Sunday, December 6, 2015

Caring for Creation & The Ethics of Dairy Farming

An Evensong Reflection for Advent 2

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep (Is.40:11)

This metaphor from Isaiah in our readings tonight expresses the relationship of God to humankind and to all creation; it models a relationship of care and gentleness.  It implicitly models the relationship that should characterise the stewardship and care that human beings exercise in the creation.

Of course we know that the truth of our care of creation is nothing like this: otherwise there would be no need for the climate change talks in Paris at this time.

However, inexcusably, until recently it had never quite dawned on me how brutally we abuse the creation in our own country.  

It was the TV programme that exposed the plight of the bobby calves that made me reconsider. It is a big subject, but just two points:

  • So many New Zealanders witnessed the unspeakable cruelty of the men throwing calves into the trucks and the brutality at the abattoir; all who saw that were appalled.
  • There is also the systemic cruelty of a dairy industry that needs calves so cows will lactate but immediately removes them from their mothers, stuffing them in a box to be collected for pet food.

Ethically something about that sticks in the throat: in terms of animal welfare it is awful; in terms of the care of creation, it is irreverent and exploitative. 

Think about it: the development and expansion of intensive dairying has so transformed the New Zealand export economy that huge dairy farms, often owned by investors rather than farmers, produce something like two million calves a year.  

To me this looks like something that has become a bloated and distorted travesty of what may be called ‘farming’ and is now an industry that is huge, faceless and cruel in its exploitation of living creatures.  For a moment we might remember the environmental damage caused by intensive dairying; and we might also reflect that this is an industry that our economy is now locked into.

Questions have been raised about how pigs are treated, also poultry; but now awareness has been raised about dairy farming, the icon of our pastoral economy, and we are starting to feel tainted by it.

I suppose, somewhat in the spirit of someone demanding an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, I am advocating for ethical review of all our farming practices; and that animal welfare become a top priority.

But most profoundly we need a change of heart as people who share the planet with one another and with all living things.  We need a spirit of reverence for the creation.  I think Pope Francis has most eloquently expressed this in his Laudato si encyclical where he tries to help us see past our obsession with ourselves and see instead ourselves in solidarity with all creation.

(83) “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us.  Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.  Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.”

In this Second Sunday of Advent with its emphasis on repentance, there is scope and opportunity to think again about the things we have taken for granted, including the bottles of milk at the supermarket: we may relate to such things differently and think again what it means to be human and a steward of creation.

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