocal participants, offering their own joyful noise during song and prayer. In what follows, I offer some reflection on the readings from our last liturgy.[1]

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As the days grow shorter and colder, at least here in my little corner of the global North that is West Virginia, I am more aware of darkness in our world and in my own life. Before electricity and central heating, when life was somewhat more attuned to the rhythms of the earth and its seasons, this was a time of expectant waiting for the return of light to the Earth.[2] Location aside, light seems to be a potent symbol of hope for the dark nights of soul, society, and season. Both Vedic and Christian Scriptures draw upon this symbolic resonance. Further, both traditions connect the imagery of Divine Light to the expectant hope for a better world characterized by peace, harmony, and justice for all beings.

In the hymn to Usas, the Daughter of Heaven, The Rig-Veda proclaims, “Dawn comes shining like a Lady of Light, stirring to life all creatures…Beam forth your light to guide and sustain us, prolonging, O Goddess, our days. Give to us food, grant us joy, chariots and cattle and horses” (Rig Veda VII, 77).[3] In Christian tradition, the candles of the Advent wreath call to mind hope, peace, joy, and love and the light of God, which Christians believe is Christ, entering into the world. The words of the prophet Isaiah offer a vision of a world transformed by the light of God. As we read, “he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Isaiah is clear too that this transformed world includes the more-than-human, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11: 3-4, 6, 9). However, both the Vedic and Judeo-Christian traditions make clear that while the light’s dawning is inevitable our ability to notice it is not. Our own action and awareness is necessary. The question is, how are we to orient our action and attention; in what manner should we practice dwelling?

Christ is born into a world in which there is no place for him

Capaciousness is also an important theme for the Advent Season. After all, as we read in the Gospel of Luke, Christ is born into a world in which there is no place for him. People in Bethlehem are busy, preoccupied with other concerns, and they cannot, or will not, prepare a place in their lives for the divine. More to the point, they are hermetically sealed in their own worlds. They occupy a space in which they do not really dwell. As we hear, Mary “wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7).  It is often passed over that Jesus is born among more-than-human beings. It is these, and those who live in something of a symbiosis with them (those who synch their lives to the rhythms of the more-than-human, ie. the shepherds), who first give witness to the birth of the new light, the Son of God. They dwell in such a way that they have a place to both notice and welcome this other.

In the Vedic scripture, The Rig-Veda, cows are identified as a sacred animal, acting as a conduit to the divine. As Raimundo Panikkar explains, “the Vedic world often utilizes the cow as a symbol. Cows draw the car of Dawn and are also called its beams; reference is made to the rain cloud as a cow and even the Gods are sometimes said to be born of cows. For Men [sic], cows represent riches and all the blessings of a happy earthly existence” (Rig Veda VI, 28).[4] These images suggest fascinating multispecies and interspiritual crossings. Echoing the story of the more-than-human species making space for Christ, the light of the world, cows draw light into the world; cows give birth to the divine. The Rig-Veda takes us further than the Christian Scriptures. Not only do cows witness to the divine, they actually bring the divine into our lives. The Rig-Veda offers a vision of multispecies play and symbiosis in which ecological processes co-mingle, and life is a co-creative venture.

Our tendency, especially in the West, has been to separate from the more-than-human, to define the Other as less-than-human (and therefore inferior and uncivilized), and to exhaust and extract rather than cultivate and nurture.

This encourages us to shift our ethical thinking away from stewardship and toward kinship as a principle to orient our action and attention. It seems that from these scriptures it is the more-than-human who are much more effective stewards of the divine than we humans. Our tendency, especially in the West, has been to separate from the more-than-human, to define the Other as less-than-human (and therefore inferior and uncivilized), and to exhaust and extract rather than cultivate and nurture. But, to echo Isaiah, this is not the way of the Peaceable Kingdom in which none shall hurt or destroy.

As an ethic suitable for rewilding our faith, for embarking on the adventure of dwelling, kinship challenges us to let go of the enlightened paternalism of stewardship, which leaves us with the comfort of control and the conviction that we know best what is needed. Becoming kin, embracing an Other as friend and coequal, and as a subject with whom our own being and becoming is mixed on some deep level is, of course, a challenging space in which to dwell. It means we might be changed. It means that this other human or more-than-human might know better and have something to teach!

Christians have been comfortable with the stewardship ethic, because it echoes other tendencies toward enlightened paternalism to which we sometimes fall prey. Indeed, it is tempting to take the fact that The Rig-Veda and Hinduism precede Christianity and suggest that Christ fulfills and completes these earlier revelations. Christians often fall to this temptation. Humans more generally, mainly Western humans, fall to this temptation too. We like to think in linear terms. Our religion, our species, our civilization is the more evolved, the more complete. Wild Church, and the interspiritual and multispecies encounters it provides, and an ethic of kinship encourage a different thinking about how we situate ourselves in time and place, and in relationship to the Divine. When we attune ourselves to the rhythms of the Earth we find that other beings and other traditions continue to cultivate and enrich the mystery of God.

Anthropogenic (human induced) climate change, the fruit of Western intoxication with colonialism and consumer capitalism, requires we become more attentive to how we dwell in place, how we make our homes, and how we encounter difference. Interestingly enough, when we attune ourselves to one very specific place, our world becomes much larger. In fact, we discover that what we once understood as our world, our place, is really in fact a shared commons that is composed of many worlds, which are distinct enough that we can learn something and be invited to think about our own world-making in new ways, but similar enough that we have something to talk about and share. I don’t have much faith, hope, or love for the future of the ‘world’ we now occupy. There is too much destruction, pain, and exclusion there. In this present darkness though, I do believe in the advent of new light. I do seek to attune my heart that I might hear in the hymns sung by my more-than-human kin and my more-than-Christian friends a proclamation that a different world, or, better, the flourishing of many once excluded worlds is possible and that all beings might some day dwell together in the wilds of the Peaceable Kingdom(s).

Ed Sloane is a doctoral candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. His research focuses on place and community based pedagogy in religious education and multispecies justice. Ed also serves as chair of the West Virginia Chapter and is a board member for the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. He is the co-coordinator of Wild Church West Virginia. 

[1] The readings were, in order from the liturgy: Rig Veda VII, 77; Isaiah 11: 1-9; Luke 2: 1-20; Rig Veda VI, 28. The readings from the Rig Veda can be found in Raimundo Panikkar, Mantramanjari, The Vedic Experience: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977): 169-70; 286-8.

[2] I think it worth reflecting on the ways that electric lighting screws with this symbolism. When electricity, and the privileges attached to it, provides endless distractions, fuelling consumer lifestyles and ecological damage, should our hearts long for darkness? How has the taken for granted, and silently destructive, character of lighting shaped the imagination of the privileged? How do those who do not have access to electric lighting, or those who constantly worry that their economic marginalization might result in the loss of light experience the lack or loss of light in their lives?

[3] In Raimundo Panikkar, Mantramanjari, The Vedic Experience: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977): 169-70.

[4] Ibid., 286-8.

Gopala, Jesus, and the Friendly Beasts

Interspiritual Friendships and the Care of Animals

by Michael J. Iafrate

A few months ago, I sat in a crowded movie theatre watching the local premiere of the documentary Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All. The majority of the audience was made up of members of a nearby West Virginia Hare Krishna community called New Vrindaban founded in 1968. The film tells the story of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s journey from India to the United States, virtually penniless, in 1965, his founding of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and the explosion of his spiritual movement. Many of the devotees around me knew Prabhupada personally and have been connected with New Vrindaban since nearly the beginning.

 Michael and Ed Sloane with a friend after Wild Church service | photo by Matt Smith

Michael and Ed Sloane with a friend after Wild Church service | photo by Matt Smith

There was a certain surreal quality in the event, as I felt both like a guest among adherents of a religious tradition very unlike my own, but also like an “insider” among friends. Though I am Roman Catholic, the story of the “Hare Krishnas” is well known to me, having met devotees through the punk rock scene while I was in high school in the early 1990s. Sitting among the devotees, I smiled at the film’s vibrant presentation of the history and its impressive collection of archival footage. I laughed out loud with the rest of the audience at its inside jokes and nodded at its articulation of a contemporary spiritual figure’s ancient wisdom.

Like the devotees, too, I knew the film glossed over some of the more troubling aspects of Prabhupada’s views. But the evening was an appropriate celebration of a religious community with a remarkable history, particularly in this part of the country. And as the film concluded with some of the ways the Hare Krishna movement has touched national and global cultures, the event was an opportunity to pause and be thankful for perhaps the most important gift the Hare Krishnas gave me—a gradual deepening of awareness about the sacredness of creation, and particularly of other-than-human animals.

 Wild Church altar | photo by Michael Iafrate

Wild Church altar | photo by Michael Iafrate

As a teenager, several of my friends had “gone veg” for a variety of reasons: animal rights, environmental, health, political, and so on. And so the conversations among us began. Krishna devotees I knew, though, situated all of these very good arguments for vegetarianism within a wider spiritual context that I, as a fairly typical young Catholic omnivore, found intriguing—and eventually very challenging to my own worldview and lifestyle as I entered adulthood. Though it would take a few more years, after college I realized that through these encounters I had come to internalize an evolving commitment to nonviolence, to seeing creation as sacred, and to understanding eating as a religious act—or better, a sacred or sacramental act. I have been vegetarian, and sometimes vegan, ever since. And when people ask about my reasoning—whether it is for animals rights, environmental, health, or religious reasons—I simply say all of the above.

Becoming a Catholic vegetarian at that point in my life, and before I entered into graduate theological programs and various forms of church and activist work, helped me to enter a path of discovery of resources within my own faith community that witness to a neglected but important tradition of concern for animals, one that is now, thankfully, becoming more well-known and widespread. In the twenty years since I’ve embraced vegetarianism, I have watched the development of deeper reflection on animals among Catholics: a richer appreciation for the care of animals from our tradition’s past, as well as creative expressions of “animal theology” among Catholic theologians, often deeply connected with wider social justice and “life” issues and with more recent eco-theologies as well. This recent reflection has even arguably “trickled up” into “official” church teaching, as concern for animals is seen in the Catholic Catechism and in the teaching of Pope Benedict, and most recently as Pope Francis affirmed the intrinsic worth of animals in his encyclical Laudato Si’.

The gifts I received from these early interspiritual friendships did not end with my own vegetarianism, however. Often, when Christians open themselves to encounter with other faith traditions and learn what they teach about vegetarianism or meditation, they realize that their own traditions contain lesser-known ideas and practices along these lines as well. And they are then content to return to a Christian context which now “meets their needs,” thankful to non-Christians for bringing to their attention aspects of Christian tradition they had not previously seen. While these kinds of revelations are certainly worthy of celebration, I have come to appreciate a more relational and dynamic approach to interspiritual friendships.

Since returning to the Ohio Valley after a time away, I have been blessed with continuing and deepening (and multiplying!) interspiritual friendships with people of many faiths, including members of the New Vrindaban community. Together, in both informal and formal ways, we have initiated a number of local practices of interspiritual friendship, not only to “take” from one another, or to become more aware of obscured aspects of our own traditions, as valuable as these might be, but to nurture real friendships; to share experiences of common worship and contemplation; to enter together into that Holy Mystery within, between, and beyond the words of our particular traditions; and to work together as people of many faiths to create a better world.

One of the ways we have done this is through a small interspiritual community we are calling Wild Church West Virginia. My friend and colleague Ed Sloane and I had heard of the outdoor Eucharistic liturgies of the ecumenical Wild Church Network and Watershed Discipleship movement, and thought it would be appropriate to explore the possibility of a Wild Church community here in West Virginia, bringing to it the uniqueness of the place where we are rooted. From our Catholic context, it seemed especially fitting given our own involvement in the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and the Roman Catholic Church’s ecological turn under the leadership of Pope Francis.

Inspired by CCA’s place-based liberation theology, Francis’ theological vision of global eco-justice, and the Wild Church Network’s various expressions of deep ecological liturgy—and deeply moved by the interspiritual experimentation of Bede Griffith’s Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) and the monthly Yeshu Satsang in Toronto—Wild Church West Virginia was born on Pentecost Sunday 2017. Our current mission statement reads:

Wild Church West Virginia is an experiment in “re-wilding our faith.” We believe that many people of faith and good will seek a connection with God and one another that is not limited by institutional walls. Loving encounter grounds and nurtures tradition. By stepping outside and going to the margins we can more readily encounter the mystery of God.

Our monthly outdoor agape meal liturgies witness both to the goodness and brokenness of creation. We have gathered in the hilly, wooded terrain of land connected to Bethany College in West Virginia and in the breathtaking natural “cathedral” of Raven Rocks in Southeast Ohio. Yet we also plan to gather at ecologically damaged places—mountaintop removal sites and street corners which represent to us the destructive social environments humans have constructed and which cry out for justice.

As the community grew, we saw that many people attracted to Wild Church West Virginia were from non-Christian faith traditions, or people alienated from various Christian churches, or people who, like us, share a deep curiosity about “other” faiths and believe that we can and should celebrate with and learn from one another. Though rooted in the Catholic tradition, we soon, very consciously, made more of an effort to become a wildly inclusive, interspiritual community that acknowledges the holiness of the many names of the Divine and welcomes people of all religious traditions to the table.

For our December Wild Church liturgy on the second Sunday of Advent, we worked with a number of devotee friends to hold an Advent/Christmas celebration at New Vrindaban’s goshala (cow shelter), part of their cow protection program. Gathering in the chilly barn among the community’s cows, the interspiritual and multispecies liturgy celebrated Christ coming into the world among people of many faiths and among other-than-human animals, blending Hindu and Christian chants and hymns accompanied by harmonium and guitar (including “The Friendly Beasts”) and readings from Vedic, Hebrew, and Christian scriptures. Ed gave a rich homily on the readings, stressing the unique ability that animals have to teach humans about the Divine and reminding us how fitting it is that animals and their caretakers were the first to welcome the coming of the Light of the World. The lay-led agape meal’s offertory included a Hindu arati service led by a devotee (including the waving of lights before the altar and icons), and we blessed and shared locally made bread and apple juice made from local apples—no wine, as devotees abstain from alcohol. The liturgy was followed by a short kirtan with communal chants to Krishna under the name Gopala (“protector of the cows”) and a sharing of prasadam, a vegetarian sanctified meal, in this case paneer over spinach rice.

 Arati service | photo by Jocelyn Carlson

Arati service | photo by Jocelyn Carlson

In our Wild Church liturgies, silent interfaith meditation gatherings, and sacred conversations, the friendships begun in our local interspiritual community continue to deepen, and we dream together of new possibilities around the arts and in activism. Together, we are coming to believe in a vision similar to that of Sufi mystic, scholar, and author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, that we are called “to return to our own root and rootedness: our relationship to the sacred within creation.” With Vaughan-Lee, we believe that “Only from the place of sacred wholeness and reverence can we begin the work of healing, of bringing the world back into balance.”

That work of healing and of bringing creation back into balance, we believe, must include all of us, learning across traditions. It must also come to include all beings, and indeed may even be led in many ways by those beings long considered to be less than human. Here in West Virginia, a place deeply damaged by the so-called First World’s extractive mentality, we continue to “rewild our faith,” and to learn from the friendly beasts and from their caretakers, including those whose spiritual traditions have been most attuned to non-human animal lives.

Michael J. Iafrate is a theologian and songwriter from West Virginia and a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. He currently serves as Co-Coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and was the lead author of CCA’s “People's Pastoral” letter The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us. His writing has appeared in National Catholic Reporter and Religion Dispatches, various journals, and the collections Secular Music and Sacred Theology (2013) and Music, Theology, and Justice (2017). He is also a singer-songwriter and old time musician, and his most recent album, Christian Burial, was released in 2017.

Top Five Tips on Navigating Christmas as a Vegan

Christmas is a magical time of the year when many people come together to celebrate and indulge in delectable meals and treats. Yet with meat typically served at most Christmas meals, life can be tricky for vegans. Don’t worry, help is at hand!

Veganism is one of the fastest-growing lifestyle movements of our age and will find its way into more homes this year than ever before, but if you find yourself in the position of being the only vegan at the dinner table or gathering this season, have no fear and do not feel overwhelmed. Here are a few tips on navigating and enjoying Christmas as a vegan!

1. Why Not Host Christmas This Year?

If you have the time, opportunity and cooking skills, why not plan and execute a Christmas feast for your loved ones this year?

Start with some tasty appetisers. Swap the turkey for a nut roast or whole roasted cauliflower (yes, this is a thing!). Add some mouthwatering side dishes like spiced Brussels sprouts, coconut and turmeric roast potatoes, bright salads and roasted mixed vegetables. Then finish things off with a spectacular vegan Christmas pudding or chocolate truffles.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be anything too complicated, but you can still make a big impression with a thoughtfully chosen menu.

2. Show Off Your Skills and Contribute a Vegan Dish!

If you are invited to a meal where the vegan choices may be limited, why not offer to bring a tasty vegan-friendly dish or two along?

Not only does it guarantee that you will have something to eat, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to show your friends and family how delicious and satisfying plant-based meals can be.

It’s also a fun way of getting a friendly conversation about veganism started and chances are that everyone will want to try what you bring, so make sure you take enough.

3. Be Sure to Inform Hosts in Advance

If you are all set to attend a non-vegan Christmas meal, be sure to inform your host in advance to avoid any awkward moments or having to explain your dietary requirements when you arrive.

A gracious host will ensure that there is something for you at the table and you may even be able to suggest ways that they can veganise certain dishes. When in doubt, contribute a dish that you will be able to enjoy as well, or eat in advance so that you are not too hungry when you arrive.

4. Brush Up On Your Vegan Knowledge

Questions about your lifestyle are likely to come up and this is a great opportunity to share your thoughts on how plant-based eating is a compassionate way to care for our animal friends, our health and the environment.

Try to remain patient (even in the face of incredulity or attack) and avoid heated debates, lectures or graphic descriptions of industrial farming around the dinner table. Focus instead on all the beautiful, positive aspects of being vegan. Keeping calm and setting discussion boundaries is a great way of ensuring that you enjoy the occasion as much as possible.

5. Remember Christmas is a Time for Giving!

If you are fortunate enough to spend Christmas with loved ones this year, it is important to remember those who are not in the same privileged position.

Giving back can involve anything from donating your time and energy to helping out at a food bank, donating plant-based meals to shelters, volunteering to cook at your church, and lots more. Let’s use this time as an opportunity to spread the most important aspects of our faith and lifestyle—love and compassion.

This post originally appeared on the Sarx website and is reprinted here with kind permission. Sarx was founded on the belief that creation is the very outpouring of God’s love and their aim is to respond and witness to this divine love by encouraging Christians to strive towards a world in which all animals are enabled to live with dignity, in freedom and in peace. For more vegan recipe and lifestyle inspiration, visit www.vegannigerian.com.