By Daryl Booth, Founder of Sarx – Christian Animal Advocacy
Every time I open a newspaper these days there always seems to be a story on veganism. Ranging from hilarious public squabbles over sausage rolls to alarming reports of animal suffering and environmental devastation, veganism has never been such a hot topic.
An article that really made me choke up recently detailed the fate of male chicks in today’s commercial egg industry. Because they are economically worthless, each week, millions of male birds are separated from the females placed onto a conveyer belt and dropped alive into an industrial macerator.
It’s easy to quickly flip over the page and try to ignore such a shocking article but the subject is by no means confined to newspapers. Whether it be the rapidly expanding range of vegan products in supermarkets, billboards urging us to give up dairy, or groups of street animal advocates showing harrowing footage of slaughterhouses, veganism is unavoidable, as are the serious moral questions it raises, particularly in regards to animals.
We Christians are certainly not immune to these moral questions but may feel a little taken aback. A few years ago, animal concerns largely washed over us. It was easy to assume the status quo—that animals were simply not “our issue” and we would certainly not expect to hear them preached about in church pulpits or discussed in Bible studies. Of course, we would show good Christian tolerance if meeting a vegetarian, but if challenged could feel safe in the unassailable retort “Well Jesus ate fish, didn’t He?” Surely a providential thumbs up for eating animals!
Yet, when I consider the horrors of our industrialized farming systems (non-existent in Jesus’ lifetime); the calves of dairy cows separated from their mothers within the first 48 hours after birth (unlawful in Jesus’ lifetime), pigs mutilated and suffering in steel farrowing crates (again unlawful in Jesus’ lifetime), and especially the millions of male chicks falling into a macerator (simply unthinkable in Jesus’ lifetime), I can’t help think that the ubiquitous “Well Jesus ate fish, didn’t He?” simply doesn’t seem good enough.
So, how did Jesus regard animals and how does this impact upon today’s generation of Christians? We all know that the Gospel writers do not record Jesus giving extensive, explicit teachings on the matter. However, much like an episode of Colombo, the truth is revealed through the smaller, easily overlooked details.
The first clue is the remarkable frequency in which Christ associated Himself with animal imagery. His birth took place in the home of sheep and oxen. At His baptism, John the Baptist hailed Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1: 29) and the Spirit of God descended on Him like a “dove” (Matthew 3: 16). Symbolizing His kingship, the book of Revelation identifies Christ as the “Lion of Judah”. Perhaps most touchingly, Jesus expresses his love for the people of Jerusalem by longing to gather them together as “a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matthew 23:37).
In His teachings, there is an unsung but striking, nature-based sense of spirituality. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to the lilies and birds as models of Christian discipleship. Pointing to the sparrows, humble creatures by human standards and having very little monetary value, Jesus tells the crowd that “not one of them will fall to the ground outside the love of your Father” (Matthew 10:29-31).
Looking again to the unassuming details, an example of Jesus showing practical care for animals is when he encouraged people to trust him by telling them “my yoke is easy” (Matthew 11:28-30). In the modern world, that phrase is something we can easily pass over; however, it is actually very important. Yokes are wooden harnesses that are fastened over the necks of animals and then attached to a plough or cart. Now a “cruel yoke” was one which was badly made, jagged, and heavy. These yokes caused terrible pain and lasting injury to animals. By contrast, an “easy yoke” was one that was carefully made, well-fitting, and light. Jesus was basically saying “You know me and you know my works. I am a carpenter. I have made yokes. Are they easy or cruel?” He made this claim near where he worked so people in His audience may even have bought yokes from him! He, therefore, relied upon His reputation for making well-fashioned yokes to you make the claim “You can trust me—My yoke is easy.”
Jesus also showed compassion to the donkey He rode to Jerusalem. At the time, Jewish law forbad separating a calf from his or her mother for seven days. Before entering Jerusalem, Jesus took the foal and mother donkey together, even though the foal was older than this. His heart for compassion exceeded the demands of the law. The famed Baptist Minister C.H Spurgeon commented:
“This appears to me to be a token of [Jesus’] tenderness: he would not needlessly sever the mother from her foal. I like to see a farmer’s kindness when he allows the foal to follow when the mare is ploughing or laboring; and I admire the same thoughtfulness in our Lord. He would not even cause a poor beast a needless pang by taking away [her] young… Our Lord herein taught his disciples to cultivate delicacy, not only towards each other, but towards the whole creation. I like to see in Christian people a tenderness towards all God’s creatures.”
Going above and beyond the law, indeed sweeping it aside altogether for the sake of love and compassion, is perhaps one of the most attractive and compelling features of Christ’s teaching. Indeed when challenged about whether it is appropriate for Him to heal on Sabbath, Jesus refers to farmed animals, suggesting that compassion, not legalism, is a matter of common sense: “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11).
Jesus’ boundless compassion for all creation is witnessed both in the fine detail of the Gospel accounts and the broad strokes of Paul who hails Christ the one who releases the whole of creation from its groaning bondage (Romans 8) and makes peace between all things in heaven and earth (Colossians 1.20; Ephesians 1.10).
So where do we go from here? One the one hand, we have Jesus; the one who received the Holy Spirit like a dove, compared His love to that of mother hens’, and declared that even the most economically worthless of birds are all receivers of God’s providential care and do not fall outside the love of the Father. On the other, we live in a society where male birds in their millions have their few short hours of life ended by being minced alive in an industrial macerator. Each week, millions of birds travel along a conveyer belt before falling into those whirling blades. Yet “not one falls outside the love of the Father”.
I won’t suggest how you may want to respond. But did you just feel that same chill down the spine that I did?