In trying to decide how much violence to retain in editing my recent food memoir, I got to thinking about the spiritual dimensions of being a carnivore. We've lost all sense of this violence in our culture. These days, meat is a substance packaged on a Styrofoam tray, wrapped in plastic, lined with a sanitary mat to soak up the juices&mdashour euphemism for blood. If we think at all about the violence involved in butchering, we're put off, so we avoid acknowledging it.
Until my most recent reading of Genesis, I never noticed how violence defines humanity. Cain, Adam and Eve's firstborn, killed his brother, and soon the earth was so "filled with violence" (Genesis 6:13) that God regretted creating humans and drowned all but a few in the Flood.
If only human violence had disappeared after that—but it didn't. After the floodwaters receded, God allowed humans to kill and eat animals&mdashperhaps as an outlet for humans' violence toward one another.
Nowadays, we rarely reflect on how foundational the slaughter of animals is to our faith. We can't imagine a culture where we not only killed every animal we ate, but worshiped by cutting them apart, strewing their blood here and there, and then burning them as sacrifices to the One who provided them. Yet those practices are part of the faith described in the Bible.
Over time, of course, humankind increasingly allocated these violent acts to butchers and priests, so fewer individuals actually participated in the violence directly. By Jesus' time, the slaughter of animals was likely becoming as invisible as it is in our culture. Still, people then probably had a deeper awareness of the violence involved: the squawking of birds in the marketplace, the calendar of sacrifices for upcoming holy days, the smell of blood in the temple.
These were the people at table with Jesus when he likened the food about to be eaten to his body about to be sacrificed. Just as my Father once allowed you violence in the getting of your food, Jesus was in effect saying, so he allows you this ultimate violence, the killing of God's own Son, in getting what ought to be your real food: the abiding love of the Father.
This message might be more real to us now if, instead of highlighting the bread and wine, Jesus had highlighted the roast of a freshly slaughtered Passover lamb. But consider his words: "Take and eat; this is my body …. Drink from [this cup], all of you. This is my blood" (Matthew 26:26-27). Curiously, the taking of life, the pouring out of blood, is not only the means of our salvation, but evidence of the violence that necessitates it.
The violence of eating meat evokes not only the violence that filled the earth before the Flood but also the violence that continues to this day: a persistent passion to hurt and destroy rather than to love one another. Only the ultimate act of violence&mdashGod's sacrifice, through our violence, of his Son&mdashwill stop it. Thus, the apostle Paul writes, in reference to the Lord's Supper, "anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself" (1 Corinthians 11:29).
In my unorthodox thinking, I'd apply Paul's warning to all meals involving meat. "Consider the slaughtered animal before you," I'd like to say to dinner guests. "It once grazed peaceably out in a field but was shot in the head, hacked apart, and roasted for our pleasure. From the time of the Flood, our Father has allowed this violence to mitigate our violence toward one another and prefigure the escape from our violence he'd one day provide.
"My guests would be revolted, of course. Some might not eat at all. Certainly the lamb on the platter&mdashroasted rare, nestled in a bed of garlic and rosemary&mdashwould taste different. Bloodier. Deader. But perhaps, through recognizing this ordinary violence, we'd sense more deeply our need for salvation and better appreciate God's provision of an escape from our violence: the killing of the One he sent to rescue us from ourselves. A grim thought, admittedly, but an important one to consider as we approach Good Friday, the anniversary of Jesus'violent death at our hands.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
Click here for reprint information.