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By people of compassion
- The Church is Chasing People Away -
Response by Stephen R. Kaufman
12 May 2001
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, experiences, and feelings. I think we all feel rather alone and alienated at times, because nearly all of our family members, friends, and acquaintances don't seem to share some of our fundamental values. You may find in the Internet group firstname.lastname@example.org a community of vegetarian Christians seeking spiritual fulfillment. The Internet is not the same as person-to-person interactions, but it reminds us that, while separated in space, we aren't alone in our core beliefs and values.
Regarding souls, I agree that animals have unique minds and identities. What happens to that "soul" after death, for humans and nonhumans? I don't know. It seems to me that many Christians believe that Heaven is reserved only for our species. I doubt this, but I don't see this as a crucial issue. As I see it, a much more important issue is whether our compassion should extend to animals. I think it should. You might proceed, as I have done in one Internet discussion recently, to point out that nearly everyone would object to someone who walked up to a resting dog and kicked the dog in the head. That person, responding to condemnation, might reply, "I'm a human, humans come first, and I like kicking dogs." I don't think many Christians would find this an acceptable answer, because nearly universally agree that we shouldn't be cruel to animals. Most Christians believe that we may exploit animals to serve important human needs, but that does not mean that merely indulging our whims is a legitimate ground for directly or indirectly causing cruelty to animals. Since we don't need to eat animals, and since animals suffer greatly on "factory farms" today, is not eating flesh similar to the man who kicks the dog on the head?
Many of us feel called to try to protect animals from harm. It's a difficult calling, which can be lonely and frustrating. I often remind myself that, no matter how hard this work may seem for me, I wouldn't for a moment change places with the victims I am trying to protect. Knowledge can cause sadness and suffering -- it often seems more pleasant to live in ignorant bliss. But knowledge can also be liberating, for two reasons. First, we may stop contributing to suffering that, previously, we had inadvertently caused. Second, we may find meaning and connection with the rest of Creation that would not have been possible had we concentrated our life efforts on satisfying our sensual desires.
Aside from our minister, the only vegetarians in my church are in my family. The church picnic is not a pleasant event! Yet, I think my witness does make a difference, and quite a few people are, slowly, coming to appreciate my position. Tragically for animals, my efforts won't make the world a drastically different, more benign place. But, I do think my efforts do help.
I can't comment on the angry letters from your pastor. I've discussed this topic with many Christians who strongly disagree with me, yet rarely does the conversation get disrespectful. It's sometimes difficult to have tempered words for something we feel so passionately about, but I think there are ways to have constructive dialog. A few things that I find helpful:
Focus on my own witness, rather than claim that my interpretation of Christianity is necessarily the one, true faith.
Acknowledge others' interpretations, while showing that the issue is by no means clear. For example, a person might say that God declared all foods clean. I might respond that the Bible does not demand that all Christians be vegetarians. For those of us who have a choice (e.g., nearly all Americans), our diet should reflect Christian values and principles, which include opposition to cruelty to animals, feeding the hungry, protecting the environment, and preserving our health.
Summarize where we agree and where we disagree. You will often find that most Christians agree with many of our basic premises, such as that cruelty to animals is wrong, that we should try to feed the hungry, etc. Often, differences of opinion boil down to what we consider "humane." This may not be resolvable, but does not represent fundamental differences in belief or faith.
Never be sarcastic. One person said that abstaining from meat out of concern from animals was the work of the devil. In my summary, I said that, aside from claims that my work was from the devil, I appreciated his concerns, which had inspired me to engage in constructive reflection. I didn't ignore his comment about the devil, but I didn't make it a source of hostility.
Never, ever claim to know another's intentions. Most people are offended when you claim to know "why" they do something. Human psychology is complicated and nearly all actions have multiple motivations. Claiming that someone eats flesh due to "selfishness," "greed," etc. is always unproductive and usually wrong. No doubt, human selfishness likely contributes significantly to animal consumption, but it is not the only motivation. Similarly, compassion likely motivates many of us, but who is to say that all our motives are pure and good?
Hope this helps.
In Christ's peace,
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