Sponsored by the World Congress of Faiths, Quaker Concern for Animals and the Unitarian Faith & Public Issues Commission.
The service took place on September 6th. at Golders Green Unitarians’ church, where our committee member Feargus O’Connor is minister.
Among the 80 or so congregants, several dogs, a cat, a hamster and three tortoises listened to readings representing ten faiths.
The Buddhist speaker told a parable about hermits, who, persuaded by the Buddha under his guise as a Brahmin, gave water to thirsty animals, who then returned the favour by bringing food for them. The Hindu participant reminded us that it is the common duty of all to observe the Golden Rule and treat all beings as we would like to be treated – irrespective of caste or family. For the Jains, this duty is of supreme importance; harmlessness – ahimsa – is the true religion and not to kill, torment or abuse other creatures is the quintessence of wisdom, the pure, immutable law. The Sikh representatives sang a hymn and affirmed that humans – who, after many incarnations are at the apex of all species – thus have responsibility for all life forms on earth. It is now time for us to serve others. The Christian speaker read St. Francis’s Canticle to the Sun. Noah showed his care for the animals of the ark, the Jewish representative reminded us. He also read a poem about the birds of the air by a contemporary Israeli peace activist.
For the Muslims, we are “Vicergerents on earth” but have a corresponding duty not to exceed our power. In his Maxims, the Imam Hazrat Ali has this to say about those who misuse their authority over the weak: “A savage and ferocious beast is better than a wicked and tyrant ruler. “ We heard about the hunter who had caught a gazelle in a trap. When the Prophet found her and she said she was unable to feed her fawns, he freed her to feed them, and took her place. The hunter returned to find this unwelcome replacement, but when he saw the gazelle with her fawns, he took pity and not only let her go, but also embraced Islam.
Our committee member Sonia spoke for Quakers. A touching passage from Quiet Pilgrimage by Elizabeth Gray Vining tells of her fleeting cruel treatment of a kitten which made the Quaker writer realise how she had passed on to him an injury done to her and “felt a firm conviction of the unity of all life, a kinship with all living things…”
The Spiritualist speaker spoke of a medium, who saw a client’s dog’s soul enter the room with him. The man, himself a difficult and lonely person, had taken pity on an injured dog, whose affection had transformed his life and who was still with him after death. The Unitarian Universalist read an American poem which was a thanksgiving for a whole alphabet of beings, from the aardvark and apricot to the zebra and zucchini.
For QCA, as a reminder of our ecumenical and interfaith interests, I spoke of the 13th. century St. Bonaventura, reported to have been saved from a dangerous childhood illness through the intercession of St. Francis himself. He wrote:
The creatures of the sense world signify the invisible attributes of God, partly because God is the origin, exemplar and end of every Creature – and every effect is the sign of its cause, the exemplification of its exemplar and the path to the end, to which it leads… For every creature is by its nature a kind of effigy and likeness of the eternal Wisdom.
Therefore, open your eyes, alert the ears of your spirit, open your lips and apply your heart so that, in all creatures, you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honour your God lest the whole world rise against you.
Then, by John Woolman:
[I] believe that where the love of God is verily perfected and the true spirit of government watchfully attended to, a tenderness toward all creatures made subject to us will be experienced, and a care felt in us that we do not lessen the sweetness of life in the animal creation which the great Creator intends for them under our government…
Feargus O’Connor gave the keynote address, from which come the following extracts.
“Let us pay tribute to those inspirational human voices over the centuries which have boldly spoken out for compassion for all our fellow creatures… Some have been religious and inspired by a living faith tradition; others freethinkers animated by humane feelings and a spirit of loving kindness.
Feargus mentioned this year’s bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species. “Does the general conception of evolution, as George Bernard Shaw argued, not provide the true humanitarian with a scientific and philosophical basis for ethical conduct towards all our fellow beings?”
“Evolution, according to Shaw, ‘establishes the fundamental equality of all living things… This sense of kinship of all forms of life is all that is needed to make Evolution not only a conceivable theory, but an inspiring one’.
‘St. Anthony was ripe for the Evolution theory when he preached to the fishes’, Shaw wrote, ‘and St. Francis when he called the birds his little brothers.
Shaw speaks against vivisection: ‘Once grant the ethics of the vivisectionists and you not only sanction the experiment on the human subject, but make it the first duty of the vivisector. If a guinea pig may be sacrificed for the sake of the very little that can be learnt from it, shall not a man be sacrificed for the sake of the great deal that can be learnt from him?’
‘Vivisection is a social evil because if it advances human knowledge, it does so at the expense of human character…If you cannot attain to knowledge without torturing a dog, you must do without that knowledge… There are hundreds of paths to scientific knowledge. The cruel ones can teach us only what we ought not to know.’
As for eating our fellow animals: ‘You have just dined’, wrote the American Unitarian writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.’
The pioneer animal rights advocate Henry Salt ridiculed the arrogant view that the human species is the very pinnacle of creation and all our fellow sentient beings are here just to be mercilessly exploited, used, slaughtered and eaten.
In a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, also a passionate opponent of vivisection and proponent of animal rights, Salt writes that he cannot see how there can be any real recognition of our common kinship with our fellow beings as long as we continue, in his words, ‘to cheat or to eat them’.
In the words of Howard Moore, the author of The Universal Kinship: “They are not conveniences but cousins.”’
Feargus examined Hindu thinking: ‘We bow to all beings with great reverence in the thought and knowledge that God enters into them through fractioning Himself into living creatures’, we read in the Hindu epic The Mahabharata: an ethic truly in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi himself.
This lesson is also illustrated in the life and teachings of the founder of the Jain religion, Mahavira, who sought to propagate a religion which would benefit all living beings in a spirit of loving kindness.
The Native American Chief Seattle wisely perceived what American Unitarian Universalists fittingly call ‘the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part’.
‘We are part of the Earth and it is part of us.
The perfumed flowers are our sisters.
The deer, the horse, the great eagle: these are our brothers.
The rocky crests, the juices of the meadows, the body heat of the pony and man…
All belong to the same family.
The Earth does not belong to us…
We belong to the Earth.
All things are connected like the blood which unites one family…’
Feargus concluded by referring to the life affirming words of the poet William Wordsworth.
‘Let Nature be your teacher.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings.
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.
Enough of science and of art;
Close up those barren leaves.
Come forth and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.’
The service, during which we had the pleasure of hearing Celtic harp and organ interludes, and after which we enjoyed the Indian refreshments donated as ever by Mohammed Safa’s restaurant in Islington, was endorsed by messages of support from three parliamentarians: Caroline Lucas, MEP, Leader of the Green Party in England & Wales and Vice President of the RSPCA and the Intergroup for Animal Welfare of the European Union, the Baroness Anita Gale, whose main interests in the House of Lords are issues concerning women and animals, and Angela E. Smith, MP, Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister.
Many thanks to Feargus O’Connor and the Golders Green Unitarians for organising once again such an inspiring and welcoming service, at which QCA was represented by nine members.
We were delighted to have the company of Eve and Charles from the Racing Dogs Protection Act – www.rdpa.org.uk – who supported us in 2008 as well.