“Confessions of a Carnivore” by Duffy Peet
March 27, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship – from Robert French Leavens
Holy and beautiful the custom which brings us together,
In the presence of the Most High:
To face our ideals,
To remember our loved ones in absence,
To give thanks, to make confession,
To offer forgiveness,
To be enlightened, and to be strengthened.
Through this quiet hour breathes
The worship of ages,
The Cathedral music of history.
Three unseen guests attend,
Faith, hope, and love:
Let all our hearts prepare them place.
Responsive Reading – “The Body is Human Kind” by Norman Cousins
I am a single cell in a body of four billion cells. The body is humankind.
I am a single cell. My needs are individual but they are not unique.
I am interlocked with other human beings in the consequences of our actions, thoughts, and feelings.
I will work for human unity and human peace; for a moral order in harmony with the order of the universe.
Together we share the quest for a society of the whole equal to our needs.
A society in which we need not live beneath our moral capacity, and in which justice has a life of its own.
We are single cells in a body of four billion cells. The body is humankind.
Reading – From Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Sermon – “Confessions of a Carnivore”
I have no idea how many times as a child I heard one of my parents say; “Finish what you have on your plate. There are starving children in…” I just can’t remember where they said the starving children were. I do remember though that there was always a disapproving tone of voice and a certain look that conveyed more than the words did. I wonder if any of you heard something similar when you were young. While I’m not exactly sure what the first part of the statement was, the message was clear. I was expected to eat what was on my plate. Usually what I had left was some type of vegetable that I didn’t care for. As is already evident I don’t remember how the statement ended. I know there was something that came after the starving children in whatever part of the world they said, but I just can’t recall what it was. I do remember the feelings I was having though. If I had been asked back then how I felt when one of my parents would say this I would have responded, “I feel bad.” Today I realize that the “bad” feeling I was experiencing included fear, guilt and very likely shame. The fear and guilt arose from sensing that my parents disapproved of my behavior of not eating everything I had on my plate. The shame came from my childhood idea that if something I did was wrong or bad, then I must somehow be wrong or bad.
Now that I am an adult I am certain my parents’ intent was not to have me feel fearful, guilty or shameful. Their intent was to get me to eat my vegetables, to teach me not to be wasteful, and to have me consider how my actions might impact others. I appreciate that they wanted me to learn these lessons. Lessons they considered to be important. Today I eat many more vegetables than I did as a child and some of them I can now even say I like. I almost always eat the food I take and do the best I can not to waste the food that I have. And possibly most important, I attempt to consider how my actions may impact others. It seems clear to me now that the words that came after “There are starving children in…” didn’t really matter that much. What mattered was that I develop a set of values. There was never a doubt that my parents loved me. I know now that they wanted me to learn to be compassionate toward others. From what I can tell both of my parents have been pleased with the values I developed. What is especially interesting is that I didn’t just take on the values they had, I found a way to make the values my own. I have taken the value of considering how my actions may impact others to a level that neither of my parents could have imagined. While their intention in mentioning starving children was to get me to not be wasteful of food, I now go much farther than they originally intended. Eating everything on my plate is no longer the measure of whether or not I am living out my value of consideration for the welfare of others. Today I also consider the type of food that is on my plate and how it may play a part in people going hungry. The result is that I find myself dealing with conflicting values and having to find a way to negotiate my way through the issue that the conflict revolves around.
If you have noticed the title of my sermon today you already know where I am headed here. My values conflict involves eating meat. I am a carnivore. Before I moved out of my home town in central Michigan I would have had no idea how to understand what “confessions of a carnivore” might have been implying. Eating meat, as far as I knew was something everyone did. As the store clerk said to Ma in today’s reading “Ever’body wants meat‒needs meat.” That’s how it seemed in the rural farming community I grew up in. I took for granted that meat was an essential part of a person’s diet. I was really surprised when I first met people who claimed they were able to survive without eating meat. It seems like eons have passed since then but it was a mere half-century ago during my first year in college. That was when I learned there were people who were vegetarians. I was amazed by some of these folks. They not only ate vegetables at many of their meals, they actually seemed to enjoy eating them. Since then I have developed friendships with many people who are vegetarian. I have even gone as far as to marry one. Yet even though I now realize that not everyone needs to eat meat to survive and thrive, I continue to include meat as a regular part of my diet.
It would seem appropriate here to ask the question, “So what if a person eats meat, what difference does it make?” What I have learned is that it makes a significant difference for quite a number of reasons. A twenty minute sermon doesn’t provide the time to review the numerous ways that including meat in one’s diet is significant. Instead of addressing the matter with broad brush strokes I am going to focus on a portion of the issue with an eye towards depth. I want to share with you one of the reasons that eating meat sets up a values conflict within me. I realize that because each of us have our own values it is likely that what I am about to share may not seem relevant to all of you. I am relatively certain, however, that all of us consume food. I haven’t yet met anyone who can survive on just air and water. What is important is not just whether meat is part of your diet. What you eat has an impact on others and on our world. The issue of what we choose to eat is so important that, at the 2008 UU General Assembly, Ethical Eating was chosen as a Congregational Study/Action Issue. You can find the draft Congressional Study/Action Issue statement on this topic as well as a considerable amount of information and resources by going to the UUA website. If you want more specifics about how to find the information please speak with me later. I will make sure you get the information you are looking for.
Whether you are a meat eater or not, whether my values are similar to the ones you hold, I ask that you hear me out. I think you will find there is something you can relate to in what I have to share. I appreciate your willingness to be present for my confession.
As a carnivore the greatest level of conflict arises as a result of knowing that because I eat meat there is less food available for other people. I will explain how that works by quoting from the Congressional Study/Action Issue I just mentioned. “More food calories are available worldwide the lower on a food chain food is harvested. Food chains usually start with plants, which are eaten by herbivores, which are then eaten by carnivores. Large amounts of energy are lost going up each level of a food chain. Eating lower on a food chain will leave more calories for the human population.” There lies one aspect of my conflict. Each time I eat meat I am eating high on the food chain. I am using up more food resources than I would if I ate only plant based foods. It would seem then that living out my value of considering how my actions might impact others could easily be accomplished by no longer eating meat. I could simply change my diet to eat only plants. I could then live happily ever after sharing vegetarian meals with my wife, Sandy. That would be wonderful, but there is a problem.
While it may not be apparent, I have a pretty high metabolism rate. You see if my body was a car it wouldn’t be one of the new hybrid high mileage versions. It would be one of those gas guzzling muscle cars of the sixties and seventies. If I am to function well I need lots of fuel and high octane fuel at that. In order for me to work even reasonably well, I have found that I need meat in my diet. Without a regular intake of meat I become sluggish and my ability to process information and think clearly are significantly impaired. I don’t think any of you have ever seen me when I haven’t had the level of high octane fuel I need. Sandy has seen me like that many times over the years we’ve been together and she says it is obvious that I am not functioning well. Now we are getting to the other aspect of my conflict. For many years the type of work I have chosen has involved being of service to others. I feel like this is a calling in my life. So not only do I consider others in what I do, I work to serve others in my professional life. Further, I believe that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. In order to be of service to others at the highest level I am capable of, I need to provide my body what it needs to function as well as it can. So here is the dilemma simply stated. How do I serve others at the level I am capable of and at the same time be considerate of the consequences of my actions on those who may go hungry because of my consumption of meat?
There are many possible answers to the question. Reduce meat intake to the lowest level possible. Only eat meat that comes from animals that are free range raised and fed. Buy meat that is certified to be locally grown and organic. Decide which days I need to function at my best and only eat meat on those days and not on others. It would be easy to go on and on with options. What I have found is that every option has its advantages as well as its disadvantages. None of the options I have found yet adequately and fully resolves the conflict. While I can find ways to reduce the amount of conflict between the values I hold, I have not been able to eliminate the conflict entirely. Therefore, because I eat meat I am not able to live up to my values. There are people who are deprived of the food they need because of my consumption of meat.
As I mentioned earlier, I realize that few if any of you share the exact conflict in values that I have just described. It is quite likely that those of you who are vegetarians may be wondering if there is something meaningful that you can take away from this sermon. I would assert that the real meat of my message here is greater than whether or not I am a carnivore, or for that matter what I eat or what you eat. It’s not just about the diet we choose or the particular values we may have in conflict. The issue is larger than that. I have stood up here and confessed to you one particular value conflict I am working with. I am relatively certain however that I am not the only person in the room who has values that are incongruent. Each of us has times when some value we hold doesn’t coincide well with another of our values. And then there are the times when a value we hold is in conflict with a value held by another person. The question then is what attempts are made to address the conflict? Do I try to ignore the conflict and hope that it will somehow go away if I don’t think about it? Do I keep the conflict private and strive to resolve it alone? Do I share with someone what I am struggling with and seek assistance or support in my efforts to find resolution? Questions such as these are important to consider when conflict arises. From my experience I have found that the answers to these questions are important. Sometimes the answers are connected to the feelings the conflict generates.
Remember when I talked about how I felt bad when my parents would say “There are starving children somewhere in the world?” The feelings that I then could only identify as bad I now recognize as fear, guilt and shame. Each one of these feelings can be quite powerful and can have a significant impact on a person’s behavior. My general sense about fear, guilt and shame are similar to how I felt about most vegetables when I was a child. I didn’t like how they tasted, I didn’t want them on my plate and I certainly didn’t want to have them inside me. Instead, when such feelings arise I find that I want to stop feeling bad. I want to stop thinking about whatever the feelings may be connected with. When I experience two or more of these feelings at the same time the intensity of one doesn’t just add to the intensity of another. Instead, the intensities of each seem to multiply the others. I may be unusual but I typically have a hard time sharing that I feel fearful in a situation where I don’t feel safe. I am likely not to tell another of my guilty feelings when I perceive the person will judge my behavior. And I tend to keep my feelings of shame hidden when I sense that my worth will not be acknowledged or honored. So today I have come before this congregation to confess that I am a carnivore and that I realize that this creates conflict within me and possibly between some of you and me. I confess that I am not able to live up to the values I hold. I share with you even though I feel fear in exposing this vulnerable piece of me. I share with you even though I feel guilt about the harm my behavior may be causing others. I share with you even though I sometimes don’t acknowledge and honor my own worth. I share because I trust that when we are able to show love and compassion for one another we can find solutions to conflicts where previously none seemed possible. I share because even though it seems that we are all separate and isolated beings I know that we are all connected. I recognize I cannot resolve my conflict all by myself. Conflicts will arise within us and between us. The emotions of fear, guilt or shame can create distance between us. They can leave us feeling isolated and alone. My hope is that as a result of my sharing someone may recognize that a conflict they are dealing with by themselves can be shared with another. My hope is that through my sharing someone will find a way to be more compassionate with themselves or with someone they are in conflict with. Ours is a covenantal faith. We hold that we don’t have to believe alike to love alike. May we continue to commit ourselves to living out the values that underpin our liberal faith. And may we support and encourage one another in those times when we fail to live up to the values we hold dear.
May it be so.
Closing Words – from Robert Mabry Doss
For all who see God,
may God go with you.
For all who embrace life,
may life return your affection.
For all who seek a right path,
may a way be found…
And the courage to take it,
step by step.