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Eating more peaceably: the Christian ethics of eating animals

Wednesday, 3 July 2019  | Jessica Morthorpe

There is an abyss between what our Christian faith teaches us about how we should treat animals and how we are actually treating them right now. This was the central message of Professor David Clough’s inspiring and challenging talks around Sydney this week, as he finished a month-long tour of Australia and New Zealand promoting his new book On Animals: Volume 1 and 2.

Clough spoke about the ample evidence in the Bible that God loves and cares for all animals; that animals offer praises to God, each in their own creaturely ways; and that God expects us to love and care for animals too. He spoke of the many stories of saints caring for animals and how this became a shorthand for what it means to be holy. He spoke of the way Jesus’ parables show an intimate knowledge of creation, including chickens, birds and lilies.

Clough mentioned how in Matthew 10:29–31 we often skip forward to the part about the disciples being worth more than many sparrows, without acknowledging that this passage rests on Jesus offering comfort to the disciples by reminding them of God’s great love and care for individual sparrows, something they were clearly familiar with. We can be sure of God’s love for us, because of God’s love for all creatures.

Clough suggested that for humans to be ‘in the image of God’ means for us to have the responsibility of imaging God to other creatures. We are called to show them what God is like in how we treat them. He challenged us to consider whether we are currently imaging the God we worship to other creatures, or acting as a despotic overlord who only cares about their own gain. We must change our Christian attitudes to other creatures so that they can see the image of our God, the loving and compassionate God who came to earth as flesh, out of love for the whole cosmos, in our actions.

Clough took just one example, industrialised animal agriculture, as a showcase of where we are failing dismally. He suggested that Christians have sleepwalked into a relationship with this style of farming that we would never have countenanced if we had been paying attention to our values. An example of this is the deliberate genetic deformities that cause chickens to grow so fast their legs can’t support them and they’re in constant pain for their short lives. Or the 1-day old male chicks of laying hens that are legally disposed of in Australia by being gassed or thrown into a meat grinder - alive.

He spoke about the damage we are doing in our oceans with trawling and the 90% of all fish we wiped out in the last 100 years. He pointed to research into the pain and suffering that fish experience when they are either crushed in fishing nets or left to asphyxiate on the decks of industrial fishing vessels, which can sometimes take 2-3 hours.

The sheer biomass of livestock we are producing is taking up the habitat of wildlife around the world and driving them towards extinction. Meanwhile sheep and cattle in the live export trade from Australia to the Middle East are experiencing weeks-long journeys in up to 40-degree temperatures, with uncertain welfare at the other end. Instead of being able to root around happily and retreat to have their babies, pigs (who are at least as intelligent as dogs) are forced into such close confinement that they start eating each other out of boredom.

All of this to feed our obsession with eating too much meat - an obsession that is making us sick and harming other humans as well. Meat packing factories are awful places to work, where usually disadvantaged, migrant or undocumented workers are forced to work in dangerous conditions with a high risk of serious injury. They often leave with symptoms analogous to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Clough acknowledged that there are many important issues for us to address at the moment, including climate change, which seems set to make all other issues essentially irrelevant. However he argued for us, particularly as Christians, to work to improve our animal ethics for three reasons: the task is urgent (a huge amount of suffering is happening right now); we can multi-task (we don’t have to choose just one cause at a time, and animal ethics can easily be another thing we fight while we are also addressing climate change etc.); and inter-sectionality (animal welfare is linked to human welfare, environmental health and climate change etc.).

So what should we do? Professor Clough suggested firstly reducing our consumption, particularly of meat and animal products. Secondly, he suggested making sure what animal products we do eat come from the highest welfare conditions possible. By knowing where our food comes from, supporting the farmers who are doing the right thing and eating less overall, we can begin to address the serious challenge of treating animals with more of God’s love.

To go deeper, check out CreatureKind’s 6-week small group course. Is this something you could run at your church?

Recordings of Professor Clough’s talks will be available soon from PEACEtalks at St George’s Anglican Church Paddington and the Pitt Street Uniting Church YouTube channel.

David Clough is Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chester and has just finished a term as President of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics. He co-wrote Faith and Force: A Christian Debate about War (2007), debating just war and pacifism in a 21st century context, and has recently completed the landmark two-volume monograph On Animals (2012, 2018), on the place of animals in Christian theology and ethics. He is the founder of CreatureKind, a project aimed at engaging Christians with farmed animal welfare, and Principal Investigator for a three-year UK Research Council funded project on the Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare in partnership with major UK churches and Compassion in World Farming. He is a Methodist lay preacher and has represented the Methodist Church on national ecumenical working groups on the ethics of warfare and climate change.

Jessica Morthorpe is a Uniting Earth Advocate with Uniting NSW.ACT and the Founder and Director of the Five Leaf Eco-Awards, an ecumenical environmental change program for churches and religious organisations. Find out more here.


Byron Smith
July 3, 2019, 1:50PM
Prof. Clough's presentation is really worth listening to.

The PEACEtalks recording at Paddington Anglican is now available on our website (linked at the end of the story above).

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