1942: A poem from the doomed uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. Starving Jews fighting back against their Christian oppressors. The refrain: “the meat defiant, the meat insurgent, the meat fighting! The meat in full cry…” The meat defiant and unwilling to be consumed.
1999: An essay at the back of this morning’s New York Times magazine. Suzanne Winckler writes about killing chickens. Every few years she joins a friend of hers and helps him slaughter the chickens he has raised. She says it’s the price she pays for being an omnivore. The price: there’s the shock she felt when she cradled her first chicken in her arms and felt something with the heft and pliability of a newborn baby; there’s the surprise at the wild struggle the bird makes to live even after its head is off and blood is misting everywhere; there’s the repetitive, messy exhaustion of a day’s hard work and the meal that follows—vegetables only.
What it does for her, she meditates, is remove the anonymity. Between the meat and her mouth is an immediacy that the rest of the time is masked by Styrofoam and plastic wrap and legions of nameless meat-processors.
But more than that it has taught her the ancient need to ritualise the grisly experience of killing, to regularise it with routine. The savage life may have its thrill but on the appointed mornings the butchers are slow to get going: there are knives and cleavers to sharpen, water to boil, tables and chairs and buckets and aprons to gather, an order of assembly to establish. These are her words:
It’s like putting on an invisible veil of resolve to do penance for a misdeed. I am too far gone to in my rational Western head to appropriate the ritual of cultures for whom the bloody business of hunting was a matter of survival. But butchering chickens has permitted me to stand in the black night just outside the edge of their campfire, and from that prospect I have inherited the most important lesson of all in the task of killing meat: I have learned to say thank you and I’m sorry.
“I have learned to say thank you and I’m sorry.”
500 BCE: A prophetic demand: “Share your bread with the hungry and shelter the oppressed and the homeless,” The words of Isaiah are stark as it is but they too come sitting on Styrofoam and pacified by nameless translators. The Hebrew is bolder by far. Not “share your bread” but “break your bread.” Not give food to the hungry but eat with the hungry. And instead of “shelter the oppressed and the homeless” the command is “welcome the homeless poor into your own home.”
Isaiah is demanding a radical vulnerability. Adonai is insisting we do away with those layers of plastic wrap between us and the ones we live off. For, now as then, we do live off the poor, the homeless, and the hungry. It is the way a Western society works; inequality is the fuel of industry and poverty the price of wealth. At the very least, we have repeatedly turned down every opportunity to narrow the gap between them and us. We have spoken with our votes and with our credit cards that the cost of justice is too high for us to bear.
Instead, we live off the poor. We thrive at their expense. They are our meat. I know that’s an offensive metaphor— a tasteless comparison—but doesn’t it fit? It’s not as though we knowingly slaughter them—they come shrink-wrapped on Styrofoam, the blood already drained. All we do is eat. And we don’t know how to do otherwise. I don’t. I don’t even know how to say thank you and I’m sorry. Let alone bring an end to butchery.
But I’m here. And you are here. And we are trying to be faithful to the breaking of the bread. We are gathered to break the bread and consume the body of one who was weaker than ourselves. He shared his bread with the hungry, gave his broken body for them. He walked with the homeless and poured his blood for them to drink. The rich … well the rich he sent empty away.
The word of God this morning is an awful one. It calls us to be hungry, calls us to be homeless, calls us to be like Jesus, the meat and not the butcher.