First, Do No Harm: Aligning My Ethics and My Actions in a Disconnected World

I posted a few Mondays ago that I’d mostly moved on from theological blog posts … well, it turns out I was wrong.

Sure, a lot of the questions I was asking back then are things I’ve settled now, but one big one has arisen: How do I be moral and righteous within an economic and industrial system that is heavily built upon cruelty, exploitation, and oppression?

I’m still wrestling, just with slightly different angels.

I’m struggling to figure out how to align my actions with my ethics in modern America. Most of the things we do to survive, or at least live, seem to be built upon the suffering of others. And that suffering is deliberately concealed from those of us on the consuming end of the equation.

I’m not talking about historical injustices or atrocities, but  ongoing suffering and death, here and now. The kind I can either contribute to or help alleviate.

  • The meat, dairy and egg industries are horrific for the animals and (to a lesser extent) the workers.
  • Overfishing has put the health of entire oceans at risk.
  • Global warming is real. The oil companies and their pet politicians and pundits have spent a lot of money convincing people it isn’t, but I trust actual climate scientists more than lobbyists.
  • Hunger is still an issue around the world, and drinking water is an even bigger issue (even here in the U.S.)
  • Worst of all, a large but hard to determine, number of everyday items include components that were made by literal slaves.

The food in my belly, the clothes on my back, the shoes on my feet … someone suffered for all that. It’s easy to ignore. It’s easier to ignore than it is to learn about, because the men with the money want it that way.

As the old song says, they “you can throw that rock, and hide your hand … but what’s done in the dark will be brought to the light.”

So now that I’ve seen this particular light, what can I do?

I really want to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. How can I passively inflict this kind of damage? How can I cynically make this kind of mess for other, poorer people to clean up? Or for my daughter and her future children to clean up?

Out of sight, out of mind.

Jesus always sided with the underdogs, the outsiders in society (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”).

When he railed against sin, he was always speaking to the powerful, whose sin was oppressing and exploiting others, usually by making them into outsiders and declaring them unclean.

He never accepted second-hand cruelty. When the system was cruel, he rebuked the system. When the respectable, “moral” people were callous, he called them out.

He called me out.

We’re good at being good, when that just means being nice to the people in front of our faces, paying our taxes, and giving some money to charity from time to time. But I have a hard time believing that that is all that matters.

No matter what you believe religiously, we all stand under judgement. We can’t escape the things we do. Even if there were nothing beyond our mortal material existence, our actions still exist. They are as inescapable as gravity and entropy.

If my lifestyle is having real consequences on other people, don’t I need to change it?

Yes, I do.

Yes, I will.

And I hope that maybe I’ll inspire a few more people to join me. Over the next couple of days, I’ll be following this post up with more detail on the harm that we do, harm that is being hidden from us, and with what I’m personally doing to try to eliminate, or at least ameliorate, this in my life.

I hope you’ll join me.

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Where Ayn Rand Went Right (Prophets and Bullies)

We must call evil “evil.”

We must have the courage to speak up.
We must not give evil the sanction of our silence.

Now, I’m no Objectivist. I’ve talked about where Atlas Shrugged went off the rails.

And unlike former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, I don’t think Objectivism is compatible with Christianity. But if Balaam could learn from a donkey, surely we can be humble enough to learn from a mid-century social darwinist.

But the truth is, it is far too easy to let things slide, either to keep the peace, or because we don’t want to damage our favored candidate’s chances, or because we just don’t want to make a fuss.

But evil grows best in silence and darkness.

I truly believe that we must start within ourselves, with the beams in our own eyes (Matthew 7:3).  Otherwise, we become hypocrites, whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27). And we must temper our boldness with compassion and empathy, lest we become cruel ourselves.

This means we must have the courage to call out the people in power, not pick on minorities and the marginalized just because they’re easy targets. THAT is the difference between the prophet and the bully. And THAT is the difference we must never forget.

But we must take hold of the courage to speak up. We must call out actions, plans, policies, and institutions. Even if they are popular. Even if they are done “to protect American lives.” Even if we voted for the guy doing them. Especially if we voted for the guy doing them.

We must speak out … even as we remember that the people committing these terrible acts are beloved children of the same God that made and loves us.

7 Simple Steps to Combat Animal Cruelty (Wrestling the god of the Gut, Part 3)

Free Range Egg.  Photo by Borb, Creative Commons

Free Range Egg. Photo by Borb, Creative Commons

As I wrote here, I’m boycotting factory farmed meat and eggs, because of the cruel treatment of the animals.  So far, people have been pretty supportive.  Some have even been curious, though it’s awkward, because the conversation always comes up around meal time, and my southern courtesy upbringing makes me reluctant to talk about battery cages, gestation crates, animals that aren’t properly killed, and so are alive while being dismembered, and so on.

I’ve come to realize that I took a pretty big step.  Eating at restaurants is hard.  Finding the meat is expensive and difficult.  I live in Mississippi, which is just about the least conscience-eating-friendly place in the country.

Despite seeing tons of cows grazing in open fields along the highway, finding locally sourced beef is all but impossible – even the free-range stuff I have found is from the Midwest.  Katherine was able to find a farmer in Lucedale who sells pork and chicken (she got me cruelty-free bacon.  I love that woman!).

Needless to say, I haven’t made any “converts.”  But it’s been a big jump.  Maybe if I had a few “small things” people could do without radically altering their lives, it would help.  So here are a few suggestions:

1) Buy “cage free” eggs. 

They’re about $1 a dozen more than factory eggs, available at Winn-Dixie or the local farmer’s market.  They also taste much better. Just dedicate a couple more dollars a week to eggs, and you’ll gently push the industry toward more humane treatment.

2) Eat one meatless meal per week. 

The average American eats 200 pounds of meat a year.  That’s more than the average American weighs.  We all know that’s too much.  Make one more meatless meal per week than you usually do.  It doesn’t even have to be vegetarian.  Try fish or seafood.

3) Reduce the proportion of meat in a given meal, without removing it entirely.

Next time you barbecue, include some roasted vegetables, baked potatoes/sweet potatoes (cooked on a charcoal grill – YUM), and roasted onions (cut an onion, fill the cuts with butter and garlic salt or Italian dressing, wrap it in charcoal, and roast it).

Don’t forget the meat, but alter the proportions.  Steak is good, but steak with baked potatoes and roasted vegetables is better.  Pan-fried chicken is good, but a pan-fried chicken salad with cranberries, mandarin oranges, and walnuts is better.  Okay, I’m making myself hungry now.

4) Request free-range/cruelty-free meat at your local grocery.  Talk to the manager.

 Corner Market gets its free-range meat on Fridays.  By Saturday, it’s gone.  I don’t know why they keep under-ordering.  If it sells out in one day, you’re not ordering enough.  Winn-Dixie always has something, but almost never chicken, and the selection is always thin.

5) Ask where your local restaurants get their meat.

Just knowing that someone cares enough to ask can help raise awareness.

6) Reduce your use of dairy.

In the U.S., dairy pretty much comes from the same uncaring agribusinesses that provide beef.  In fact, the conditions are arguably worse for dairy cattle than for beef cattle (though most of the time the dairy cattle do end up slaughtered for their meat after a few years).

I’m working on this one myself, but it’s not easy around here.  Wal-Mart used to carry soy cheese (cheaper than regular cheese, and it melted better, too), but I haven’t seen it lately, and there’s not a Whole Foods within shopping distance.

7) Spread the word.

“American farmers” conjures images of people like my grandparents in the minds of most people.  In the past, American farmers were small farmers, who cared for their animals like Psalm 12:10 says.

But now most of the farming in American is done by a few large corporations, subsidized by our tax dollars (10% collected 75% of the subsidies between 1995 and 2011, almost $208 billion).  Nanny Jet and Pa Clarence no longer represent the face of American farming, and they haven’t for a long time.  Let that be known.  Speak the truth.

If you want to do something, but aren’t ready to “take the plunge,” try implementing a few of these.  They’re relatively easy.  They’re good for your health.  And most of all, they help nudge American agriculture back in a saner, more humane direction.

Why Bother? (Drone Strikes and Child Labor and Factory Farms, Oh My!)

Chickens Stuffed into Battery Cages

Sunday, I had someone ask me what I was trying to accomplish.  She was specifically talking about boycotting factory farmed meat and eggs, but I suppose the same could be said of several of my “causes,” including: Voting for a third party candidate in protest of the two major party candidates use of, and approval of, continuing drone strikes that kill hundreds of Pakistani civilians. Boycotting Hershey’s chocolate until they institute a plan to stop using cocoa farmed using forced child labor. Or, to go way back, making sure the diamond on my wife’s engagement ring was not a conflict (“blood”) diamond.

And I stuttered.  I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer.

What I finally came up with was this (and I hope I can phrase it more eloquently here than I did then).  Many of the evils we encounter in this day and age are systemic.  They are clearly above our pay grade, above the area of influence we have any power over.  And I’m talking real evil here, not policy differences (the argument whether the current welfare system helps or entraps the poor is not “good versus evil.”  Both sides have concerns for those who need assistance, they just don’t agree on how it’s done.  That’s not what I’m talking about).

When I encounter such an evil, when I become aware of it, I have a choice.  I can ignore it, pretend I didn’t see it, and by doing so, give it my support.  Or I can do something, even something small, to push back against it.

So what am I trying to accomplish here?  I want to preserve whatever shreds of my integrity still exist by not being blindly complicit with known evils.  I want to let the people around me know that these things are going on, that people (and animals) are suffering terribly.  I want to let people know that our disposable consumer culture comes with consequences, often for the weakest and most vulnerable.

And most of all, I want to remind myself.

Ayn Rand was wrong about a lot of things, but she was right about at least one.  If you can do nothing else, call evil evil.  Say it.  If you have no power to do anything else, name cruelty.  Name theft.  Name murder.  There is power in just saying the truth.

 

Wrestling the god of the Gut, Round Two

Burrito - Photo by Ernesto Andrade, Creative Commons

Photo by Ernesto Andrade, Creative Commons

It’s been 10 days since my “Wrestling the god of the Gut” post, and I thought I’d give you an update on how the match is going.

Let me tell you a little about myself: I’m a southerner, which basically means I’m a natural carnivore.  My two favorite food groups are meat and more meat.  I love deep-fried barbecue pork ribs so much I’ve got breading for skin and barbecue sauce for blood (yes, such a food exists, and yes, it is absolutely as good as it sounds).  I love to eat, but I don’t really like to cook.  And I really love going out to eat with my honey-bunny wifie … in the south, where carne is king.

You’d think that finding cruelty-free meat wouldn’t be so hard in such a meat-obsessed place as southern Mississippi, but nope.  Apparently, folks around here either don’t know or don’t care what’s done to their burger, bacon or chicken while it’s still breathing.

It’s probably innocent ignorance.  We see the cattle grazing on the hills as we drive up Highway 49, and we think the beef we buy locally comes from them.  But it doesn’t; it comes from massive factory operations in the midwest.  Getting meat from the nearby fields involves either tracking down the meat guy at the farmer’s market (easier said than done), or buying a cow and having it slaughtered (hope you have a big deep freeze).

I’ve found some beef and pork at Winn-Dixie.  It’s not local, but it’s pasture-fed, without crates or cages.  I’ve also found free-range eggs, though I can just as easily get those at the farmer’s market (the egg guy’s always there).  It’s expensive, though, and I still haven’t found free-range chicken for any kind of affordable price.

So I just decided to eat less meat.  And I found out I feel better when I’m not eating meat.  It’s crazy, but living on eggs, cheese, grains, fruits, and veggies has been a real boon.  I can even eat sweets again without feeling too bad.  I really only missed meat for the first week or so, and now I’m kind of “over it.”  Maybe this is a phase, too.  Or maybe I’ll be a full-on-vegetarian by year’s end (Nanny Jet’s chicken and dressing recipe does not count, by the way).

It’s funny, because I used to use meat (especially a big hamburger) to give me a boost when I was sick or feeling crummy.  Now, I’m largely avoiding meat, and I feel better than I should.  I had a bad headache yesterday, and I really thought about defrosting some of that free-range beef and medicating with a hamburger.

But my wonderful wifie thought of fixing my Five-Layer Bean Burritos of Doom recipe, and sure enough, it worked.  It actually filled the role that all-beef burgers used to fill.

I’m not 100% sure what my big point is here, except maybe that God has taken my first tentative steps toward reducing the cruelty my consumeristic existence causes, and He has blessed them beyond what I’d ever expected.  I’m excited to see where He’ll lead me next.

Factory Farming (Wrestling with the god of the Gut)

 

Pigs Confined in Gestation Crates

Pigs Confined in Gestation Crates

I started this blog to talk about the questions, about wrestling with the angels, struggling with things I don’t know and things I do know, but don’t quite want to accept.

I’ve gotten a little off-course here.  I’ve been distracted by some important things going on: Emily Maynard’s post about modesty and the controversy that followed, including my two posts (here and here), Mark Driscoll’s slut-shaming of Esther, Hurricane Isaac, and more.

Well, during this month a new struggle has begun within me, a struggle with cruelty to animals … specifically, the animals that make up such a large part of my daily diet.  Kurt Willems’s “God of the Gut” article sent my mind down paths my belly really wished it hadn’t.   Greg Boyd’s “Compassionate Dominion and Factory Farms” sealed the deal. Modern American factory farming is not humane. It just isn’t.  (Warning, the videos are not for the faint of heart).

Let me say that I’m neither a vegetarian nor even a pacifist right now.  I have no problem whatsoever killing and eating animals.  I even hunt a couple of times a year with my uncle.  Any animal living in the wild has to worry about getting eaten.  Herbivores have to worry about predation, and even predators have to worry about being eaten from the inside out by disease or parasites.  So the death of an animal for food is not a problem in my mind.

But I will not abide torture.  And the practices in factory farms, where animals are held in tiny crates (sometimes for their entire lives), are castrated or de-toothed without anesthesia, and are slaughtered sloppily, leaving some alive for the slaughtering process?  That’s torture.

This isn’t an example of something I’m not sure about.  I wouldn’t treat my dogs like that, and pigs are roughly as intelligent as dogs.  I know, I’m not planning to eat my dogs.  But I wouldn’t treat a deer like that, either.

Every hunter has ethical standards, trying to take only shots that are sure, that will kill quickly, that won’t make the animal suffer unnecessarily.  Yet, when it comes to factory farming, there are no such considerations.  Like so much in corporate America, the bottom line is king.

So like I said, I’m not struggling with whether this is right for me to do.  I’m struggling with what a deep-seated pain in the neck it is. I can’t back-check restaurants, so guess who’s a pescetarian when he eats out?  And guess who used to be head-over-heels in love with Rosie’s Barbecue, Strick’s Barbecue, Mug Shots Burgers, and just about any version of chili cheese fries?  Guess who’s got to convince his wife to pay twice as much for meat and 50% for eggs?  Thankfully, she’s been very supportive.

Essentially, my struggle is to not be a wimp.  I’ve read the horror stories.  I know what I have to do.  Now, the struggle is to do it.  Funny how that goes.