Turkeys and Humans
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion


Robert Ellwood, The Peaceable Table
November 2018

Therefore I propose that killing animals, from turkeys to the megalodon, comes under the myth of redemptive violence as well. Just as we need to kill people to win, we say, we must kill animals to eat and survive. But we ought instead to think of a coming “age of gold / When peace shall over all the earth / Its ancient splendors fling,” and this roseate morning will not be stained by killing even in the darkness before dawn.

small church

Many years ago, as a very young minister just out of seminary, I took charge of a little parish in a small rural town in Nebraska. About half the parishioners were real dirt farmers, the other half townspeople whose businesses depended on farmers and the farm economy.

During my first service in that church (pictured) in June of 1957, when I gave my first sermon, the heavens opened in a tremendous deluge. I got word that the Senior Warden--the head layman of an Episcopal church--would not be able to attend because he was a turkey farmer and he had to get his fowls into shelter. I understood, but felt that nonetheless I needed to see him and his spouse, so after church I drove through the rain on muddy country roads out to his farm. I think they were impressed with my taking the trouble to do that. I recall his saying that turkeys were not as smart as chickens; the latter would move into shelter on their own, but turkeys would just stand in the rain and take it unless they were driven under a covering. By the time I got there most of them were secure.

This was long before I had become vegetarian (later vegan) myself, a stance which would not have been appreciated in the Nebraska of the 1950s (or later). But I cared about animals instinctively, once in that town rescuing a bird that had broken a limb, and I was impressed with the gentle yet firm way the turkey farmer cared for his flock. Of course they were money to him, but it was clear that so long as they were living creatures in his charge, they were also like minor wards, calling for concern, even care. Perhaps that had something to do with this couple's solid religious faith.

turkey farmer

(I think of another parishioner, a young man whose inherited business was shipping cattle from the ranches of western Nebraska to feedlots in the eastern part of the Beef State, to end in the slaughterhells in Omaha. He was devout and gentle, close to being a real mystic, with a certain light in his face; he talked with me about wanting to radiate his faith more. Yet I never heard him question his job. I have no explanation or resolution for such things; they just were, and still are.)

From our present perspective, a huge part of this picture is dark. Though these turkeys, unlike present-day ones, were not raised caged, stuffed with hormones, bent out of all natural shape so that they were in constant pain, they were nonetheless destined for killing in the fall, likely to be the centerpieces of as many American Thanksgiving dinners. This grim reality we thought about as little as possible while watching them enjoy farm life on the sunny days of summer after the storm had passed.

Two thoughts come to my mind. One is that there is nothing gained in heaping blame on conscientious meat-animal farmers of yesteryear for following a career they probably inherited, that seemed all right to them, and that they pursued as humanely as they could. (Others were and are considerably more brutal, to be sure.) Yet one senses an unconscious duplicity or compartmentalization of consciousness here. We learned to think about meat or dairy or egg animals one way one time, another way another. We didn't see the pastures and the bloodshed at the same moment, and didn't want to. Even now, we can keep farmers in our thoughts and prayers, but need to realize that the coming broad cultural change to veganism--I am confident it is coming, though this bright dawn may still be a matter of decades off--will start with consumers rather than farmers. More on this in a moment.

The next thought is that in moving toward that day, people need to get beyond the process of thinking, as I tended to then, about turkeys in the sun and cattle contentedly grazing on their ranchlands, so that we face the killing itself without flinching. Why are millions of people still so sure we need to kill and eat them in the end? We know now (and could have known earlier) that meat is not necessary in a diet, or as healthy as plant-based fare. Yet the majority still do it, and think of it as food that is especially celebrative, as on Thanksgiving. This may be because once--sometimes even now--it reflected prowess in hunting and so was seen as deserving a place of honor. Perhaps it was (and is) the killing, not the food itself, that is the secret focus of such a table.

Not a few vegetarian thinkers, from Pythagoras to Gandhi, have declared that killing other people, as in war, and killing animals to eat, are part and parcel of one another. We are not likely to get beyond the one till we have left the other behind.

I have recently been impressed by the writings of the biblical scholar/ theologian Walter Wink on what he calls the “Myth of Redemptive Violence”--which, put simply, means the idea that the way to solve a problem is with a gun, that is, by fighting and killing. Wink rightly points out that, whatever Christians say in church, this is what we see and affirm over and over, in myths and novels, in comic books, in television stories, in movies, in video games, in political rhetoric, till it permeates the conscious and unconscious thinking of children and adults alike. Goodness is boring; violence sells.


Think of all the war movies and superhero films in which the good guys win, and thereby solve the problem, through fist and fire-power. Never mind that at least since 1945 nearly all wars have been ambivalent, and what real peace there has been has come more by peaceful than violent means. Most of the successful revolutions of recent decades--the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines, the end of apartheid in South Africa (thanks partly to the diffusion of Walter Wink’s little book Jesus’ Third Way), the fall of communism in many countries--have been generally non-violent. The same with domestic issues like civil rights and feminism. Think of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, the Suffragists. Yet how many movies are there about them compared to the endless celebrations of redemptive violence and the power of the gun?

So also desperate family conflicts are resolved better by reconciliation than by verbal or physical violence. Read the "Ask Amy" or other advice columns. But the myth of redemptive violence, winning with a gun or brutality on the part of family members,, still resonates in our minds, almost as though we want it to be true. Else why do we in the US have so many guns in our society, though they kill more innocent people than bad guys, and why do we love so many movies that end in killing? I recently saw The Meg [from megalodon, giant shark] -- beautiful ocean views and exciting scenes, but did the big fish really have to be killed, rather than allowed him to live in his native extreme depths where few humans go anyway? Even the powerful 1985 film Witness, with much of its action set in an Amish community that explicitly rejects violence, ends with a shootout.

Like butchers, movie makers give their consumers what they want, and too often what they want is bloodshed, just as in the ancient Roman coliseum. Change must start on the buyers' end, and when it does the world will never be the same again. Historians concur it was mainly Christianity that brought an end to the terrible Roman "sport," which included animals killing and being killed, and human gladiators fighting to the death. (At roughly the same time, unhappily, the church abandoned its 300-plus-year commitment to Jesus’ rejection of all violence, in favor of the concept of the Just War.) Can we do it again today in regard to our own equivalents?

Therefore I propose that killing animals, from turkeys to the megalodon, comes under the myth of redemptive violence as well. Just as we need to kill people to win, we say, we must kill animals to eat and survive. But we ought instead to think of a coming “age of gold / When peace shall over all the earth / Its ancient splendors fling,” and this roseate morning will not be stained by killing even in the darkness before dawn. In it both sides of killing, human and animal, will have faded into the past together as they must. [The quotation is from Edmund Sears’ carol, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”]

Let us live now as though we were in that golden age.

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