by Dan Kauffman

Recently, we butchered about 100 chickens. We had been taking care of our heritage breed birds for the previous 3 months, pasturing them on grass in movable chicken tractors.  We had been raising them for meat to help feed the community of folks with whom we share meals and also those who live in the house.  During morning prayer, Paul prayed that we might be thankful for the gift of good meat and also reverent for the sacrifice that we were requiring. I had a grudgingly dutiful mindset for going about the work that day—work that used to be common to all those connected to food and farm. Though this wasn’t my first experience slaughtering chickens, the day impacted me in a powerful way.  I began to seriously consider the power that humans have over other living beings and how that affects our connection to creation. 

      The morning was cold and wet.  It was miserable really, and the gloomy weather amplified my melancholy.  We each had different jobs during the event, some scalding, some gutting, some prepping the meat, some plucking and still others actually doing the killing—that was my job.  After gathering the birds from the field they were loaded into the truck bed.  I grabbed a bird, held its wings, and put it beak first into a make-shift cone that would hold it still during the killing.  I then breathed a silent prayer and inserted the knife quickly through the beak, killing it instantly, before cutting the jugular and letting the blood drain. We did it in as humane a manner as I can think of, processing each beautiful bird carefully and deliberately. 

      During the course of the morning, I began to reflect deeply on what I was doing.  It certainly wasn’t an atmosphere that provided for introspection, though the scene was messy, with buckets of chicken remains sitting next to the scalding pot and piles of feathers near the plucking machine.  Yet, I began to understand something which I had taken for granted nearly all my life but seemed obvious to me in that moment; namely, that I have incredible power over other living beings, power either to treat them well or for ill.   

      I was ending the life of another living creature.  My strength and wits enabled me to handle the birds how I wanted, against their own instinct for self-preservation.  As they each took their last gasping breath, I felt the power in my hands, coursing through my mind.   And yet this act did not strike me as evil or wrong.  It felt sacred, somehow, and it reminded me that all my interactions in life affect real, living beings, and that I have real power over them—power to treat them with respect and dignity, or power to mar, maim, and destroy. 

    Whenever I eat I choose how a living being is treated—whether animal, plant, human, or the billions of microorganisms living in the soil.  Whenever I flip on a light switch or stare at a computer or television screen, I choose, in part, how the energy obtained for those machines affects living beings.  Whenever I drive, I think about what it has cost to obtain the gasoline which moves me along the road. All this is not to condemn our culture or our lives as they are presently constructed.  However, I do mean to call attention to the sacredness of life and the power which we have, however we have it, over other living beings.

    The fact that we can alter the existence of other living beings should call us to reflect on what we do with that power.  Realizing our power can either make us think we are as gods, or it can humble us, lending us the ability to see ourselves in relation to other living beings, beings that we depend on for our livelihoods.  Unfortunately, it seems we operate mainly from the former attitude—that of “domination over” living beings instead of “living with” them.  That we act thus is evident by our rampant destruction in extracting finite resources such as oil and coal, our toxic chemical treatment of crops and soils in our industrial agriculture system, and by our increasing anxiety and perplexity over rapid environmental changes

    We as a people have lost the humility that comes with a right understanding of our place in creation, the humility of “living with” instead of “domination over.”  That sort of humility allows us to look with a long-view—one towards the preservation of soils and species.  And in being humble, thus, we would readily recognize our potential power over, but also our dependence on, other living beings and the subsequent duty to promote their respective livelihoods.  But we have lost that interior richness which comes from appreciating our power and place in creation—a complex and bountiful system that contains all that is necessary to sustain all life.  And so, we are a poor folk who walk haughtily over the earth and miss out on the rich necessities she wants so desperately to give us. 

   We are utterly dependent on other living beings and are connected to them in intricate ways.  Our small farm represents a myriad of ways this is so.  The milk from our cow goes to make cheese, butter, yogurt and ice cream.  What isn’t used is given to the pigs which in turn give us the strength to tend the garden.   We are but small specks on the continuum of time, blessed to be alive, to laugh and to love, and to enjoy life such as it is.  If only we could see our power, understand it rightly, and use our power to bring healing and dignity to others, would we shed our poverty of humility and take our proper place in the order of all things. 

Dan Kauffman is from Chillicothe, Ohio and graduated from Ohio University in 2006 after studying Philosophy and Spanish. He loves his wife Heidi and enjoys gardening, baking bread, and playing strategy games.


One Response to “The Poverty of Humility”

  1. prayinganglicanlayman Says:

    I used to be a vegetarian, but now I raise animals to eat and sell. I can relate to some sacred experience in the act of taking an animals life. It is certainly an act that should not be taken lightly, but it is certainly not wrong either, I agree.
    Thank you for this thoughtful and thought and prayer provoking writing. I look forwards to reading more of this excellent blog!
    Peace be with you.

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