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.

The Reconciliation of Creation: Especially Cows

by Margaret B. Adam

This article was originally delivered as a sermon at Hertford College Evensong.

The readings: 

  • 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?

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

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.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

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.

Sasha, rescued from the veal and dairy industries. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Sasha, rescued from the veal and dairy industries. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

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.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

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.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Incarnating a CreatureKind Church at the Summer Institute for Reconciliation

by Sarah Withrow King

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created...and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things..."

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of teaming up with Christopher Carter, who is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego, a Faith in Food Fellow for Farm Forward, and a member of CreatureKind's North American Advisory Council and Christine Gutleben, Senior Director of Faith Outreach at the Humane Society of the United States to co-teach "Incarnating a CreatureKind Church" at Duke Divinity's Summer Institute for Reconciliation.

Seminar participants feeding sheep at Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge. Photo by Christopher Carter

Seminar participants feeding sheep at Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge. Photo by Christopher Carter

During the four-day-long event, our afternoon seminar discovered new ways to think about Christianity and animals. Following the "Word Made Flesh" methodology from the book Reconciling All Things, we discussed ways in which Christianity is good news for all creation. We lamented the realities of factory farming, a broken system that hurts animals, humans, and the environment. We visited a farmed animal sanctuary, to meet individual rescued animals and to hear their stories. We were invited into the notion of adopting an anti-oppressive mindset. We told our own stories of hope, of people and organizations working to bring about reconciliation in creation, and we talked about how to sustain ourselves spiritually for the long haul. 

Our diverse group shared their tender and courageous hearts with us throughout the week, we were able to learn much from one another, and we got to meet these two loves:

Photo by Julia Johnson

Photo by Julia Johnson

 

We are exploring the possibility of turning this extraordinary seminar into a webinar, so that more people can experience the renewal and fellowship that was such a blessing to us. If you want to help make that happen, please give a donation to CreatureKind today. 

Sarah cradling Charleston the rooster, who loved to have his face massaged. He fell asleep in my arms! Photo by Blue.

Sarah cradling Charleston the rooster, who loved to have his face massaged. He fell asleep in my arms! Photo by Blue.

Holy Week and the Groaning of Creation

I've been reflecting on Paul's vision of a groaning creation with a Lenten group at church in the past weeks (Romans 8.18–25). I hadn't thought of it before in connection with Holy Week, but this year the link seems inescapable. The groans of fellow human and non-human creatures have never sounded louder to me.

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