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February 23, 2011

A Reflection on Aligning Food Choice and Faith

"How we eat is personal, but it is also a statement of faith," says Rev. Laura Thomas Howell

by Rev. Laura Thomas Howell, Obl.S.B., Rector, Trinity Episcopal Church, Bethlehem, Pa.

The righteous one regards the life of his animal but the heart of the wicked is without mercy.
— Proverbs 12:10

Pain is pain, whether it is inflicted on man or on beast. ... We may pretend to what religion we please, but cruelty is atheism.
We may boast of Christianity; but cruelty is infidelity. We may trust our orthodoxy; but cruelty is the worst of heresies.
— Rev.  Humphry Primatt. A Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals (1776)

We like to think of our food choices as a quintessentially personal decision. Our diets are often deeply embedded in our heritage, culture, and family histories. Perhaps it is precisely because our food choices say so much about us that scripture has so much to say about food. Food is at the center of the story of the fall; the heavenly feast is part of our thinking about the world to come; food is closely connected with the Hebrews’ struggles to trust God in the desert; food was involved in much of the dissension in the early church; and a meal is at the heart of our central act of Christian celebration, the Eucharist. Scripture suggests to us that, yes, what and how we eat is personal, but it is also a statement of faith. So as part of our faith journey, we are called to examine what we eat and why and to see whether we are honoring God in this aspect of our lives.

In today’s world, with most of us far removed from food production, an examination of our food choices first means learning about where our food comes from. food production, particularly when it comes to animal husbandry, has changed dramatically since World War II. Family farms raising a variety of animals to feed local communities are nearly a thing of the past. Instead, industrial agribusiness operations, or factory farms, now produce most of the meat consumed in the U.S. Meanwhile, meat consumption has skyrocketed in recent decades; the average American ate more than 220 pounds per year in 2007, nearly 80 pounds more than in 1960.

Factory farming helps produce these vast quantities of meat at what at first appears to be a low cost to the consumer. As is so often the case, however, low cost for some really means a high cost paid by somebody else. Factory farming has negative impacts on the environment and public health, and it contributes to world hunger and animal suffering. in factory farms, God’s creatures are treated not as sentient beings but as production units to be managed as cheaply as possible, packed by the thousands into small spaces where many of them don’t even have room to turn around. Most of us know nothing of these inhumane conditions and, indeed, most of us don’t want to know. But Christians are not called to hide from the truth. Instead, we are called to see the world as it is and to ask about our role in transforming it.

As Christians, we owe it to ourselves, and to the God who has provided us with food in abundance, to become educated about these issues and to make food decisions that are consistent with the faith we live out in the rest of our lives. We can choose alternatives that reduce, refine, or replace our participation in factory farming. Some of us become vegetarians or even vegans. Others buy products from animals raised under higher welfare standards. Still others cut back on their meat consumption, opting for plant-based meals several times a week. No one single choice is right for everyone. What is important is that we make ethical choices that reflect our faith.

This reflection is excerpted from Animal Protection Ministiries: A Guide for Churches. Download or order a print copy of the guide to learn from churches and pastors involved in animal-related activities on why animals are appropriate for theological consideration and their experiences in implementing these exciting ministries.

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