Every year on my birthday, my wonderful mother is always willing to cook a meal of my choosing.
The common denominator in almost all of these meals is chicken. Teriyaki chicken. Barbecue chicken. Chicken ‘n’ dumplings. It really doesn’t matter so long as chicken is involved.
Two years ago, my wife decided to become a vegetarian. She based her decision partly on the handling of animals in the meat business.
While everyone always treated my wife cordially, our friends didn’t understand, our church didn’t understand, and frankly, I didn’t understand.
In fact, I would sometimes crack jokes or dramatically enjoy my meat dish in front of my wife.
Incarnating the utter goodness of her spirit, she maintained her kindness and never made me feel evil or inferior because I was eating chicken as she enjoyed her black bean burger.
However, recent experiences are changing my perspective.
One has been exploring the writings of Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre of Animal Ethics. Linzey teaches that a truly ethical and Christian understanding of the Good News is that compassion should be applied to all of God’s creatures.
In “Animal Gospel,” he writes, “Christians entrusted with a ministry of reconciliation to the whole of creation need to be credible signs of the Gospel for which all creatures belong.”
Sadly, Linzey’s perspective is largely ignored in the U.S. Christian conversation.
Just as Christians were late to the environmental movement, they seem unwilling to engage in honest dialogue about animal rights.
Perhaps it is because most of us are so far removed from the realities of animals. Unlike the worlds of the biblical text, the United States is no longer a predominantly agrarian culture.
With the exception of our household pets, most Americans are not in daily contact with animals.
However, their lives are still dominated by the contributions of animals. Whether it is the milk from dairy cows we pour on our cereal, the belts we loop around our waist each morning, or the meat that serves as a staple dish, the by-products of animals surround us.
Perhaps very little concern is given to animals because the producers of our animal products do everything they can to lull us into forgetting that these items were once parts of an actual creature.
The chicken meat from the grocer does not look like actual chicken; it is deboned, bleached white and placed in a vacuum-sealed pouch (as if it were made that way).
For the most part, animals are simply a means to an end in our society, and no animal is treated as an apparatus more than the chicken, which is arguably the most abused animal on the planet.
Every year in the United States alone, 8 billion to 10 billion chickens are killed, and the methods by which we “raise” chickens for meat are deplorable.
In CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feed Operations), some chickens spend their entire six-week lives without even feeling sunlight.
In CAFOs they live in dark, dank, diseased, feces-filled silos that stink so badly there are laws against putting them too close to houses.
The CAFO-raised chickens are often pumped so full of steroids that their legs can no longer support their body weight, and many chickens are trampled to death. Their miserable lives are full of unease, panic and pain.
We can live with this treatment of chickens because we tend to consider chickens as low functioning and brainless (“bird brain”).
But Annie Potts, in her recently published “Chicken,” writes, “Just as chickens experience positive feelings such as joy associated with dust-baths, sunshine and friendship, they also endure negative emotions including fear, anxiety, frustration and boredom.”
I don’t have any good answers. I don’t have any packaged responses.
I am currently experiencing a growing awareness that perhaps Christians ought to reconsider whether we have limited God’s grace and compassion.
Is it possible that an authentic Christian ethic should be extended to all creatures of our God and King? Perhaps all of “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19).
I do know this: There will be no chicken at my next birthday dinner.