The following article, by our active member Thom Bonneville of Muswell Hill Meeting, appears, slightly abridged, in the current issue of The Ark, the journal of Catholic Concern for Animals.
We are grateful to the author and to Dr. Deborah Jones, editor and general secretary of Catholic Concern for Animals, for their permission to reprint the article.
As a member of Quaker Concern for Animals, a sizeable chunk of my time and energy is devoted to getting the animals issue on the table– and getting dead animals off the table!– for my local and area Quaker meetings. It can be a tricky and draining business. We’re a long way off from achieving what we need to achieve within Britain Yearly Meeting, to say nothing of Quakers beyond. I’m sure that many members of CCA and ASWA would say similar with respect to advancing the animals agenda amongst catholics and anglicans. So why bother about interfaith and risk further distraction?
Does an interfaith approach really have much to offer?
I’d like to point to a few of the benefits that I feel such an approach could bring, and to some of the questions that we could gain from reflecting on.
Deepening one’s own faith; finding its essence
In writing for The Ark readers I can thankfully take a certain orientation for granted, so I needn’t detain us with arguments for the centrality of the animal question for a christian life. We know that the christian’s raison d’être is to be, at this hour, as in every, with the poor, with the powerless and bereft, and that the most wretched, defenceless and de-natured of all oppressed animals are, for now, the non-human animals.
But while we have a ready reply to the question why animals (for christians) we should not skip over it all together. Rather, we should pause just here, at the place where we start from, and acknowledge that it is our wish to be true to the essential christian message that leads us on to the animal concern. It is the same impulse that can bring us to deepen and broaden our faith, theologically and experientially, through interfaith engagement. To give an idea of what I mean, I’ve observed in myself two kinds of motions toward animals: first, there is the immediate, natural feeling of love for an animal, without which, nothing. This feeling comes freely with respect to those nonhuman animals who have– and I apologise for the anthropomorphism– recognisable ‘faces.’ Then there is the mediate, willed love, perhaps ‘concern’ is better, which is more abstract and requires discipline, but which is also less sentimental in its complexion and corresponds more readily to that regard for the other as other, and not as self-surrogate, which we are encouraged to by Jesus’s admonition in Matthew 5: go beyond what you are obliged to do out of duty or merely inclined to do out of natural sympathy. My point is that when we strive to take on this outside perspective, we find that doing so reconnects us with what was already spiritually fundamental for us. The interfaith ‘gesture’ works on us in the same manner and via the same motion of compassion. It brings us to the truth of our own faith.
Given alongside this ‘structural’ truth are the bountiful, individual, self-standing truths that interfaith exploration ceaslessly confers. To offer an example that’s been personally important, my efforts toward understanding the specifically jewish concept of the sabbath have helped enrich my sense of the meaning of Quaker silent worship. An animal-relevant example would be being introduced by Muslim friends to the expanded notion of community in Qu’ran 6.38
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.
Living with such words can bring striking new insights into our ideas of christian community. I cannot but call them to mind when I read the catholic legends of saints and animals or even when I think on the communion of saints.
These discoveries and many others have become precious to me, though they differ in terms of their communicability as in their inspirational power. Having nourished me inwardly, they seem to want to spiral back out in joyful sharing.
Finding common ground
In the first instance, we share from the treasure house of our own belief. As adherents of a particular faith, we require no outside confirmation of the truths we call eternal, just as the saint requires no extra-personal validation of what he/she receives from God, but this should not lead us to hide them under a bushel. Likewise, when we discover commonalities across faiths that enrich us, are these, too, not to be shared, such that their enlightening potential can serve as beacons to our co-religionists and everyone else? We cannot anticipate the gains that might come from individuals’ first witnessing of the same truth and love expressed in many lands, in many garbs, by many tongues, and so we should be wary of underestimating those gains.
To turn the matter round now, we might ask what we have to gain from refraining from interfaith engagement on the animal matter. I suppose we can thereby avoid the unease of encountering topics that are really hard for some of us to stomach, such as halal and kosher butchery. Might we scare off, by the force of our own witness, tentative animal sympathizers from other traditions who might suddenly see their pro-animal activities as more christian than (islamic/jewish/sikh etc)?
And then there’s the potential for distraction that I referred to early on. While these are valid concerns, should we allow them to outweigh the benefits, especially when those benefits might in fact far exceed our hopes, untried as they are? There’s this to consider, too: in allowing ourselves to remain mostly ignorant about the teachings of other faiths, or to content ourselves with superficial views and readily available caricatures of their doctrines and practices, is in effect to bear false witness against them (at least in our hearts). Just as normative christianity does not regard animal consciousness as of particular christian relevance, so we might fail to perceive this in other faith traditions if we allow our attention to rest on their surfaces. Perhaps most sadly of all, we miss the opportunity of supporting the animal advocates working within those traditions, who might after all share, to an even greater degree, our sadness and frustration at being a minority voice for animals within a faith community.
A sure first step on the way toward interfaith animal engagement is to simply educate ourselves on the animal-friendly tenets of the other faiths. This is easily done, thanks to the good scholarly work that’s been done in the past fifteen or so years. Particularly comprehensive is Lisa Kemmerer’s Animals and World Religions, just out this year from Oxford University Press. (reviewed in the next issue of The Ark – Ed.). What could be more delightful than searching out these pearls and adding them to our storehouse of compassionate wisdom? An easy yoke indeed!
Here are two to get you started:
- Tsa’ar Ba’alei Chayim: this talmudic concept not only makes clear that all living animals suffer, and that their suffering must therefore be minimised, but equates an active compassion for nonhuman animals with righteousness. In doing so, we might say that it reveals a principle hidden in plain sight, as it were, in the Old Testament; for instance, in the shepherdship of Jacob, Moses and David. The development of this concept in rabbinic law has been exceedingly rich.
- Ahimsa: the vedic or shramanic doctrine of non-violence and non-hatred lies at the root of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. It can be easily argued that it’s ahimsa that’s responsible for the widespread vegetarianism we find amongst adherents of these traditions today. Gandhi, discerning links between this principle and the teachings of Jesus, famously applied ahimsa to political struggle.
For me, these concepts and others coincide with the core message of the Gospels as I hear it, and so I feel that it is not too much to assert that they embody perennial truths. Such evaluations are obviously a matter for the individual, but even if they do not come to occupy so high or so low (in the sense of fundamental) a place for the reader, merely being aware that they are there in other faiths will perhaps make the next steps of the journey easier, assured as we are that the regard for nonhuman animals is not a fringe concern of these faiths either. They may serve, then, as stepping stones and as topics to explore explicitly with the jews, buddhists and hindus whom we meet along our way.
Helping those who help animals
Thus far I’ve looked at some of the reasons why taking an interfaith approach might make good spiritual sense, so to speak, for individuals and individual faith groups. I’ve also noted the potential for mutual encouragement between animal advocates of varying faiths. What about the material benefits this approach can offer to the larger, non-religious advocacy movement? This comes down to two things: helping animals directly and helping those who help animals. I don’t think interfaith has much applicability to the former; it’s the latter area where big improvements can be made. To truly think usefully here, we must be clear on the big picture regarding the animal movement, how that movement is perceived by the status quo, how the secular side of the movement perceives us – their religious fellow travellers– and how we perceive them. That’s an awful lot to be getting on with, but perhaps we have enough of a rudimentary understanding to make some general observations now. I’ll venture some from my personal experience, anyway.
In striking up a conversation with someone at an AR/AW (animal rights/welfare) conference, talk or demo, I won’t have any idea where that person stands on the spectrum that runs from devout believer to atheist. Depending on the tenor of our discussion, I may or may not speak of being a person of faith myself. When I have, I’ve often met with a just perceptible narrowing of the eyes, sometimes a slightly crest-fallen look, or a tone of voice or posture now a bit stand-offish. I might be a bit disappointed by a sceptical reaction, by I’m not even slightly surprised. No less an eminence than Peter Singer has recently denounced religion as more or less inherently regressive with regard to animal policy. We know that he is wrong, but we can hardly blame him for making the claim or others for believing him. The facts bear the claim out. It is up to us to do the PR for religion. To be sure, we’re doing so as individuals, through our witness, and via our organisations for our own faiths, but are we doing any PR for religion per se?
Consider the panorama of interreligious strife (exemplified by phenomena ranging from apathy to out and out war) and intrareligious schism as it must appear to the average AR/AW person of secular persuasion or inspecific spirituality: why would any of that be attractive? Now consider the example of an interreligious coalition centering on AR/AW, demonstrating their willingness to put aside credal and doctrinal differences that must look trivial to non-religious persons, assuming that they can find anything intelligible in them at all. A non-human animal sees you as a human; your secularist confederate is more likely to see as religious, than as christian, jewish, or whatever. So be a spokesperson for animals first and then for religion– rather than for a religion – if you want to (help people who) help animals.
What about numbers? The situation here is curious: we’re few in reality but potentially enormous. In the march toward that fabled tipping point whereat pro-animal attitudes have become truly normalised (we’re close on some fronts; vegetarianism, to be sure, can no longer be described as socially marginal), numbers is the only game in town.
Secular campaigners know that a substantial, positive shift in animal attitudes within any of the world faiths would be epoch-making for animals. What they don’t have is much indication that such a shift is feasible. While we can’t swell our own ranks just by wishing it were so, we could in fact achieve something along these lines fairly easily just by making ourselves look bigger. We could adopt, in other words, the strategy of those schooling fish that by massing together are able to imitate the wave patterns of a much larger fish. This would an incremental step to be sure, but progress is being made by just such steps.
If we’re convinced of the relevance of AR/AW to all faiths and of the spiritual and practical importance of interfaith engagement for both animal advocacy and holistic christian witness, then we’re prepared to seek out opportunities for practical involvement. As with just about everything these days, the internet is your friend.
Steps two and three
If you reside in one of the large metropolitan centres, there are bound to be regularly meeting interfaith groups of many different sorts. Perhaps one of semi-annual interfaith walks passes through your area? If not, consider researching the interfaith calendar and finding out when one of the bigger walks is happening and book yourself a daytrip. Has your congregation established friendly links with, say, the area mosque? If they have not, suggest that they do. If they have, organise a coffee night with a set animal topic for discussion. For many who’ve been at it for years, interfaith can get a bit stale, often because it lacks a hands-on common cause; you might find that by introducing animals you provide a particular group with just the kind of refreshment it needs.
Or approach it from the other direction: do you know a AR/AW veteran campaigner? Ask them if they’ve been approached by members of other faiths and see if they can help put you in contact with them.
Be ready for rejection: it may take a lot of swings before you connect and, indeed, before you develop an effective swing. We all owe it to animals to persevere regardless, and it’s worth keeping in mind that even if your invitation meets with indifference it will not be for a lack of caring about animals but discomfort at going outside the box, so to speak. But be assured, too, that fellow animals people are out there, and once we find one another we can take the last step of organising grass roots activities together: street-level campaigning and consciousness-raising on the animal protection issues that you’ve found you share a passion for. Here I must come clean and say that I’ve only reached the threshold of this stage myself: I’m just beginning to make the transition from contact-building and talking about getting out there to actually getting out there! Regardless, there can be no doubt that it’s by working shoulder to shoulder with one another in this way that deep friendships will be forged, interfaith relations repaired and, ultimately, animals saved.
From out of this trust in one another, the theological side can deepen, too, since we will be secure enough to move beyond the commonalities of belief I touched on earlier and proceed to the real differences that interfaith dialogue is often accused of papering over. What should we do when serious disagreements arise? We hope to respond in the moment with both equanimity and courage, but perhaps all we can do in advance is to ask for the gift of ‘righteous humility’ and resolve to cultivate what measure of same we are given. There is, after all, no justification for competitiveness here. Buddhists are not ‘ahead of’ christians on the animal issue and muslims are not lagging behind christians: each tradition is beleaguered, compromised and insufficient—this is precisely why we should come to one another’s aid— and each might have cause to envy another in one area while taking a certain pride in its accomplishments elsewhere . Such comparisons, however, cannot but seem trivial and parochial when we consider the massive challenge we face in common and the globalised political and cultural context we now share. The origins of each faith tradition lie, as it were, the other side of an enormous chasm, and each and every one of us struggles to his/her feet on this side of that chasm: the side which is witnessing a seemingly unstoppable process of commercialisation, automation and degradation; a process which would have been hardly imaginable, in its scope and scale, to our forebears. For better or worse, we have all this to unite us. To return, then, to what divides us, perhaps we should simply accept that the promised land of interfaith/interspecies engagement will come into view only when we find that we can face up even to what divides us and either embrace or transform that practice/belief/doctrine (and transform ourselves with regard to it). Some of these differences are so contentious as to appear anathema to us.
What do we say, for instance, when confronted with a sacred practice that necessitates animal suffering? Truly, the essential light we share will have to be fired white-hot before it can break up and melt down these iron hulks. Then we will together celebrate not only the like but the unlike, or that which wears the guise of the unlike. For as William Penn said,
The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers.
This deep equality of both persons and faiths was testified to and radically extended in the words of another Quaker, John Woolman:
I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness not only toward all men but also toward the brute creation; that as the mind was moved on an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, on the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world; that as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God … and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature … was a contradiction in itself.
By the light of these and similar testimonies, can a christian animal concern that lacks the interfaith dimension pass muster as either christianity or as animal concern?
Are you interested in helping to establish a new initiative to promote and publicise interfaith engagement on animal issues? Please contact Thom on firstname.lastname@example.org