Strength to Love

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Strength to Love

By Gracia Fay Ellwood, Peaceable Table

Like Gandhi, King, and Chávez, we must gain the strength to love both friends and foes (especially friends who are acting like foes!) if we are to win hearts and minds to the cause of the animals.

When we buy and eat animal flesh we are saying to the factory farm and slaughterhell moguls (or organic farmers), "I approve. Do it again."


"I Have a Dream," August 28, 1963

When I was a child attending a (protestant) parochial school, every morning we sang from a brick-colored, illustrated book of inspirational songs for young people. I remember one particular song meant to fortify youth against taking the downward path into a life of sin. The music was good, but the lyrics were not deathless. It began by urging us young folk to "Yield not to temptation, / For yielding is sin . . . .Dark passions subdue . . ." " Temptation to do what? What are the dark passions? We weren't told until the second stanza, which urged us to "shun evil companions" (so some people are evil, meaning children of the devil?) and "Bad language disdain, God's name hold in reverence . . ." "Fight manfully onward . . ." I would never be a man, but apparently I was supposed to try my best to be like one, which never appealed to me. "Be thoughtful and earnest," it exhorted us, reinforcing the suggestions of the first line that if it looks like fun, it's probably bad for your soul. "Kind-hearted and true,"--yes, I could see that was good advice, but it left the question unanswered.

Why should I take up space in PT dealing with third-rate hymn lyrics of yesteryear? This 1868 song was addressed to a rather different world, when the middle class had considerable (overt) suspicion of sex. Many evangelicals of the time extended this suspicion to play-going, dancing, liquor consumption, and other recreational activities, partly because they might lower resistance to erotic feelings. But in the 1920s, reaction against things Victorian started gathering force, and since then we have been hearing from every side about the unbalanced worldview and the harm to the psyche done by these inhibitions and anti-worldly attitudes. Is there any point in joining this crowd of voices by calling attention to "Yield Not to Temptation"?

In fact there is. In the midst of the text's less-than-helpful exhortations were two passages that I've been pondering more and more in recent years, which I will present below. Both of them help us to realize, in Martin Luther King's fine words, the "strength to love."

Temptation to Do What?

The question still needs answering. The references to evil companions, bad language, and dark passions suggest that by "sin" the hymnwriter, musician Horatio Palmer (1834-1907), may have had in mind youths joining the crowd going to the saloon, talking tough, getting drunk, perhaps falling into the wrong bed. This idea of sin may strike some as the typical anti-worldly-pleasures view, but there is more going on here than meets the eye. As Barbara Booth's letter in the May PT mentioned incidentally in its description of nineteenth-century American diets, the male subculture then was awash in alcohol. This Niagara of drink was a link in a complex social-economic situation that blighted many lives: exploitation of working-class people, lack of education, alcoholism, wife and child neglect and abuse, the oppression of women, the exploitative and violent underworld of prostitution and crime--all were multiply connected. These actions and situations certainly involve dark passions that should be subdued, not given free rein. But we must acknowledge that individual will power is not an adequate answer to any of them, any more than it will resolve the plight of animals today; broad social and legal changes were and are also necessary.

My focus here, however, is on the decisions and actions of the individual, and the individual's will does matter. When do cultural evils become personal sins? The heart of it is that yielding to temptation is sin when the act in question harms a living being. "Bad language" may do harm to the hearer, or it may not. One drink in the saloon may be pretty harmless; when an exhausted worker drinks down his meager salary to forget his sense of defeat, leaving a dependent family hungry, it is far from harmless to either party.

Readers of PT will have little difficulty applying to diet this idea of temptation and sin-as-harm. We all too often find that those who oppose our message like to portray us as anti-pleasure ascetics. We are rightly eager to refute this view by showing how many tasty vegan dishes there are; but we should not allow the central issue of harm to sentient beings to be eclipsed. As Howard Lyman has pithily put it, when we buy and eat animal flesh we are saying to the factory farm and slaughterhell moguls (or organic farmers), "I approve. Do it again." Likewise with dairy, and commercial eggs from hens caged or free-range: all are laced with blood, drenched in misery. The issue surfaces as well in some other products, like non-fair-trade chocolate, which in part is made from cocoa beans picked by human slaves (see We Were Slaves). These are situations when one should, emphatically, Yield Not to Temptation.


Salt March, 1930

Strength

This important clarification bring us to one of the insightful lines that made the hymn worth remembering. A major result of taking a firm stand against an indulgence that harms a sentient being is that one's personality becomes stronger in this area. In Palmer's words, "Each victory will help you / Some other to win." By saying a firm no to yourself, he was in effect telling us, you build up your spiritual muscle tone; next time you are inclined to do that wrong thing, you will face the challenge a stronger person. It doesn't mean you aren't going to stumble sometimes, especially if you have little support, but it sets you on a trend. (Major addictions require additional, expert help; I refer here to common dependencies.) Many of us who dropped animal products years ago find that what once seemed so overwhelmingly tempting has long been dead for us, and we may have to jog our memories in order to sympathize with the novice's struggles. It's good for beginners to know about the empowering effect of decisive actions.

Toughened moral fibre in one area of life is a boon, which may help us in other ways, but it doesn't mean one has reached Beulah Land. In other areas a vegan may still tend to be spiritually flabby--perhaps living amid distraction and chaos, or falling apart in crises, or cherishing resentments, or giving way to rages. More is needed; we must have a high capacity overall to tolerate discomforts and frustrations, or rather to cope with them.

Some people's lives are so arduous and painful that that such challenges face them all the time. But for others, who are used to a certain level of comfort, a good way to develop this coping capacity is spiritual disciplines. Like our obligation to free our diet from violence as far as possible, a spiritual discipline must be clearly distinguished from pleasure-despising asceticism. But the discipline is likely to be more difficult in one way: there is seldom a clear-cut moral issue to motivate one. In some cases we may find help for our motivation in environmental or health concerns, which do have moral dimensions, though they aren't always hard and fast.

Disciplines may be put into two categories. One is choosing to say no to certain enjoyable things that are essentially harmless or even good in themselves-- e.g., a favorite food, an unneeded purchase, a comfortable habit. Fasts, of course, come under this first category. The other side is adopting helpful practices that one may find unappealing, such as physical exercise, daily contemplative prayer or meditation, eating more whole plant foods. The practice may be either temporary or permanent. It is important to choose disciplines wisely, neither being too easy on oneself nor launching all at once into multiple, demanding regimens, such that failure is predictable. Specific dividends may vary, but the benefit of a life that is disciplined overall is a strong personality.


César Chávez breaks his fast, accepting bread from Robert Kennedy.

Spiritual/political leaders like Mohandas Gandhi and César Chávez, both vegetarians (Chavez was a vegan) for compassionate reasons, can inspire us. Both of them were in a position to take the discipline of fasting to the point of risking their life or health in order to bring moral pressure to bear on those who resisted their calls for justice. Chávez called his fasts "a prayer for purification and strengthening." Seeing this degree of strength to love broadens our horizons, but most of us should not attempt anything this risky.

Strength to Do What?

But it doesn't follow, unfortunately, that becoming stronger necessarily means having more strength to love. It is well known that a disciplined person living among the chronically self-indulgent will be tempted to a holier-than-thou outlook, which causes others to take offense. (Of course the others may become defensive and imagine contempt when none is expressed, a painful complication presenting one with further challenges.) The temptation to self-righteousness, which is likely to take gross forms in early stages, may become very subtle in later years, and calls for regular and unsparing self-examination.

A potentially worse problem is that those who are severe with themselves may also be hard toward others. Workaholics are firmly disciplined at their jobs, but do so to evade personal responsibilities. Some individuals labor diligently for causes they once thought good; but long after others see that the cause is badly corrupted, they hang on, lying to themselves and others, becoming more and more like the evil thing they serve. Some--from the family tyrant to the political dictator--exercise their strength to clutch, manipulate, and suffocate others.

(Of course, not all tyrants are self-disciplined. In the 1930s and 1940s, Joseph Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda depicted Hitler as the ascetic kind of leader, one who abstained from all meat, tobacco, alcohol, and sex in order to pursue his utter devotion to the Fatherland. In fact, however, except for a sporadic meatless regimen to deal with health problems, der Führer was very self-indulgent at the table, relishing sausage, liver dumplings and stuffed pigeon, as well as quantities of sweet desserts. So the familiar refrain, "Hitler was a vegetarian," was part of the Big Lie, but it convinced so many partly because it was built on the truth that sustained self-discipline builds strength.) (See Book Review, Issue 8)

"Look Ever to Jesus"

Like Gandhi, King, and Chávez, we must gain the strength to love both friends and foes (especially friends who are acting like foes!) if we are to win hearts and minds to the cause of the animals. Returning verbal or literal violence for violence simply does not work. Disciplines over and beyond veganism definitely help, but as we have seen, disciplines do not guarantee strength to love. Without help from beyond ourselves, we simply cannot do it.

Each stanza of Palmer's hymn says "Look ever to Jesus; / He will carry you through." Jesus as God-With-Us worked for King and Chávez and their followers, as it still does for many (including myself). Gandhi was inspired by Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, but felt called to remain in his own Hindu tradition, which provided ample transforming and in-couraging energy. In the last few generations, with the appearance of Engaged Buddhism, still other language for the empowering Ultimate has been used.

This is not to say that any conception of the Divine will do. God is real, more real than any of us; yet we must keep aware that every human conception of Him/Her is limited. A God or Goddess who actively demands animal sacrifice, or who blesses bullfights or slaughterhells, is to that extent crippled by projected human fears, cravings, and violence. And there may be other, more subtle projections. We must live in tension: asking critical questions about God, yet giving ourselves totally to God so that the strength to love can flow in and through us.

Only the Love that knows no limit can empower us to love beyond our small human boundaries.