My mother and father were kind and gentle people not only to me but to every creature on our farm. They gave great care and even affection to cows, chickens and hogs; to some they even gave names. As a young child I did not make the connection between the pork chops on my plate and the hogs that affectionately pushed their noses through the fence for a kind rub. I was shielded from that connection until I was about 6. I did not know what to think. I had never been so shocked and even terrified seeing my ever-so-kind parents violently slaughtering these beautiful creatures they had been so careful to look after. The “hardening of my heart’’ took some years, adjusting to this bloody cruelty as the only path to meat on the table; the way of life for all our rural neighbors, as well as people all over the world.
Most vegetarians identify this cruelty to animals as their main motivation for avoiding meat. This seemingly heartless attack on animals appears to violate something in our natural and rational instincts; instincts to respect and appreciate life with all its marvels and perfections. Vegetarians and vegans are “pro-lifers,” for all life and preeminently for human life.
By my 12th birthday I had taken on the ways of rural life, fully suppressing my childish alarm at animal bloodshed. Nearly every week my mother directed me, “go get a chicken.” Walking into the chicken coup I would swoop up the closest chicken and gently lay its head on the chopping block. With neck relaxed and extended (these chickens were all so cooperative, looking up at my familiar face and hearing my kind voice, trusting the one who has fed them twice a day since they were hatched), I violently swung down the sharp blade of the corn knife for an instant decapitation. Going off to college at 18, I never mastered the annual, late-fall rifle shot between the eyes of a steer and a hog.
Ordering chicken McNuggets or a hamburger from McDonalds is a world removed from the prerequisite of bloodshed and death. Much of the same scene is found in the planned fatal savagery imposed on the innocent and helpless unborn humans, all sealed from view by the enclosed uterus; a ghastly abortive procedure that motivates millions to avoid the crime. Although we dare not equate animal to human life, pro-life comes naturally; acting on that human intuition of awe for all life.
Although both my wife and I may be calloused by our rural upbringing, we are sparse meat-eaters, mainly motivated by health research. Vegetarians and vegans are found to fare better at longevity.
Although periodic abstinence from meat has been a Christian tradition for centuries, demonstrating repentance for our sin and the strengthening of our will, Holy Scripture does not condemn eating meat. Yet considering our natural intuition from childhood, cruelty-free behaviors and diet merit respect.
The Rev. John Burkhart Ph.D, is a retired Episcopal priest and professor of psychology. Email him at
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