C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture
Animal kingdom replete with stories of peace
BLUFFTON, Ohio—Drawing on his recent sabbatical trip to New Zealand, Dr. Trevor Bechtel shared stories of peace in the animal kingdom and challenged traditional views on domestication and slaughter March 12 in Bluffton University’s C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture.
The Bluffton professor of religion suggested that peace is found wherever right relationships are discovered, which can easily be viewed within the animal kingdom.
“We are entering a time, both in popular media and in the university, in which we are again, for the first time in several hundred years, open to the lives of animals and the impact that animals have on our lives,” he said.
The annual lecture honors the late Dr. C. Henry Smith, a Mennonite scholar who taught at Bluffton early in the 20th century.
Bechtel opened his presentation with a song he wrote about the three-toed sloth, an animal he calls “the most peaceful of all God’s creatures.” He said by working within the simplicity of a pop song, he has rediscovered the beauty of God’s creation.
The three-toed sloth shares an unanticipated, but mutual, relationship with parasitic moths, he told the audience. “To put it simply, sloths encourage moths to cultivate algae in their hair so that they can improve their diet” by eating the algae, he summarized. “By engaging in community with moths, sloths reap an unexpected reward.”
This is how Bechtel believes Christians should overcome conflict with one another: through pacifism. “Stepping forth more boldly, we can learn from the sloth that violence can often be defeated through patient but non-intuitive tactics,” he said.
Bechtel also noted other stories of peace and pacifism in the animal kingdom, including a snake befriending a hamster, a cow cuddling with a leopard, and a polar bear visiting a sled dog every night for a week.
He said this peaceable coexistence can cross species as well, between animals and humans. “Dogs and humans live well together. And not just dogs, but also cats, and sheep and goats and cows and horses,” he said.
But Bechtel also believes this peaceful coexistence has led humans to harm the creatures that so fascinate us. “We are doing it in an era of unprecedented attacks on life of all kinds by the needs and greed of human populations across the globe,” he said.
A call for humane treatment
Bechtel spent his time in New Zealand questioning the domestication of animals, and human use of them for meat.
“There is definitely a component to domestication that involves suffering for the domesticated animal,” he said. But he suggested our caring human nature might have led us to domesticate animals in the first place.
Domestication that is morally good involves a mutual, peaceable relationship, he said. “When domestication is a story of mutual care, as in the case of the protected sheep that gives wool to the farmer, it becomes a story of peace.”
While the domestication of animals for meat isn’t peaceful, he said, it isn’t inherently evil, either.
“We have, in a way, become like ticks, in that the world we have created for ourselves has become dependent on blood,” he said.
Despite this, he believes it’s OK to eat meat because domestication sustains many animal populations. “Many domestic species, and more importantly, many individual animals, only live because we consume them as meat,” he said. He suggested that the shortened lives of farm animals is a “natural suffering” that is morally justifiable.
But never eat factory-farmed meat, he urged the audience. For meat-eating to be morally justified, he said, the treatment of animals needs to be humane.
Factory farming is the greatest violation of God’s intention for animals, Bechtel asserted. “Industrial farming is probably the single most evil practice in the history of the world,” he said. He referred to it as a “moral evil,” similar to human genocide.
“In a factory farm, we breed animals; force them to live short, crippled lives indoors, often with inadequate, or without, space to move; and then kill them so cruelly that the humans who do the killing suffer marked mental anguish,” he said. “And then we do it all over again on a cycle of endless repeat.”
Worse yet, it all happens behind closed doors, he said. He warned of pending congressional legislation, which, if passed, “will make it an act of terrorism to breach the defenses of a factory farm,” he said.
Factory farming aside, hunting for entertainment should also be avoided, Bechtel said. “Given our control, and the total lack of need for an individual human to kill an individual animal, purely recreational hunting is probably a moral evil,” he said, although he suggested that hunting as population control could be justified.
Bechtel concluded that animals—a creation of God—can teach us how to act, but only if we don’t abuse them. He believes the practice of industrial farming has led society to create an artificial violence, and only a return to the humane slaughter of animals can show that God is a nonviolent God.
“The animals need to be able to live happy lives in environments that provide them with the resources to be the kind of creature God intended them to be,” he said.
Chay Reigle, public relations office