Christian churches should end their silence on animal welfare

Christmas scene

By Peter Fricker
Originally published in the Vancouver Sun
December 16, 2010

One of the most inspiring images for Christians around the world is the nativity scene. It is, for believers, a depiction of Christ’s birth as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and is, of course, central to the celebration of Christmas.

It takes place in the most humble of settings — a barn full of farm animals — and conveys both the earthly simplicity and divine glory of the event. It is humility, perhaps, that gives the scene its emotional power: the idea that an all-powerful God would allow his son to be born among the beasts of the field in a rustic, straw-covered stable. The scene evokes a strong sense of harmony, with animals and mankind sharing something serene and profound.

True, it’s just a romantic ideal in this respect, but it is sad to reflect that today mankind’s relationship with animals is anything but harmonious — and it is hard to find any sign of humility in our overwhelmingly human-centric domination of the planet. The simple stable has given way to the factory farm, or as the industry calls it, the “confined animal feeding operation.” Now, thousands of cattle stand knee-deep in their own manure in massive feedlots. Pigs are confined in crates that barely allow them to move. Chickens are crammed into cages, unable to even flap a wing. There is no peace or joy here, just suffering. Heaven has not come to earth: hell has.

This is not to say life for farm animals was easy or painless two thousand years ago or has been since. After all, we have been raising and slaughtering animals for food and clothing for millennia. The difference is in the sheer scale of the suffering and in the cold and pitiless transformation of animals from sentient beings to commodities.

In ancient times, sacrificing an animal to a god or to mark an important occasion was the solemn expression of the value placed on the animal’s life. It meant something. Contrast such an attitude to the daily marketing and consumption of Chicken McNuggets or Big Macs. Crass commercialization and mass gluttony have replaced any sense of reverence for the lives we take for our own use and pleasure.

Industrialized agriculture seems to know no ethical boundaries. Not satisfied with cruel confinement systems, it is pressing forward with the genetic modification and cloning of farm animals to produce economically superior animals. Animal welfare does not enter into these developments. It’s all about the economic benefits. It’s all about us.

It is curious that there is not a greater outcry from Christians about the ethical direction of factory farming. Surely, they could argue that it represents a move away from Godgiven life toward a hubristic and man-made abomination of creation (just as non-believers can make the case that the treatment of farm animals is against nature and contrary to the highest humanist values).

But sadly, Christian churches have, for the most part, been silent on animal welfare — with some noble exceptions. Andrew Linzey, a distinguished Anglican scholar, has written extensively on the Christian duties of mercy and justice in reference to the treatment of animals, arguing that:

“Animals are God’s creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God’s sight. … Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering.”

Of course, compassion for animals is not an entirely absent concept within Christian thinking. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Philip Neri and St. Basil are among the historical figures who counselled Christians to show kindness to all creatures.

But despite these historical examples, it is rare to hear any church leader speak out against farm animal cruelty. Matthew Scully, a conservative Christian author, has described this dereliction of compassion in his book Dominion. As the title implies, the problem may be with the biblical reference to God giving man “dominion” over the animals, which has been interpreted as a licence to do with them as we will. As Scully argues, this ignores the evidence that “dominion” meant stewardship, not the unfeeling, unrestrained exploitation of animals. Nevertheless, the world’s churches have remained virtually silent as billions of animals suffer on industrialized farms.

There is an English legend, celebrated in Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen, about a small, recurring miracle in the countryside. It was said by farmers that at the stroke of midnight every Christmas Eve, the oxen could be found kneeling in their stalls. Country people believed it was the animals’ tribute to the newborn Jesus. I think it more likely they were praying for deliverance from things to come.

Peter Fricker is projects and communications director for the Vancouver Humane Society.