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Claudette Vaughan, Editor of Abolitionist Online, interviews Norm Phelps, May 2007
Norm Phelps wrote The Dominion of Love to encourage all who revere the Bible as Holy Scripture to open their hearts to the suffering that we inflict upon our nonhuman brothers and sisters – and he has done a mighty fine job. Serious scholarship is always a joy to read but Norm Phelps has managed to lift the game by contributing enormously and originally to the subject of animal rights and Christianity. Frankly, it required it too. Here is the Abolitionist’s interview with Norm Phelps.
Abolitionist: You’ve written about animal rights from both a Judeo-Christian and a Buddhist perspective. What is your religious or spiritual orientation?
Norm: Officially, I’m a Tibetan Buddhist and a Unitarian-Universalist. One of the things I like about Buddhism and UU is that neither requires exclusivity. Both agree that you can’t find truth and goodness if your mind is chained to a set of dogmas or fixed concepts that have to be accepted on faith and cannot be questioned. Both challenge you to commit your mind as well as your heart to the search for answers to the only questions that really matter: What am I? Why am I here? And, How should I live?
J. Krishnamurti once said that, "All roads lead to the top of the mountain.” To which Huston Smith added, “If the top of the mountain is where you really want to go.” I believe that. If we are sincere and are willing to work at it, we can connect with the transcendent whether we call it God, Allah, Brahman, the Dharmakaya, or any other name. I believe that many people in many ages and cultures have connected with the transcendent reality, the “ground of being,” to borrow Paul Tillich’s phrase, and brought a higher truth to the rest of us. That, in fact, is how I define divine inspiration: establishing a connection to the higher reality. This revelation can be found, although not always with the same degree of purity, in all religions and all cultures. Since this higher reality cannot be reduced to human concepts or described in human language, all descriptions of it are metaphors intended to point people in the right direction. None is an actual literal description of what cannot be described. As Lao Tzu said, “The Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao.”
Abolitionist: Through writing The Dominion of Love, what did you identify as the guiding principle to help humans distinguish God’s message from human prejudices and “creative” passages with Holy Scripture?
Norm: All of the world’s major religions—I believe all authentic religions—teach the same two core lessons: First, we should seek to join our consciousness to the eternal, unchanging, transcendent reality that is the ultimate underpinning of the everyday world in which we live. And second, we should place the well-being of others on a par with our own well-being. In Judaism and Christianity, these are expressed as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Leviticus 19:18) And “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)Both Judaism and Christianity regard these as the heart of the Bible’s message to us. Jesus called them the “foremost of the commandments,” and said that “all the Law and the Prophets” (i.e. all the teachings of Judaism, and by extension, Christianity)are derived from them.
Reflecting my fondness for the Star Trek series, I call these two commandments “the Prime Directives.” I believe that they are the touchstones of authentic revelation. We have to remember that the Bible, like other Scriptures, may be divinely inspired, but the words on the page are not the actual inspiration. Divine inspiration occurs within the minds and hearts of human beings (and no doubt other animals, as well; but as of yet, we have no way to establish that). What is written down is merely their report on what they have experienced. But nothing that relies on human agency is ever perfect, and so the message recorded in the Bible, like the message recorded in all authentic scriptures, is a mixture of genuine inspiration and all-too-human fears and desires. We can tell which is which by looking to the Prime Directives. Anything that is not consistent with them is not genuine revelation, but reflects the personal appetites and cultural biases of the writer.
Abolitionist: What did you find pertaining to animals?
Norm: First, I found the arrogant, self-serving dominionist message that denies animals moral standing and says we can use, abuse, and kill them however we like. This is what has turned so many animal advocates off on the Bible, and there is no question that it is there. But there is another message in the Bible as well: a message that says nonhuman animals have the same immortal souls that we have, that they will be present with us in the Kingdom of Heaven, that animal sacrifice is an abomination, and that human beings should follow a compassionate vegan diet.
Over time, the Jewish sages arrived at a compromise between these two views, which they called tsar baale hayyim (roughly translated, “the suffering of living beings”), and which we call “animal welfare.” This is the notion that we may use animals for food, clothing, sacrifice, etc., but that we should cause them as little suffering as possible so long as that does not interfere with our use of them.
It is long past time for Christians and Jews to move beyond this compromise and live in the fullness of the Prime Directives’ call for love and compassion to govern our relations with all of God’s sentient creation. The Bible tells us that nonhuman animals have been endowed by our common Creator with sentience and intelligence; they are self-aware and have the ability to experience pleasure and pain, joy and suffering. By any reasonable definition, they are our neighbors within the meaning of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Abolitionist: Is Holy Scripture for humans solely or is the other of God’s creation included as well?
Norm: Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament make it clear that nonhuman animals are the objects of God’s care and are part of God’s plan for creation. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God makes covenants with the animals just as with human beings (Genesis 9:8-16 and Hosea 2:18), and a famous passage in Isaiah that has become known as the “peaceable kingdom,” says that animals will be present in the Kingdom of Heaven. (Isaiah 11:6-9) Jesus said that not a sparrow falls to the ground without God being aware of it (Matthew 9:29-31). Even Saint Paul, who was no friend of animals, says that Christ died on the cross for nonhuman animals as well as human beings. (Romans 8:19-20 and Ephesians 1:9-10)
In the creation story and elsewhere, the Hebrew Scriptures describe both animals and humans as nepheshot hayyot, “living souls,” without making any distinction between them. But our English Bibles, almost without exception, translate the Hebrew term one way when it refers to animals and another way when it refers to humans. Usually, they call humans “living souls” and animals “living beings,” although some translations call humans “living beings,” and animals “living creatures.” This is not translation; it is rewriting Scripture to suit the prejudice of the translators.
Abolitionist: Are Christians remiss in their duty to animals, Norm?
Norm: Isn’t everybody? I’ve just completed a history of animal advocacy that’s due out from Lantern Books this summer (The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA), and all of human history is one long horror story of the imprisonment, enslavement, torture, and murder of animals. Even countries whose culture has been shaped by religions that are more animal friendly than Christianity, like Hinduism and Buddhism, have a terrible record where animals are concerned.
But yes, Christians as a group are extremely remiss in their duty to animals and have been from very early on. Saint Paul denied that we have any direct moral duties to animals, and Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and a host of others followed suit. I am always appalled that Christians say a prayer of thanksgiving over the dead bodies of murdered animals just before they eat them. How on earth can you thank God for death, for the blotting out of a life that was as precious to that being as your life is to you and my life is to me? How can you thank God for cruelty and killing?
By and large, the Christian churches have lent their imprimatur, so to speak, to animal imprisonment, enslavement, torture, and murder. And that is a betrayal of the fundamental teachings of their faith at least equal to the betrayal represented by Christianity’s longtime support for human slavery and the subjugation of women. But there have been bright spots. Many of the early saints were vegetarians who protected animals from hunters and other dangers. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was Protestant clergy who put animals on the moral agenda of Great Britain and the United States. And today, there are numerous groups working for animal rights within the Christian tradition, including the Christian Vegetarian Association, All-Creatures.Org, God’s Creatures’ Ministry, The Catholic Circle for Animal Welfare, Episcoveg, Viatoris Ministries, and Unitarian-Universalists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And Jewish Vegetarians of North America and Jews for Animal Rights jump immediately to mind as groups that are doing great work in the Jewish community.
Abolitionist: You said (pg 37) that “the Christian tradition has typically been less open than the Jewish tradition to the idea of loving God by loving Creation” Why is that?
Norm: Christian doctrine was profoundly shaped by Saint Paul, who was a cosmopolitan Jew from the Greek city of Tarsus, on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. Paul’s first language was Greek, which was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean region—although he was also fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, and, possibly, Latin—and he had a formidable Greek education. He was well versed in Greek philosophy, and his theology is a mixture of messianic Judaism, Greek philosophy, and Greek popular religion. Paul took his view of animals from Aristotle and the Stoics, not from Judaism. He explicitly rejected the Jewish teachings on tsar baale hayyim, (animal welfare) and espoused the Greek view that we have no moral duties toward animals and may treat them any way we please. Paul’s view was subsequently adopted by Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and other Christian theologians.
But with the Reformation, Protestant clergy began looking almost exclusively to the Bible for spiritual and moral guidance (as opposed to Catholic clergy and theologians, who placed heavy reliance on the magisterium, or teaching authority, of the Church). In the Bible, these Protestant clergy rediscovered the Jewish teachings on animal welfare which Paul had rejected, and introduced them to Europe.
Abolitionist: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, issued by Pope John Paul ll as an authorative statement of Catholic doctrine, in the chapter titled “Respect For The Integrity of Creation”, what was said on our ethical obligations towards the environment and animals?
Norm: The Catechism adopts an animal welfare philosophy. God created animals for us to use for food, clothing, labor, entertainment, experiments, etc., and so we may imprison, enslave, and murder them (although, of course, the Catechism does not use those terms) for our own benefit. However, since God also created animals as sentient beings, we have an obligation not to make them suffer any more than is absolutely essential to the use that we are putting them to.
As inadequate as this is, we still have to recognise that it represents a great leap forward for what may be the world’s most conservative and slow-to-change institution. From the time of Saint Paul through Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas until the publication of the new Catechism in 1992, the official position of the Church was taken from Aristotle, rather than from the Bible, viz. that we have no direct duties to animals whatsoever, not even the duty to treat them with kindness or minimize their suffering.
It is worth noting that this Catechism was prepared under the direction of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. As Pope, he has condemned both factory farms and foie gras production, and a Vatican theologian known to be close to him, Marie Hendrickx, has published an article in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, condemning bull fights and the fiestas populares in Spain, in which animals are tormented as part of the celebration of a saint’s day.
As to the environment, the Catechism teaches that we have an obligation to protect and maintain it both because it reflects the glory of God and so that natural resources will be available to sustain future generations of human beings.
Abolitionist: Where do divine rights come into the picture for animals, Norm? One could assume correctly that as animals are given natural lifespans, as humans are, from birth, reproduction and death, that all these stages must be fulfilled as is their natural destiny. Would you agree?
Norm: Indeed I would. When we play God with living, sentient beings, we act more like Satan than God. Spiritually and morally, I see no difference between killing a nonhuman animal and killing a human being. Morality requires equality. Moral hierarchies are inherently immoral. There is no morally and spiritually valid solution to what is often called “the animal problem” (it should actually be called, “the human problem”) except to grant animals total and absolute moral equality with us.
Andrew Linzey, the Anglican priest and theologian who pioneered animal rights theology, argues that since the entire universe is God’s creation, only God has rights and all rights belong to God. When we speak of “human rights,” for example, Linzey sees the term as shorthand for “God’s right that God’s human creation be treated with respect and compassion,” and the same is true of animal rights. When we imprison, enslave, torture, and murder God’s sentient creation, we arrogate to ourselves rights that belong only to God and we disrespect our common creator. Animals belong to God, not to us, and when we claim that they were created for us to use, we are arrogantly putting ourselves first and God second. Christians are supposed to serve God; but when they claim that God created animals for our use, they are trying to make God serve us.
An important exception that I would make here is when we have to interfere with the natural life processes of animals to prevent greater animal suffering. I strongly support spay and neuter for dogs and cats, for example, because it is essential to eliminating the suffering and premature death of companion animals who are unfortunate enough to be without a home.
Abolitionist: We humans have created a very unnatural life for many animals through cloning and artificial insemination and mixing and matching genes to suit a fashion. What does that say about us from a religious perspective Norm?
Norm: That we are arrogant, selfish, and shallow. And that we have a much higher estimate of our own intelligence, good judgment, and self-control than the evidence warrants. Again, as I suggested a moment ago, we talk a good game about worshipping God, but our behavior says loud and clear that we really worship ourselves.
Abolitionist: Why are you vegan, Norm?
Norm: That’s easy. I can’t bear the thought that sentient beings should have to suffer and die because I like the taste of their flesh or the feel of their skin on my feet. It’s that simple. There’s no need for a lot of sophisticated theology or philosophy.
Unless they have been blinded to the obvious by their own appetites and fears and the customs of our society, anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that animals—including fish, crustaceans, birds, insects, and worms—are sentient beings. And everyone also knows that all sentient beings desire happiness and abhor pain, love life and dread death. We experience our own suffering and death as evil, and because of that, we know that the suffering and death of other sentient beings is evil as well. Any attempt to deny our own direct, immediate, apodictic knowledge through abstract argumentation or claims of divine authority are sophistry or pious fraud. God’s blessed revelation resides deep within the soul of each of us, if only we will silence our own selfishness and pride and listen to God’s “still, small voice.” And what that voice says is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I do not want to be killed and eaten by the tiger; therefore, I should not kill and eat the cow, the pig, or the chicken.
Abolitionist: All of us respond to kindness. When in trouble we will accept kindness by anyone. In an animal’s case a kind act is often the difference between life or death for them. How can this be changed – tightened up so life for a domestic animal isn’t so precarious?
Norm: Oh, don’t I wish I knew the answer to that one! I don’t have a magical strategy that if implemented would end animal exploitation in a year, or a decade, or even in a generation. No one does, not even—perhaps especially—those who think they do. Animal exploitation is the most entrenched form of injustice that our planet has ever seen. Every human society from prehistory to the present has been founded on and maintained by animal enslavement and murder. It will take generations to overcome. And so, I guess my first answer to your question is something we must not do: and that is give up. We are the only hope that animals have, and they cannot afford for us to indulge in the luxury of getting discouraged and wandering off to find an easier battle to fight.
In regard to the animal revolution, society today is in a “pre-revolutionary” state, if I may use a term that was popular with the political left in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That is to say, far too few people recognize the need for ending animal exploitation for a vegan society to become a reality in the foreseeable future. At present, the public supports animal welfare, and while I support what are sometimes called “welfarist” campaigns—cage-free eggs, for example—as necessary milestones on the road to animal liberation, animal welfare as a goal is a grossly inadequate solution to animal enslavement and murder. As a means, welfare can be an effective tactic and an important tool for easing suffering that we still lack the power to eliminate; but as a goal, welfare is a betrayal of the animals we want to help.
At this stage in the history of our species, the primary task of the animal rights movement is to raise the consciousness of the general public to the point that the revolution in our relationship to animals becomes doable. I am not talking here just about humane education, although I certainly support humane education. I am talking about planning and executing every campaign that we undertake with a view not simply to eliminating or alleviating a particular instance of abuse, but with a view to educating the public about the sensitivity of animals, the suffering that we inflict upon them, and the need to end their imprisonment, enslavement, torture, and murder for human benefit.
In this regard, I think it is imperative that the secular animal rights movement devotes far more energy and resources to the religious community than we have up until now. America is the most religious country outside the Muslim world. Religious teachings and religious values drive our public policy and private behavior to a degree that would be unimaginable in any other industrialized country. From the abolition of human slavery to gay and lesbian rights, no social justice movement has ever succeeded in the United States without the support of at least a significant segment of the religious community. But with the exception of PETA, the secular animal rights movement has generally ignored religion and sometimes been downright hostile to it.
The only other comment that I will make about strategy is that I agree wholeheartedly with Rod Coronado’s recent statements that violence—including violence against property—is counterproductive and should be abandoned by the movement for the sake of the animals. I believe this for a number of reasons, of which, in the interests of not wandering too far off topic, I will mention only one. News stories of bombings and arsons distract the public from animal abuse and focus their attention on us. They make us the issue instead of the animals, and they make torturers and serial killers look like victims. They make it easy for the federal government, working in league with the animal abuse industries, to portray animal activists as terrorists and enact repressive laws that could cripple animal activism—like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which criminalizes even nonviolent civil disobedience, open rescues, and undercover investigations of animal abuse facilities. Every trial lawyer knows that a jury’s verdict may depend less on the facts of the case than on whether the jury members like the defendant’s lawyer. We represent the animals before the jury of public opinion, and if the American public sees us as thugs and terrorists, the animals don’t stand a chance.
Abolitionist: You wrote that God did mandate a strict vegan diet in the Garden of Eden (before the knowledge of good and evil). Will you answer your own question please and that is: When we slaughter animals for food, are we exercising the dominion of love? Are we living as the image of God, whose nature is love and compassion?
Norm: Absolutely not. I am always amazed at people who claim to love animals but still eat them. Much less people who claim to love animals but still hunt or fish. They really love the pleasure that they derive from animals, not the animals themselves; otherwise, they would not be so eager to take the animals’ precious lives for their own enjoyment.
Abolitionist: Animal rights theory seeks to eradicate the property status of nonhumans. Can this be achieved in a patriarchal society whose very existence centers around “property rights” and profits?
Norm: If patriarchy and property-centeredness have to be eradicated before animals can be liberated, then I am afraid they may have to wait a very long time. Society is slowly becoming less patriarchal, but the primacy of property rights seems to be becoming more firmly entrenched rather than less. I also have to note that the countries that abolished the primacy of property rights for much of the 20th century—the Communist bloc—had an even worse record in regard to animals than we did during that same period. Even today, most Marxist theory is hostile to animals.
The fact is that human beings oppress animals because of appetites and fears that are universal and exist in each of us independently of philosophy, religion, social structure, or economic system. Our various systems of belief and our social and economic institutions do not create animal oppression. They simply provide after the fact justifications for it. When a belief system or economic system that has supported animal oppression collapses, animal oppression does not end as a result. It continues right on without missing a beat, and a new justification is created using the vocabulary of the new system. In and of itself, the end of patriarchy and capitalism would not liberate the animals.
Whether animal liberation can occur while patriarchy and capitalism continue to hold sway, however, is a more difficult question. I am encouraged by the fact that the property status of African slaves in Europe and the Americas was abolished without the abolition of property rights in general. And I guess I think that what is needed is not so much an abolition of property rights, but a redefinition of “property” to exclude sentient beings, just as abolitionists redefined “property” to exclude human beings.
But however this may be, I think it would be a grave strategic error to tie animal liberation to the abolition of capitalism or any other more general restructuring of society. First, there are real and important gains for animals that can be made within the current social and economic structure, however unsatisfactory that structure may be on other grounds. To forego those gains by focusing on patriarchy and capitalism as opposed to focusing directly on animal oppression would, in effect, be condemning countless generations of animals to lifelong suffering and early death, at least some of which could have been alleviated.
Secondly, tying animal rights to a radical political agenda dealing with human issues, like socialism or anarchism, would convince the general public that animal advocates are a bunch of dangerous loony tunes, and set the animals’ cause back to where it was before Peter Singer wrote Animal Liberation. Animal rights is a hard enough sell without linking it another cause that the overwhelming majority of the public is adamantly opposed to. The task of the animal rights movement is to persuade middle America that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use in entertainment, and that animals are entitled to live their lives according to the dictates of their natures with as little interference from human beings as possible. We need to stay focused on that agenda.
Third, whenever animal issues are tied to human issues, the animals always come out losers because when the crunch comes, the human issues are given priority. When the human issue appears to come into conflict with the animals’ issue, the animals are abandoned. Something similar happened in the nineteenth century when abolitionists abandoned women’s suffrage. Up to and through the Civil War, the abolition and women’s movements had proceeded together. They had overlapping leadership, and advocates of one were typically advocates of the other. But during reconstruction, when a Constitutional Amendment was being drafted that would give former slaves the vote, feminists wanted female former slaves to be given the vote along with males. Afraid that this might endanger the amendment, abolitionists deserted women and opted for male-only suffrage. It was more than a half century before women of any color got the vote nationwide.
But having said that, let me be very clear that I encourage individual activists to work for all of the causes they support. I am not for a moment suggesting that animal advocates should not also be outspoken feminists, socialists, anarchists, or advocates for whatever other causes they believe in. I am only saying that the animal rights movement as a movement needs to maintain its independence and keep its focus on the animals.
Abolitionist: Why did you write The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible?
Norm: First, to demonstrate to Christians and Jews that animal rights is not only compatible with their religion, but is mandated by it. Neither Judaism nor Christianity can be true to its core teaching, its Prime Directive of universal love and compassion, until nonhuman animals are welcomed into the circle of their protection. And secondly, I wrote The Dominion of Love to show animal advocates, who are all too often hostile to religion, that while Christianity, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Judaism, have a horrific track record where animals are concerned, this dark history derives from the failings of the faithful, not from the heart of the faith. Christianity and Judaism can be enlisted to the animals’ cause, just as they were enlisted to the abolitionist cause despite the fact that the Bible supports human slavery. There is, in fact, more support in the Bible for the abolition of animal slavery than for the abolition of human slavery. And finally, I wanted to reassure animal rights activists who are Jewish or Christian that they do not have to choose between their religion and their compassion. It is Christian exploitation of animals that should be the oxymoron, not Christian animal rights activism.
In wrapping up, I want to thank The Abolitionist for giving me this chance to talk about the Bible and animal rights. And thank you, Claudette, for some profound and thought-provoking questions.
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