Can a Christian Be an Environmentalist? (2)

Sandra L. Richter

In part one of this essay, we explored biblical law regarding the humane treatment of domestic animals. We learned that the people of Israel were not free to be simple “consumers” of the creatures entrusted to them. Rather, they were commanded to honor their God by honoring their beasts. Israel was required to offer the animals who served them a Sabbath’s rest (Deut 5:14–15), joy in their life and work (Deut 25:4), and slaughter with dignity and compassion (Lev 17; Deut 12:15, 22; 14:5; 15:22).

In part one I asked the question: Can the people of God today offer anything less as regards the creatures entrusted to us? Let’s take a look at a case study that moves these questions into our setting. The topic? Mass-confinement animal husbandry, also known as “factory farming.”

Factory Farming

Factory farming is the practice of raising livestock in confinement at high stocking density, where the farm operates essentially like a factory whose end product is protein units. Confined animals burn fewer calories, their excrement is mass-managed (or mismanaged, as many would argue), and their fertility and gestation are fully controlled. Ninety-five percent of animal flesh that comes to market in America’s grocery stores have been raised on a “factory farm.”
America’s most lucrative agricultural product is pigs. Confinement for these highly intelligent creatures has been distilled into an exact science: twenty 230-pound animals per 7.5-foot-square pen. These animals live out their entire lives in row after row of metal-barred crates housed on concrete and metal-grated flooring in climate-controlled conditions. Confined from birth to slaughter, these creatures are never actually exposed to the light of day. Conditions are so crowded (and filthy) that movement is difficult, natural behaviors are impossible, and antibiotics are essential.

Sows, typically weighing in at 500 pounds, are housed separately—in 7-foot-by-22-inch metal gestation crates. These animals stand in the same position, shoulder to shoulder, unable to turn or lie down for the entirety of their 112–115-day pregnancies. When the sow does attempt to lie down, skin lesions and leg injuries are inevitable. Urinary tract and respiratory infections result from constant exposure to their own urine and feces, complicated by the sows’ lack of water intake due to what most diagnose as chronic depression/frustration. One week before delivering, sows are transferred to “farrowing crates” in which the sow can (at last) lie down. Eighteen additional inches make space for the piglets to nurse. These sentient creatures will be artificially inseminated to deliver an average of eight litters (2.1–2.5 litters per year)—litters inflated beyond her natural carrying capacity via fertility drugs. At twenty-one days the piglets are weaned and the cycle begins all over again. When a sow is “worn out” she will be dispatched. Whereas we might want to comfort ourselves with the idea that only a limited number of pig farms function in this fashion, the reality is that your Smithfield Christmas ham and your favorite Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs are coming to you from the largest mass-confinement industrial farming operation in the country.

What of poultry? There are two categories of factory-farmed poultry in our country. The first is raised for egg production; the second is chickens raised for meat—“broilers.” According to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in 2010 9.28 billion broilers and 489 million egg-type chicks were hatched in the US. Most of those hatched to provide our eggs will live out their lives in ten-inch “battery” cages, stacked one on top of the other, row after row, in windowless warehouses. The Humane Society reports that on average, each laying hen is afforded sixty-seven square inches of cage space; that is less space than a sheet of notebook paper. These hens will never walk, nest, perch, dustbathe, peck the ground, or even spread their wings.

Figure 1. Chickens in an industrial coop. Photo: ITamar K./Wikimedia Commons.

As these animals spend their lives immersed in their own feces (and that of their caged comrades), the implications for human health should arrest our attention. In 1999 the European Union banned battery cages, allowing their farmers a twelve-year phase-out period, which is now complete. The US has not followed suit. And as the federal animal-protection laws don’t apply to poultry, and the government does not monitor animal welfare on-farm, these animals have no advocate.

“Broilers” are birds produced for meat, breast meat in particular. In our country, these animals have been genetically altered to grow 300% faster than the chickens raised in 1960. According to the National Chicken Council, in 1925 a chick went from birth to slaughter in 112 days; in 2011, in forty-seven days. Whereas slaughter weight for the average chicken in 1925 was 2.5 pounds, in 2011 it was 5.8 pounds, and continues to rise.

How has the industry achieved such amazing (and profitable) results? One reason is the structure of the industry. Forty companies own almost all the farmed chickens in our country, a monopoly allowing corporations such as Tyson and Pilgrim Pride to control every aspect of production from hatching to slaughter. These poultry-processing companies provide genetically altered birds, customized food, and select equipment to the “growers” who do the actual raising of the birds. Those farmers who most efficiently convert the issued feed into weight gain are paid the most. The inhumane conduct that this system breeds are deeply disturbing for anyone who cares about animals, or humans.

Unlike the chickens our grandparents ate, today’s fast-growing birds have been designed so that their breasts grow faster than the rest of their bodies. Their natural habits are manipulated by continuous lighting to encourage them to feed continuously. Thus by “harvest” these birds have become so top-heavy that they can no longer stand or walk. Overweight, weak, and with almost no room to move, these chickens spend up to 90% of their lives lying in their litter, a combination of bedding and excrement. The result is that these unfortunate creatures find themselves literally trapped in their own bodies, stranded on the floors of their pens, unable to reach water or food. It is not surprising that open soars are common. Nor should it surprise us that these soars become a gateway to secondary infections—E. coli being the most infamous. Not only should these realities shame us; they should frighten us as well.

What is the rationale for this new version of “farming”? Profit and the rapidly escalating market for meat are the reasons most often cited. But as Matthew Scully painfully illustrates in his 2002 exposé of the industry, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (St. Martins), this revolution has resulted in a horrific level of systemic abuse to domesticated animals. I find it difficult to believe that this is what Yahweh intended for the creatures he entrusted to ʾādām.

What about the Farmers?

An additional casualty of factory farming is the farmer. We have reached a place in our society where the family farm is no longer economically viable. In Stewards of Eden, I tell the story of Jim Goodman, a dairyman with forty years in the business. In a December 21, 2018 Washington Post article, Goodman launched his testimony as follows: “I sold my herd of cows this summer. The herd had been in my family since 1904; I know all 45 cows by name. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take over our farm—who would? Dairy farming is little more than hard work and possible economic suicide” (“Dairy Farming Is Dying. After 40 Years, I’m Done”). Goodman goes on to tell a story that has become the story of our generation.

Of course, when a community of farms goes down, so do the local businesses that built their lives around those farms—the cafes, grocery stores, schools, and churches associated with the farmers and their families. Essentially, when a constellation of farmers is forced to call it quits, the infrastructure of a community collapses.


Let’s also consider the complex legal structures that regulated the slaughtering of animals in ancient Israel. God’s people were certainly allowed to slaughter and eat the animals they raised, but any domestic animal had to be taken before the priest first. According to Lev 17, this practice ensured that the animal’s nepeš (its life) had been considered. A man who killed an animal without properly honoring its life “shall be considered guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood and must be cut off from his people” (Lev 17:4 NIV). In Israel, the life of a domestic beast was not to be taken without thought or mercy. Rather, Deuteronomic law required that even the wild gazelle be slaughtered with care (Deut 12:15, 22; 14:5; 15:22). The Talmud (the central collection of Jewish civil and ceremonial law) also mandates that slaughter be as humane as possible. Jacob Milgrom states, “All of these [details] clearly demonstrate the perfection of a slaughtering technique whose purpose is to render the animal immediately unconscious with a minimum of suffering” (Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics [Fortress, 2004], 106).

Reflect on these Israelite laws in comparison with the assembly-line approach we employ in the raising, slaughtering, and mass-marketing of animal flesh in America. Few of us realize that animals used in agriculture have almost no legal protection. More than 95 percent of them—poultry—aren’t even included in the regulations implementing the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. This is the law that requires an animal to be rendered insensible to pain before it is killed. For this reason, grinding up live male baby chicks (male chicks are useless for laying) is a standard practice in the poultry agribusiness.

As regards the cattle industry, Scully reports that whereas in 1990 the typical American slaughter plant operated at fifty kills per hour, by 2002 plants were running at three-to-four hundred per hour. Ramon Moren—whose job is to cut off the hooves of strung-up cattle passing by at 309 an hour—reports that although the cattle are supposed to be dead when they reach him, often they are not: “They blink. They make noises. The head moves, the eyes are open and still looking around. They die piece by piece” (Scully, Dominion, 284). In contrast, at every juncture, Israel was constrained by covenant law to consider the life of the animal that served them and which they consumed, even though such considerations were costly in time and resources.

Good News

The good news is that there are organizations all over the US working hard to get information and images regarding our current practices to the American public. Why? Because these folks believe that once we see where our eggs come from and the gross exploitation of the animals providing the meat on our dinner tables, we will put pressure on the industry to change—financial and political pressure. In recent years, the American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, long focused on the well-being of pets, has turned its focus to the protection of the working animal. As a result, its website is now populated with white papers and reports exposing the inhumane practices of these industries and offering the average citizen a means by which to help bring about change. As a result, change is beginning to dawn. As of 2020 six of our states have outlawed battery cages, and nine have outlawed gestation crates.

Bad News

The bad news is the enormous corporate influence behind these industries and what have come to be known as “ag-gag” laws. Ag-gag laws are a growing body of state-level legislation designed to criminalize whistleblowers who expose inhumane practices in animal agricultural facilities by photographing or videoing what is going on behind closed doors. At this point, more than half of our state legislatures have attempted to pass some version of these laws, and the practice is spreading to other countries as well. As a result, in seven states it is currently illegal to take a photo or video of a slaughter plant. Why? Because images like these put us face-to-face with practices that are intolerable, practices we are financing.

A Paradigm Shift

In 2015 I attended a plenary presentation at the national gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society. Myrtos Theocharous presented a paper on the intersection of consumerism and holy life. She spoke of the dangers of a “consumer identity” unconcerned with the supply chain leading up to purchase (“Becoming a Refuge: Sex Trafficking and the People of God,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 59 [2016]: 318).

Theocharous states that the only true concern of a consumer mentality is getting the lowest price for the best product. This doesn’t necessarily sound bad to me—in fact, this is how I typically shop. It’s probably how you shop too. But in the plenary gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society, when Theocharous moved the conversation regarding consumerism into her own ministry setting, the landscape for all of us in the audience changed abruptly. This is because Theocharous doesn’t exactly work in retail. She works with young women who labor in the brothels of Athens.

I can testify that on that November afternoon, in the grand ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in Atlanta, we all got a worldview makeover. Because, of course, when we think in terms of getting the lowest price for the best product in Theocharous’s context, there is no question in our minds that such behavior is immoral. How can we not be concerned with how the prostitute or actress in a pornography film came to be in the industry?

According to Theocharous, assuming a “consumer” identity is morally evasive because consumers do not feel responsible for the journey of the product. They do not ask, “Who collected the raw materials?” or “Who put the pieces together?” or “How was the product transported to the shop?” It is the responsibility of the seller to worry about all this—not the consumer. In the sex industry, I doubt anyone would challenge Theocharous’s thesis—of course the consumer is responsible. Our capitalist economy and consumer culture cannot absolve us of such license.

So now for the hard question: How about the “consumer culture” that facilitates our purchase of milk, meat, and eggs? Are we morally responsible for how these “products” come to us? Do we have an obligation to the creatures who produce them? Or are we free to claim absolution as to the “journey of the product” in our quest to get the best product at the lowest price? Or perhaps I should ask the question this way: Have you ever considered the life of the styrofoam-and-cellophane-packaged chicken parts you purchase at the grocery store every week? Israel was constrained to do so by covenant law.

The laws of the Old Testament make it clear that the people of Israel were not free to be simple “consumers” of the domestic creatures entrusted to them. They were commanded to honor their God by honoring their beast—a Sabbath’s rest, humane treatment in its life and work, a share of the harvest, slaughter with dignity and compassion. As the people of God today, can we offer our God anything less?

[Material adapted from Stewards of Eden by Sandra L. Richter. Copyright (c) 2020 by Sandra L. Richter. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

See Sandra L. Richter, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why It Matters (IVP Academic, 2020), for further discussion of this topic, as well as a chapter on “Resources for the Responsive Christian” that helps individuals and churches move forward.]

Posted Dec 02, 2020