by Margaret B. Adam
This article was originally delivered as a sermon at Hertford College Evensong.
- Isaiah 11:1-9
- Psalm 148
- Colossians 1:15-20
In today’s psalm, all of creation is exhorted to praise God. The psalmist calls all people to praise the Lord. He also calls on angels, stars, skies, and seas to give their praise. And weather, hills, and trees. Sea monsters and wild land-animals, creepy crawly animals and birds. And also...cows. Let the cows praise the Lord! Praise God, all you cows!
What does it look like for a cow to praise God?
Praise is what creatures do when they are living out their creaturely particularity to the glory of God. To praise, to glorify God, is to rejoice in God, as a creature of God. Humans often praise God with words and reason. Humans also praise God silently, without reasoned thought, newly born, approaching death, in stillness and in action. Likewise, other animals and the rest of creation all praise God in their own ways.
As we sang earlier: ‘All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voices, let us sing: Alleluia, alleluia!’
Praise is a bodily function. Created bodies sing Alleluia to God in their own distinctive voices and movements. Stars shine, winds storm, mountains stand, slugs—slugs excrete mucous and slide along it to find slug food. This is their praise, their rejoicing in the Lord. Cows praise God by flourishing: by grazing outdoors, chewing their cud, nursing their calves, brushing off flies, dozing, and mooing their version of rejoicing.
But, many dairy cows do not flourish. Industrial farming deprives cows of joy and decreases their capacity to praise God in their created cowness.
Of course, much of creation is not free to flourish and praise God as created. This is a world full of brokenness and suffering, fractured and unjust relationships. In that brokenness, we humans participate directly and indirectly in the use, abuse, and early death of other human and nonhuman animals, every day. Increasingly, in England, human-cow relationships reflect consumers’ desire for cheap milk, which drives smaller-scale farms out of business and supports the growth of large industrial dairy farms. Human preferences inhibit cow praise, by cutting short their lives and treating them as objects for production rather than as creatures of joy.
The children’s picture books of your childhood and mine show cows in abundant grass and sunshine, accompanied by other barnyard animals, and perhaps milked by The Farmer, or, The Farmer’s Daughter. These cows have names and personalities. They look happy and relaxed.
The life of a factory farmed cow looks nothing like the lives of cows in children’s books—or, for that matter, any on farms anywhere at anytime in history before the late 20th century.
Industrial farms keep cows in cages just barely big enough for their bodies to fit. On zero-grazing farms, the cows spend their entire lives inside. Cows are forcibly, artificially inseminated when they are 15 months old. Farm workers remove newborn calves at 2 days old, leaving the mothers bereft. Female calves are raised like their mothers. Male calves face either immediate death or a slightly delayed death if kept for veal. Cows are repeatedly impregnated so that they will be lactating continuously. In the last 40 years, the industry has doubled milk production per cow. By the time the mothers are about 5 years old, their bodies are so worn out from over-production that their milk is no longer high quality, and they are slaughtered for human food; whereas in more cow-friendly living conditions, they might live another 10 to 15 years.
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.
But, where is this reconciliation? Where are the signs that systemic sin is undone? Why does zero-grazing seem a sensible strategy for large-scale farms? Why is it still so hard to eschew all animal products? Part of the answer is: I don’t know. As a creature—and a sinful creature at that—I have no God’s-eye view on the pace of the fulfilment of creation; but scripture, the saints, and the teachers of the church, steadfastly remind me that Christ has both already effected that reconciliation and is still effecting it.
The other part of the answer is that Christian ethics directs us to live into that for which we hope. The ethical response to systemic brokenness is to embrace that already/not yet transformation with expanded imaginations and critically-examined practices.
First, we can demonstrate, by our actions, that we don’t need to abuse other creatures for our own pleasure. It is not necessary to purchase cow milk when there are ample alternative milks on the store shelf. Colleges, restaurants, friends and family often offer a vegetarian or vegan option for dinner. If you are looking for a quick meal, check out the plant-based prepared foods in the freezer and refrigerated sections at the store. If you cook for yourself, add one easy vegan meal to your repertoire. These are all ethical decisions you can make without even going out of your way. These are relatively simple ways to show that it is not necessary to deny one animal’s flourishing for the sake of another animal’s flourishing—our own flourishing.
Second, learn about what happens on dairy farms. Do a little research on industrial farming. Visit a local small farm. Compare conditions on larger and smaller farms. Meet some cows. Trace the sources of your food, drink, and clothing. Incorporate these considerations into your daily life practices. In the US, over 90% of dairy products come from industrial farms. In the UK, the percentage is closer to 70%. It may be difficult to change the trend toward mega-farms, but consumer choices do speak loudly.
Third, make connections with other people asking similar questions. Share concerns, insights, and experiences. Eat together. Challenge each other to adopt more peaceable creaturely interactions. Hold each other accountable.
And, above all, let’s try not to keep other creatures from flourishing. Let’s work toward the end that all creation—including cows—may experience joy and glorify God in their particular creatureliness.
Praise God! All of creation, praise God.
And, especially, let the cows praise the Lord.