- Violence, Sacrifice, and Flesh Eating in Judeo-Christian Tradition
animal ethics, akedah, sacrifice, Girard, environmentalism
The beginning of René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred contains this important explanation of violence:
Violence is frequently called irrational. It has its reasons, however, and can marshal some rather convincing ones when the need arises. Yet these reasons cannot be taken seriously, no matter how valid they may appear. Violence itself will discard them if the initial object remains persistently out of reach and continues to provoke hostility. When unappeased, violence seeks and always finds a surrogate victim. The creature that excited its fury is abruptly replaced by another, chosen only because it is vulnerable and close at hand.1
Girard’s explanation occurs in the context of a discussion of animal sacrifice, a fact that makes the use of “creature” important. Although both humans and animals can be denoted by the term, there is a tendency to assume that the passage refers primarily to humans. I will use the passage to refer to animals as well. [End Page 141]
Girard is saying that humans come up with bad reasons, ones that even they ultimately do not take seriously, for creating scapegoats to prevent the contagion of human violence. Although these victims are often animals, humans do not often acknowledge the extent of animal victimization, and when they do, it is usually in reference to acts of violence that are relatable to human victims. When animals are beaten, for example, it justifiably draws our contempt. When humans are beaten, it also draws our contempt, especially when we interpret the beating as an act of violence displaced upon a relatively vulnerable creature. But what adds to our contempt in the case of humans is that, in the act of being beaten, the human is thought to be reduced to the status of an animal. The person gets, as we might say, “treated like an animal.”
What is often left unanswered is the question of whether animals should be treated that way. Many would get upset at the idea of eating human beings, because, after all, humans should not be treated like animals. Relatively few, however, consider whether animals should be eaten. Even fewer, I believe, would consider eating animals to be a part of the same sacrificial process Girard describes at the beginning of his most famous work.
The days of overt animal sacrifices might seem to be over, but it remains that animals are still routinely, and even ritually, killed. Such killing takes place by reasons that are ultimately unpersuasive, and in some cases, the killing takes place amid an obvious suppression of the evidence. Practices of meat eating are considerably more prevalent now than in the days of the Bible, and they still involve unacknowledged acts of violence and sacrifice. I cannot claim that the sacrifice of animals for their flesh is exactly the same thing as the kind of sacrifices that Girard discloses. The reasons for consuming animals are not as hidden, and when articulated, not as specious, as those for scapegoating humans. Nonetheless, I think there are enough similarities between animal consumption and violent sacrifices that the subject needs to be acknowledged by those interested in promulgating Girard’s theory.
If the sacrifice of a human victim is the thing hidden since the foundation of the world, then the sacrifice of animals was hidden even before that. What follows is an attempt to disclose this hidden violence and sacrifice through consideration of traditional domestic rituals, canonical biblical texts, and pervasive consumer practices. Animal consumption, I believe, has been justified in part by an understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition that permits animal sacrifice while condemning human sacrifice. Such an [End Page 142] inconsistency is evident in what I take to be an incomplete reading of the akedah, or Binding of Isaac, passage from Genesis.
This inconsistency is, oddly enough, not present in the meat industry. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), as well as the less mechanized, more farmlike forms of meat production, treat both animals and employees poorly. The meat industry tries to suppress exposure of its practices. I think Girardian critiques of violence and sacrifice...