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.