‘We have seemed to ask – is it profitable? God is saying what we ought to have been asking – is it right?’ (Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the World Economic Forum, Switzerland 2009)
This morning I received an e-mail from my son’s secondary school informing us that all beef products were off their menu until further notice. The horsemeat scandal will certainly continue for many more months. In many ways it has led to a strange paradox of disgust and humour in the UK. Feelings of shock and revulsion are mixed with laughter and mirth, shown in the myriad of comments on facebook, from genuine concern at the huge issue of public trust in labeling to comments about people feeling “a little hoarse” after eating Tesco lasagne. In a small way, my own children are reflecting this dichotomy. On the one hand, they are palpably upset that they may have been unwittingly eating “My Little Ponies” at school. On the other hand, they have adapted UB40’s 1980s hit “There a Rat in Mi Kitchen (what am I gonna do?!)” and are presently jumping around downstairs singing “There’s a Horse in Mi Burger (what am I gonna do?!)”.
As a person of faith, my real concern is that, once the labelling issue is put to rest and once the public is given a guarantee that they will no more be eating intelligent (pigs?) and cute (lambs?) animals like horses, the whole scandal will fade into a distant memory. The whole situation, though, points to a disturbing issue that we should be facing as a society, but is being conveniently ignored as the “flesh we so fancifully fry”, to use the words of 80s icons The Smiths, is served on our plates. What the horsemeat scandal should be doing for us is reminding us exactly where our food comes from, so, if we do decide to eat meat, we truly appreciate the gift of life that has been taken to give strength to our own bodies.
For the most part, of course, our society has little or no respect for the wonderful plethora of animals that are around us. In our global economy, just as we de-humanise humans so that we can exploit the poor and oppressed without feeling ashamed, we also de-animalise animals so that we can eat as cheap food as possible without feelings of guilt. Animals literally become, to adapt the title of America’s huge hit of the 1970s, “horses with no names”. Rarely are farmed animals now treated with the respect and dignity that the farmers of old used to treat their livestock. Especially in the large, global corporations that dominate the food industry, livestock (such as cows, hens, and sheep) are viewed as simply a product to be reared for the fast-food outlet. They are bred specifically for death.
Perhaps the indigenous hunting communities of our world can teach us something of the respect and gratitude towards the “calves that we carve with a smile” (The Smiths) for which we should be aiming. Many of these communities hold a great affinity for the prey they hunt and they recognise their utter dependence on the animals that are sacrificed so that their people might live. Compassionate ceremonies and rituals are often performed to show gratitude to the animals for the gift of their lives.
The tribesmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa will, for example, symbolically enter the suffering of their hunt by re-enacting the final death throes of their prey. This is a marked contrast to our own food system, which is largely controlled by a small group of multi-national corporations, who attempt to hide the truth about what we are eating and the abuse of animals and workers in their factories. ‘In the meat aisle, there are no bones anymore;’ comments the Oscar-nominated film Food, Inc. , ‘there is this deliberate veil, this curtain, drawn between us and where our food is coming from’.
Yet, Christians especially should recognise that all parts of creation, in life or in death, are equally worthy of our attention, respect, and love. After all, while Christ has an independent identity from his creation, he is also ‘all, and in all’ (Colossians 3:11). Embracing this view should have huge implications on moral and ethical matters – not least on our attitudes towards environmental matters, food production, health care, emerging technologies, animal care, energy development, environmentalism, and so on. ‘Do not do any injury, if you can possibly avoid it’, the great Welsh Celtic monastic St Teilo is purported to have said while reflecting on creation.
The old anthropocentric, human-centred paradigm does not reflect a truly Christian worldview. God looked at creation and saw that it was “very good” (Genesis 1), not because it was useful or beneficial to us humans, but simply because it is “very good”! We must never forget that the whole web of life is valued and loved by God, not merely one strand of it. ‘I tell you, my friend,’ writes Michael Morpurgo in his bestselling War Horse, ‘there’s divinity in a horse. God got it right the day he created them’.
For more on this subject, see my book The Compassion Quest (Chapter 7 “Reverence for Life”).