Humane Religion Magazine
September - October 1996 Issue
ALL HEAVEN IN A RAGE
robin redbreast in a cage
horse misused upon the road
The Dog starved at his master's gate
From Auguries of Innocence
William Blake wrote these lines in 1789. Although his work was ignored by his contemporaries, what he wrote is remembered long after the poet laureates, critics, and opinion-makers of many centuries have been forgotten.
The depth of his understanding exceeded the self-limiting beliefs of the people of his time. So they said he was insane. But those who came after him knew it was not madness that informed his work, it was genius. The genius of the artist, and the genius of the prophet who gives voice to the truths that a later generation will understand. It was Blake's prophetic voice that caused the men of the 18th century to reject him.
The prophet (as distinct from the seer) derives his understanding of the future from his knowledge of eternal truths; from an understanding of the spiritual/moral laws of cause and effect. And Blake understood that the abuse of nonhuman beings was a violation of those laws.
It was not an easy thing to understand. He lived at a time when children, as well as adults, could be hanged for stealing food. In his day, people languished and died in debtors prison and blasphemers had their tongues cut out. In such a culture, it is difficult not to fall into the trap of prioritizing evil—a trap which insures that many atrocities and injustices will be ignored, because the struggle for other causes have become the only acceptable focal points for those who reject the status quo.
But William Blake did not make that mistake. His commitment to justice was informed by a depth of spiritual understanding that was inclusive of all creation—of all issues. In the same poem in which he denounced the abuse of animals, he also condemned the abuse of human beings.
The beggar's robes, fluttering in air
The harlot's cry from street to street,
Blake understood that violations of the moral/spiritual order had repercussions in the material world. There were others of his time who understood this causal relationship between the treatment of human beings and the welfare of a nation. But he was alone in his understanding that the abuse of animals, and the refusal to treat them compassionately, also affected society.
Blake's understanding of the nature of nonhuman beings and of their rightful place in this world, was biblical. An avid reader of the scriptures, he was aware of the evil inherent in depriving God's creatures of the freedom with which they were endowed by their Creator. That freedom is made explicit in the Genesis account of creation.
"God said, 'Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly across the expanse of the sky." Just as these creatures were given the water and the sky in which to experience the freedom of their species so, also, the wild and tame animals were given the earth for their natural habitat. "Let the earth give forth every living creature after its kind."
This first chapter of Genesis also reports that "God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good." The phrase, "very good"—meh-ode towb—is definitive. It conveys the message that, in its very essence, all creation reflected God's goodness. And all conformed, each in its own way, to the Creator's intent.
The bible tells how human beings were assigned the task of maintaining this Divine order of existence. They were to be caretakers—stewards of God's plan. But after the Fall in Eden, man not only refused to fulfill his own destiny, he began depriving other species of their God-given heritage.
In narrow cages, he imprisons the birds who were created to soar through the skies. He removes the creatures of the deep from their natural habitat, confining them in pools and containers. He ravages the woods, forests, and plains, killing or imprisoning the beings who were given those lands, in which to roam free.
Content in their cruelty, many human beings still refuse to see a correlation between their treatment of other creatures, and the misfortunes which befall them individually and collectively. Only the prophets and poets remind men of this relationship
“He who kills an ox is like one who slays a man”
From the time of Isaiah, prophetic voices have reminded people of this truth: Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who withhold justice from the oppressed...What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes..? (Isaiah 10:1-3) And although human beings make distinctions between animals and men, their Creator does not. "He who kills an ox is like one who slays a man....They have chosen their own ways and their souls delight in their abominations; so I also will choose harsh treatment for them. (Isaiah 66: 3,4)
But both prophet and poet offer another scenario: one in which the compassionate treatment of animals brings positive forces into human lives. William Blake wrote:
The beggar's dog and widow's cat,
The wild deer, wandering here and there,
And Isaiah told of a millennial world of mutual trust and happiness in which lion, lamb, and human beings share the happiness of the blessed. ”The wolf will live with the lamb....the calf and the lion and the yearling, and a little child will lead them....On all my holy mountain they shall neither hurt nor destroy, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” And although men like to believe this blessed state of affairs will come about when the animals have become nonviolent, that is not the first step on the road to the Peaceable Kingdom. That kingdom will come only when human beings have become nonviolent. When they have renounced the cruelty and self-centeredness that has led them to exploit other creatures, and each other. #