For most of my life I have enjoyed a fiendish love of cheeseburgers. Whether served at summer cookouts or through the drive‐through window at McDonald’s, there are few sights more appealing to me than a slab of sizzling beef topped with melted cheese, lettuce, and tomato and sandwiched between two buns (don’t forget the ketchup). In my family grilling burgers has always been a sacred activity. The act itself three‐quarters sharing a meal of cheeseburgers, French fries and pickles three‐quarters seem to bring us closer together. As I’ve grown older I have been ordained into the guild of grilling. Like cartoon images of cavemen roasting mutton over a fire, I have spent countless afternoons gathered around a flame‐pit with my friends watching the meat transform from pink (flecked with salts and spices) to a dark, crispy brown. To sink your teeth into layers of bread, meat, and vegetable was to taste communion, to embrace an identity both inherited and celebrated. And so while we confessed our Catholic faith on Sundays, on grilling days we partook in our own all‐American transubstantiation.
I suspect that my love for cheeseburgers is not unique among most U.S. Americans. Indeed, it is hardly an understatement to claim that in last century hamburgers have become the iconic “American” food. As Eric Schlosser attests in Fast Food Nation: “A hamburger and French fries became the quintessential American Meal in the 1950s, thanks to the promotional efforts of fast food chains. The typical American now consumes approximately three hamburgers and four orders of French fries every week.” 1 Beneath McDonald’s famous golden arches the logo “Billions and Billions served” is not merely a clever marketing tool, but a fact. According to The Wall Street Journal, while McDonald’s stopped publicizing the number of burgers sold in 1994 at 99 billion, roughly twenty years later McDonald’s boasts a significant global presence and conservative estimations of over 300 billion burgers sold (which is close to 43 burgers per person in the world!). 2 McDonald’s wild success is partially owed to the increasing trends of meat consumption in American over the past century. Recent studies have shown that U.S. Americans today consume an average of half a pound of meat per day, nearly sixteen times the average in Africa and triple the average of U.S. Americans in 1970. 3
To keep pace with the increasing consumer demand for cheap and convenient food (facilitated by the advent of chain grocery stores and fast food restaurants) animal agriculture has evolved into a highly industrialized system capable of raising, processing, and shipping meat at unprecedented levels. While proponents of industrial agriculture applaud the meat industry for its high levels of production such praise casts a shadow over many basic and troubling questions, such as: Where does all of this meat come from? What are the living conditions like for animals destined to be food? And what is the true cost behind a hamburger sold for a dollar? Perhaps the greatest success of modern meat industry is its success at hiding the negative costs for maintaining high production; namely, the systematic suffering of animals. Veiled behind willful ignorance (“I don’t want to know about it”) and lofty platitudes (“we are feeding the world”) industrial agriculture is a system of mass death and waste far beyond what might even imagine. Rather than promoting practices that reflect the lives and dignity of animals, factory farming commodifies life and practices suffering in the name of profitability. As the singer and songwriter Paul McCartney famously quipped, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.”
In ethical theory the strand of thinking concerned with character is referred to as areteology, or virtue ethics. Rather than discerning what one must do to be moral virtue ethics asks first about who we are, followed up by what kinds of people we want to be. With regards to food justice, areteology asks: What does it mean to be a moral eater? How does one embody morality in one’s eating choices? Read through the lens of theology, virtuous eating might also be understood by asking: How does Christian identity inform my decision to eat (or not eat) a McDonald’s Big Mac? With these questions in mind this essay looks at adopting an expansive sacramental theology, grounded in the Eucharist, as a means for embodying a moral identity in our present food system.
The Industrial Cheeseburger
The image of the farm is perhaps the single greatest advertising fraud in the modern food industry. It is also that industry’s greatest success. When most of us think of farms we often imagine red‐painted barns, towering silos, cows grazing across open pastures, and chickens roaming about noisily. In short, we think of nineteenth‐century agrarian images that have been passed on to us through our grandparents and appropriated by food corporations. Such images are meant to create a belief that our food is grown, prepared, and processed in thoughtful and moral ways. Believing that the majority of our food comes from traditional farming methods is a pastoral fiction, guarded by modern consumers against the knowledge of what a “dollar‐menu” cheeseburger actually costs. In reality the vast majority of our meat is no longer raised on rural pastures, but slaughtered and processed on a massive scale via assembly lines and underpaid hands. The evolution of traditional farming into its modern industrial equivalent began during the early decades of the twentieth century. These years of modest agricultural growth were marked by a significant percentage of the population directly participating in some form of agriculture—either for livelihood or (meager) profit. As Nicolette Niman explains in Righteous Porkchop:
This first part of the twentieth century has been described as “the great era of the farm chicken,” as opposed to the era chicken farms, which would come later.” These were the days when farms actually looked a lot like the image many of us hold in our minds of where our chicken and eggs come from. One poultry industry chronicler writes that 1900 to 1940 was the “tranquil period in American life when almost every farm has a small flock of chickens to provide those legendary breakfasts, with a goodly number of eggs left over [for market] to provide the necessary spending money (‘egg money’) for the women in the family.” 4
This was true not only of chickens but generally true of all farm animals. The relationship between animal and farmer was immediate and reciprocal, requiring a method of husbandry concerned with the needs and sensitivities of each animal. As farms slowly began to grow during the middle decades such care and attention would eventually be labeled obsolete.
Following the events of World War Two America’s economy exploded in the wake of unprecedented industrial innovation. Virtually every American industry, from cars to food to refrigerators, became consumed with the wonders of specialization and efficiency. In Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser shows how the blossoming of industry aligned with Eisenhower‐era glorifications of technology, characterized by slogans like “Better living through chemistry” and “Our Friend the Atom.” 5 In the context of animal agriculture industrialization meant a radical re‐imagining of the profitability of traditional farming methods. Where previously raising farm animals for meat was confined to local economies the advent of industrialization favored a national consumer base. To sustain the demands of an expanding national market businessmen (not farmers) developed new methods for maximizing production while minimizing “unnecessary costs” such as skilled labor and compassionate living conditions for the animals. Among the most significant of these methods was concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). Raising the greatest number of animals in the smallest space possible became the meat industry’s emblem for industrial efficiency.
In the short term these changes allowed agribusinesses to feed millions throughout the country while reaping a sizable fortune. In the long term industrialization has meant abandoning relationship‐oriented farming practices in favor of a productionist ethic defined by “cramped incarcerations; mutilations; lack of sun and light; lack of exercise; chaining and caging; drugging; force‐feeding and, paradoxical in the case of calves; deliberate malnutrition; forced weaning; forced insemination; loss of individuality, general deprivation; frustration of natural instincts and the denial of freedom to express their normal behavior patterns.” 6 Rather than being immoral exceptions in an industry, otherwise defined by the moralistic marvels of technological progress, these conditions constitute an abhorrent rule that has become normative in virtually all aspects of industrial farming, from production to consumption.
The beef industry is among the most distasteful modern examples of industrialized farming. Unlike most farm animals who spend their lives locked within CAFO industrial cattle are born and breed on feedlots. While the term “feedlot” conjures an image of pastoral farming, cowboys, perhaps, rustling cattle “out on the range,” the reality of feedlot is far less spacious. 7 Here hundreds of cattle are crammed together into small fenced‐in fields that are often overflowing with excrement while utterly devoid of vegetation. As David Coates explains in Old McDonald’s Factory Farm:
The ground in feedlots is thickly covered with excrement and often poorly drained. Cattle must stand in freezing mud and manure in the winter—with no dry places to rest and chew the cud—and in summer this mixture is churned into a fine choking dust. And for the cattle used to the protection from the elements given by trees and other natural features of the open range, there is usually neither shade nor shelter—and nary a clump of green grass to be seen. 8
Rather than being fed a traditional and nutritionally appropriate diet of grass and roughage, cattle raised on factory farms are fed a high protein mixture of grain, corn and similar products laced with growth hormone and antibiotics. Invariably both diet and conditions of feedlot life lead to premature and painful deaths. As Coates explains, “Of the animals dying on feedlots each year 10 percent succumb to digestive tract diseases” caused by an inappropriate diet. A further “60 percent die from pneumonia and other respiratory diseases caused by exposure, the high levels of dust, and lack of exercise.” 9 From the feedlot to the slaughterhouse life is further strained for cattle by the compulsory practices of castration, branding, and dehorning. These practices, frequently done at the same time and without the use of an anesthetic, are extremely painful and disorienting for the animal. Compounding this trauma nearly 700,000 calves and cattle die every year from stress and injuries incurred during transportation. 10 Once inside the walls of the slaughterhouse cattle are driven into stales before being individually incapacitated with a steel bolt driven into the head via a captive bolt gun. Though a variety of practices are used for slaughter the most common (and arguably cost‐efficient) practice is exsanguination, wherein the cattle’s throat is slit and the animal is left to bleed to death. Once dead the cattle’s carcass is cleaned, processed, and prepared for consumption. Here the cattle’s subjectivity is further stripped as, in the case of ground beef, a single cattle’s body is ground together with the meat of thousands of other cattle to form millions of pink uniform patties. The system described above exists to fulfill a high consumer demand for a dollar‐menu economy characterized by cheap and convenient food. Though the production rates of industrialized slaughter are undeniably vast and impressive it must recognized that such innovation costs more than a dollar. The veiled costs of industrialized farming are the loss of subjectivity, dignity, and life for millions of vulnerable beings. In short the price of a cheeseburger has become the cost of our moral identities as consumers. If we are to (re)claim our identity as ethically and theologically ‐bound consumers it is imperative that we begin the messy work of reevaluating our participation in our present food system. We must begin asking ourselves: What does it mean to be a moral eater?
Eating Our Theology
Perhaps the most necessary place for Christians to begin responding to the ethicality of factory farming is by re‐membering our place at the table. Throughout the history of the church the image of the table has been associated with the memory, mystery, and compassionate example of Christ. As Jennifer Ayres eloquently explains in her powerful work Good Food:
At the center of the Christian tradition sits a table. It was around tables that Jesus taught, loved, shared with, and challenged the disciples. At mealtimes, Jesus and the disciples shaped a beloved community, a community that understood sharing, hospitality, and attention to material needs to be at the heart of their life together. Even now, when the beloved community gathers around the table, we affirm that we receive sustenance, we build relationships, and hear a challenge to seek flourishing in the world. 11
From scripture we read stories about Jesus and his followers gathered around the table performing miracles (John 2:3‐9), welcoming the unwelcome (Matthew 9:9‐13), and speaking truth to injustice (Luke 14:12‐14). Among these holy feasts the Last Supper is perhaps the most widely celebrated meal in our collective liturgies. When we gather together for worship and communion we remember the words from John’s gospel: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide [dwell] in me. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:56‐57). Whether one regards the Eucharist as transubstantiation or real presence, bread and wine or wafer and grape juice, the liturgical meal carries the promise of immense transformative potential for one’s life and spiritual identity. As eloquently expressed in Paul’s declaration to the Corinthians, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17‐18). To partake in the Eucharist is to embody (to take into one’s body) a theological and ethical identity indwelling in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. By eating this bread and drinking this wine we affirm our identity as Christians.
This affirmation of identity is what Fred Bahnson refers to as “embracing the sacramental life,” a life of drawing closer to God through the tangible. 12 Expressed liturgically, the sacramental life finds its substance in the ritualized symbols of tradition ‐ baptismal waters and communion wafers. However, when imagined expansively the sacramental life reaches into the tangible moments of everyday life, from a rejuvenating hot shower to sharing meals amongst friends. Beyond opening us to the edges of new encounter an expansive sacramental theology weaves our Christian identity in the fabric our daily lives. Through the lens of expanse we are able to glimpse new questions for what it means to be Christian. Here questions such as “would Jesus break bread at McDonald’s?” are not only possible, but ethically necessary, as we wrestle with our identity as Christian consumers in the modern world. In light of our discussion on the ethicality of factory farms an expansive understanding of the Eucharist may offer Christians pause to consider whether their consumer participation reflects a moral identity centered in the compassion and justice of Christ.
As noted above, the essence of the Eucharist and indeed the sacramental life on a whole is found in the recognition that we draw close to God through the deliciously tangible act of sharing a meal. We do this in remembrance of Christ’s physical life, death, and salvific work for all of creation. As Christians we celebrate the life of Christ by tasting bread and remembering how “the word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14). In Greek the word flesh, translated in the Gospel of John as sarx, doesn’t refer specifically to a human being (anthropos), but to the material substance shared by all living things. As Elizabeth Johnson explains in Abounding in Kindness, “the sarx which the word of God became not only connects Jesus to other human beings; it also reaches beyond them to join him to the whole biological world of living creatures.” 13 Thus, whether in remembrance or ritual embodiment to taste the bread, the flesh of Christ, is to acknowledge the miracle of the incarnation and its significance for humans and animals alike. This understanding challenges the view that animals are mere commodities put forth for human use and consumption. Against the tendency to commodify life a sacramental theology requires that we eat with the recognition that the flesh in‐between our teeth is inseparably linked with God who became flesh, the flesh in whom our true identity dwells. When we drink wine, the blood of Christ, we remember Christ’s death and imbuing presence with the victims of all injustice, suffering and death. This is what Johnson describes as the cruciform presence, the presence of God dwelling “in compassionate solidarity with every living being that suffers, from the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroid to the baby impala eaten by a lioness. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without eliciting a knowing suffering in the heart of God.” 14 Though it may seem distasteful to compare the bloodied body of a steer to the crucifixion, even here in the broken bones and lacerations of this poor creature Christ is immediately present. When we drink wine we align ourselves to the call of justice knowing that even the suffering of a cow does not escape God’s eyes. We drink knowing that Christ is not limited to human woundedness, but is present in the split blood of all living creatures.
Together the bread and wine, body and blood, form a salvific banquet celebrating God’s indwelling life, death and saving presence in the world. To partake in this banquet is to embody and become nourished by the memory and presence of Christ. Beyond physical and spiritual nourishment the Eucharist makes a claim upon our identity that does not end after Sunday worship. As we embody the sacramental life of Christ we are called to live into a eucharistic‐identity in our daily lives and ordinary banquets. Through this identity we compelled to live and eat intentionally around the compassionate and just example of Christ. When we live in this way the simple act of eating a cheeseburger carries eucharistic significance that weighs upon our identity as Christians, for better or worse.
The Sacramental Eater
I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with enjoying the occasional cheeseburger. I certainly have enjoyed more than a few in my time. However, I do believe that such enjoyment must be prefaced with an ethical obligation to understand the cost behind our consumption. The wisdom of traditional agricultural relies upon ecology, the interconnectedness of relationship. This is the wisdom of Ecclesiastes that understands “what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 3:19). As we look to our own participation as sacramental eaters we must do so with the recognition that unrestrained gratification, convenience, and cheapness cannot be our highest ethical principles when it comes to eating. It is likely that some people will always choose to eat meat, especially when it is packaged as the cheaper and more convenient answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” Here it must be understood that the goal of ethical eating is not to be perfect, but rather to align our lives and eating habits as consistently as possible with our values. For Christians those include compassion, justice, love, restraint, and gratitude. And as Christians we have a theological duty to ensure the embodiment of these values into our identity as our consumers; for our own sake as well as for the dignity of the animal. Thus, to live into the sacramental life is to celebrate our identity as Christians and God’s presence in the creatureliness of life, suffering, and death that all creatures share. As Wendell Berry reminds us, the pleasure of eating must always come from celebrating our connection with other living beings and the Creator who gives those beings life. In his words,
Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make to powers we did not comprehend. 15
Whether we choose to enact this celebration by abstaining from eating meat or becoming more aware of lives given to our nourishment, sacramental identity has the potential to transform our dinner plates and our lives.
- Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All‐American Meat (HarperCollins, 2002), xxi. ↩
- Spencer Jakab, “McDonald’s 300‐Billionth Burger Delayed,” The Wall Street Journal, 22 January 2013. ↩
- Mark Bittman, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating (Simon & Schuster, 2009), 11. ↩
- Nicolette Hahn Niman, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009), 40‒41. ↩
- Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, xxi. ↩
- David C. Coates, Old McDonald’s Factory Farm (The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989) 20‒21. ↩
- According to Mark Bittman the ideal of grass‐fed beef while morally attractive it is practically unviable: “To raise the amount of beef on grass that is currently being produced in confinement [1.3 billion] would mean destroying nearly all the existing forests and farmlands.” Bittman, Food Matters, 27. ↩
- Coates, Old McDonald’s Factory Farm, 72. ↩
- Ibid., 74‐75. ↩
- Ibid., 99. ↩
- Jennifer Ayres, Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology (Baylor University Press, 2013), 55. ↩
- Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith (Simon & Schuster, 2013), 10. ↩
- Elizabeth A. Johnson, Abounding in Kindness: Writings for the People of God (Orbis Books, 2015), 110‐111. ↩
- Johnson, Abounding in Kindness, 87. ↩
- Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating,” in Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food (Counterpoint, 2009), 234. ↩