On the bus back home from Iowa, we rode for an alarmingly long time beside an open truck packed with live turkeys on their way to be slaughtered. In the tight cages, their bodies were pressed together. They squinted at the passing traffic against the cruel 70 mph wind as their feathers whipped around. Some looked confused, others terrified, but most of them looked resigned to it. A few had already either passed out or died from the stress.
Of course, it’s anthropomorphizing to compare this to the Holocaust or other crimes against humanity, but bear with me. I’m an animal lover but I’m not a vegetarian, though I’ve tried more than once to make the break from meat. I’m fond of mammals, and it never bothered me too much to eat fowl or fish. I always buy free-range chicken and cage-free eggs anyway, and lately, I have been consoling myself with purchasing only kosher chicken and turkey. At least they would die in a humane way, right?
But they would still die. And I would eat them. Over and over. Feed them to my family. And how did I become so inured to this? Because I don’t see the process or participate in it myself. I have the luxury of all the dirty work being done by others so that I can grab my sterilized packs of squeaky-clean, bloodless meat and poultry at the store. Watching these live turkeys barreling down the highway toward their unsavory demise convicted me, heart and soul. Could I lift the ax and chop off one of their heads so I could have a nice dinner? Watch the blood run out, watch the decapitated body go limp, then pull the feathers and cut up all the parts? Not a chance. Even if I were starving.
I suppose if I had grown up on a farm and participated in the slaughter of livestock, I might feel differently. But I don’t think so. As I watched the hapless birds pass by my window, I had that sinking feeling I always get when I witness cruelty of any kind. We were not meant to do these things to other creatures. We were not meant to do these things to each other. It’s all wrong.
Anyone could say, hey, God meant for us to eat meat. Look at the daily sacrifice. Yeah, but when we were first created, we ate the produce of the ground and it was ours for the picking. Anyone could say, hey, those people are trying to take our way of life from us. Look at the wars in the Bible, sanctioned by God. Yup, but in the beginning, there was no destruction, only boundless creativity. Something went wrong. Dead wrong.
What is wrong with us that we turned our backs on paradise, that we keep opting for violent, impatient solutions to our problems rather than giving ourselves to each other, rather than trusting God to lead the way? We suffer and we suffer from our poor choices, and then we complain that it’s not fair. Look at the incessant grousing by the children of Israel in this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 20:3). They were continually rescued miraculously from their enemies, from starvation, from thirst, from plagues, and they were still kvetching every time they had a need that wasn’t met quickly enough.
Hungry? Go kill something. Feeling disenfranchised? Go herd a bunch of people you despise into cages and kill them off. Or—even scarier because we all think it’s perfectly okay—feeling unimportant? Do your best to be better than everyone else, no matter who you hurt along the way. This is so woven into our bones that it’s no small wonder the majority of us are either anxious or depressed, arrogant or devastated, striving or resigned. It’s all wrong. Dead wrong.
And it’s time to repent if we ever want to get it right.