Mark Zuckerberg and thankful killing

Years ago, while working at an archaeological site in the Jordanian desert, I was invited with my colleagues to attend dinner at the home of a local family.

Although the village was poor and rural, our host planned to treat us to a feast: lamb, served on great platters piled high with flavored rice. As mealtime approached, we chatted with our hosts in a mixture of broken English and even more broken Arabic. At last, our host announced that it was nearly time for supper; we snapped to attention in anticipation. One woman from our group was designated the guest of honor and asked to step outside. The honor? She would stroll out to a yard in which several young lambs grazed ... and select the one to be slaughtered and served.

When the gasps of horror (and in a few cases, laughter) subsided, the mortified guest of honor was permitted to designate a pinch hitter to go outside, stare an adorable baby lamb in the eyes and condemn it to death. I chalked it up as just one more moment of culture shock, but a decade later, I can still remember my instant loss of appetite at the prospect of killing and eating one of the cute animals we passed by on the way through our host's front yard. It was deeply unpleasant to be so close to the violent origin of my food, but it nevertheless felt like a healthy and valuable experience for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate.

That awkward scene sprang immediately to mind as I read Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's explanation of a somewhat alarming tweet he had sent: "I just killed a pig and a goat." Zuckerberg elaborated in a statement on his Facebook page:
Every year I have a yearly personal challenge. It's a good way to explore different things I wouldn't normally do and challenge myself. Towards the end of last year I reflected a bunch of how thankful I was that we were building so many good things and things have gone well so far and I decided to make this year's challenge around being more thankful for what I have. I struggled for a while about how to implement this, but eventually decided that forcing myself to get personally involved and thank the animals whose lives I take in order to eat them was the best day-to-day way to remind myself to be thankful. So every day when I can't eat meat I am reminded of why not and how lucky I am, and when I do get the chance to eat meat it's especially good. This challenge also has the benefit of making me generally healthier, and I'm also learning a lot about sustainable living.
He's talking about something that every city-raised American can relate to: a sense that we're very disconnected from the food we eat, and that this isn't a good thing. Most of us acquire our food at the tail end of a very long chain of activity that began months or years earlier with the birth of an animal or the planting of a crop. What began its life as something individually distinct ends up packaged, processed and thoroughly stripped of any unique touch given it by its Creator.

I'd like to focus on the heart of Zuckerberg's statement: the question of gratitude. Do we lose our ability to express true gratitude for something when we're separated too far from its point of origin? Many of us are accustomed to offering a brief prayer of thanks to God over meals. To be sure, we can be genuinely grateful for life-giving food no matter what it is or where it came from. But is there something different - weaker - about our gratitude when it's expressed for a microwaved dinner, or Chinese takeout, or a Happy Meal?

I'll confess I feel a bit silly when praying over such things, although of course I'm grateful. Try imagining this man praying over a Hot Pocket instead of a homemade loaf of bread. It's not a perfect analogy, but imagine this scenario: a friend gives you an intricate, hand-crafted clock as a gift. You're thankful, and there's nothing false about that. But would your gratitude be more authentic somehow if you visited your friend’s tool shop and witnessed the hard work he put into shaping the wood, adjusting each gear and painting each piece over the course of months?

In the same way, is our gratitude to God more authentic when it's the result of firsthand experience with the complexity of the animals and plants he has placed under mankind's stewardship? And if our gratitude for something becomes more meaningful the closer one gets to the original source ... well, what else are you grateful for?

(Photo of Mark Zuckerberg courtesy of By Robert Scoble/Wikimedia Commons.)

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Personally, I’m fascinated with Zuckerberg’s need to be thankful, and his struggle to express this innate need. He’s incredibly rich now, and can have anything. Yet he knows it’s all still beyond him somehow, and he should be grateful to someone. That’s common grace at it’s finest.

But he’s chosen a very ancient and pagan way of thankfulness, thanking the (unwilling?) animal whose life he took in the slaughtering, rather than the God who gave life in the first place.

Even in the heart of high-tech Silicon Valley, some of the most primal religious expressions and distorions of humankind still run deep!

I too think it’s a fascinating topic. I also think that facing that little lamb adds a bit of weight to the sacrifices made for our the maintenance of our existence. Life is not free, there is always a cost and realization of a cost begets gratitude and gratitude often yields joy. 

Cool, thanks for the piece. pvk

Modeling prayers for our children when they were young, at table grace I would usually say “bless us with this food, bless the hands of those who produced it (farmers), and the hands of those that prepared and served it (Mom/Dad/host, or if a restaurant, chefs/waiters).”  We added on “and bless those who struggle to find a good meal,” getting them by the time they were in high school to think beyond themselves, in all cases, regarding food, clothing, economy, career, etc.
Being self-sustaining has its merits, if one has such an opportunity, yet we also realize how lives and livelihoods are intertwined beyond comprehension in society.

Some form of this thankfulness seems to still be taking place in Cajun country, judging by this NY Times report on boucheries:…. Such communal butchering of hogs surely aren’t for the squeamish, but I’m assuming a unique sort of gratitude is a part of the event.

Then there is the role of commodification.  The story of the lamb is also caught in an observation by William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis, that in pre-commodity, i.e. pre-slaughterhouse days, you passed by the animal you would eat on the way into town. Commodification puts a gap between us and the object. So instead of seeing a chain of gifts from the land, the endless row of yogurt invites us to think in terms of industrial processes.

I don’t know that there is any turning back. This process of transforming objects into commodities makes for wealth, a basic level of survival. Instead the act of living in an industrial and increasingly digital world asks us to sharpen our seeing, to heighten our marvel at this world of our creation. Even the letterfont on this message resides in some one else’s skill, the fruit of some one else’s delight.

The lie is not in the manufactured object, but in the narrative that being manufactured, being artificial, it does not really matter, but is just one more unit of production, a statistic.

These stories resonate with my and my husband’s journey to eat in more connected ways—ways that tell a better story about our fundamental commitments as followers of Christ.  One of our rituals before we pray over a meal is to tell where the food on the table came from—to name the farmers who grew the vegetables or raised the animals or the grandma who gave us the recipe. It heightens our sense of gratitude when we pray, “Thank you for all of the people, plants, animals and land that participated in bringing this meal to our table.”

The slaughtered creatures don’t live any less tortured utterly unnatural deggraded lives, nor die any less painfully and mercilessly. It is not necessary to kill animals! I have been vegan for 40 years… you think the animals you prey upon feel better because you go on to pray over their remains?

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