Tina Sellers, a professor of human sexuality at a Christian university, pens a beautiful essay on the topic of how the church engages (or doesn’t) with a wide variety of sexual topics. She expresses a sentiment that I’ve shared for several years now but have struggled to articulate it as well as she does in the following selection:
“When we continue to shroud sexuality in silence and an abstinence only discourse, we continue to burden faith filled children, adolescents, young adults and adults with a deep shame that interrupts their ability to fully know God’s love and grace. Shame modulates distance in intimacy and sexual expression in the monogamous relationships that are foundational to community living and a significant expression of God’s active love. When people are filled with shame and self-loathing, their affected self-esteem takes precedence in interactions with others. It dominates and eclipses a person’s ability to see and love another. In essence, sexuality encased in silence and shame keeps people from intimately knowing both God and each other, and cripples our ability as a community of believers to truly love and be a healing force in our hurting world”.
Sellers makes several critical points here. In her role as a professor of human sexuality at the graduate level, she notes that after having read literally hundreds of sexual autobiographies, the story is essentially the same. The subject begins to explore themselves sexually, learning how their bodies work and how to provide themselves with pleasure, their parents inevitably discover this behavior somehow, chastise them roundly, wherein the subject begins the process of hiding an intimate part of themselves, shrouded in the unfortunate cover of guilt, shame, and remorse. Sellers reminds the reader, via a thorough examination of historical events regarding the Church’s dealings with human sexuality, that the guilt-shame cycle we create as a faith community is not actually based on some moral code located within the Scriptures, but rather a number of individuals, including St. Augustine, helped to shape a rather Puritanical approach to sexuality and sexual expression. Thousands of years later, we’re still struggling to throw off these unwieldy, and unnecessary, shackles of shame and guilt. If we are to understand, rightly, that this cultural moral code is just that, a social norm, rather than something directly from the Gospel itself, why do we insist on its preservation? And, as Sellers beseeches, at what cost do we insist on upholding such a repressive, damaging, and scarring ethic?
Many, many generations of Christians have been raised on these types of norms, and as a Church, we’ve created legions of individuals who, having been hurt or scarred in some manner, spend years or decades working to create a healthy, balanced sexual ethic, whether they remain within the faith community or not. Online communities such as the “No Shame Movement” and “Thank God for Sex” are working tirelessly to create a safe spaces where people can come together to heal, share their stories, and reconcile the Gospel and their own sexual identity, which has for so long been an object of derision, guilt, or self-loathing.
For so many of us, myself included, the Church handed out an impossible ideal of sexual norms, activities, and rules, and expected us to fall into lockstep with these mandates. For the tiny minority who managed to somehow live up to these terrifyingly high expectations, they were welcomed with open arms. For the eight of of ten of us who “failed”, we were left with an unrelenting (and unfair) sense of shame, guilt, and remorse that cycled through itself over and over until we began the process of creating a healthier, more reparative, and more authentic sexual ethic. Ultimately, we wish to glorify and give praise with our bodies, to rejoice in the pleasure they bring us, and to be grateful for the connection we have between the divine spirit and our own sexual expression.
Next week I’ll be unpacking and exploring the “eight out of ten” statistic I alluded to in the paragraph above. Thanks to everyone who reads and allows me to honestly share my heart in regards to the difficult topics being discussed. Blessings to you all.
The more I learn about emergent or progressive forms of faith (for better or for worse), the more I love. I really do. Its so incredibly refreshing to be at the brink of leaving the building permanently, and then discovering that your exit is not only premature, but unnecessary. In the immortal words of Phyllis Tickle (who originally picked up the following idea from Rev. Mark Dyer), the Church as we know it is undergoing a excitingly rapid shift that is often noted as simply the next chapter in the regular 500 year “rummage sale” we undergo as a faith. This present series of changes can be looked at in a positive sense (see:Phyllis Tickle) or through a positively cantankerous lens. Additionally, there are those who see the movement growing stronger, and those who are of the opinion that the whole ordeal is simply a fad and is fizzling out. Either way, there’s certainly no denying that the theological winds are blowing, and they’re moving us into an unknown future, whether we like it or not, and it would certainly behoove us to understand as much as we can about the new direction that many church leaders seem to be pointing us in.
I was reflecting today upon a number of blog posts I’d recently stumbled across in my digital journeying, a couple of which are listed above, and I began to notice a particular pattern emerging (pun absolutely intended) from these pieces. One of the most common critiques leveled against (or hurled at, depending on the writer) this new form of thinking about faith and Christianity is that the emergent and emerging platforms (yes, there is a difference) often seek to churn out more questions and inquiries and find themselves on an infinite series of “journeys” into a metaphysical realm where truth is relative and there are no absolutes. From my own vantage point, nothing could be further from the truth. A product of the postmodern era, I hunger constantly for truth, the light to guide my path, and many of my contemporaries feel the same way. There are two options going forward: we dive deeper into scriptural truths and humbly begin to admit where we may have perhaps committed error, or we leave the building, often never to return.
In response to this critique that is commonly leveled against “progressive” Christianity, I can only offer my own perspective. If there is anything to be learned by studying church history across the millennia, its that we have committed a wide variety of errors against our fellow brothers and sisters on this planet under the banner of our faith, and its high time that we take a step back, admit wrongdoing, and seek to understand the Bible in a more redemptive sense, healing, Christ-glorifying sense. Are we asking a great number of questions, many of which seem to have difficult answers, or no answers at all? Perhaps. But as someone once pointed out to me, there is grace to be found in the struggle. We’re not attempting to appropriate the Gospel for the culture; we’re examining to see if/where/when we’ve made a mistake in our interpretation and understanding. It’s not about redefining anything; we’re concerned with reflecting on deeper truths.
Ultimately, when we differ with those who are more “Christian” in the traditional sense of orthodoxy, we so often gravely miss out on seeing where we find common ground, in asking: How do we, as brothers in sisters on this sacred ground, become hands and feet to serve, and love, and heal this world that is so desperately broken? The answer will only be found in our togetherness, not our divisiveness.
I had the pleasure of speaking with an acquaintance yesterday concerning a variety of matters from the worlds of theology, faith, culture, science, among others. While we may have differed in our opinions on certain topics, we were nevertheless respectful and gracious towards one another in our words. As I’ve recently been on a whirlwind of spiritual journeying myself, this person with whom I was speaking was doing their best to determine where I landed on certain issues, which is understandable, since we inhabit a church culture that thrives off of drawing lines in the sand. Heidi Weaver wrote a wonderful piece last month which deals with the idea that “the place for big questions isn’t the church”, which from my point of view is both tragic and concerning, and I readily identified with her struggle of coming to grips with the understanding that the church writ large, where so many of us developed a sense of community and deep friendships, could no longer be seen as (if in fact it ever was) a place where we, as pilgrims on a never ending spiritual journey, could ask the “dangerous” questions.
This individual was speaking to me about their own spiritual journey, and somewhere in the midst of their explanation, two crucial elements were expressed that, for many progressive people of the faith, sum up two very critical aspects of culture that the church (some factions of it, anyways) has been woeful on. The first element was the issue of evolution, and this individual stated that they saw faith and science as woefully incompatible, at the very least in regards to the mechanistic, naturalistic explanations of how life developed and evolved over time on this planet. The second issue was in regards to human sexuality, where this individual stated that they truly believed there was a gay “agenda” at work in contemporary American culture.
As I sat there listening to these ideas being put forth, I began to understand some of the critical differences between not only progressive Christians and conservative evangelicals, but between how the secular realm looks into the the Church (again, writ large) and how the church might look out into the secular realm. As a millennial, and as a 23 year old with a recently minted Bachelor’s in Sociology along with a neverending thirst for knowledge on a variety of social movements, I’m certainly inclined to recognize collective anxiety within a group when I see it. The person I spoke with represents a certain perspective on the church, from a conservative standpoint. And when I say conservative, I’m noting that “conservative” means, in this context, being in possession of something they believe is worth conserving. With respect to certain issues regarding science, social justice, human rights, my generation is rapidly pushing for progress on these fronts. Every generation that comes to pass wishes to correct the errors of their forefathers and continue to pull our culture over the new horizon we’ve been hard at work on. Weaver sums up the collective zeitgeist of our progressive peers when she maintains that “I’m not going to reason my way out of my faith, I’m reasoning my way back into it”.
I think as progressive people of faith, we must extend a hearty measure of grace to those inhabit the space under the large (very, very large) tent of Christianity. Differences, even critical ones, have always had their place within the conversations and dialogue that have taken place under this proverbial tent. The argument, as much as is possible, can be summed up rather succinctly: those from the more progressive constituencies often accuse their more conservative brethren of inhibiting the march of progress on deeply important social justice, environmental, and economic issues, while those in the more conservative camp often accuse their progressive brothers and sisters of weakening the faith at its core, of abandoning defining principles and value systems, and worst of all, denying and rejecting the Gospel at the heart of the the faith.
Accusations on both sides are painful. They’re often devastating to hear, particularly from the mouth of a loved one, from those whom you care for deeply, and individuals from both camps have absorbed more than their fair share of flak from the culture war we so often find ourselves embroiled in. The divisions we often create within our ranks quite often originate from fear, from misunderstandings, from a lack of grace that we fail to extend to our brothers and sisters. Infighting is inevitable, but it does not have to ruin anyone’s life, and can often be an opportunity for growth if handled appropriately.
I don’t remember who said this first, or if I somehow managed to snag it from the recesses of my mind, but its a quote that I often find apropo: “We used to burn one another at the stake for supposed heresy. Now we have blogs”. A great number of Evangelical gatekeepers (see: John Piper, Albert Mohler) are quick to make declarations of excommunication when a speaker/author/writer from the more progressive camps begins to propose “dangerous” questions (see: Farewell, Rob Bell). Not only are these denunciations damaging, but they often rally the various adherents to one “side” or the other, creating further divisions. Mclaren has a wonderful examination of the idea concerning how how we might learn to “differ graciously”. I strongly encourage anyone who seeks to continue the reconciliatory work between people of faith to carefully reads his thoughts on the subject.
In a colloquial sense, the vast majority of us consider the Lenten holiday to be a time of moderate deprivation, wherein we allow ourselves to be somewhat removed from the pleasures of this world, pleasures that we hold dear to us, whether they manifest themselves in the form of chocolate, social media, or what have you. The practice of “doing” Lent is often thought of in the framework of a forty day fast, wherein we seek to gain an enhanced appreciation for a spiritual renewal and a refreshed sense of wonder of the lives we live.
Traditionally, at least during the early phases of the Lenten holiday, it was considered customary to remove oneself from the consumption of all animal products for the duration of the forty day period. This practice of complete abstention did tend to vary, however, between the various geographical regions and variety of cultures that practiced Lent within the Catholic and Protestant traditions. A more careful examination of the abstentions (or lack thereof, as history moved closer to the present day) regarding the consumption of living creatures allows us to understand that, as we see today, our forefathers and various ancestors were often just as confused and unaware of the moral implications of their dietary habits as people are today.
During the Middle Ages, a prohibition on meat during Lent was generally considered to be the law of the land, but dairy products were exempted if one were to provide a donation to be put towards the constructions of the churches, highlighting just how connected we were (and still are) to the idea of animals and economics being bonded together rather inseparably. Many years later, the admonishment to remove all dairy and eggs from one’s Lenten practice was temporarily retracted if an individual were to provide his service to the Crusades. I find these practices to be fascinating from a sociological perspective, while I’m nevertheless horrified from a compassionate perspective.
While there were several varieties of prohibitions on the consumption of animal products during historical occurrences of Lent, the vast majority of us no longer take our marching orders from a hierarchal, overarching religious order such as the Church, and society is no longer structured around a communal adherence to a single abstention, such as the forty day prohibition. By and large, we choose our own practices to adhere to during lent, and we don’t often see millions of people going vegan for lent, with one key exception. Through the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches throughout Europe, its still quite common to consume animal-free, or vegan, meals during Lent, as well as consuming less food in general, so as to practice the ideals of fasting, in order to bring about a sense of communion with the more spiritual aspects of ourselves.
From a moral perspective, its still a bit unethical to temporarily abstain from consuming violence and suffering and then pick up the habit once more, but the priests who commissioned their flocks to eat and live compassionately during this time of Lent were certainly aware of something critical. When we remove anguish and misery from our plates, we begin the process of removing them from our spirits, as well. As we eat a compassionate, cruelty-free meal in which no living being was harmed, we move closer to a sense of peace within our souls. The season of Lent traditionally ends with concept of regeneration, the rebirth of a Savior, as the world leaves the darkness of Winter and begins the embrace of the light, the Spring. May we as individuals recognize that this form of rebirth is possible even outside of lent, as we move towards living a life that provides peace, health, and wellness, along with the practice of compassion towards all living beings.
The soft, gentle footsteps moving around the house early in the morning and late at night. Small, still noises emanating from their mouths. Noses wrinkling, legs stretching, feathers ruffling. Eagerly pressing their cheeks against ours, always holding out hope that a kiss will be given or a treat will be provided, if one is lucky. The sprinting races to the kitchen for meal times. The snuggles we enjoy with them at the end of a long day. The tears they lick from our faces during our times of greatest need. The excited sounds they make when we share laughter together. Our companions from other species bless us immeasurably when we open our hearts to embracing the differences, and celebrating the similarities.
In so many ways, our friends from the animal kingdom are so much like us, as it is often said, “in all the ways that truly matter”. Between each and every one of us, regardless of species, lies a deep capacity for love, affection, grief, frustration, kindness, pain, joy, among other characteristics. The human species has so often throughout history places itself as the pinnacle of the ecosystem, deciding which animals will share our homes and which will serve us. What an incalculable tragedy for those precious beings whom we decided simply did not fall under the welcoming category of “friend”.
When we step back to consider the system as a whole, a host of inconsistencies emerge. We’re enamored with our dogs and cats and hamsters, highlighting their wonderful qualities such as friendliness, kindness, curiosity, loyalty, and general affection. We shower them with gifts. Care for their needs. Ask nothing in return save for hugs, sloppy kisses, and warm cuddles. We require absolutely nothing of them; in fact, we consider it ludicrous to even consider the notion of taking their natural mammalian secretions or destroying them for their flesh. Undoubtedly, most people who share their lives with companion animals would come to blows with an individual who attempted to turn their friends into some some sort of commodity or product.
And yet, those frustrating inconsistencies remain. What we consider doing to one animal in regards to its slaughter would be regarded as horrific if he or she was a dog or a cat, but if he or she was a pig or a cow, we would immediately reach all manner of conclusions as to why those species must be tortured and killed. Gary Francione puts it very eloquently in calling this sort of reasoning an example of “moral schizophrenia”; we have compassion for one animal based on its inherent qualities, but our compassion quickly dries up in regards to, say, a pig or a cow, even when those species possess equal or even higher levels of those exact same qualities.
The moral principle remains. A living being has the right to express his or herself however he or she chooses, without fear of harm or death, regardless of species. Those who claim to love animals on the basis of certain tangible qualities often take no hesitation at consuming the flesh or secretions of other animals who possess these exact same qualities. Granted, most consumers of animal body parts have absolutely no idea that pigs are incredibly intelligent, brave, and curious, much in the same way as a dog might behave. They would be horrified to discover that the flesh they might be chewing on in that moment belonged to a dog or a cat. Why? Why the revulsion? Most likely, because they know a cat or dog personally. Perhaps they love and admire their animal companions. Perhaps they have rescued and adopted cats or dogs from horrible circumstances. With all these elements considered, the individual would be rightly horrified.
We have heard countless stories over the years from people who have had the sincere pleasure of befriending a pig, or a cow, or any traditional animal that we have bred to be “farmed”. They tell us in no uncertain terms that these animals have fascinating traits, such as the irrepressible curiosity of a pig, or the silly and playful antics of a goat, or the benevolent kindness of a cow. None of these characteristics should come as a great surprise to us; after all, species of any sort have long maintained strikingly similar, if not identical, aspects to their personalities. When it comes to the better angels of our nature (love, mercy, compassion), a person is a cow is a pig is a dog.
The world around is slowly but surely coming to the terms with the internal values of compassion, kindness, and mercy. We all have these “better angels” within us, and we have the means to live by them and honor them. How can those who have already been awakened to this truth help guide the others who are still sleeping? Point out to them these similarities. Show them that love and kindness is the same between these species. Help others to recognize how our hearts are opened and blessed when we bring all creatures into our circles of compassion. Live that truth daily, manifest it in our choices and actions.
Moral inconsistencies should worry no one. Upon closer examination, we see them for what they really are: toothless cultural norms which, although firmly entrenched, can be uprooted over time and shown for the absurdities that they represent. The swelling ranks of vegans across the planet are a testament to the fact that these inconsistencies can certainly be done away with, and they will be.
This was the article I hoped I would never have to write. Every writer (journalists, mostly, although they are often delaying the inevitable) will occasionally find themselves in a tricky situation, in which they will be called upon to shine the light of truth and journalistic integrity into the darkness that reality often brings. In doing so, the author of the piece ought to know full well that a certain amount of pushback is due when he or she brings certain truths to the surface. We all have individuals and institutions we revere, often unquestioningly, and we find our hackles being raised when the aforementioned are brought under close scrutiny. My take on this currently developing issue, it should be noted, is certainly not the final say in the matter, nor should it be read as such. The following simply reflects my concerns about the situation at the present juncture in time, and offers a perspective of caution as the story develops.
In the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate and respect the work of the animal rights organization “Mercy for Animals”. The work that they’ve done concerning undercover investigations is to be praised, informing the public about the horrible realities that billions (yes, billions) of sentient beings face every year. In addition to working to document the abuses against animals, Mercy for Animals creates informational films about living a vegan lifestyle, helping to educate others about why its so important to be true to our own values of compassion, mercy, and kindness by leaving animals out of our diets.
While the above still holds true, a recent news story has caused to me reconsider my position concerning Mercy For Animals, and what they truly stand for. In early January, it was reported that Mercy for Animals had released horrific footage of piglets being subjected to unimaginable cruelty at an Oklahoma factory farm. After the release of the footage, Tyson’s public relations team swung into action and announced that they were ending their professional relationship with the slaughterhouse. Mercy For Animals praised this move on the part of Tyson Foods, proudly claiming “Progress for Pigs” on their website. On the surface, this all seems well and good. Tyson will no longer (as far as we know) be getting their pigs from this particular slaughterhouse, and Mercy For Animals appears to make progress in achieving a more humane standard.
Upon a more thorough inspection, this news is nothing if not completely absurd. On their personal website, Mercy for Animals mentions that they have “urged” Tyson Food to likewise “encourage” (not require) their suppliers to choose other methods of killing in accordance with the American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines. I knew very little about the AVMA, or their guidelines for killing (a rather gruesome act to have “guidelines” for) farm animals, so I did some investigating, and what I discovered was abhorrent. According to the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013, the following is a list of approved methods for killing animals, farmed or otherwise:
-CO2 poisoning (gassing the animals)
-Blunt force trauma
Let us take a moment to consider the implications of what we’ve learned. Mercy for Animals has put their stamp of approval on “alternative” AVMA-approved methods of killing. They’ve encouraged Tyson to choose other AVMA methods of slaughter, and Tyson has made mention that they are considering making a change (which is certainly no guarantee that change will be made). And even still, the AVMA considers blunt force trauma to be an acceptable method of killing. We should note that the undercover video that MFA recorded dealt with piglets being subjected to blunt force trauma; if Tyson wished to, they could make a strong case that they were simply following AVMA approved guidelines for slaughter.
We need to ask ourselves honestly: do any of the above methods seem humane by any stretch of the imagination? Do any of them seem to be “progress for pigs”? I would believe the answer to be a firm “no”. Mercy for Animals could have said that this behavior by Tyson is unacceptable; they could have spent time, money, and energy focused on doing vegan education instead of working with the institutional supplier itself to create an arbitrary “change” which will only lead to an equally inhumane and cruel form of death for these sentient beings.
After a few years of writing about these issues, I’m no longer naive about the responses I’m most likely going to receive from well-meaning and otherwise upstanding individuals. They’ll ask me, “But shouldn’t we be doing all that we can for the pigs suffering right now?” “Isn’t this a step in the right direction?” “We can’t expect the world to go vegan overnight, you know”. My answer to those questions is simple: Yes, we should. No, it isn’t. And, of course I know the world isn’t going to go vegan overnight. Here’s the primary issue: if you’re a non-vegan, and you heart that Mercy for Animals has, for all intents and purposes, provided a veritable seal of approval on Tyson pork, will this cause you to eat more pork or less? If you’re a non-vegan, and you learn that Perdue might possibly be banning gestation crates in the next ten years or so, and that PETA has praised them for this, will this make you eat less meat or more? If you’re a non-vegan, and you notice that Whole Foods has begun using animal welfare rated products (wherein the animal might have just been decapitated instead of torn to pieces while alive, perhaps), are you going to strongly consider going vegan? Of course not.
If Mercy for Animals has a vision for a vegan world, then why are they condoning actions that merely serve to make the general public more comfortable with their habits? It makes no sense. Does it really, honestly matter in a moral sense if a sentient being is gassed or electrocuted? I would argue that it makes no difference whatsoever. In this real-life situation, Tyson receives a phenomenal amount of positive PR for their “high welfare standards”, and Mercy for Animals is allowed to declare “victory” and “progress for pigs”. Its a win-win for everyone. Except for the pigs themselves. If you continue to tell the public that this method or that method of slaughter is somehow “better”, you are not allowed to be concerned or frustrated that the world around you isn’t going vegan.
This story is still developing, but the information I researched was as up to date as recently as this week. If I’ve omitted a critical detail that someone spots, please feel free to inform me; I am as fallible as the next writer. But the driving force behind this peace is the concern that this story is similar to many other large animal rights organizations declaring “victory”, when in fact the institutions simply shift to another equally horrific form of slaughter, if they even shift at all. You’ll have to forgive me if I see this form of campaign as a waste of time. If we wish to realize the vision of a vegan world, it’s not going to come from us telling non-vegans that this particular pig was killed “humanely”, so thats ok. Encouraging any form of animal consumption will have a deleterious effect on our goal of realizing a compassionate world, and all of our advocacy (in my opinion) should be creative, non-violent forms of vegan education, which can come in so many wonderfully effective forms. Over the years, I’ve come to learn about so many individuals whose lives were changed when they shared a dialogue with someone who encouraged them to be true to their own values of compassion and mercy, which means going vegan as a matter of fundamental justice. This approach is honest, truthful, and very straightforward. Additionally, it respects the intelligence of the individual and their capacity to make these positive, life-affirming changes.
Will the world go vegan overnight? No. Will it take many, many more years to see a vegan world if we continue to support groups such as Mercy for Animals that encourage “humane” consumption? Absolutely. As a full disclosure, I support much of the work that Mercy for Animals does, but I cannot throw my support behind this campaign which (in my opinion) will simply bring more of the same for the animals involved. I certainly wouldn’t claim to have all the answers, but I am quite sure of one thing: We must choose a path that will achieve real results for the animals themselves, and that means choosing to advocate for veganism, not welfarism.