A talk given to a Quaker group by QCA member Trish Munn, November 2018
In their earthly lives both the Buddha and Jesus urged us many times to wake up.
On the whole I think that we Quakers aren’t doing too badly; we seem to be more awake than asleep about most things . . . but where we still seem to be asleep is on the issue of animal suffering. This is not something easy to write about or talk about.
Ruth Harrison said in her book, Animal Machines, If one person is unkind to an animal it is considered cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to a lot of animals it is simply accepted as the norm. This book, along with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, written in 1962, did much to wake us to up what we’re doing to the planet. She quoted Albert Schweitzer who said, Man has lost his capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth. We only need to look about us to see how right he was; but it seems we need constant reminding, and even then we still don’t get it.
Before I did my talk last year, a friend of mine, a gifted speaker, was staying with me. I asked him for advice. What he said was to find the nub of what I really wanted to talk about and focus around that. I took his advice, and last year I found I wanted to talk about courage. In this talk of today, I find what I’m really wanting to talk about is power. Power, innocence, abuse and violence.
Though my focus in this talk is on animals, I could just as easily be talking across the board about the suffering of any group who are powerless, who are unable to defend themselves and who have no voice.
Jesus said, Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me. Are not the animals, the children, the innocent ones, the least of his brethren? And doesn’t this mean that we are accountable? It’s always seemed to me that there’s a dualism here – where on the one side we only try to alleviate the suffering of humanity, and on the other, where people only care about the animals. I’ve always found this strange, as to me surely compassion must extend to both, and extend to care for all. Are we not after all stewards?
I think the crucial question we have to ask ourselves is, do we have a moral concern about animals and how we treat them? Do we believe that all sentient beings are part of the moral community? Do we care morally about them?
There’s a phrase – it’s a legal phrase that speaks of wilful blindness. It’s come to mean any situation in which people intentionally turn away from an ethical problem that is believed to be important by those using the phrase, because the problem is too disturbing for people to want it to dominate their thoughts, or from the knowledge that solving the problem would require extensive effort. I think that’s applicable to the concern we have for animals and how we treat them.
I have new Quaker heroes. Heroes to me because they showed in their lives and in their actions that it’s completely possible and necessary to care passionately wherever one finds abuse of any kind. What my new heroes all have in common is that they were all abolitionists. They testified to the abolition of slavery, and they testified also to the humane treatment of animals which they also saw as slavery. I honestly believe that a day will come – maybe a few hundred years from now (if we still have a world) when people will be appalled at the way that animals have been treated by humans.
You will all know one of my heroes, John Woolman, who felt that you could not separate how you treated animals from your faith. He held that the exploitation of the weak by the strong is contrary to the underlying scheme of things, to what he called ‘Universal Rightness’. The others, Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet and Joshua Evans, you may not know so well, but they all held to the same ethos.
Before going any further I would like to give you some quotes:
From William Ralph Inge, an Anglican priest,
We have enslaved the rest of animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly, that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.
As long as there are slaughter houses there will be battlefields.
Leonardo de Vinci suggested that a time would come when we’ll look upon the murder of animals as we now look on the murder of men.
Albert Schweitzer said
Until he extends his circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”
Matthew Scully, in his book (now a film) Dominion – the Power of Man, the Sufferings of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, says
Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honourable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claims to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.
What I want to explore in this talk is this issue of power. Its a huge issue, and I stand pretty powerless before it.
I don’t really want to be talking about Genesis 1, and the bit that speaks of ‘dominion’, the bit where God gives humans ‘dominion’ over creation. I’m sure we all know the story, but I can’t help wondering if the use and abuse of that word which has been carried through the ages, isn’t what’s been largely responsible for so much cruelty and violence over the weaker ones in creation.
I’d like to pick up on what Albert Schweitzer said, Until we extend the circle of compassion to all living things, we will not ourselves find peace.
Albert Schweitzer is better known for his work with leprosy in Africa, but he also cared passionately about the animal kingdom and worked tirelessly to bring them into the moral community, and to have them recognised in their own right.
In my adult ‘faith’ life I hear much talk on injustice, on peace, on sustainability, on climate change, on immigration, on refugees, on politics, on economy, on exploitation, and so many other things . . . I never hear talk about the billions of animals who share our planet, who feed us, and who of course have no choice in that. It’s as if the animals – except for the use they are to us, simply have no existence in their own right. It’s as if we simply don’t see them, acknowledge them, think about them except as a slab of meat on our plates, and even then there is often no connection to a living animal, and the life of that animal. I suspect that if connection is made it might be difficult to swallow – so in a sense it helps to choose this blindness.
Does our circle of compassion reach that far?
I think we all have different in-roads to find the place of compassion within us. For Jan it would be through prisoners locked away on Death Row, isolated and with no-one to speak for them – hence the birth of LifeLines; for Elisabeth and for Linda it would be images of starving children; for Ann it would be what’s happening to the Palestinians. Mine happens to be through the animals. I want to make it clear that I do not think the suffering of animals is more important than the suffering of humans. Suffering is suffering whatever species you inhabit.
I’d like to say a bit about compassion. As I’m sure you all know the literal meaning of compassion is ‘to suffer with’. Compassion isn’t a comfortable feeling of being sorry or feeling pity for those that we have compassion for. It means suffering. It means we suffer also, and suffering hurts; it’s visceral. It hurts our tenderest organ, the heart.
Schweitzer says that whoever is spared personal pain must feel themselves called upon to help in diminishing the pain of others. We must carry our share of misery which lies upon the world.
There are lots of unanswerable questions. Schweitzer grappled with the paradoxes of the human-animal-nature relationship as no philosopher had done before, and struggled with the torment of having to decide which shall live, which shall die. He was totally aware of all the difficult choices humans have to make with regard to the animals. He struggled for years to understand what he knew by instinct. And after years and much scribbling of ideas, his whole philosophy flashed through him and revealed itself as Reverence for Life. This is very much like Woolman’s arrival at his ethic of Universal Rightness.
This was so important to Schweitzer that he spent the rest of his life trying to get the world’s acceptance of that philosophy. The ethic of Reverence for Life is the ethic of love widened into universality. He believed (as I do), that Western ethics, in regard to animals and nature had been greatly damaged by the influence of the 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes, who suggested that animals have no souls and are mere machines. He’s the one that came up with, I think, therefore I am.
Of course much has changed, much for the better, with no small thanks to the life and philosophy of Schweitzer. However . . . much is worse. Factory farming is an abomination.
Maybe this is the point where I speak about the statistics of factory farming, or what we now call ‘industrial agriculture’ or ‘agri-business’. When I think about what this means I feel the life go out of me. I can hardly speak of it. I’ve put lots of leaflets out so you can see for yourselves what this kind of farming is doing to our planet, to our health and to the animals. It doesn’t make for happy reading. It also makes me very angry that we let this go on – but it’s here, against the huge corporations like Monsanto, Bayer, Unilever and others, where we feel our utter powerlessness; and where we stop noticing because it’s become the norm. We have to resist it. As I write this I feel the energy drain from my body through pure anger, frustration and the horror of it all, disguised in its reasonable languaging. Horror because I know the under-belly of these kinds of farming methods.
Just a couple of statistics: each day in the UK, we kill two million chickens. Each day! Those chickens have a life span of 35 days and then the next batch are brought on. They live in hi-tech conditions with nothing natural. Each year in the world, over fifty-six billion animals are reared for food in intensive factory farms. That means for their whole lives there’s no bedding, no room to turn around, no possibility to carry out any natural behaviour. That’s the kind of existence they have.
We know that meat production is one of the biggest contributors to CO2 emissions. We’ve known for a long time. And very recently we’ve heard from the scientists the extreme urgency of cutting down on carbon emissions.
We know too, that animals have consciousness. Whether they also have self-consciousness is not known, but whether they have or not shouldn’t make any difference to how we treat them. They have emotions, just as we do. They feel pain, they feel fear, they feel grief, they feel joy. We can’t unknow what we now know to be true. Like us, they are sentient beings. Many of us who have lived near dairy farms will have heard the mothers and their calves calling to one another after they’ve been separated at only a few hours old. Here, we are listening to the sound of grief. Year after year this goes on. When the calves are ready for milking they will go into the milking herd and the process will be repeated.
Mostly in this talk I’m speaking about the farmed animals, as I believe factory farming represents one of the biggest threats to our planet. But the statistics of animals being used for experimenting on in laboratories are truly shocking, and the pain they undergo for our benefit is horrifying. There are still wild animals being used in circuses; there are appalling conditions to be found in many zoos. Bears in Asia are kept caged in cramped conditions for their bile; mares in China are kept in tied up in rows for their urine so that we may have Hormone Replacement Therapy, geese are force fed for foie gras. I don’t know if anyone saw the film, Suffragette? If you did you’ll probably remember the scene were the imprisoned women who’d gone on hunger strike were force fed. It made distressing viewing; this is what these geese undergo each day of their lives.
Added to all of this there is a direct link between factory farming and the loss of our wildlife. Intensive farming causes immense harm to wildlife and is one of the biggest drivers of species extinction on the planet.
These days amongst Quakers we hear a lot about speaking ‘truth to power’. We’re also beginning to realise that power doesn’t listen. Was it ever thus? Yes, I think so. Wherever you find power, you mostly always find greed, and generally abuse. It is why Jesus sided with the poor, the outcasts, the forgotten, and bid us do the same. It seems to me that the non-human animals are very much amongst the forgotten. I’m speaking today in an effort to bring them under a moral consideration, to ask that you give a thought to the creatures hidden away from us, out of sight and out of sound.
I want to add that there have been times in my life that I’ve been accused of being anthropomorphic. I’m not, and never have been. What I’ve argued for all of my life, is that each creature be given the chance of the life for which it was created; and that we’re curious enough, caring enough, compassionate enough to promote this; in other words allowing a creature to be itself, with its own habits and habitats.
So what can we do? I know, that with the best will in the world it’s almost impossible to change a system that’s governed by greed and power.
A friend of mine who I read this to, thought I was wanting everyone to become vegan. What I’m really wanting is that we pay more attention to what we consume. That we make the link not only to what we eat, but also to the products in our bathroom cabinets, our kitchen cupboards, our clothes, our cosmetics, our medicines. Much suffering has gone into many of these products. Let’s at least make it count by acknowledging it. I would urge too, that if buying meat you buy carefully and not from a supermarket. It means it’s dearer of course, but the price we pay for cheap meat is far too high. I don’t have the answers, but we do have the questions.
When we lose heart, and when we realise that power is never going to listen, and if we really want to do something about that, then Gandhi reminds us in this one short meaningful line, To be the change you wish to see.