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Sins of the Slaughterhouse

Philip Sampson



'Sustainable development' has become a cliché of our time, embraced by all right thinking people and recently christened by the Church as 'creation care'. But is sustainable development so readily deduced from creation as this baptism suggests?

The idea of 'development' grew out of Enlightenment ideas of progress in the context of modern industrial growth. Its ideal is that all societies should emulate the 'developed' West. It gradually dawned, however, that a 'developed world' would require the resources of several planets Earth, and that there is an inherent competition between meeting our needs while leaving enough for our children. A world of limited resources implies a zero sum game, so we must consume less. Development, it seems, inevitably entails scarcity, lack and unintended consequences. The human cost is suffering, fear, and life in a polluted world. Enter 'sustainability'.

The Church's baptism of this vision has drawn extensively on Genesis 2.15 which exhorts us to 'care' for creation; this, it is said, implies sustainability. At its best, this has contributed a sense of gratitude to the debate, but it has grafted this biblical ethic onto the modernist root of 'progress', scarcity and competition.


The idea of 'creation care' is congenial to green-minded Christians embarrassed by the common association between Christianity and environmental neglect, but is it biblical? Do we in fact find the idea of sustainability in the creation account of Genesis? Talk to the Green or Animal Rights campaigners in your local shopping precinct, and you will discover that they are sceptical. Christianity, with its doctrine of dominion, is part of the problem not the solution. It is celebrity chefs who lead animal welfare reform, not celebrity preachers. Anyway, it's a bit late in the day to discover an ethic of care, now that secularists and the more compassionate religions have shown the way. These critics may have a point.

Few commentators before the late 20th-century saw in the Genesis creation account the scarcity, lack and unintended consequences presupposed by the idea of sustainable development. Rather, they saw creation as God's gift to us, to use and enjoy: they spoke of prodigality, not scarcity; of plenty not lack, of ample provision not frugality. Calvin is typical when he speaks of the fulness of the earth as denoting 'the abundance of blessings, with which the earth is furnished and adorned by the Lord'. Indeed, the creation narrative is rich with the language of fulness#.1 It seems a short step to the modernist idea that the earth's resources were given to us to develop and exploit as we wish. Ironically, this view is commonly attributed to conservative Christians.

For example, James Watt, responsible for environmental policy under President Reagan, is widely reported as saying that 'God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back'. The popular author Austin Miles observes that this 'end of the world is near, so just use everything' mentality is echoed by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others of the Christian Right#.2 Less extreme versions of the same idea are widely attributed to evangelicals in the UK, and may even be held by some.

To the extent that this widespread perception of evangelical views is just, it reflects a poverty of theology, especially of the Fall, and a good deal of historical ignorance. Commentators before the 20th-century certainly regarded creation as a prodigal gift, but they did not stop at creation, insisting on the full Christian vision of creation, fall and restoration.


sustainibility2.jpgThe issue for our first parents was not competition or scarcity, but direction. Would they serve God or an idol? Would they eat in dependence upon the covenant, or would they consume the earth at will, as though they owned it?

So long as they chose the direction of covenant faithfulness, God sustained a world of plenty, of co-operation between humans and the land, and of peace between humans and animals, without fear, predation or consumption. Creational sustainability is associated with plenty not lack, with gift not scarcity.

However, once they declared themselves sovereign over creation, another direction opened before them into a world of scarcity, competitive consumption and suffering. The choice between these two directions turned on an act of eating, emblematic of consumption more generally.

The modernist vision has found it congenial to substitute the lust of the loins for the lust of the belly in Genesis 3. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is said to be an obscure reference to sex. But the fact is that the Fall is represented to us as an act of eating, not procreating. And the way we eat is readily understood as extending to life generally, as our everyday language testifies. The sustenance of Eden naturally leads us to speak of 'food for the soul', of the relationships which 'nourish' us. The promised land is described as 'flowing with milk and honey'. The Bible celebrates the enjoyment of a good meal, and sees the authentic satisfaction of need as nourishing.3 Eating, as the most basic form of nourishment, is a paradigm for joy. As we dwell in the world which sustains us, we are nourished and opened to enjoyment.


With the Fall, the language of scarcity and consumption entered the world; and with it a different lexicon of eating. Jealousy can consume us but not nourish us. Envy can eat us up, but not nurture us. Depleting the land brings both dietary and spiritual famine. Consumption speaks the language of resources, not sustenance or nourishment. The Fall impoverished our choices: we can be frugal with resources, or gobble them up. The world of plenty, co-operation and peace is lost.

Covenant eating is set out for us in Genesis 1.29, where humans are given 'every seed-bearing plant… and every tree that has fruit with seed in it' 'for food' or sustenance. The nourishment of Eden is in the fruit of the land, and it marks our dwelling peaceably within a creation which sustains us. There is here no sense of lack, or scarcity; covenant eating will neither exhaust creation nor torment animals. Moreover, it is a mutual nourishment, sustaining both humans and the world. Just as the land nourishes us, so we must 'work' to 'care' for creation.4 The balance of nature had a theological basis before it found a scientific one.

But our first parents broke the creation covenant when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is no suggestion that the tree was not nourishing; indeed, its fruit was visibly 'good to eat'.5 It was the command that counted. For the command not to eat signified that the earth is the Lord's, not our sovereign possession to use as we please. It makes clear that humans are subject to God; that we are forbidden the absolute control that the modernist vision of development requires.


As Gregory of Nyssa observes, our first parents 'voided the limits sets upon them'6, and declared that every inch of every tree was theirs to consume as they wished. In this original act of over-consumption, humans declared their mastery of the earth#.7 Modernity has made mastery its guiding star. But mastery cannot nourish: the control of nature makes reality indigestible. The immediate consequence of the fall was the transformation of prodigal gift into scarcity, of harmony with the land into hard labour.8 Enter the problem of sustainability.

The Fall, not creation, introduces the need for sustainable development in its modern sense. And this is a theme entirely familiar to biblical commentators before the late 20th-century, giving the lie to the kind of nonsense attributed to evangelicals. Why preserve what remains? In the 16th-century Calvin gives two reasons. Firstly, out of concern for creation's integrity: 'For if the earth were stripped of trees, herbs, animals, and other things, it would be like a house devoid of furniture and every kind of utensil: nay, more, it would be mutilated and disfigured'; we must not 'corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved'. Secondly, out of concern for our children: 'Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated'.

Covenant eating provided nourishment, mutually nurturing humans and the earth. Covenant-breaking eating became consumption, making scarcity and lack the norm. Eating the fruit marked not only a dramatic turning away from the worship of God, but a decisive shift in our relationship with creation.


Things rapidly got worse. Violence filled the earth, and the first reference to 'preservation' occurs in the context of the second great disaster produced by sin: the flood. Noah is commanded to preserve each 'kind' of beast upon the earth, and the focus thereafter shifts decisively from land to animals. Moreover, post-flood scarcity marks a radical change in diet: humans began consuming animal flesh, and animals began to fear humans. In the subsequent biblical narrative, the human relationship with animals came to epitomise our relationship with creation generally. Compassion marks out the righteous person in a way that pulling up weeds did not. Only wicked people are cruel to animals.9 This is first spelled out in the Mosaic Law.

Animals may be eaten, but seldom, and not all animals, for the world is not ours to consume at will. Even minor cruelties are forbidden. We may gauge the direction of people's lives by observing how they treat animals; and this is indicative of how they treat creation generally.

The logic of the Fall is the logic of scarcity, requiring us to preserve what remains for posterity. Our present consumption is unsustainable, and the extent of the problem is clear from our treatment of animals.


It starts with food and water. Industrial meat production is a profligate consumer of grain and water. One kilogram of beef requires 16 kilograms of feed and the same volume of water as 200 kilograms of potatoes. Worse, more than one third of the world's grain harvest is fed to livestock, and two thirds of cattle food in the industrial world is imported from countries where there is a shortage of grain. Global meat demand is set to grow by 50 per cent in the 20 years from 2000.

It moves on to the environment. Current meat consumption in the UK requires six times more land than we have available. We therefore import feed, and fatten animals on other people's land. Cattle grazing and animal feed are the main drivers of deforestation worldwide. The resultant habitat destruction threatens one quarter of mammals with extinction. Slaughterhouse waste and animal excreta poison land and pollute water sources on an industrial scale.

It moves up into the air. The livestock industry generates some 18 per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Reducing meat consumption is the most effective single thing a family can do to combat global warming.
Ultimately it destroys people. Supplementing the human food supply with 15 per cent of the cereals now fed to livestock would give enough to feed the current world population. Climate change produced by industrial animal facilities will disproportionately displace, drown and starve the poor.
Our abuse of animals is certainly unsustainable, and it would be foolish to continue a pattern of consumption that robs our children. The promise of covenant living does not envisage generational competition, but that both we and our children may live well and long in the land.10



The biblical narrative emphasises direction not control, restoration not the hair shirt. Again, this is exemplified in our treatment of animals. In the Biblical texts, hunting and flesh-eating are associated with covenant breaking, while ethical eating points to the direction of faithfulness and promise.

The most obvious example is the biblical contrast between the hunter and the shepherd. The notable hunters of the Bible are Cain, Nimrod, Ishmael, Esau and the Devil. The shepherds include Jacob, Moses, Amos, David and Jesus. Ezekiel contrasts the good shepherd with the wicked shepherds who eat the sheep instead of caring for them.11

Similarly those who indulge the lust for flesh include the sons of Eli and Esau. Even Isaac's taste for wild game brought him sorrow. The 'craving' for flesh eating is associated with gluttony, riotous living and wickedness.12 In the wilderness, it brought sickness and death. Conveniently, contemporary evangelicals have changed the 'flesh pots' of Egypt from saucepans into brothels. On the other hand, Jacob has compassion on his animals, and Rebekah's consideration for animals marks her out as God's chosen.13
This focus on animals makes it clear that covenant-breaking consumption is not merely reckless, it is cruel.14 Animals suffer because of human sin. Moreover, it is our dominion duty to care for them, not torment them. But cruelty does not stop with suffering. It also prevents animals joining with the whole creation in praising their God.15 An animal groaning in agony in the slaughterhouse cries out but cannot praise. And its cries resonate with creation's groaning in its bondage to scarcity and fear, awaiting the restoration of all things in Christ.16


Tellingly, when God sent his son to inaugurate restoration, he found his first rest in a place of animals. Jesus the carpenter made easy yokes which did not chafe the oxen's necks, and opened his ministry with the wild animals in the desert. Jesus the good shepherd made covenant care of sheep the kingdom standard. Entering Jerusalem for the last time, he kept the colt with its mother to avoid their distress at separation. As a memorial, he revolutionised the feast, replacing lamb's flesh with bread. At first his church took the point, and resisted Eden's ancient temptation of over-consumption. But soon the world found ways of consuming animals by the billion, and despoiling creation. The church joined the industrial dining club, and the planet was on the menu. Tragically, Christians have become among the most enthusiastic diners, and have brought the gospel of peace and restoration into disrepute.

Creation is not a human resource. Its end is the worship of God, and our calling is to enable this, not to inhibit it. We look not to a world of scarcity and restraint, but to the restored ecological peace of the new creation. A fully biblical sustainability must look forward to that restoration when the lion will lie down with the lamb. There is no 'braised beef' or 'roast lamb' in the promised land. Sustainable nourishment may have more to do with plenty than lack, with enjoyment than deprivation, but it makes ethical demands. From the 16th to the 19th century, the Bible set the agenda for animal welfare reform and the sustainable nurturing of creation. In the 20th century evangelicals have not only squandered this legacy, but have actually managed to give the impression that the gospel is part of the problem, not the solution. In Copenhagen this month, Christianity is unlikely to be on the agenda at all, let alone setting it.

God requires us to 'love mercy' and not approve 'heartless and ruthless' behaviour.17 Does the diet enjoyed by most Christians in the industrial world declare mercy, or is our light hidden in a burger?

Do we even declare the logic of the Fall, let alone that of restoration?



#1 See C Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP, 2004) p114f.
#2 The 'quotation' attributed to Watt seems to have been invented by someone wishing to discredit the 'Religious Right'. Miles offer no evidence that Falwell or Robertson ever taught any such doctrine. See A Miles,
Setting the Captives Free (Prometheus Books, 1990) p229.
3 For example Ecc 9.7, Joel 1.16, Acts 14.17, Neh 8.10-12, Es 9.22 etc.
4 Gen 2.15.
5 Gen 3.6.
6 From 'On the Origin of Man' in T C Oden (ed)
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture - Old Testament vol 1 (IVP, 2001) p42.
#7 I am indebted to Diane McColley for this observation.
8 Gen 3.17-19.
9 Prov 12.10, Num 22.28-30.
10 Deut 4.40.
11 Ez 34.3 &10. Sheep were, of course, too valuable for wool and milk to be routinely eaten. Stock management by the sacrifice of male lambs associates such slaughter with the innocent dying for human sin.
12 Prov 23.19-21, Num 11.13, 18-20 & 31-34, Ps 78.23-31, Ps 106.13-15.
13 Gen 33.12-14; Gen 24.
14 Prov 12.10.
15 Ps 96.10-13, 98.7-9.
16 E.g. Rom 8.19-23, Col 1.20, Rev 21.1-5, Is 11.6-7, Is 65.25, Hos 2.18, Job 5.22-23.
17 Mic 6.8; Rom 1.