Tuesday 1 November 2011

The Melbourne Cup and animal ethics: just a bloody punt

Today is one of the most sacred events in the Australian liturgical year: Melbourne Cup day. Pretty much everyone in the country stops to watch the race and to have a punt. Even school children are encouraged to join in the fun of betting on the horses. Though I don't mean to come across as the cranky old Christian spoil-sport, I wrote a piece for the ABC site today, drawing on Karl Barth's animal ethics – Melbourne Cup: the race that tramples creation: "The Melbourne Cup is the climax of a cruel and bloody practice, exhibiting what Karl Barth called our 'astonishing indifference and thoughtlessness' regarding animals."

As for the question of Australia's pathological predilection for gambling, here's a great video with a couple of excellent satirical TV ads. The second ad is especially good – I think this pretty much says it all:


Brian said...

Hi Benjamin
Do you know if Bath was a vegetarian?

Ben Myers said...

No, he wasn't a vegetarian — but he did insist that killing animals for food is an exception rather than a norm. In the same place (all this is from Church Dogmatics III/4), Barth says that while humans have an "unequivocal" right to use plants for food, the right to kill animals for food is much more limited and qualified: "Whether or not we find it practicable and desirable, the diet assigned to men and beasts by God the Creator is vegetarian."

So it's similar to the "exceptional" structure of Barth's ethics on other points: killing is prohibited, and to kill an animal is similar to homicide — but under certain exceptional circumstances in our fallen world, God allows us to kill for food or protection. The exception doesn't invalidate the general prohibition — in fact, the exception proves the rule.

Dave The :-) Singer said...

A vegan diet is entirely 'practicable and desirable'. Laziness and gluttony are the only excuses for carnism in developed countries.

Are you aware of any studies that suggest that carnism is less prevalent among christians than non-christians?

Ben Myers said...

Good question — I'd be interested to know the answer! Certainly there's a long tradition of Christian practices involving fasting and abstaining from meats (including total abstinence from meat in some religious orders).

But in general, I suspect contemporary Christians have a pretty bad record in this area — certainly in comparison to other religious traditions.

Brian said...

Thanks Ben,
If you don't mind me asking, are you a vegetarian?

Ben Myers said...

Mostly — I'm not too obsessive about it, and I'll have meat occasionally, e.g. when dining with friends. But we don't have meat at home. At home we're pretty much vegan — with the important exception of my enormous and emphatic appetite for cheeses! (And our Labrador, who has an equally emphatic appetite for fresh bones.)

Sj said...

Great post!

Daniel Bull said...

I just posted a little comment over on the ABC site too.

It seems the ideal in Genesis is firstly one of loving compassion. Humanity is called to live in harmony with creation. We are called to be 'loving caretakers' of the land and animals. We are the gardeners and the protectors. As soon as this command is given humanity is told they will eat a vegetarian diet. Adam and Eve are commanded to eat seed bearing fruits etc for their 'meat'.

It is only after the fall and flood that humanity is given a concession to eat animal flesh. This is not an ideal but a symptom of imperfection. The myth doesn't talk about God wanting to give us flesh. Instead it seems humanity is only allowed to eat meat as a begrudged concession. Just as a parent will sometimes give up on a naughty child, and give them a sweet even though they really don't want to.

The theme of flesh as less-than-ideal is echoed in Isaiah when the prophet talks about the perfect world being one of peace and non-violence. The lion and lamb lie down together, implying that in the ideal reality all will return to the vegetarian path.

Today we live in a world where we have an 'Eden' diet all year round easily available to us. I think if God can go beyond what he is expected to do in that act of his crucifixion, then why can't we go beyond what we are allowed/expected to do.

God's suffering is an extension of his love. It's total grace. He didn't need to do it. As christians we should emulate this grace. We should go beyond the concession and embrace the ideal. It is so easy to embrace the ideal way of compassion too. It literally takes no effort.

And it does so much good. Vegetarianism combats environmental degradation, ill-health, and senseless murder. We need more Christians to become strong vegetarian advocates to give the religion a better name. I know so many compassionate people who flag off christianity because so little of us embrace vegetarianism. If more people cared about the murdering of animals and the wanton destruction that comes with it, i am sure our religion would benefit.

Andrew Linzey's 'Animal Theology' basically investigates this line of thought.

zach l said...

i am not one to stir the pot (the adversary needs no advocate). nor am i from "the down under," so this may be lost in translation to your culture, however, i thought about elijah being provided for. what are we to make of the ravens providing "meat" for him in 1 kings 17?

Paul G Tyson said...

Thanks for this Ben. I have no comment on vegetarianism (other than Barth makes sense to me on this), but thank you for tinging the cup with Nietzsche's little hammer. Its not just that I'm a wowzer Baptist who is not into drinking gambling smoking dancing (though I do make an exception for sex) etc, but it simply amazes me that this event is so incredibly important and other things are so incredibly trivial to our national psyche. Its an idol. Chance, money and victory is what we worship. I hate the cup.

Daniel Bull said...

That the Jews believed meat eating was a concession, and a part of life, after the fall and flood. However, it's still not presented as ideal in the Hebrew writings. Just because the author's of the Scripture featured characters eating meat doesn't mean we should consume flesh products today. We live in a completely different world and have the ability to practice the ideal diet. I don't think the writer of Kings had it so easy.

J Myers said...

I don't know anything about horse racing, but growing up in the prairies of Canada I am familiar and uncomfortable with rodeos.

On a related topic, here's a worthwhile read about hunting:


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