Sermon for Thanksgiving

This is a blast from the past. The early 80s, and reprinted in 1987, and again here for your enjoyment. Humor by the Rev. Jack Dancer. Still funny 3 decades later. —Steve

Chapter IV:
Sermon for Thanksgiving

by the Rev. Jack Dancer

There has been a mass extermination of turkeys, pheasants, geese, and other lovable creatures for which we are about to be thankful.  It is to their memory that I dedicate this sermon.

I Stand on the Fifth Commandment

“Thou shalt not kill” is one of the most well-loved of the Ten Commandments.  Even if it had not already been forced upon us by God and was up for referendum, I’m sure it would get immense public support and very likely win by a landslide.  Most of my friends would vote for it.

The only problem with the Commandment that Moses brought down from the mountain is that the stone tablets forgot to say exactly who or what it was that thou was supposed not to kill.  Most people assume it meant don’t kill humans, but there is no evidence that this is what the Lord meant; not if you regard as human the folks who inhabited the lands that He sent His Chosen People forth to occupy.

The portions of the Bible that contain the Ten Commandments also give some examples of how the Laws are supposed to be interpreted and enforced, but not enough to answer our question about who or what not to kill.  Still, they do offer some useful loopholes for any murderer with a smart attorney.  For example, it was punishable to beat your slave to death, but if he died a day or two later, there was no guilt.  In this case, the perfect crime could be easily brought off with the judicious application of kidney punches, a technique that any former Gestapo Agent would be more than happy to demonstrate for you.  There are other tricky clauses in the Laws.  Did you know that it was all right to kill a burglar when the sun was down, but not when it was up?  Apparently the night shift was a nastier lot.

The Scripture ascribes both the Ten Commandments and all of the other Law Codes in these chapters of the Bible to the Almighty Himself.  I can see how God may have written the Ten Commandments, but these other sections sound like they were thrown hastily together by Moses and his sidekick, Aaron.  The writing rambles, skips, gets redundant, and is full of stylistic faux pas that no Supreme Being in His right mind would be guilty of.  Elsewhere in these sections of the Bible, they get into the dietary and hygienic laws, like avoiding contamination from lepers and not eating certain foods, such as pork, shellfish, or a young animal boiled in its mother’s milk.  Here, the identity of the author becomes more apparent.  With the exception of a few restrictions on incest and casual sex, these are long-standing Egyptian laws.  Moses, you may recall, was raised in Egypt.  It is difficult to believe that the Lord summoned Moses to Mount Sinai just to read him the Egyptian Sanitary Code.

Moses was burdened with an unruly band of ignorant calf-worshippers and former slaves who hated anything Egyptian, whether it was good for them or not.  They weren’t about to heel to any law unless it had the Boss’s signature on it.  There was no way for Moses to keep them in line without resorting to a little forgery here and there.

The surest clue that the author of these pages and pages of rules and regulations wasn’t the same Divine Being who etched the Ten Commandments in fire upon the stone tablets is the difference in literary style.  Jehova’s prose was uncluttered, forceful, and terse, almost to the degree of being enigmatic, whereas Moses and Aaron tended to be long-winded.

The Bible admits that Moses was slow of speech and that Aaron, a fast-talking sheepherder, had to be his mouthpiece.  The craftsmanship of such a writing team is predictably sloppy.

When it came to homicide, Moses and Aaron babbled on about eyes for eyes, teeth for teeth, day and night shift thieves, and slow death for slaves.  God’s message, “Thou shalt not kill,” was simple.  For all its enigmatic brevity, it struck lucidly to the core of what most of us want to believe:  Life is sacred.  We should love it and not destroy it.

It is difficult to know exactly how people felt about taking a life back in 1275 B.C., but in this century, many people are repulsed by any kind of killing.  In many ways, we are more civilized than our ancestors.  In Moses’ day, murder was punishable by death.  So were a lot of trivial transgressions, like adultery, cursing your parents, working on Saturday, or getting it on with your Doberman.  Modern man has become so lenient about capital crimes that if Jack the Ripper were finally caught, he could cop an insanity plea and be back on the streets in no time.

Many people are so squeamish about death that they couldn’t kill an animal for food if they were starving.  Some don’t even eat a slice of an animal that has already been killed.  They reason that although a meat-eater doesn’t murder animals himself, he does, in effect, employ others to do it for him.  This makes him much like Charles Manson, who never killed anyone—himself.

These people who don’t eat meat call themselves vegetarians, but it should be pointed out that there are several degrees of vegetarianism.  First there are the ones who shun all animal products and eat only vegetables.  They are known as “total vegetarians” or “vegans.”  Then there are what they call “ovo/lacto vegetarians,” who eat vegetables too, but also partake of dairy products.  Their philosophy is that you don’t have to kill milk, cheese or eggs in order to eat them.  You may wonder how they justify eating fertilized eggs, which are so popular in health food stores frequented by these ovo/lacto people.  The answer can probably be found in the current Supreme Court ruling on abortion, which holds that the chick embryo in an ovo/lacto’s omelet cannot yet be regarded as a living entity.

You might not believe that there can be any lesser degrees of vegetarian than the ovo/lacto variety.  But there are.  Several.  First, there are the ones who tell you:  “Yeah, I’m a vegetarian …  well, I eat fish sometimes, but I never touch meat; not even chicken.”  Then there are the vegetarians who do eat chicken.  Next, I expect to hear that the rabbi is a vegetarian because he won’t touch ham.

At present, there are no lesser degrees of vegetarian than the ovo/lacto/fisho/fowlo variety, unless you want to include the part-time vegetarians.  This group ranges from the kind to eat meat only once every week or so to the kind who have occasionally gone for a week or so without it.  It is difficult to get an opinion from these people about why they’ve committed themselves to becoming part-time vegetarians, because they can never hold an opinion long enough to finish telling you about it.

Although some people have become total vegetarians overnight or even quicker, for most it is a gradual conversion, often following, step by step, the degrees I have described.  First, they begin cutting down on beef, pork and lamb until they stop eating these altogether.  Then chicken starts to go, and after that, fish, eggs and milk products, until there’s nothing left to eat but vegetables.

Some observers have viewed this graded path from carnivory to total vegetarianism as going down the evolutionary scale away from cannibalism, mammals being closest to man.  This may be so, but there is also another important factor.  Vegetables don’t make a scene when you kill them.  They don’t kick and scream and try to get away, and they don’t look at you with terror and bewilderment in their eyes.  Isn’t that the sad truth about life?  If you don’t complain, nobody’ll listen to you.

I don’t know why vegans feel so holier than thou about not killing animals, when they go around murdering helpless vegetables that can’t defend themselves or even raise a squawk about what’s happening.  Their slaughter seems especially cruel and undeserved when you consider the factor that vegetables are the only creatures on earth that don’t kill other creatures for food.  All that they require is water, sunlight and a few minerals from the soil.  And don’t try to tell me that plants can’t feel the pain of death.  Everyone knows about those experiments in which a scientist named Cleve Backster hooked up his plants to a polygraph.  They were so sensitive that they screamed in silence over the death of some boiled shrimp in the next room.  They even got upset when Backster was only thinking about boiling the shrimp.  How can any vegan condone killing and eating a creature that can read your mind and cries in solitude when you harbor unkindly thoughts towards other creatures?

I was a vegetarian for several years.  It was gratifying that I no longer contributed to the death of animals, but I nearly contributed to my own death from malnutrition.  My conversion to vegetarianism had been gradual.  I had been taking a break from excessive beef eating.  When I realized that i had gone without a steak for nearly a month and was still alive, I began to wonder how civilized people could kill mammals for food.  There were so many other good things to eat.  Who needed cow corpses?  Soon I was having the same compunctions about chicken and fish.  They aren’t that different from mammals.  They struggle to stay alive and have darling little eyes that express the horror and agony of death.

I still ate shellfish for a while.  They evoke less sympathy than the higher life forms and appear to be little more than shish-kebab-size morsels of protein.  That’s because so few of us have ever seen how endearing a scallop can be, scooting away from intruders on the ocean floor by flapping its twin shells open and closed.  And when it comes to darling little eyes, the scallop surpasses all with about forty of them encircling its body.

After becoming a total vegetarian, I enjoyed splendid health for several years.  Then I began to succumb to a subtle and undefinable deficiency disorder.  I had done everything correctly:  I’d studied nutrition, learned to balance my protein sources, and was taking all sorts of vitamin supplements.  Although hundreds of dollars worth of medical tests revealed that I was abnormally healthy, I felt like I was about to die.

My subconscious mind was the first to recognize the problem.  Long before I began to grow weak, I started having wet dreams about meat.  In one, I was savagely devouring a blood-rare leg of lamb and reveling in the sanguine juices that dripped down my naked body.  I woke abruptly from this dream before I had completed my carnal deed.  Isn’t that always the way with wet dreams?  It was not the intensity of the dream, however, that had shattered my slumber.  It was the sudden realization that Freud had been wrong.  Sex was not the primal hunger of the subconscious mind that shaped both our dreams and our daily behavior.  I wasn’t having sex dreams.  I had all the sex I could handle during my waking hours.  My dreams were about the one important thing my waking hours denied me.  Meat.

The patients that Freud had studied when he was putting his theory together all had dreams that were fraught with sexual imagery and erotic symbolism.  But Freud lived in an era of sexual repression, confusion and starvation.  No wonder his subjects had sex on their minds all the time, even when they were trying to sleep.

Suppose, I thought.  Suppose that the squeamish vegetarians had taken over the world, instead of the prudish Christians.  Suppose that sex had always been viewed as a normal appetite that could be easily appeased by making a quick trip to the corner store or a phone call to Chicken Delight, but that eating was regarded as the nasty necessity that no one talked about, and meat eating was a heinous perversion like sodomy.  Suppose that every time a child put its fingers to its mouth its mother would slap its hand and say:  “Don’t touch yourself there; it’ll make you go blind.”  Suppose that a young man had to coax his girlfriend for hours after a date to go all the way and fix him a sandwich, and that some husbands were miserable because their wives refused to perform certain culinary acts for them.  Suppose that ladies were supposed to blush demurely at the mention of things like basting sauce, while the gentlemen retired to the drawing room to tell nasty jokes, like:  “Did you hear the one about Johnny Eatfaster?”  Suppose that the only grounds for divorce were gastronomical incompatibility or catching your wife in the kitchen with another man, and that every child’s question:  “Mommy, where do calories come from?” was answered with some unlikely story about a stork.

In such a world, wouldn’t we have grown up as twisted and confused about food as many people in our world are about sex?  Wouldn’t grown men be often seen at newsstands and book stalls, hat brims pulled down and coat collars up, surreptitiously scanning cookbooks and gourmet magazines, or spending endless quarters in adult movie arcades trying to get off vicariously on poorly-made flicks of unskilled actors and actresses stuffing their mouths with edible delights?  And when they slept, wouldn’t their dreams, like mine, be not of erotic encounters with their favorite movie stars, but of gluttonous entanglements with juicy cuts of blood-rare meat?

So you see where Freud went wrong.  He tried to identify the prime mover of the human psyche by probing the disoriented minds of his sex-starved contemporaries.  In truth, however, the primary drive is not sex, nor is it a hunger for meat or a craving for blood.  It is anything that Mommy or Daddy said we couldn’t have or mustn’t touch.  It is the tantrum-evoking piece of candy taken from the child that he will pine for and pursue for all his days, whether it tasted good or not.

All right, so we’ve cracked the riddle of the human psyche and shattered the foundations of modern psychology, but we still haven’t answered our original question about who or what we shalt not kill.  This might matter less if we didn’t get hungry so often.  In less than forty-five minutes, I shall be forced to make a life or death decision for the second time this day, when I pick up the menu at lunch.

As we become more civilized, more concerned about endangered species, and more protective towards all life forms, we may find ourselves the victims of conscience-induced anorexia—unless scientists can come up with a synthetic substitute for food.  But instead, scientists make matters worse, like Backster misusing the polygraph to cause public concern about the kindly sentiments of vegetables, or Dr. John Lilly using electronics to communicate with porpoises and discovering that they are intelligent and loving creatures.  Almost overnight he ruined the dolphin meat industry.  Most people now would rather starve to death than enjoy a juicy Flipper-burger.  Any day now, I expect Dr. Lilly to write a book about how he communicated with barnyard animals and found that behind their vacuous eyes cows are really brilliant mathematicians and chickens sensitive poets.

Responsible scientists had better hurry to invent a synthetic food substitute before irresponsible ones learn how to communicate with molecules and discover that synthetic chemicals have thoughts and feelings too.  The situation may already be hopeless.  Most synthetics are derived from coal tar, a distillate of bituminous coal, which is a fossil fuel.  And what are fossils?  That’s right.  Petrified creatures.

Scientists may eventually be able to redesign the human body so that we won’t need food and can thrive on pure energy or light.  But by then we may learn that even light and energy are alive with thoughts and feelings.  If consciousness pervades all existence, we cannot exist without destroying some sentient thing.  In that case, it wouldn’t make much difference what we kill and eat, whether it be animal, vegetable, mineral, synthetic chemical, light beam, or our next door neighbor, as long as it keeps us going and agrees with the stomach.

Because hunting, killing and sharing meat required cooperation; they developed in early man such noble qualities as responsibility, loyalty, and table manners.  Vegetarian primates do not share food, nor did the forerunners of man until they became carnivorous hunters and killers.  I’m not suggesting that killing is a good thing because it helped make man a better person.  Nor am I implying that modern vegetarians aren’t gracious and generous dinner hosts.  But whenever they do share food with me, I always have to excuse myself early and go for a burger.

Killing played a major role in our biological and technological evolution as well as our social development.  Man became an erect-walking animal so that his hands would be free to wield weapons.  Our efforts to design more powerful weapons than those of our enemies have given us the swords that we later turn into plowshares.  If we hadn’t developed our tools of hunting and warfare, we’d still be viewing the moon from a banana tree instead of visiting it.

Hunting and slaughter even fostered man’s first artistic efforts.  Those cave paintings that depict bands of frenzied humans aggressively brandishing spears in pursuit of their quarry make it look like the Flintstones were into the joy of killing.  However, there are other interpretations.  Anthropologists say that the cave paintings were a form of magical art; that the cave people believed the hunt would be more successful if they painted it first.  I believe that the paintings were intended as propaganda.  Like war posters, their aim was to inspire cave dwellers to get off their indolent butts and join the chase.  Hunting the great prehistoric beasts must have been as ghastly as war.  Men were gored, trampled on and torn limb from limb before a mastodon or mammoth succumbed to their flimsy spears.  But the paintings made it seem like jolly fun.

This need for cave paintings, posters and other hard-sell advertising to ballyhoo humans into taking up weapons for slaughter suggests that man is not the natural hunter and warrior that some people say he is.  If they want us to take a life, both God and our earthly leaders must place us in awkward predicaments where we have no other option.  Political and military leaders put a man on some foreign battlefield with a gun and a new golden rule: “Do unto others before others do unto you.”  The lord puts man in a world where other living creatures are the only available food, and the rule is a primal and merciless as that of war: “If one creature gets hungry, another creature has to get dead.”  There are no exemptions.  Every living thing, including ourselves, must eventually die and be recycled in an endless, self-devouring food chain.  Through no apparent fault of our own, we find ourselves guests at a free-for-all restaurant where the name of the game is to eat as much as you can before it’s your turn to get eaten.

Have a nice Thanksgiving and enjoy your dinner.

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