Bruce Friedrich is a vice president of People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals (PETA), the world’s largest animal rights organization. He
is also a member of the governing board of the Catholic Vegetarian Society, the
advisory board of the Christian Vegetarian Association, and is a founding member
of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. He explains his views of
religion and animal rights in the following interview given to our Editor
DMJ: Bruce, after graduation, you spent six years working
with homeless families in a Catholic shelter in Washington, D.C. What made you
change to working for animal rights?
Bruce Friedrich: While at the Catholic Worker, I was
given the book Christianity and the Rights of Animals by Andrew Linzey. Linzey’s
essential message is about the nature of being an ethical human being in the
world today. He frames his argument in a Christian context, but the argument is
universal and applies to all of us: we should, where possible, make kind choices
rather than cruel ones, and we should lead our lives with a goal of making the
world more compassionate. When I finished the book, I began to talk to everyone
I could find about the simple fact that we make a choice every time we sit down
to eat – do we want to add to the level of violence, misery, and bloodshed in
the world, or do we prefer to make compassionate, merciful choices?
We all know that animals have a capacity to feel pain, just
as humans do; all animals have behaviours, wants, needs, desires, and so on.
Anyone who has shared his or her life with a dog or a cat knows that animals are
interesting and interested beings with personalities. It seems to me
self-evident that, regardless of whether a person has a religious faith, people
of integrity should make kind rather than cruel choices. People of integrity
should choose not to support cruelty to animals, and thus should choose to eat a
I read more, had conversations with many people about
suffering in the world, and took a few months to go back to school to complete
my degree. A few dear friends, Betsy Swart and Aaron Gross, made a persuasive
case that working for animal rights and vegetarianism would be where I could do
the most good, and PETA seemed the perfect fit.
DMJ: Are you still a practising member of the Church?
Bruce Friedrich: Yes, I am. I like the story of St
Lawrence, when he’s asked for the riches of the Church, and he brings the poor
of the city—‘these are the riches of the Church’. The Church is not perfect, but
it’s good on things like war and materialism. And if you take the Catechism’s
pronouncement that causing animals to suffer needlessly is not allowed, well
then the Church should be advocating veganism, since eating animal products
causes animals to suffer needlessly. The Church needs reform on a range of
issues, but that’s not reason to leave, I don’t think. Fr Richard Rohr’s Why Be
Catholic?: understanding our experience and tradition was very helpful to me at
one point when I thought of leaving. I’m not ready to cede the Church to those
with the least devotion to Christ’s message of compassion.
DMJ: You ran the ‘Jesus was a vegetarian’ campaign. Why did
you take that (rather arguable) line?
Bruce Friedrich: I read Keith Akers’ The Lost Religion
of Jesus and the intro to a book called James: the brother of Jesus. The
former sported an introduction by Walter Wink, and the latter by Bishop John
Shelby Spong. The former was dedicated to the idea that Jesus was a vegetarian,
and the latter included about 100 pages (of about 1,000) on that topic. The
theological argument that the historical Jesus was a vegetarian is extremely
strong, as Akers makes clear. We publicized this research in order to have a
conversation about the imperative of making kind choices where possible.
DMJ: While we try to change the Church’s views on animals
‘from the inside’, you seem to believe it more effective to slap the Church’s
face. Have you any evidence that your confrontational strategy works?
Bruce Friedrich: Our principal outreach to the Church is
through Fr John Dear’s pamphlet Christianity and Vegetarianism, through articles
I’ve published in Catholic papers, through adverts in America (Jesuit magazine
in the U.S.), through letters to priests, etc. I think we have, in our outreach
to the Church, been purely non-confrontational.
Some years back we did the occasional billboard that used
Catholic imagery—for example, we had a Madonna and Child image [which
substituted a chicken for the Child Jesus] with the tagline ‘Vegetarianism: an
Immaculate Conception’—but those weren’t focused on the Church as much as they
were focused on the general public—as a way to generate discussion and interest
in animal issues by using iconic (in both ways) imagery.
I don’t think that images can be offensive; I don’t think
that God cares about words and images—God cares about actions. As Jesus says
repeatedly in John’s Gospel, believing in him entails doing the work that he
does—what’s important is not what we say we believe (or what we say more
generally); what’s important is how we live our lives. That is, of course, also
the central message of the Matthew 25 story about the works of mercy—the one who
believes is the one who provides succour to those who need it. Linzey teaches us
that animals are the ‘least of these’ today.
So I don’t think there was anything ‘face slapping’ about
these images or campaigns. My many friends who are priests, if they weighed in
at all, thought these images clever. My bishop didn’t object. The only people
who seemed to be offended were Bill Donohue and his pals at the Catholic League,
and they’ve got a cottage industry going in taking offence. I figure if Bill and
his ilk are against you, you’re probably doing something right.
DMJ: You have been quoted as supporting violence – such as
throwing water in Ken Livingstone’s face – in the struggle for animal justice.
How can you reconcile this with a Christian outlook?
Bruce Friedrich: Dumping a glass of water on Ken was
street theatre—there was nothing violent about it. He just laughed it off,
but we reached millions of people with the message that starving pigeons to
death is immoral (unChristian, if you will). I did make one ill-advised
statement about a decade ago [advocating violence against property], based
on thoughtlessness and having not really considered the issues. When I made
that statement, I was thinking about the fine faith tradition of smiting the
golden calf, overturning the tables in the temple, and so on. But of course
Moses and Jesus took those actions publicly. I think there’s room for civil
disobedience in the Gandhian tradition (or the Mosaic/Christian tradition,
if you will), but I am absolutely convinced that we have public opinion on
our side (everyone agrees that cruelty to animals is wrong), so our real
goal should be to educate people—that’s the gap; people don’t know what’s
going on, but when they find out, they’re appropriately outraged. As noted,
the Catechism says explicitly that causing animals to suffer needlessly is
immoral; that rules out eating animals, wearing animals, the vast majority
of experiments on animals, using animals in circuses. We have people
ethically and intellectually; we just need to educate them so that lives
align with beliefs.
DMJ: You reacted publicly to President Obama’s swatting a fly in a TV studio.
No doubt you were reviled for lacking a sense of perspective. How did you answer
Bruce Friedrich: The media lacked perspective. We were asked what we
thought, and we said ‘It shows he’s not perfect, like the rest of us’. They
said, ‘So you really think he should not have swatted the fly?’ and we said,
‘Well we don’t have a fly compassion campaign and we wouldn’t make a big deal of
it and he’s great on a lot of key issues—like the fur industry, factory farming,
and animal protection generally—but like Dr Albert Schweitzer and Mohandas
Gandhi, we think that where you can be compassionate, you should be.’ They blew
that up into ‘PETA Peeved at President’, which was objectively untrue. I guess
you can’t believe everything you read in the papers or see on TV—I for one am
DMJ: Most married people in their mid-thirties have toned down the activism
and idealism of their youth. What keeps you motivated and focused?
Bruce Friedrich: Well, my wife is a part of the struggle, so I suppose
that helps. I don’t think that animals have time for us to tone down our
activism. Weekly Mass, of course, keeps me focused on Jesus and trying to
emulate Christ’s life. I try to pray daily, though I sometimes fall short.
DMJ: Finally, what should a church-based animal organisation (like ours) do,
in your opinion, to make the Church more pro-animal?
Bruce Friedrich: I think the most important thing is getting information
in front of the faithful; our arguments are absolutely right, as you know, but
people have not yet heard them. PETA is anti-copyright. You should feel free to
take our Christianity brochure (the one by Fr Dear) and use it however you wish
there. I am delighted to hear of your new book, which I can’t wait to read!