On a remote island civilization is killing the inhabitants from thousands of miles away. Tragic video about the consequences of our actions and choices as a society and individually.
(more graph goodness in the article)
The result is that each plant has to get rid of thousands of “spent” hens every year. What happens to those hens? In most cases, they don’t end up in your chicken soup broth, or even in your cat or dog’s food. That’s because most slaughterhouses don’t accept them — they have too little meat on their bones to turn a profit.
Has the world reached peak chicken? Considering the fact that Americans eat 79 billion eggs a year, that’s an awful lot of laying hens. And that’s to say nothing of the so-called broiler operations that make chickens for supermarket shelves and fast-food sandwiches and nuggets.
This is a well known poem of Wendell Berry’s. I have wanted to avoid some of his more well known works, but they are still so full of meaning and poignance for me that I cannot ignore them. This one is short. So, I will quote the whole thing.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
This poem in particular gives me a lot of comfort. As an activist, environmentalist, follower of Jesus, father, husband and someone who cares about the world we live in, it can be easy find myself where the poem begins, in despair. It seems that those who want to make the world a better place often begin by trying to overwhelm us with fear and guilt about the state of the world. I have certainly felt that in order to make change I needed to shock people out of complacency with pictures, statistics, stories and a narrative about how the world is so completely messed up. So, we begin our task of repairing the world by creating as much discomfort, anxiety, guilt and fear possible.
This strategy has the benefit of working, at least for a while. People become fearful and guilty about what the world has become and their role in it. Then they reach despair, the beginning of this poem, but people can only stay there so long before turning suicidal or mentally ill. Many people choose then to opt-out of any resistance and try to get the most they can out of the status quo. They recycle and do little things that reflect their deeper values, but they have despaired of greater change and left behind any radical dreams of a better world. That grieves me. Have we not learned that people motivated by fear or guilt tend not to do the things that make the world better?
Perhaps Berry feels the weight of despair from this disaster narrative that haunts our global society. Regardless of where his despair comes from initially, he places his fears in their proper place, future generations. This is what should motivate us, not guilt and fear, but a rootedness in this place called earth, and our own particular places that causes us to contemplate the future of this place and these people. This is the place to which the rest of the poem brings us.
Berry has often been contrasted with another poet, Mary Oliver; he, the poet of farm and field and she, the poet of wilderness. Yet Berry often lingers on the edges of fields, more than he rides the tractor. He also often contrasts forest and field, wilderness and cultivated land. They are deeply intertwined in his work. This is because, as he demonstrates in this poem, there is an an underlying “grace of the world” his sense of what farming is and what it means. In another poem, “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”, Berry says
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing and reaped as I knew by luck and heaven’s favor in spite of the best advice.
Berry’s way of living with the land, rather than off it or from it, is centered in the world of living things “who do not tax their lives with forethought”. The natural world is not planning out how to survive, or how to win the battle against encroaching civilization. There is no conspiracy of beavers and bears plotting how to protect their homes. I believe it was David Quinn who said that the point at which human beings departed from other creatures was our ability to tell the future from the past, to look at a set of tracks and say that someone or something came from this direction and went that way. Perhaps the point at which we began to “tell time” in the modern sense is when we domesticated ourselves, no longer living among wild things without forethought.
The “presence of still water” obviously calls to mind the 23rd Psalm, but it is almost as if the poet wants us to look again at this well known phrase in a new context. In the context of the Psalm it evokes the comfort of God in difficult times, but we don’t think much about the actual still water. It is incredible to me that even our faith tradition can get in the way of our seeing and reading the Bible. In this poem the still water evokes the fact that it has not been disturbed. Think about how long you have to sit and watch a pond or lake reach that glassy equilibrium. In the poem the peace of that water just sits there waiting, just like the stars, obscured by the sun’s light.
Finally, there is a freedom in this kind of wild peace that is exponentially more than the negative freedoms we have come to associate with that word. Plants grow and bear fruit, animals mate and die, rivers flow, the rains come and it all happens beyond all our machinations and our control. We have used science to understand a lot about the world, but it continues to be beyond our control. I still believe that our attempts to control it are the definition of hubris and a lack of true understanding. It is as if we have equated freedom with control, where we are the ones in charge. Yet real freedom lies in the world beyond our control, that continues without us and continues to support us in spite of our best efforts to manipulate, exploit and destroy. It is not freedom for the heron or wood drake to try and become like us and live in air conditioned houses. Their freedom is their ability to be what they were meant to be, to exist as they were created to exist, apart from our care or exploitation, but beside us in the grand dance of ecology.
To return to the despair in the beginning, this kind of freedom and peace puts the activist, the radical, the follower of Jesus, those who want to make the world better in a completely different frame of mind for their work. Using fear and guilt to make change is another way of manipulation, exploitation and control. How would we work toward change if our thoughts and actions grew out of the peace of wild things and the freedom of the world beyond our control?
This is one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture. At first I tried to squeeze this whole chapter into one post, but like the love of God it could not be contained. So, instead I will break this up into two parts. First, I will consider the chapter in its Old Testament context. In the next post I will interpret and connect the chapter to the New Testament, primarily Jesus’ reference to this passage and the Letter of James.
We are the Land
My reading of this chapter has been partially inspired by a traditional Native American greeting that the musical group Ulali enshrined in a powerful song. The greeting is “All my relations” and it is offered as a reminder of our connections to each other. The song which I have quoted at the end of this post captures beautifully the sense of this powerful, all-embracing salutation. It is in this light that I offer my thoughts on this pivotal chapter in the Hebrew Scripture.
Verses 1-4 are a recapitulation of the first five commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai against idolatry, making idols and using the name of YHWH in vain, and for keeping the Sabbath and honoring father and mother (Ex 20:3-6, 8-12). I wonder about the way that the command to honor parents and the Sabbath are lumped together in verse 3. It’s almost the inverse of the Native American tradition of thinking about consequences to the seventh generation. Here Sabbath practice (which includes the care for the land involved in Sabbatical and Jubilee years) honors those that have gone before by continuing the tradition and legacy of stewardship of creation. Verses 5-8 then concern the peace or fellowship offering, connecting this opening salvo to the sacrificial system which maintained and nurtured Israel’s ongoing relationship with YHWH. The context of this covenantal relationship with YHWH is is the foundational framework for understanding the commandments that follow.
The following verses deal with Israel’s social relationships and their use of nature. The practice of gleaning combines these two arenas into one practice.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:9-10)
It is hard to imagine farmers allowing the practice of gleaning in our era of industrial agriculture that is so obsessed with yields above all other measures or qualities of crops. There is a certain amount of respect inherent in this command for those who gain their sustenance by foraging for leftovers in other people’s fields. In North American culture we tend to look down on those that take handouts in order to survive (though not in the case of farmers who are propped up by government subsidies), but this practice was a way of maintaining community ties with those who were most vulnerable. The story of Ruth and Boaz certainly does not condemn them for making use of this practice. The rest of the commandments can be read in light of this first command which combines social relationships and their relationship to nature.
It also seems important to note that almost all of the commands come in pairs, each verse containing two or more commands that somehow relate to each other. Often a section of commands is concluded by a command or statement about how this relates to God and then the words “I am the LORD”. This is the pattern for 9-18 and 23-37. Only verses 19-22 break with this pattern (I’m not sure exactly why). For example, verses 11-12 almost seem to imply a scenario in which someone gets more and more entangled in their misdeeds (this is also the plot of many a Hollywood comedy). First someone steals. Then they must cover up what they’ve done by lying and “dealing falsely”. Perhaps when confronted or in an effort to keep their sin hidden they make an oath or swear using the Divine name to back up their (false) righteousness. You can see how these commands relate, intertwine and culminate. This also connects broken social relationships to a broken relationship with God.
Many of the verses leading up to the well known verse 18, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, also concern the treatment of neighbors, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him” (13), “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (15) and “you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor” (16). Loving your neighbor has very little to do with feelings in this context, but requires concrete actions.
More Sex and the Land
Verses 19-25 are filled with subtle references to sex. First there is a prohibition against breeding two different cattle and planting fields with two kinds of seed. This may seem foreign to us, since our culture has gone far beyond traditional breeding and crossing of animals into the realms of cloning and bioengineering. Planting a field with only one kind of seed sounds like the monoculture of industrial agriculture practiced around the world today, but contradicts what science has taught us about biodiversity and ecosystems. I’ll be honest, without the help of commentaries for more insight into this particular prohibition I would just be shooting in the dark (and as you may know that can be dangerous). The commandments concerning fruit trees in verses 23-25 are pretty much common sense. Most fruit trees take 3-5 years before producing fruit, again in the way of all living things involving sex of some kind.
Sandwiched in between these two verses is another command concerning sexuality (20-22) further connecting sexual relationships and sexuality to our treatment of the land (see Sex and the Land). The image of the land falling into prostitution in verse 29 is an interesting one in this regard. The connection between objectifying sexual relationships and objectifying the land is reiterated. The keeping of Sabbath practices in verse 30 then properly reflects the opposite of prostituting the land.
I would need much more time and space to make all of the connections in this chapter, but I believe they are there. For example, verse 26 contains two seemingly unrelated commands, the first not to eat blood and the second not to try and tell the future. If we recall that the prohibition of consuming blood is because it is the source of life (see Blood Cries Out), then the connection to telling the future is our attempt to control or have power over things that are not ours to control. Verses 27-28 are about how we mourn and our relationship to the dead, the opposite of the previous verse.
Present in all of these commandments is the idea that sex, fertility, the land, respect for life and for things that are beyond our control are interconnected parts of the same whole reality and our relationship to it. As I said before, I think that the Native American greeting “All my relations” is a helpful way of understanding this.
All My Relations by Ulali
To our elders who teach us of our creation and our past so we may preserve mother earth for ancestors yet to come
We are the land
This is dedicated to our relatives before us thousands of years ago
And to the 150 million who were exterminated across the western hemisphere in the first 400 years time starting in 1492
To those who have kept their homelands
And to the nations extinct due to mass slaughter, slavery, deportation and disease unknown to them
And to the ones who are subjected to the same treatment today
To the ones who survived the relocations and the ones who died along the way
To those who carried on traditions and lived strong among their people
To those who left their communities by force or by choice and through generations no longer know who they are
To those who search and never find
To those that turn away the so-called unaccepted
To those that bring us together and to those living outside keeping touch, the voice for many
To those that make it back to live and fight the struggles of their people
To those that give up and those who do not care
To those who abuse themselves and others and those who revive again
To those who are physically, mentally or spiritually incapable by accident or by birth
To those who seek strength in our spirituality and ways of life and those who exploit it, even our own
To those who fall for the lies and join the dividing lines that keep us fighting amongst each other
To the outsiders who step in good or bad and those of us who don’t know better
To the leaders and prisoners of war politics crime race and religion innocent or guilty
To the young, the old, the living and the dead
To our brothers and sisters and all living things across mother earth
Whose beauty we have destroyed and denied the honor the Creator has given each individual
The truth that lies in our hearts
All my relations
Leviticus 17:11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.
Many people are squeamish about blood in general. The sight of blood makes them nauseous or faint. Some people also get a kind of theological nausea when blood is mentioned in the context of the Bible and especially in terms of Jesus and atonement. Homebrewed Christianity did a great series of interviews on Christology and two of the theologians wanted to reclaim blood imagery as important and even vital to a proper understanding of Jesus and the cross. There is a desire to sanitize the cross on both the right and left end of the spectrum (whatever those terms mean). On one end the violence of the cross only has to do with my individual personal sin and the blood is a magic spiritual talisman that takes away our guilt without having to lift a finger. On the other end the violence of the cross is described as “divine child abuse”. All blood language is therefore shunned as some kind of sadistic and/or masochistic way of understanding Jesus. Is there a better way to understand and incorporate blood imagery and symbolism into our theology? And what might all of this have to do with food?
Leviticus 17 is primarily concerned with blood. God forbids the Israelites to eat blood. Verse 11 (quoted above) sums up the reasoning for this prohibition. The assumption of any prohibition is that there are some people who are doing that which is being prohibited. There were likely other cultures and religions around them that consumed blood as part of their religious rituals. Lines were not as neatly drawn between Israelites and others as we often think. Clearly there was a lot of mixing between peoples, perhaps in marriage and certainly through commerce. As today cross-cultural relationships can be tricky. There’s a temptation to just accommodate to what’s around you. The opposite impulse is to erect barriers and isolate yourself to maintain a distinct identity. We see both things happen in the Bible and both are cautioned against.
Let us consider the meaning of the first phrase, “For the life of a creature is in the blood”. Perhaps other groups consumed blood for exactly this reason, believing that consuming the life would give them strength and more life. I don’t know specifics about which cultures believed or practiced these things, but it seems plausible and common in many different cultures. Maybe it was the Aztecs who believed eating the heart or other organs of their enemies or even heroic members of the tribe would transfer the characteristics to the eater. In this kind of practice the emphasis is on taking. By contrast God is portrayed as the giver of life and that life should be preserved and respected, not taken for self-aggrandizement. The sacrificial system in which the blood of creatures was spilled was intended to maintain, nurture and reconcile the relationship between the Israelites and God.
Nothing But The Blood
This brings us to the second part of the reason given for this prohibition. Blood is an essential part of the sacrificial system. The purpose of spilling blood is to make atonement, to reconcile the relationship between God and Israel as it was inevitably broken. For those who have not butchered an animal this seems pretty foreign, abstract and detached from experience. When done with the proper respect, care and mindfulness, killing an animal for food can be a holy act. You have probably heard that Native Americans would pray to the spirit of the animal they killed, thanking it for the sustenance it provided. Derrick Jensen points out that when you kill something for food you must then take responsibility for the care of that species on which you depend.
My experience of butchering animals for meat is profoundly sacred and sacramental while also very earthy, ordinary and mundane. The hardest part of butchering is certainly that knife’s edge between life and death when one way or another you spill the blood and take life from the animal. The prohibition against consuming the blood recognizes the sacredness of the life that is taken and gives it an honored role in the divine-human relationship.
It also recognizes that redemption and reconciliation do not come without struggle, suffering and violence. We desperately want to sanitize this process, but it is simply not possible. The law is written into nature herself. We cannot pretend that nature is all warm and fuzzy nature preserves and petting zoos. The reality of nature is that things die constantly so that other things can live. Without glorifying the violence present in nature, we must account for its reality in the scheme of things.
There Is Power In The Blood
So, blood then becomes a sign of the reality that change, transformation and even the maintenance of natural relationships involves suffering, death and a degree of violence. Thus the idea that God would fix the brokenness of the world with a wave of God’s magic wand detaches God and ourselves from the reality of the world God intends to redeem, reconcile and renew. Yet, we certainly do not want to condone the violence of the cross as in any way “natural”. So, we must recognize that there is a temptation, or possibility, to allow the theology of the cross to be absorbed and incorporated by Empire in a way that ends up condoning the same violence that killed Jesus.
The blood is what makes the sacrifice meaningful and gives it its substance. Blood prevents the cross from becoming “cheap grace”. This sacrifice stands in contrast to the Empire that claims to take the same life that is freely offered. Thus the blood is a sign both of the suffering and sacrifice involved in the reconciliation and transformation of relationships as well as the brokenness and violence of our relationships to each other and to the earth. Jesus words at the Passover with his disciples, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27-28) incorporate this understanding in the Eucharistic practice central to following and understanding Jesus.
I have a final thought that is a bit of a left turn. The Maori people live on a diet of which blood is a large part. I think they actually bleed living animals to make a blood and milk drink that is one of their staples. How would this prohibition and the consequent connections to our understanding of the cross and atonement be understood in the context of people who consume blood as part of their culture? I am always interested in real world examples that challenge theology to recognize some of our cultural prejudices in our doctrines and attempt to rethink them within new contexts that call some of our assumptions into question.