Gentle Thanksgiving and a Talking Donkey
Each November, one turkey is ceremoniously presented and presidentially pardoned from being eaten at the Thanksgiving table as a symbolic gesture. There are several reasons why I choose to skip the turkey this year and celebrate a plant-based Thanksgiving. As a vegetarian and follower of Jesus, I understand that the Bible does not prohibit festive feasts that include animal products, though I believe that a vegetarian diet reflects not only an advancement of the Bible’s instructions on eating clean meat but also a superior and much healthier lifestyle.
Thanksgiving commemorates the Pilgrims’ deliverance from the overwhelming difficulties and challenges they faced after arriving in America. With the help of the Native Americans, they reaped a plentiful harvest the following autumn, celebrating with a feast of thanksgiving to God for His provision and blessing. God’s deliverance is not just about saving humans from life-threatening situations. It includes justice, and justice applies to animals, for the Bible says, “You save humans and animals alike, O Lord” (Psalm 36:6).
God stands on the side of deliverance, restoring all who have suffered. He extends mercy to a groaning creation in need of salvation (Romans 8:22–23). Animals are sentient beings who have reason to exist beyond our traditions and appetites. I don’t think there has ever been a time in which animals in factory farms were more deprived of all they are meant to enjoy than today. Journalist and author Matthew Scully states that “Factory farming isn’t just killing: It is negation, a complete denial of the animal as a living being with his or her own needs and nature. It is not the worst evil we can do, but it is the worst evil we can do to them” (Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, 2003, p. 289).
In addition to the nearly 50 million turkeys wiped out by avian flu this year, 46 million are estimated to be slaughtered for America’s national festivities. I recently watched a video about workers at leading turkey-producing companies who were charged with animal cruelty after they were caught kicking, stomping on, and beating turkeys at several factory farms. These cruelties make the pardoned-turkey gesture seem morally bankrupt. As Matthew Scully right states, “Sometimes tradition and habit are just that, comfortable excuses to leave things be, even when they are unjust and unworthy. Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—the cranks and radicals turn out to be right. Sometimes everyone is wrong” (Dominion, p. 314). Cruelty toward helpless, lowly creatures is shameful, yet how easy it is for us to brush off their suffering and go on with our festivities.
The Book of Numbers tells the familiar story of Balaam, who turned away from a life of blessing and toward a path of cursing, hurting, and causing harm. God sent an angel, however, to stop him and open his eyes. The donkey Balaam was riding impatiently forward saw the heavenly messenger and turned from the path, angering Balaam. Losing all regard for his little donkey, Balaam started beating it without mercy until God finally opened the beast’s mouth, allowing it to protest the mistreatment: “What have I done to you to make you beat me?” (Numbers 22:28). Perhaps the donkey’s speech protested more than Balaam’s smiting, kicking, and beating. Perhaps it spoke to humanity on behalf of all animals, asking, what have we done to you that you beat, maim, torture, and kill us? Perhaps it was a call for kindness to animals, a call for us to recognize that animals are a gift to us and offer blessings beyond appetite fulfillment and convenience.
Each Thanksgiving holiday, we celebrate the blessings we enjoy, but our traditions and habits have little regard for the animals and deny the creaturely blessings God has given them (Genesis 1:22). Like the donkey who bore Balaam, they stand powerless before us, and if we betray and abuse them it reveals something about humans. Balaam was heedlessly headed on a track to curse and oppress, aiming to manifest the same overbearing spirit of cruelty toward the Israelites. God had to open his eyes to help Balaam see these people as deserving of empathy and blessing. The talking donkey likewise calls us to open our eyes and hearts to experience empathy, caring, concern, and respect for both human and non-human creation.
Animals are a gift to us, and killing and eating them is not part of God’s intended world. Turkey dinners may exist now, but they cannot go on forever. Such things must revert to how they were before the fall, as they will when God’s ideal is someday realized on earth. As the prophet Isaiah said, “The wolf and lamb will feed together. They will neither hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 65:25). On God’s holy mountain, all harm will be abolished. The lambs will lie down with their predators, who will have become vegetarian. No merciless conduct or ravenous critter will be found there, and I believe this speaks to more than vegetarian dietary restrictions. It is also a metaphor for peace and reconciliation, anticipating a world that is just and caring toward both human and nun-human creation—a world of mercy, compassion, empathy, and love. May our eyes be opened to the path we tread so we do not miss out on the blessing of life that could bring us peace. Like Balaam, we must never forget to consider the value of creatures and the undeserved burdens they feel. As I aim to reflect God’s kindness in the way I treat animals, I cannot support an industry that constantly tortures and abuses them. What kind of society continues to close its eyes to such treatment? I choose to celebrate a gentle, plant-based Thanksgiving this year.
Craig Ashton Jr.
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