Roosters for the Common Good

A few Fridays ago, earlier than I’d care to admit, I went over to my friend Dave’s to murder chickens. I know I should say roosters because they were.  And I should say slaughter because that’s what we call it. And to be honest, even though I definitely helped, I shouldn’t say we, because I never wielded the knife. Not that I wouldn’t or that I have anything bad to say about this experience. I don’t. Five roosters met their end in the crispness of that morning, but they died as well as deliberate killing could end a life. In fact, their deaths convinced me that a good death is a possibility for farm animals. Meat is murder, but humans and the animals that we live with share a peculiar and highly asymmetrical relationship. We do not ordinarily expect that a story that ends with one character killing the other ends well. I believe that this is exactly the story that we need to tell about how we live with domesticated animals.

All summer long those Roosters abundantly frolicked, hung out, ate, drank, roosted, pecked, clucked and generally lived a good life. This life was only possible for these individuals if it ended with their becoming meat. They would not have been brought into existence otherwise. My friend Dave cares for these animals, feeding them the right amount of food and supplements. He gives them limestone for their gizzard (without it they couldn’t “chew” their food). And he knows how to kill them well. I didn’t take the knife that morning partly because it wouldn’t respect the rooster; their death came about more easily given Dave’s experience. Even so, his cut was a bit less decisive for the first of five roosters, and, as he was dying, he craned his neck up and met my gaze.

It is quite the thing to look at someone in the eye as they are dying. The last time I had done it was with my cat Tiamat, and then I was reduced to a huddled mass of flesh, crouched up on the floor, bawling. But my relationship to my friend of 15 years was different in intensity to my relationship with the Rooster I had only met a couple of times, and honestly couldn’t tell apart from his compatriots.   The Rooster was in many senses my neighbor, in his dependence on Dave and for the weekend that Dave was up north, on me, in his geographical proximity to me, and in my connectedness to him through Dave.

I looked at my neighbor the Rooster and held that his gaze and thought two things. This is murder what we are doing. It’s worth it. That night I went home and devoured the chicken leg Dave had given me, confident that he’d been given an abundant and good life and that he now was giving me a good supper.

There is a part of this story that I don’t want to tell you. In fact, I wrote much of the sermon having comfortably decided that you didn’t need to hear it. But since this meditation is basically one short sharp knife thrust for truth I omit it at my peril.

The Monday after the Friday I was getting ready for bed and relating some of the details of the Friday to Susan. I’d been thinking about the Roosters all weekend long and I was processing. I remember that I’d been cold all day, putting on layer after layer to try and keep warm. And then I realized it. In a second my body temperature rose at least 10 degrees and I was flush with heat. Uggh. I forgot to feed them. They’d been more than 48 hours without fresh food and water. I’d been entrusted with their care, and I’d failed to be a good neighbor. I rushed, with Susan in tow, the short drive to the Roosters. I ran up to their pen. They were o.k.

I am with you this morning walking on a line pulled taut by the meaning we give to words. Murder, Slaughter, Chicken, Rooster, Neighbor, Friend, Giving, Truth, Abundance.

But if Walter Brueggeman is right in Journey to the Common Good, It makes all the difference to notice how this line is drawn. In his book Brueggeman is focused on the movement of people in Egypt during Joseph’s time from peasantry to slavery.  Brueggeman is particularly hard on Joseph for all the ways in which Joseph buys into the logic of empire in his sojourn in Egypt. When he nominates himself for food czar, Joseph gets compared to Richard Cheney who led the search committee to find a vice-presidential candidate and nominated himself.

Genesis 41:33 reads,

Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.

Joseph is the able administrator who buys into executes Pharaoh’s policy of world food domination. This is a policy born of Pharaoh’s nightmares, which Joseph has interpreted. And it is a policy which oversees the transition of all of Egypt from peasantry to slavery. In the first year of the famine, the peasant pay their money for food. In the second year, with their money gone, they give their cattle. Brueggeman notes that this is what Marx would later term the “means of production”. Finally in the third year, they surrender their freedom. The peasants become slaves are grateful.

Genesis 47:25 reads,

They said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be slaves to Pharaoh.”

This is a story of anxiety. Bruggeman notes,

Those who are living in anxiety and fear, most especially fear of scarcity, have no time or energy for the common good. Anxiety is no adequate basis for the common good. (p. 7)

This is the story out of which the Exodus experience happens. Anxiety has come bursting out of Pharaoh’s nightmare to rest on his subjects, and for our perspective as Christians and Jews, particularly on Joseph’s brother’s descendants. All of Joseph’s machinations have not been able to save his family for a new king rose over Egypt; and he knew not Joseph.

In response to this anxiety God liberates those who are willing to turn their back on anxiety and trust in God’s abundance. This transition is heralded by Shiprah and Puah who we heard about in today’s scripture reading.  Their abundant generosity gives life to a generation of Hebrew men. Shiprah and Puah are models of the common good. From here the people will soon be wandering in the wilderness accepting God’s abundance in the form of bread and quail which miraculously appears each day in an abundant amount. But the people are not to get anxious about whether or not their will be enough. Anxiety is for Pharaoh. God demands obedience to abundance, and that the people turn away from scarcity and embrace generosity. At Sinai God gives the ten commandments, basing them on the people’s experience of abundance and expecting them to be generous to their neighbor.

This is Brueggman’s trajectory in the beginning of Journey to the Common Good  It follows the long arc of this story and offers the shift from anxiety to abundance to neighborliness as a model for the common good.  He offers these reflections as a counterpoint to the rise of empire in our country post 9/11.

In what remains I want to extend his model of the common good to the animals we live with and are bound to by the long arc of the process of domestication. We have historically thought of domestication as a process of humans controlling and forcibly domesticating other animals. Recent science suggests that the process was probably much more mutual. Domestication is an asymmetrical process of learning to live with another species in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Just as Joseph and his brothers went down to Egypt and traded money, cattle and ultimately freedom for food and protection, at some point several chickens, but also some sheep, horses, dogs and cats left their lives in the wild and joined the new experiment of life with humans. This has been a remarkably successful strategy. There are many more domestic animals than wild. Did you know that domestic chickens make many more sounds than their wild counterparts? In general, living in a bigger group demands more brain power, and more speech than living in smaller group.

At some point though these animals found that their gifts began to be forcibly taken. I think that there is a loose parallel between the shift from peasant to slave to liberation in the experience of farm animals today. They have shifted from domestication to factory farming and for a lucky few liberation at pens like my friend Dave’s. However liberation is still only a dream for the vast majority of factory farmed animals. I’m not going to turn your stomachs with a recitation of the brutally cruel things that we subject factory farmed animals to. I will say that any pursuit of the common good is going to need to ultimately destroy the factory farm once and for all.

Is domestication really a good thing for these animals? Was life in Egypt a good thing for Jacob’s family? The answer to these questions needs to be complex. We do not control every aspect of our lives. Should Jacob’s family have prayed for manna? I think that the move to Egypt was not a problem, even aspects of Joseph’s work in giving people food were not a problem. But when Egypt prospers because of a famine, it’s a problem. Joseph is guilty for participating in this. Are the slaves guilty for not resisting? Are factory farmed animals guilty for not trying to escape?

There are a lot of difficult questions here. Teasing out the direct comparisons between Egypt and contemporary American power and wealth and between Jacob’s descendants and domesticated animals is tricky. What kind of will is at play in the life of a Rooster who choose a domesticated life? They don’t run away and seek instead to make their life in the forest. Can our literal consumption of the Rooster actually make the Rooster’s life more abundant?

I have tried to not be metaphorical at all in this sermon. When I am speaking about animals and a life of abundance I literally mean for us to focus on specific Roosters and think about the ways that our lives are made more abundant when we live with these Roosters and about these Roosters lead a better, more abundant life, a  life with more ends and flourishing then they would be able to experience alone. I have tried to not be metaphorical, but maybe there is a metaphorical or allegorical lesson here.

Perhaps we are an allegory of the chicken. When we think about the possibilities of our lives under empire, are we aided when we become a metaphor of the domesticated animal? If we think of ourselves as farmed, of being fattened for the slaughter, we might actually have a better idea of the real circumstances of our lives. Much of my life in this country is blessed, and blessed by the specific pursuits of this empire. I love technology, I’m going to buy a gold iPhone 5s soon, I’m going to use it for some really good things, at points I’m going to use it to pursue the common good. But its’ production and my consumption of it are also markers of my slavery. If I recognize that, then, in the end, I can also see that it is just so much limestone for my gizzard. It is a sign of my domestication, a sign of how I am cared for, and perhaps most decisively to what, to whom I am bound.


Being an Audience in an Age of Distraction

Given as part of a panel at Bluffton University. 

What does it mean to be an audience? I think that this is a fascinating question. The biblical text that I always think of when I think of being an audience is The Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5.1-2 reports,

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: -

Who is Jesus’ audience for this sermon? There are crowds, and Jesus goes up a mountain (so that they can hear him? or at least see him?). There are also the disciples who come to Jesus. Jesus could be teaching the crowds, but why then does Matthew report that the disciples come to Jesus? Jesus’ teaching could be just for the disciples, but then why does he teach now when there are so many people around? Or is the audience for Jesus’ words us now in this time and space? I think that the audience was the people that were paying attention.

We are never sure who the audience is for something that we say; likewise a forum like this one has an audience here and now, but also an audience beyond this time and space in the conversations that you share with people about this forum. Let me call these the concrete audience (each of you that is here now) and the virtual audience (people that will be almost here by virtue of participating in conversation about this event).

Audiences can be distracted in many ways. Some of these are technological, some aren’t.

I am assuming that you want to be here. If you don’t want to be here you should leave. If you need arts and lecture credit but don’t want to be here find a way to get arts and lecture credit for things that you want to go to. You are in college; you should want to go to enough of what we offer to meet the credit in your four years here.

Some of you would like to be listening to me, but you are instead all, “Oh my gosh, I’m actually sitting next to her at forum today and I didn’t even try to plan it that way and it totally must be meant to be but I wish I was wearing a nicer shirt.”

Anyone can be distracted at anytime.

I can see you, the concrete audience, being distracted by technology in a number of ways. Technologies of amplification, space and interruption are distracting you.

Jesus didn’t have a microphone back in the day but he spoke on a hillside to crowds of people. How did they hear?

I have an example, but I need you all to be very quiet for it. Can we try that for a second? Be as still and quiet as you can be.

(step away)

You can hear me now, but it takes some effort. It also takes your attention. Part of working to hear me is paying attention to what I am saying. If you want to be listening, and your neighbor is being loud, well tough luck.


Amplification makes it easier to hear, and in making it easier allows you to pay less attention. Perhaps we should do away with microphones. It would, surprisingly, probably help us pay attention and be less distracted. Distraction is not an option in a non-amplified world.

When Jesus spoke were people comfortable on the hillside? Were there distractions like birds or cats or impending rainstorms? The technology of a mount is different than the technology of a space like this gym or a space like Yoder recital hall. I find it much easier to pay attention in Yoder than in here. That space orients my attention to the front, to the stage. The seats are meant for me to look at one space. These seats such as they are meant to watch volleyball or basketball. This isn’t an excuse for not paying attention; your job as an audience is always to pay attention; but it does show you a barrier that you have. Churchill said, “We build our building s and our buildings build us.”

This brings us to the final distraction I want to think about; cell phones. Take out your cell phone and hold it up. Let’s say that I had the screen behind me showing the twitter hashtag #audience and that I asked you to react to what I was saying by tweeting with that hashtag. What would happen?

1). My presentation would have just gotten a whole lot more interactive.

That would be cool; but notice how hard it is to learn how to use a new technology well.  Some of you don’t know what a hashtag is. Some of you don’t have twitter on your phone. Rather than just asking for reactions I should probably have well thought through questions and I should be able to react to them on the fly.  This could work but it would be hard.

2). The audience would have just gotten a whole lot bigger.

We would, by virtue of our size as a group momentarily take over the hashtag #audience and people beyond Bluffton would get a sense of what we were talking about. We also could bring the discussion tangibly to others after this event. The benefits of cell phone style technology for the virtual audience are huge.

3). By interacting with the material for this forum you would be using your cell phone to pay more attention, not less, to what was being said. You would become a more attentive audience.

However, none of this can happen while you use your cell phone as an interruption machine. You’d need to not read texts, or emails, or facebook, or twitter other than through our hashtag.  If you are texting your roommate right now you aren’t being an audience, you are talking to your roommate. Just as technology can extend the audience virtually, it can also constrain the concrete audience. If your speaker doesn’t give you a good reason to use your cellphone; or if you aren’t good at trusting yourself with the technology; it’s probably better to just turn it off.

It is hard to know how we are being distracted, but we can learn, and once we learn we can choose to pay attention. Being able to pay attention is what makes us an audience.

An Antidote to Cynicism, or, Why I teach college, now that I know.

A common feeling among my peers, best summed up by Kate Blanchard in the Chronicle, is one of mild depression upon receiving tenure. The dynamics of my despair were shaped by an intense course load, significant pressure to spend substantial time mentoring my students, a marked decline in my students in even basic writing skills, an even sharper decline in critical thinking ability and the knowledge that I was participating in giving them an huge debt load by the end of college. The work is hard, the rewards few, but more importantly I am giving my students this huge debt and for what. I teach religion, that most useless of disciplines, at a denominational school that only serves 14% of that denominations members. My aspirations for my students upon their graduation; voluntary service. I want them to give something back to the world after their four years of “luxury”. It’s genuinely hard to give something back when you are in significant debt. I know this.

And so I listen to Rick Santorum brand me and my students as elitists on the stump, to David Levy indict my hard work in the Washington Post, and to Peter Morici brand my work as a liberal art-ist as useless on Marketplace Money. They are all deeply wrong, but until now; until the last cases of plagiarism have been caught and sent and away empty, my grades handed in, my students bundled off for the summer, and my own relationship with my pillow restored; until now I have not had the energy to think about why.

In the midst of my depression I asked a senior college administrator at midwest college with