Sunday, December 12, 2004

You are what you eat....

I'm an ova-lactic vegetarian. I eat that which does not require the death of its producer. I do know that most farms on which the products are created are incredibly exploitative and sometimes cruel. But for me the principle is simply about killing for food.

I grew up on a beef and citrus farm in Central Florida. In ninth grade, my father, a teacher in the local high school where I attended (and had him for two years) required me to join the Future Farmers of America. I excelled in public speaking and parliamentary procedure, ornamental horticulture and forestry. I sucked at using band saws and welding. But I also did well at meat cuts identification. Until the second year.

The second year followed the life cycle of a cow from gathering semen for artificial insemination (I will spare you that story) to the insemination (that one, too) and the birth of the calf, which I think is probably one of the most spiritual moments of my entire life. Then we went through the castration process to create a steer, the showing of the steer at the county fair, and finally the inevitable trip to the slaughterhouse.

I am not sure what I expected that day. But I remember like it was yesterday what I saw: terrified animals bleating horrendous sounding dirges; the air hammer used to supposedly knock the animal unconscious so his throat could be slit (bleating all the time); the hanging of the now headless animal by his hoof on a hook suspended from the ceiling; the rubber boots the packing house employee wore around which a swirl of blood ran down a drain in the floor; the now separated organs stacked like bowling balls on racks, the sound of saws ordinarily heard in the sawing of lumber but here sawing apart the body of animal only minutes before alive.

I have never forgotten that day in 1967 when I lost the luxury of naiveté in eating dead animal flesh we euphemistically call "meat." And I have never forgotten the sound of that terrified bleating or the thud of the air hammer on the skulls or the swirling blood running down that drain. And I know that's why I've been vegetarian three different periods of my life, the most recent now in its eighth year.

I'm not an evangelist for this. I would note that meat is the most labor and materials intensivefood human beings eat. The grain used to feed cattle alone could feed the world several times over. I'd also say that for me, humane treatment for animals is a natural extension from myinsistence that human beings treat each other in a humane way. There are clearly some health benefits from vegetarianism - even more from veganism which I am slow to embrace - butfor me those are secondary to the ethical and spiritual concerns.

The Buddha instructed his followers to tell those who would feed the mendicant monks not to kill to feed them but if they had already done so, to eat what was offered with gratitude. Similarly, Francis of Assisi and his followers lived lives of simplicity which both honored the animals of the very good creation as well as eating a diet which was itself simple, usually vegetarian as most religious observed in the middle ages. But, if someone had prepared a meat dish for the friars, they were to eat it with gratitude because such was the generosity of the creator G-d being offered. It is my policy to do the same. Don't kill for me. But I will not refuse your hospitality if you have already done so. Such a response would reject the generosity of the Creator and spits in the eye of G_d.

There are a number of good quotes about vegetarianism I've gathered over the years. One which I keep on my refrigerator under the obligatory magnets is from Leonardo da Vince which reads, "I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men."

Well said, Leo.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an
unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.