Last Thanksgiving, I felt my usual anguish over well-meaning friends and family sending me photos of happy turkeys exclaiming, “Gobble, Gobble!” My sassy inner troublemaker wanted to respond, “What part of me being an animal lover do you not understand?!”
Instead, I took a deep breath and remembered how deeply entrenched carnism―the invisible ideology that eating animal meat should be the norm and that those who do not eat animal meat are abnormal―is within our society. After giving myself a moment to reflect, I answered most texts as gently as possible.
But I could not resist pushing back on one. An animated GIF arrived with an avatar of one of my students, knife in one hand, fork in the other, getting ready to attack a cooked turkey. Across the bottom, it said, “Happy Thanksgiving.” It surprised me because I knew this student had taken Bodhisattva vows. Although I’m not sure of the exact words he promised, I knew they would have taken some form of “May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.”
And so, I wondered how a dead turkey reconciled with a vow to benefit all beings. Since he and I have a good rapport, often filled with snark and bad jokes, I responded, “Um, I’ve got a bit to say about that image. #BodhisattvaThanksgiving.” He quickly countered, “It was a roadkill. I thanked him for his sacrifice and assured him his death would not go to waste. I also prayed he has a more fortunate rebirth, with better vision and quicker moves.”
I noticed a few things in his tongue-in-cheek statement. First, I recognized a focus on efficiency. He clearly stated he had not killed the animal for food but was eating it so that the life would not be wasted. Next, there was gratitude. He had been thankful. Third, he wished the animal would have a good life after death. Each one of these statements seemed to acknowledge moral concern, but not enough to leave the turkey off his plate.
Shortly after that, I received a text from a Christian family member proclaiming, “Thanking God today for all that I am able to receive and the ability I have to give. And for the turkey who gave its life for my lunch today!”
This sentiment of an animal “giving its life” seems particularly prevalent in the before-meal graces I hear from my Christian friends. There is a prevailing Christian belief that animals give themselves to us for our consumption. I presume this stems from their beliefs about Jesus, who “gave up” his life for them. I usually point out that while Jesus might have sacrificed himself, the turkey did no such thing. The creature had no agency in the decision.
In moments like these, I can’t seem to help myself. When someone refers to a turkey in this manner, I typically respond, “Just how, exactly, did the turkey give his life?” Seriously, I am not the person you want to invite to Thanksgiving dinner. When questioned about the issue of eating animals within Christianity, I’m likely to launch into a passionate speech noting that many influential theologians were plant-based eaters, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian, who wrote that the eating of flesh blocked spiritual awareness.
And if you’re Buddhist, I’ll point you right back to the First Precept of Buddhism: “I refrain from destroying living creatures.”
Questioning the Gratitude Bypass
It’s not that I mean to be antagonistic or a bad house guest, but I am seriously perplexed at how expressing gratitude for an animal’s death actually helps the animals. When I ask about this, some people advise me that their pre-meal grace is rooted not in concern for the animal but in their gratitude for the food, which I understand on an intellectual level. Around the world, over 700 million people do not have enough to eat, and billions cannot access healthy food. Hunger, food insecurity, and food injustice are real issues that deserve much more attention than they receive.
At the same time, I can’t help but think that gratitude and sacrifice are convenient excuses to view carnism from a one-sided perspective—that of humans. Prayer over food is common in many religions, of course. For example, one survey suggested over 50 percent of American households “say grace” at least once a week. Yet, from an interspecies perspective, these words do little to lessen the pain animals incur. The systems which turn beautiful living beings into products to be consumed are gruesome and heartbreaking, and certainly nothing to be thankful for if we are honest about what is actually going on.
Practicing Ultra Gratitude
It’s often difficult to separate eating from our spiritual beliefs. Our food choices are entangled with memories of holidays, the practice of eating together, and the creation of shared traditions. Yet what is vital in these moments is that we share our time interacting with each other—it’s not the specific food we eat. What’s more, sharing meals provides an opportunity to have messy conversations about the challenges we face as humans and provides opportunities to align around shared goals that can lead to meaningful change for all earthlings.
What if we could create new, less violent traditions that didn’t require killing 46 million turkeys? Here are some tips for practicing what I call ultra gratitude:
Perhaps the best way to show our gratitude is to gather with each other more often, not just on the holidays. A study from Anthrozoös suggests that people who tend to be more communal are also more compassionate toward animals. And that’s something all beings can be grateful for at any time of the year.
Want more holiday ideas? Read "Planning a Heart-Centered Thanksgiving."