The Bible Is For The Birds

It is routine to "de-beak" newly hatched chicks raised on factory farms, which means cutting and cauterizing the upper part of the beak. No anesthesia. A chicken's beak has nerves so the process inflicts pain.

Male chicks hatched at intensive egg-producing operations are surplus and so dispensed with, often in grisly ways (suffocation, electrocution, grinding them alive).

Producing foie gras, a food delicacy, involves force-feeding ducks or geese by putting tubes down their throats and stuffing in abnormal quantities of feed. This causes the liver to swell. It also causes various other injuries, lacerations from the tubes and exploding organs among them.

The tips of turkeys' toes are frequently cut off to prevent bored and overcrowded birds at factory farms from harming one another. Again, no anaesthesia.

The extent of avian suffering is staggering. Seven to 10 billion (yes, billion) chickens are slaughtered for food each year in the United States alone. Estimates put the number in Canada somewhere north of six hundred million.

Let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky. So goes the first page of the Bible, just 20 verses into that rather longish book. And those birds never leave. Not only do they "fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven" (KJV), they also make at least 300 other appearances, symbolic and otherwise.

Think of Noah's raven and dove, or those bringing food to Elijah, or the crowing cock announcing Peter's denial. There are lovely poetic descriptions of the forgetful ostrich and majestic birds of prey in Job, as well as all those regulations in Torah clarifying what birds are suitable for food and sacrifice. For Jeremiah, the absence of birds represents desolation, and other writers liken God's care to a bird watching over a nest, covering its young with wings. Hosea imagines the end of exile as the return of migratory birds, and peacocks are emblematic of Solomon's grandeur and wealth. The Spirit of God descends in the form of a dove at Jesus's baptism, and the strange visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, and John the Seer include mysterious creatures resembling an eagle. The Bible is full of birds.

Avian language is everywhere in the Bible. But what, if anything, does it say about ethics? Quite a lot, I suspect.

"If you come on a bird's nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, with the mother sitting on the fledglings or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. Let the mother go, taking only the young for yourself, in order that it may go well with you and you may live long." - Deuteronomy 22:6-7

Why let the mother go? Some Torah regulations hint at a practical wisdom. Allowing labour animals to rest on Sabbath (Exodus 23:12) makes sense. A rested animal is a healthier and more productive one for the farmer. But what about that mother bird? What direct benefit is there for the one who comes upon that nest and lets her go? None, actually. The text seems to say 'You've already taken that bird's eggs, causing her distress, so harm it no further.'

For whatever reason, God does not want humans killing mother birds. Maybe we don't need to understand why; maybe it's God's business and that - for readers who consider Torah an authority - ought to be reason enough. What is clear is that compassion for wild birds is an ethical imperative, and what is more, an ethical imperative with a theological motivation. Let the bird go "that it may go well with you and you may live long." The benefit is divine favour even if the practical reason behind sparing that mother bird remains a mystery.

In the Priestly creation story of Genesis, God sees the creatures of the sea and "every winged bird of every kind" and declares them "good" (1:21). On the sixth day, God sees all land animals, both domestic and wild, and declares them "good" (1:25). This goodness has nothing to do with human beings who appear only after God celebrates birds and every other living thing (cf. 2:4-20 for the reverse order). Birds and other animals are good simply because God makes them and is pleased with them.

What might this mean for those who consider the Bible a moral authority? Do we question whether our food, fashion, and entertainment choices involve sufficient respect for the non-human life God celebrates? Maybe we should. Is "de-beaking" and cutting off toes without anaesthesia, and force-feeding ducks for a menu delicacy consonant with the high value God places on birds? How about throwing live male chicks into grinders? Should Christians tacitly condone such practices with their consumer habits, or endorse ill treatment of non-human life by refusing to discuss animal wellbeing as a religious obligation? After all, the Bible is for the birds and other creatures, and it censures those that abuse them (Proverbs 12:10).

Genesis 1 reminds us of our "creatureliness." Humans also appear on the sixth day, the same day as other land animals. Within the theological-poetic language of this text, we share the same origin as non-human species, and though distinctive and unique (1:26-28), our mandate to "have dominion" over birds and all other life is unambiguously a call to peaceful co-existence, not despotism. According to the very next verse, all living things are to eat plants, not one another (1:29-30), which suggests the bloodshed of 9:1-7 is less than ideal (cf. 6:5-7). Another vision of peaceful coexistence between animals and humans occurs in the Bible's second creation story (2:18-20).

All of this begs the question: Why do most communities of faith that take the Bible seriously ignore the plight of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys? If the Bible censures animal cruelty and celebrates avian life should not those same faith communities do so as well? A disturbing dissonance results from reading the Bible in the shadow of intensive farming practices, and all other forms of animal cruelty.

We rarely hear the term Christian animal ethics, or faith-motivated animal ethics. This is not altogether surprising. The church's tendency to fixate on some ethical matters while ignoring others is not unique to this or any other historical moment. But it is encouraging to recall that religious thinking on social justice and moral issues tends to evolve over time. Christianity is less tolerant of slavery and anti-Semitism than centuries past, and in some corners of the church, believers think rather differently about sexual orientation and the status of women, something inconceivable just a few generations back. Still, animal wellbeing remains a moral blind spot in the church despite Scripture's calls to side with the most vulnerable.

I wonder why this is. Two thoughts. First, while Christians quickly acknowledge biblical calls for compassion, generosity and self-sacrifice, our instinct is to care for those closest to home, in various senses of the word--family, friends, tribe, region, nation, race. No wonder the Bible reminds us to love the unlovable, to defy social conventions and cultural expectations through exuberant and unexpected demonstrations of mercy. Love knows no boundaries so care for non-Israelite sojourners in the land, says Moses. Turn the other cheek when enemies strike, says Jesus. But a duty to care for other species? Can love thy neighbour as thyself really extend that far? Second, we act as though there were not enough kindness to go around. Of course protecting vulnerable and needy people among us is an urgent responsibility but to assume we cannot/ought not simultaneously show concern for our animal neighbours is theologically problematic. It implies that God's love and the church's capacity for compassion are in short supply. Neither is the case. This is not an either-or issue.

When Paul writes of the groaning creation and its bondage to decay (Romans 8:18-23), it is in the context of eschatological hope. Animal suffering will end. Justice will come. There will be no factory farms in heaven because it is incongruent with the visions of peace found in the writings of St. Paul, Isaiah (11:6-9), and others. The question is whether we will participate in that work of the Spirit Paul describes, and do our part to end creation's groaning in the present; will our actions correspond to our repeated prayer, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"?

This post first appeared in the Animal Being issue of Geez (volume 38, 2015, pp. 30-31).