“But when the selfishness of taking lives of animals to gratify a perverted appetite was presented to me by a Catholic woman, kneeling at my feet, I felt ashamed and distressed. I saw it in a new light, and I said, I will no longer patronize the butcher; I will not have the flesh of corpses on my table.”
When Ellen G. White wrote this from Australia to her friends Drs. W. H. and Harriet Maxson on August 30, 1896, she probably did not intend for it to reach the larger audience that this statement now urgently deserves. We can disregard the Victorian diction and the slightly moralizing tendency to acknowledge that the message reads—today—as a surprisingly timely commitment.
Let’s begin with the source behind the new resolve expressed in the letter. Ellen White identifies her as a Catholic woman. She could easily have left out “Catholic,” but we should be grateful that she didn’t. This proves Ellen White to be a person who was not above taking cues from others. She admits that she stands corrected by the woman kneeling at her feet to the point of feeling “ashamed and distressed,” possibly for living in violation of her own ideal. She goes so far as to admit that she saw the subject “in a new light.” As many will acknowledge, “new light” is a phrase with profound resonance among Seventh-day Adventists. Now, for Ellen White at least, a subject well known to her appears “in a new light.”
The ecumenical link in this note must not be missed. A person from another faith community has made a commitment with regard to the nonuse of meat that she movingly and persuasively brings to bear on Ellen White. In today’s world ecumenical linkages regarding the use of nonhuman creatures for food are momentous, and the ecumenical potential similarly incalculable. And we should not be slow to join forces with them, even if we come to it with a different ideological rationale.
Exploring the Reasons
Let us now consider the content of Ellen White’s renewed commitment. It’s simply this: mercy toward God’s nonhuman creation. The concern on the mind of the Catholic woman kneeling at her feet has to do with “taking lives of animals” for reasons that have nothing to do with necessity.
If this were a legitimate concern on the part of the two women briefly brought together at a camp meeting in Australia in 1896, one Roman Catholic, the other Seventh-day Adventist, what are we to say about human cruelty to nonhuman creatures today? Meat consumption has risen to a staggering level since that time, per capita consumption more than doubling in the United States since 1909.
This statistic does not tell the full story unless we also factor in the huge population increase. In developed countries meat consumption has doubled since 1961 and is now close to the same level as in the United States. A growing middle class in populous countries such as China, India, and Brazil are now making meat a staple in much the same way as Western consumers, meaning that the number of animals needed to be raised and killed for this purpose is rapidly becoming beyond computation. This trend is the most significant driving force behind the advancing process of deforestation in the vital rain forests in Brazil. Meat consumption accounts for approximately 25 percent of current greenhouse gas emissions.
A Call for Mercy
Returning to the subject of mercy toward nonhuman creation, where is the mercy in the feedlots that crowd together 100,000 cattle in a very limited space? Or in the factory farms that confine pigs in cages so small that they cannot even turn?
Matthew Scully says that “factory farming isn’t just killing: It is negation, a complete denial of the animal as a living being with his or her own needs and nature. It is not the worst evil we can do, but it is the worst evil we can do to them.”
Where, too, is the mercy in factory-like slaughterhouses where unimaginable cruelty routinely occurs? This reality has been captured poignantly by Timothy Pachirat in an intelligent book that shows how societies find ways to sequester cruelty without losing their self-esteem or self-regard as though civilized and humane.
The traditional Seventh-day Adventist health message has done well emphasizing the benefits of a nonmeat diet with regard to cholesterol levels, weight, risk of heart disease, and even cancer. These are worthy reasons, but so are the ethical, ecological, and eco-theological reasons that are now clamoring to be heard.
A God of Mercy
We spot the theological underpinnings of such a message when we read in Isaiah, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).
And we hear the same note struck, now at a higher pitch, in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Rom. 8:19-22).
According to Paul, God has not rescinded the blessing that was pronounced on nonhuman creatures at creation (Gen. 1:22). Nonhuman creatures can count on the bill of rights then given. The hope of deliverance extends to them, not only to humans.
More than 100 years have gone by since Ellen G. White’s letter crossed the Pacific from Australia to the United States via snail mail. It will require more than a snail’s pace from us to catch up with her reason for not killing animals for the purpose of eating them; to take to heart the ethical, ecological, and eco-theological reasons that hit home to her; and to make mercy toward nonhuman creatures shine brighter in our health message in the twenty-first century.
This article was first printed in the July 7, 2014, issue of Adventist Review (https://adventistreview.org/issue-archives/page-2014/page-9141519/141519-62/).
Sigve K. Tonstad, M.D., M.A., Ph.D, is an associate professor of Religion and Theological Studies in the School of Religion and an assistant professor in the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University. He is author of The Lost Meaning of the Sabbath Day. To read a review of this book go to https://adventistreview.org/2010-1508/2010-1508-29/.