- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2008

I am eating a piece of chicken as I write this. One of my co-workers had an extra portion from our cafeteria, and handed it off to me. By chowing down, I may be committing an immoral act.

A few weekends ago, I was one of several dozen of the nation’s religion reporters invited to a lunch sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States.

HSUS, we learned, has gotten religion (www.hsus.org/religion). Its new animals and religion department was unveiling an “All Creatures Great and Small” campaign to “promote humane food choices” among the devout, timed for the feast day of St. Francis yesterday. A companion booklet included quotes from Pope Benedict XVI, famed British author C.S. Lewis and the biblical book of Proverbs.

As we munched on our vegan salads and a faux meat product, we watched a 25-minute film, “Eating Mercifully,” that showed the tortures animals go through before they end up on our plates.

We saw broiler chickens, which had been fed growth hormones to produce the oversized breasts so prized by American palates, collapse in their seventh week because their legs were unable to support the unnatural weight.

Living in a space the size of a sheet of paper, they sit in their own feces. Ammonia from these piles fills the air, corroding the skin and lungs of the fowl we eat.

Then there were the 260 million male chicks killed yearly because they don’t lay eggs. The film showed stacks of fluffy little males being smothered to death at chicken hatcheries.

I won’t go into what pigs are subjected to.

By the midpoint of the film, most of us had laid down our forks and were turning green. The film then showed an unfortunate cow giving birth and her tiny calf being dragged away so the mother’s milk would go to us instead of the calf.

The animal was shown chasing after her purloined baby, mooing disconsolately. By buying milk, the film said, I was part of the problem.

“The Christian tradition is to extend compassion to animals,” Laura Hobgood-Oster, a religion professor at Southwestern University in central Texas, told us. “The Creator hears the cry of these animals in these factory farms. One cannot be complicit in a system where so much torture and pain are part of that system.”

The film pointed out that 10 billion animals are killed each year in the living hells of America’s factory farm culture for a reason: The country’s insatiable meat consumption demands it.

The HSUS is hoping the religious community will weigh in on this, but most churches don’t deal well with collective moral guilt. Some point out we tolerate the silent screams of 3,500 aborted babies a day, so what’s a few million animals?

Can a society that tolerates such undercurrents of cruelty be a moral society?

Or, as a nun asks at the close of the film, had we known the animal we’re eating was raised “in such a disgusting way,” would we eat that animal? Probably not.

There are a lot of blogs out there — mainly Christian ones — on ways to seek out milk, meat and eggs from pasture-raised livestock and chickens, often from meat vendors at local farmers markets. The “local chapters” list at www.westonaprice.org tells where to find such food.

Maybe it’s time to give those “cattle on a thousand hills” mentioned in Psalm 50:10 a break.

• Julia Duin’s column Stairway to Heaven runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at jduin@washington times.com.

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