Christians today find it easier to perceive the bread and wine in Holy Communion as the body of Christ than as food. Yet, Holy Communion is based on an actual meal Jesus ate with His disciples. While the liturgical elements of Holy Communion are surely important, we should not forget its humble beginnings as a repast. It is also significant that sharing a meal of thanks was among the first things Jesus followers did together, and therefore one of the first Christian practices. Eucharist, another term for Holy Communion, comes from the Latin term, Eucharista, or to give thanks. With food playing such a central part in Christian history and practice, it seems we ought to be more thoughtful and deliberate about it. Isnt it inconsistent to place food on the church altar without considering where it came from or how it was produced? What if the wheat in the Holy Communion bread was grown on a farm that used methods harmful to its laborers and the ecosystem? We would be right to be troubled by this. Similar concern caused me to become a vegetarian several years ago while in graduate school. After being exposed to images and films of industrial animal agribusiness, I couldnt knowingly continue to support a system with so much cruelty. Pregnant pigs and veal calves are confined in cages and crates so small they cant turn around. Hens are crammed into tiny wire cages unable to spread their wings. Pregnant cows are forced to produce so much milk that they suffer from high rates of a painful utter infection known as mastitis. Factory farming, Matthew Scully wrote in a passage that spoke loudly to me, has no traditions, no rules, no codes of honor, no little decencies to spare for a fellow creature. The whole thing is an abandonment of rural values and a betrayal of honorable animal husbandry. And spiritual values, too. The United States consumes more meat than almost any place on earth. According to the USDA, the average person consumed 222 pounds of meat in 2007. Thats an increase of 78 pounds in less than 60 years! Factory farmers meet this demand by slaughtering animals at a rate of a million an hour around the clock, even as the environmental costs of animal agriculture continue to take their toll in a world in which food, energy, clean air and water, and other resources are being squandered. Everyone can do something to help change this terrible system. Whether you choose to be a vegetarian some or all of the time, switch to animal products from farms that dont use factory farming methods, or screen our film, Eating Mercifully, your efforts will make a difference. We make food choices all day long, every day. What an opportunity to honor a tradition that places significant value on food and shared meals and to align our diet with faith in a compassionate God who created all things. For more, visit humanesociety.org/faith.
Christine Gutleben is the senior director of the Faith Outreach program of The Humane Society of the United States, the nations largest animal protection organization. The program seeks to engage religious leaders and communities in critical issues related to animal protection. Ms. Gutleben received her master”s degree from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. where she studied theology and the connections between food and faith. During this time, she also farmed in the Central Valley of California.