This week we watched a documentary on Edward Espe Brown, retreat center baker and cook, cookbook author, and cooking instructor. He’s mostly a vegetarian (although he recommends bacon in some of his bean recipes). No matter his personal eating habits, nearly all his clientele are either vegetarian or vegan. The story one adolescent told was particularly interesting.
The boy used to work on a chicken farm. He claimed that one of his jobs was cutting the heads off the chickens. (I doubt his veracity; I can’t imagine California labor law allows young adolescents to handle knives around squirming chickens in the work place.) But whether he personally committed the act or not, he clearly knew the ins and outs of chicken butchering and described it quite graphically in the documentary. He explained that this is why he was now a vegetarian.
Eating – real eating, not the sort of eating that starts in the canned goods aisles in grocery stores – is a messy business. Even lettuce straight from the ground can be very dirty and sometimes right down gross. The simple fact is that the tasks necessary for life are not for the squeamish.
The retreat center Ed Brown is connected with is the Tassajara Zen Center (ie, a Buddhist monastery in California) and his two most well known books are The Tassajara Cookbook and The Tassajara Breadbook. While Zen is life affirming, it is not world affirming. The world as we know it is illusion and reality exists in some sort of spirit existence. So it makes sense that squeamish vegetarians (as well as authentic seekers, I don’t want to be dismissive) would be attracted to Zen. A cow in the field is a gentle scene; a chicken in the courtyard is amusing. At the other end of the process, both beef wellington and chicken cacciatore can be beautiful when plated and set at a well appointed table. But, let’s face it, the trip from high plateau to china plate gets pretty gross, even in the best of conditions. The spiritually squeamish might want a religion that gets them as far from that process as possible.
But none of that for Christianity. It is both life affirming and world affirming. Furthermore, while life is a gift of God, life isn’t divine in and of itself. From the story of Adam and Eve we learn that in this fallen world death is an inevitable part of life.
One of my pastoral tasks at Delta Junction was butchering moose, bison, and even a black bear, that were road kill. I’d get a call from the State Troopers at 10 p.m. or 2:00 a.m. “There’s a dead moose at mile marker 225 on the Richardson Highway.” “There’s a dead bison 40 miles north of Tok.” All the churches in town took turns cleaning up the various messes, packaging the meat, and giving it away to the needy or incorporating it into the food bank.
If Jesus wasn’t just joshing us in the Sermon on the Mount, it was one of the most spiritual tasks I did in Alaska. The big animals were done at a parishioner’s garage where we could use his block and tackle to pick the animals up. The smaller ones (like this unfortunate young moose) were done in the church library, which could be kept at a comfortable 35 to 40 degrees.
I believe our churches would have a more embodied Christianity if all our young people saw and understood precisely where our food comes from. Watching an animal get butchered gives the observer a deep appreciation for the gift of life and what is necessary to sustain our own lives. Watching migrant workers pick vegetables or work the sugar beet fields (that was my experience growing up), gives the observer a broader view of the work required to put food on the table. Making communion bread with our own hands – kneading the dough on a floured table, forming the loaves, sitting at the kitchen table while the indescribably delicious aroma comes from the oven –brings us directly into the circle to which we refer when we speak of this offering we offer to God. All these acts are closely related. And I suspect each and every act is profoundly important if we are to understand what it means that Christianity is both life affirming and world affirming.
There are many good reasons to be a vegan or a vegetarian. In fact, if a faithful Christian follows the fasting discipline of the Orthodox Church, that person will spend nearly half the year being vegetarian or vegan. Monks and other Christians that choose special disciplines become vegetarians or vegans as part of their discipline.
But becoming vegetarian simply because you’re squeamish is a cowardly and ultimately unchristian act. (More about this in a later post.) Real life in this fallen world is at the very least a messy and untidy journey. More typically it’s full of death, pain, and suffering. It’s far better to embrace it, experience it, and ultimately understand it rather than pretend it isn’t there.