The Africans showed up at our door on a sunny, chilly November afternoon. Two men introduced themselves as “Stone” and “Abraham.” In the background stood a young woman with a gregarious little boy, Henry, about 2 years old. They were looking for goats.
Goats are relatively rare in our area. Beef cattle and pampered horses are the most common animals in the local pastures. So Stone and Abraham had been driving around the countryside asking farmers if they knew someone with goats. They were directed to our house. We had goats.
The Africans wanted to throw a party. In Ghana, their home country, goats provide the meat for celebratory events. I walked the visitors out to the pasture to look at two bucks we didn’t intend to keep over the winter. They agreed to buy both.
We arranged for them to come back Thursday morning – Thanksgiving by coincidence – and I would haul the goats, the men and their equipment out to an isolated pasture where the Ghanaians would take the first, mortal steps toward preparing their celebration.
Most of our young goats and sheep are sold in the fall before we start feeding hay. We deliver them to farms or slaughterhouses. For our own meat, we take them to a small, family-operated slaughterhouse where they are handled humanely and killed instantly by a blow to the head.
Either for tradition or to save money, the Ghanaians wanted to dispatch the animals themselves.
I consider my dependence on the slaughterhouse a little bit of an indulgence. The emotions I feel when our animals must be killed and eaten are a sort of penance I pay. I see these creatures born. I care for them through their brief lives, name them and count them. They eat from my hand. They grow and thrive. They make me smile and sometimes laugh. This emotional penance I pay is a penance all of us owe for having lived, for having displaced and consumed other living things. When I drop a group of goats, lambs or cattle off at the abattoir I always feel that I’m shirking some of my responsibility. I feel sad, but I would feel the wound more deeply if I spilled their blood myself.
The Ghanaians took on that responsibility. I watched as they killed the two goats with a long knife, slicing through the veins of the neck. It’s a cliché to mention that the blood was red, but it was so very red, against the green grass, it seemed almost theatrical. Our eyes are probably tuned to see it that way. When one sees a splash of blood against the ground it marks the occurrence of something very, very important. Danger. Food. Birth. Death.
In a few seconds our animals were gone. What remained was food.
Stone and Abraham were city boys and Christians, but they said they had grown up with Muslim friends who had shown them how to butcher goats and sheep with simple tools at home. The Muslims in Ghana, they said, butchered animals both for religious rituals and parties. Since they were Christian, Stone said, they just did it for parties.
A few days later, in early December I got a call from Mahmoud. Mahmoud came to Kansas from Libya years ago. Mahmoud is a math professor and the leader of a local Muslim community. He wanted to buy some sheep. He saw my ad on Craigslist.
Dec. 8, 2008, marked the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, when families worldwide commemorate Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, in obedience to Allah. In Christian Sunday School we called Ibrahim Abraham and Ishmael Isaac, but the story is the same and the queasy feeling we get when we consider a father putting the knife to the throat of his tiny son must be shared among Christians, Jews and Muslims worldwide. It’s one of the Bible’s–and the Koran’s–most disturbing images.
Eid al-Adha is timed according to the Islamic calendar, so it moves around on our own Gregorian timeline. In 2009 it landed in late November, the day after Thanksgiving.
Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his little boy? The story’s usually told as if He was just testing Abraham’s faith. As soon as it was obvious that Abraham was going through with it, God said something like, “Never mind. I was just testing you. Go get that young ram that’s tangled up in those bushes over there. Sacrifice him instead.”
I’ve never been completely satisfied with that interpretation. If God, our creator, were omniscient, why would he need to test Abraham? God knew what was going to happen. Like all sacred stories, this one is supposed to teach us something. What are we supposed to learn from Abraham’s gruesome trial? Is it as simple as, “Obey God, no matter what you are told to do,” or is it something more complicated? I don’t believe I could follow Abraham’s example of obedience. My faith, if you call it that, is nowhere near that strong.
Mahmoud’s faith directs him to kill his Eid al-Adha sacrifice with his own hands, to separate the meat into three shares and to give away a third of it to the poor, the other third to members of his community. Only one third is retained for his own feast with family and friends.
But he’s the guy who has to place the knife against the animal’s throat and spill its blood.
When I tell friends about Mahmoud and the Ghanaians they are, quite often, repelled. Many people in 21st-century America seem to feel that the act of killing one’s own food is barbaric. Instinctively, they recoil from the whole idea. To the contemporary American, it seems more civilized to pick up pork chops or boneless chicken breasts at the supermarket.
I respect the vegetarian’s fundamental preference to cause as little pain and suffering to sentient beings as possible. I don’t agree, necessarily, that veganism or vegetarianism accomplishes this, but I respect that belief system and sense of commitment.
A few acres of grain and vegetable fields displace millions of living organisms that would naturally live there. Natural pastures preserve the habitat and accommodate many more species in a much healthier environment than plowed ground. None of us lives, except through the sacrifices of other living things.
Mahmoud and my Ghanaian customers have chosen, for very different reasons, to maintain contact with the natural order of things–the bloody, painful and profound natural order of things.
In past winters I’ve sold animals to other devout Muslims, like Mahmoud, and watched them complete their ritual sacrifice. When Abraham lifted Isaac onto the altar he would have remembered placing goats and sheep there before. He must have visualized the life draining from Isaac’s eyes just as the light flickers and fades in the eyes of a lamb when the blood drains from its brain.
As Americans we conflate the idea of ritual sacrifice with gifts to charity or tithing at church. But the charitable distribution of the sacrificial meat or the loss of a little income are minor sacrifices, I think, in comparison with the emotional blow you receive when you take a life with your own hands. Of course home butchering is routine in many cultures. Of course it’s natural. Of course other people may not feel the wound as acutely as I do. But the care taken by my Muslim customers indicates that they are fully aware of the importance of the act of killing. Their elaborate rituals are designed to reinforce that awareness. They feel the muscles of the goat’s neck – so like the neck of a child – bunch and resist the stroke of the knife. They hold the animal as it struggles. Then they feel its struggles end. With this experience, I may or may not understand the lesson of the story of Abraham and Isaac any better. But I much better understand its power.
A couple of days after Thanksgiving, our Ghanaian customer Abraham phoned and invited us to a party. In his suburban Kansas home we chatted with his friends from West Africa. We ate spicy goat stew and cassava. We watched recordings of a variety show from Ghana. The room vibrated with laughter and the smells of chilies and billy goat.
The party was full of life, in the shadow of death.
The little boy Henry, Abraham’s son, who had stopped by the farm with them on that first day, crawled from one lap to another, smiling at us and hugging our necks.