Our dear friend Barry, who went to seminary with Clifton, sometimes prayed like this before church function meals. “We give you thanks O Lord for that which died that we might eat….” Praying like this would raise some eyebrows. We Americans eat a lot of meat.
Our dear friend Barry, who went to seminary with Clifton, sometimes prayed like this before church function meals. “We give you thanks O Lord for that which died that we might eat….” Praying like this would raise some eyebrows. We Americans eat a lot of meat. Eating meat is not generally reserved for special occasions, nor is it a special treat. It is rather “everyday everymeal” fare most of the time. Three meatless meals in a row would be unthinkable for many.
And yet, Barry’s prayer causes some discomfort. We eat meat, but are made uncomfortable by animals dying so that we might eat. We are especially uncomfortable talking about the deaths of animals in front of God, whose chief attribute for many mainline Protestants is being nice. And thanking God for the deaths of animals (unlike the sacrifices of soldiers) seems pejoratively pagan or Jewish or both (and neither label is pejorative to the authors): meat is, for us as a society, a food product, usually packaged, or pre-prepared, by an industry that seems to have more to do with the stock market than either the stockyard or the meat market. Our meat is seldom an animal that died in our hands. We thank God for “this food,” or “these thy gifts,” not for “that which died that we might eat.”
Cultured Theology and Discomfort with Sacrifice
We cannot help but think that our discomfort with Barry’s prayer has something to do with our discomfort, as modern people, with religious sacrifice, especially animal sacrifice. Clifton used to serve in a large downtown congregation that, it is safe to say, leaned to the left both politically and theologically. Many of the well-educated congregants felt various levels of discomfort with thinking of Christ’s death as a sacrifice, or as being in some way an atonement for sin. This discomfort, it should be said, springs from an admirable source (and one fully affirmed by the traditional theology), to wit, repulsed rejection of the notion that God the Father abusively does violence to the Son, rejection of a God who, for being violent, is less than love and so less than good.
Yet it is also safe to say that most of these cultured congregants, uncomfortable with sacrificial atonement in theology, are not vegetarians. Now, the bare thought of a religion that practices animal sacrifice is (to post-industrial people) horrifying. It conjures images of misguided high school “satanists” chasing cats—”religious” ritual justifying remorseless cruelty. This is the kind of thing that makes us worry that the secular state needs to keep religion at bay to stay pure. Yet, we educated Americans can comfortably both feel repulsed by sacrificial violence in a religious context, and enjoy having our hunger slaked every few hours by the slain harvest of the largest and most elaborate and impersonal system of animal sacrifice ever to employ the verdant visage of the earth. The modern meat industry renders miniscule by comparison the largest ritual mellifluities of animal death conjured by any pagan culture or offered from the hands of any Jewish populace in antiquity. The differences between us and the ancient pagans and Jews are (for our purposes) two: we kill more animals, and we don’t thank God for the good in their deaths. We have, in fact, lost the ability to recognize the meat we eat as sacrificed.
Hungry Hears a Who?
It represents a great loss, in the view of the authors, that we (as a society) have lost the ability to thank God for the deaths of the animals we eat. We worry that animal sacrifice is bad, but the result of this is that we can no longer acknowledge the dignity of the lives of the animals we take when we eat. When my meat is a product of industry, or a fruit of fast food chains, I am safely distant from the most morally significant input into my meal: the (invisible) life of the animal that was ended so that I can eat it: the cow shot in the head, perhaps, or electrocuted; or the chicken mechanically decapitated.
But Christians should not be comfortably distant from our sacrifices, for we believe that it is by our nearness to one certain sacrifice that we are saved. The first step is to recollect and recover the animals we eat as sacrifices. To be a sacrifice is to be more than an industrial product. (The state, which in modernity asserts for itself the sacred status previously attached to the church, rightly helps us remember this in the case of soldiers.) Sacrifice implies loss, the immolation of something real and good. Product implies successfully functioning industry, sales and profits. There is no loss remembered when meat is mass-produced. There is no loss of life mourned when we enjoy the offerings of the fast-food empire. The notion of sacrifice (for Christians, Jews, Muslims, and perhaps virtuous pagans) belongs to an entirely different moral and religious order: it is like a bright comet from another world illumining the blank visage of a black sky. To recognize an eaten animal as a sacrifice acknowledges the life that was ended, and which we share.
Are we Americans utterly blind to the dignity of the lives of animals? Certainly not. Our pets go to specialty surgeons in some distant and rather elevated quarters. Our pets are pampered. It is an imperative to our easy conscience that some (scrubbed cleaner) animals called pets be clearly distinct from animals that are food. (People who eat dog seem barbaric.) We easily see the dignity of the life of puppy and old dog alike—and many even project dignity into the lives of cats. When Old Yeller is shot, we cry. That was such a good dog! (A theology of self-sacrifice is certainly felt when Old Yeller gives his life by fighting off the rabid wolf.) It never occurs to anyone to eat Old Yeller. And I won’t even touch War Horse. Had Lassie contracted rabies like Old Yeller, we suspect that Timmy’s family would not have had the heart to shoot her.
In our society, pets have dignity, food has none.
Lil’ Nugget: The Loss and the Gain of Sacrifice
The tension between pet and food entered our lives in a big way when we were gifted Lil’ Nugget after the loss of another chicken at the hands of a suspected raccoon. Lil’ Nugget was a Bantee rooster. A Bantee is like a mini-chicken. This rooster was spunky. Yet, we always knew… one day, we were going to eat that spunky rooster. I mean, it’s all in the name.
Lil’ Nugget’s time came when he was full grown and had been crowing so loudly so early in the morning for a few months that we were worried our neighbors might start to hate us. A member of our congregation who was no stranger to raising chickens for food was kind enough to show us how to slaughter or harvest Lil’ Nugget. It was bloody, and relatively quick.
We ate Lil’ Nugget. In fact, he became chicken n’ dumplings. Lindsey spent several hours cleaning and preparing Lil’ Nugget-turned-meat and remembers almost being sick in the middle of preparing the dish. He had just been running through the yard that morning. He was tasty, though rather small: he did not have nearly as much meat on his bones as the plump chickens rotisseried and sold hot-and-ready at H-E-B, our local grocery store.
Of course, we had mixed feelings about eating Lil’ Nugget, even though he was named after food. What we realized over the next few days was that a good little animal’s life had been ended for us to eat him, and that his death was a loss. It was uncomfortably personal. Our yard went, with the flash of a blade, from three chickens down to two. (We’re back up to three now, since Lil’ Nugget did have the chance to reproduce himself.) He no longer crows in the mornings. A life, which was good, which added something good and pleasant and lovely to our lives, which contributed in a small but real way to the beauty of the universe, ended. His feathers were beautiful.
The only language we have adequate to both the loss of a good life and the gain of a good meal from Lil’ Nugget is sacrifice. To the extent that we have lost the religious and moral resources to dignify our meals as sacrifices, our eating has lost touch with reality.
Sacrificing the Goods of Animal Sacrifice
In the long aftermath of Lil’ Nugget’s sacrificial immolation and consumption, and in relation to Lindsey’s research reading adventures into diet and health (a good story for another time), we have for the most part given up eating meat. We do not think eating meat is wrong, in principle (though there is much wrong in the meat industry), but more like unnecessary. Not absolutely wrong, for the risen Lord Jesus ate broiled fish. We do not understand the way that eaten fish, consumed by the glorified Lord, is being redeemed as a (quite-literal) foretaste of all creation—but we are confident that such is occurring.
Our home is generally vegetarian. Clifton, following the theological wisdom of his friend Wilson who researched diet and fasting in the Christian tradition, eats thankfully whatever is put before him when he is a guest or a pastor, out of the conviction that table fellowship is to be desired more highly than purity of diet. Lindsey, out of the conviction that it is more healthy to almost never eat meat, and abhorrence at killing animals, almost never eats meat.
We both eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus Christ, the one sacrifice offered for our lives, as constantly as we are able.
To sacrifice the enjoyment of eating meals in which we recognize sacrificed animals—or conversely to gratefully partake of the goodness that comes by the deaths of animals—requires that we recover a right religious vision of sacrifice, paradigmatically apprehended in the ultimacy of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, his loving gift of himself to his Father at the hands of sinners. This comes into focus as we constantly behold Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice re-presented liturgically in the Eucharist. John Wesley, an early leader of the Methodist movement, was quite comfortable regarding holy communion as “the Christian sacrifice.” To the extent that we fail to see and be grateful for this one sacrifice, we will in all probability continue in our inability to rightly recognize the many.
Lindsey Foster Stringer is an education management consultant by profession and a financial coach by ministry. Clifton Stringer is the pastor of Lakehills United Methodist Church in Lakehills, TX.