On Sunday 2 September 2012 at 3 pm Golders Green Unitarians hosted the ninth World Congress of Faiths Interfaith Celebration of Animals, bringing together representatives of the major world religious traditions and of leading animal welfare organizations. Among the speakers was Thomas Bonneville of the Religious Society of Friends and a member of Quaker Concern for Animals. This is his reading:
Let me speak first of all as a Christian, and let me say as simply and succinctly as I can why I believe that the animal question is central to the Christian life:
We are told that it is the Christian’s place, at this hour and at every hour, to be with the poor. with the powerless, the excluded, the bereft.
Who then are the poor, and how is it that we should be with them?
The poor are not those who lack. Especially not those who lack the possessions and the security which we enjoy and without which we imagine we would feel deprived, frightened and maybe even desolate. No, the poor are not those who lack, but those who suffer. Not those who suffer mere existence, which is of course full of hardship and pain and even horror, but those who suffer injustice; in other words, the poor are those who suffer at our hands. It’s for that reason that we would rather not be reminded of the poor.
Our bombs, our sink estates, our prisons, our foreclosures, our third world indebted, our cheap labour, our scapegoats … yes, we know who the human poor are.
But the most wretched, defenceless and denatured of all oppressed creatures are the non-human animals. The world over, they are imprisoned, tortured and murdered with impunity.
…our dinner tables, our entertainments and amusements, our delicacies, our technological and medical advancements …
We don’t really know who the poor are. We haven’t seen them. We haven’t acknowledged them.
How can we be with those whom we do not recognise? Our being with the poor, with the despised, this being-with is perhaps no more than our recognition of them. It’s somewhere we can start from.
To recognise our common lot, our common origins and our mutual destiny. Truly and insofar as we may, we should share the material circumstances of the poor, so as to give real substance to our pretended sympathies– eat their bread, bed down where they bed down– but who can or would dare trade places with the child whose whole family has been lost to the depredations of war, and who could endure even for a day — were it possible by the machinations of some Mephistopheles– for just one day the hell of the barren cages stacked atop one another on the factory farm? and what would we hope to achieve by this literal and concrete type of being-with anyway? Before we can be the ones who bring aid to the critically endangered, before we can stop tormenting them, we must have some way of identifying them and recognising that, somehow, we belong to one another. Those who suffer at our hands: they are us.
But how can we recognise the other in us, as us, in ourselves, when the other is so palpably other? so patently not-us?
As a Quaker, the magical act of transformation that allows this recognition I call The Light. Earlier generations of Quakers called it the Living Christ. The Buddhist Thich Nhat Han calls it Interbeing. Let me be just a little more prudent and say that I am trying to give name to something akin to what it/they might be that has gone under those names. But whatever convergent reality might ultimately unite us divergent beings, the problem remains, on our sublunary plane, that we most of us may not love what we are not. Love beyond admiration, beyond respect; love beyond what may be grudgingly allowed or logically supported.
And so this is my answer to why interfaith and why the animal cause, and to why the two together. Both are a means of realising that we are who we are not. We are the ones who we set ourselves over. Over and above. Over against.
Many would balk at this conclusion. I may be animal, they say, just as a goat or a beagle, a chimpanzee or a gnat is an animal. But my concern is rightly with my own kind. And indeed it is for each one of us to choose. The wonderfully ludicrous part of it is that we are entirely free in this matter; the tragic ludicrousness lies in how frequently we choose to draw the circle as tightly and narrowly as we do. Here’s ‘me’: white, middleclass, heterosexual, male (well, let’s call it mostly white, outwardly middleclass, conventionally heterosexual, empirically male) shall I, then, call the other members of this fourfold subset of homo sapiens ‘my kind’ to the exclusion of all others? and will I allow you to suffer, cause you to suffer, because you happen to fall outside of that circle?
So I push the boundaries out a bit. Now I’m properly inclusive in my mindset. I’ve embraced multiculturalism. I’m ecumenical. I’m modern. But where are the poor now? As we get further way from what looks like me, the more pronounced my indifference may become. The face before me utters words I cannot understand; then it makes sounds that might be meaningful but that I cannot conceive of us words; push out farther: now this stranger’s face merely shrieks or squeaks unpleasantly. We’re out quite some way by now, and the face I’m confronted with, well, it’s hard to discern anything like a face there at all. … At what point do I relinquish my sympathies? At what point do I choose to do so? It’s we who decide when the creature before us stops being what we call a person – whatever it might precisely be that we mean by that – and becomes a non-person, becomes an ‘it’. We might invoke science to speak of percentages of shared DNA; we might argue from cultural norms, which often enshrine nothing more edifying or useful than the prejudices of preceding generations; we might contend that it’s just good ol’ common sense, or ethically pragmatic.
But it remains we who are doing the invoking, the arguing, the contending, we alone. And why? in order to constitute the we as we and the they as they and, make no mistake, it is they who will suffer the consequences. For as I keep insisting, the choice is ours and we cannot avoid it, try as we might. We can only mask it by means of these stratagems I’ve described and others like them. What sort of suffering- whose suffering – will I excuse or discount all together? who is not my kind? who ‘doesn’t count’? I think these are the poor. How true it is that they are always with us.
We find the lines drawn for us, before we got here: lines of argument, of the circumscription of the debate, of razor wire, lines of debarment; lines rising vertically to become bars; bars of iron, fortifications erected and policed in the interest of security, of control, of supremacy. It is up to us to re-draw these lines. The first step toward redrawing them is in erasing them. The struggles for recognition — that is, to recognise, rather than to be recognised– these struggles that we engage in, in interfaith dialogue and in animal liberation, these seek to effect that erasure.
Til the Kingdom come there will always be lines, and there will always be the poor to fall foul of them.
We can’t choose not to choose. But whatever choice a one makes, wherever one draws the line, there it is, just there, that a voice will come to him, one that he, or she, will not be able to stop her ears to. That voice will gently encourage her to push that line out just a little farther, to let just a few more creatures inside, so that they can be with her, part of her like-me and her is-me. It’s the voice we hear in Matthew 5 and we know that that voice will not cease to speak to us until we are, like our Father in Heaven, perfect, meaning ‘complete’ (whole).
Is this voice proper only to Christianity, or is it heard in all faiths?
Consider please, these words from the Holy Qur’an
There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.
Wherever such voices speak to the faithful, may it please God that we hear them, too, echoing in our own faith traditions and in our hearts and souls.”
Creatures who count – beautiful butterflies courtesy of Helen Elliott:
The keynote address, entitled World Religions and Our Universal Kinship, was given by Rev. Feargus O’Connor, Hon. Secretary of the World Congress of Faiths and Chair of the Unitarian Animal Welfare Society, speaking on the positive role of the world’s religions in working to bring about a compassionate world where all living beings can live in peace, safe from the threat of violence and exploitation.
A voluntary collection was taken for the Disasters Fund of the World Society for the Protection of Animals and the Universal Kinship Fund of the Dr.Hadwen Trust for Humane Research, a registered charity which funds vital medical research without animal experimentation and so helps save both human and animal lives.
Rev. Feargus O’Connor, telephone 020 7837 4472, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
… more to come…