You know, there’s a reason why they call those free range, organic chicken breasts in the super market “Smart Brand.” As opposed to raising and butchering them yourself? You have no idea how much smarter it is. We tried it for awhile, my husband and me. That was back when our thinking was crystalline, and we tried to convince everyone to become urban farmers and save the earth. In our back yard we were going to raise earthworms. I forget exactly why, but I think the worms were supposed to transform our hard New Mexican soil into loam and the sale of leftover writhing boxfulls were going to fund our retirement or something. We actually did grow a big garden, raise bees, and breed rabbits, the French equivalent to chickens. I can’t even begin to remember how I got my husband to agree to do this last thing. He is no carpenter, but somehow he managed to build three sturdy rabbit cages; I believe a friend helped him—it was a long time ago.
Through the want ads we bought a big white New Zealand buck and two does. One of the does was also a New Zealand white who cast huge litters of pure white bunnies. Our son, Jerem, must have been two years old when he set them all free in our backyard one afternoon. It looked like it had snowed in a Looney Tunes, as bunnies ran in drifts, joyfully leaping one another and kicking off the back wall.
The second doe was an unknown breed the color of burnished chestnut who produced dozens of babies with color combinations only God could think of. Pairing the white male with her hidden genes made bunnies of pure black, black and white, brown and white, Siamese, and gray with delicate black points. We fell in love, forgetting that the end of this short food chain meant we were supposed to kill and eat them.
Jerem and bunny
I do remember every detail of what it took to dispatch and cook them, including Marsena’s suspicious question at the dinner table: “What is this?” And my quick sinful answer: “Fried chicken, it’s just fried chicken, so eat it.”
I won’t recount our personal butchering details for you right now, but I did recently come across the following, which is so close to what we experienced, I can hear the sounds and smell the blood.
The purveyor appeared with twelve live rabbits. “He knocked one out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it, gutted it, the whole bit,” Keller [star chef of The French Laundry in Napa Valley] remembers. “Then he left.” Alone in the grass behind the restaurant with eleven little bunnies, he lurched for the first victim. “Rabbits scream,” Keller says. “And this one screamed really loud.” Keller tried to kill it, but the rabbit struggled to get away. The rabbit nearly broke free, but Keller gripped it by the leg, and the leg snapped in his hand. Terrified and now likely in great pain, the rabbit could no longer run, and Keller managed to kill it.
Thus did Keller learn how to butcher a rabbit, and it had been an unhappy experience… killing these rabbits had been so horrible for him, had so humbled him, he would not squander their lives. He determined to use all his powers as a cook to ensure that these were the best rabbits ever.
[“Natural-Born Keller” by Michael Ruhlman, Best Food Writing 2000
Most Americans are so far from the family farm and rural life we have lost even secondhand experience of the cost of blood and butchering. We mostly prefer it this way, to not think of it at all. We like to buy our meat sealed in plastic and perched on a white tray with a diaper underneath to absorb offensive liquid. Some of us are lucky enough to get a tiny jolt of reality when the child we take to a petting zoo suddenly connects a silky feathered crowing rooster with that piece of lean white meat thawing on the counter for supper.
Last fall our five-year-old granddaughter went with Denis to a farm where he picked out our Thanksgiving turkey. Manessah swore she would never eat turkey again, ever. It’s hard. But when the day came, she was won over by the rich golden smell and the juicy slices of breast meat on the platter.
Feasting With God
Raising those rabbits and forcing ourselves to kill them had its special reward, which may be hard to believe. I don’t think it’s meant to be easy, but I get what it means to take the life of another living creature and eat it so you can live. I’m also grateful that God blessed the ritual of eating meat by doing such things as accepting an invitation from Abraham to stay for lunch. Genesis 18:
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground…
Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed.” …then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree…
What a strange historic day for a man napping in the shade.
The Scriptures teem with symbols and rituals meant to remind us of what it cost God to pay for our sins. This includes the slaying of animals for food, clothing, and sacrifice. From the beginning in the garden when God sent Adam and Eve on their way after giving them leather clothing, to the courtyard of the Jerusalem temple, something had to pay for what was wrong. For generations Israeli families slaughtered lambs, ate them, and waited until the Messiah came and did it for real, forever. It has been a bloody mess and we are the fault of it.
Paul reminds us of the fatal breaking of Christ’s body: “and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” (1 Cor 11:24-26 )
Now in the church we celebrate the Lord’s supper. To celebrate is to observe an event with ceremonies of festivity and rejoicing. To reach the point of celebration over Jesus death, it is first necessary to understand his suffering. I think this is what Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion does best for us—helps us understand the outrageous cost.
Loving Christ’s Body
Before this huge media event, I grew tired of all the Christian hype, the interviews, emails, and reviews. A young friend commented before the movie was released: “I’m already so sick of hearing about this movie and how we need to use it as an evangelistic tool, and how can we get our neighbors to this and corner them about what they’ve seen and what they’re going to do about it. I don’t even know if I want to see it. What about just going and viewing it as a film, a piece of art that is meant to touch our own lives in a deep and real way?” He expressed my own discomfort over the endless Christian hoopla, even though my saying anything negative about using The Passion to bring lost sinners to Christ sounds heretical. Like I don’t believe in the Virgin birth or something.
In fact, I can see non-Christians being suspicious of our motives if we suddenly become interested in knowing what they think about a movie. There have been plenty of movies recently which bring up the big questions of life. But if I suddenly take an interest in movies, and what you as my non-Christian neighbor think of this one, just now because it perfectly fits my agenda and can therefore drive our “discussion?” Isn’t that a little disingenuous?
I value The Passion for its unblinking look at the physical suffering Jesus endured in the last hours of his life—the beating, the staggering to the place of execution, the drinking of life’s poison, and the crashing of all his systems. That’s what this movie does so well. Although I really do want to reach my neighbor, the power of this movie may lie more in its ability to confront me with my tendency to make the cross just another bad day in the life of Jesus. Another day in which we have to butcher a gentle calf or the baby rabbits.
I may be in touch with what it costs an animal for me to live, but I can callously ignore what it cost Jesus to forgive me. I am filled with an enormous capacity to excuse my “little” infractions (see above lie I told Marsena). And furthermore, every time UPS delivers us another review copy of some new book I swell with envy. Yes, I think: Philip Yancy has written another book? I am also quick to note how others have wronged me. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, says there is something wrong with our spiritual memory—we remember hundreds of times longer an insult or an unanswered prayer while our ability to remember something good is, oh, maybe thirty seconds. For example although it has been more than a month since we’ve received this message on our answering machine, I remember every word: “I’m calling with a request to be continued on the mailing list for Critique, but would not care to receive Notes From Toad Hall. So if you can continue to do the mailing for Critique, that’s all I’m really interested in.” Oh, yeah?
And toward Denis, who I love more than anyone in all the world I can be…well, here, from my journal:
Denis and I have had some marital snaps. I feel insulted by his pointed questions. I take it very personally when he peers at my computer screen and says, “What have you done?!” “I’VE DONE NOTHING AT ALL. BILL GATES DID IT,” I say. Though Denis swears no personal defamatory intent, I am certain he does. And off we go, snap, snap, snap. We are both maligned and affronted. One moment we’re so in love we can’t believe our luck and the next we’re ready to bite a head off. This depresses Denis. Like I’ve said, I am more callous, as my response is: This is merely life. I forgive you, you forgive me and now let’s cuddle like we always do. Okay?
This is why Jesus fell on the road to Calvary? This is why he had to ask, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” To pay for my stupid little sins? That’s what is so hard to get my mind around. That he should care enough to drink my poison. And that’s why Gibson’s artistic depiction of Christ’s suffering in those final hours reminds me to cast my entire lot in with Christ, for how can we resist such love?
This love is what makes Communion such a celebration. That, and knowing the ugly things we’ve done weren’t able to keep Jesus dead after all. God raised him and, man, we should be dancing in the streets, if only we weren’t white Norwegian Presbyterians!