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Vasu Murti

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Agenda for a New America
a-usa2.gif (3271 bytes)a-usa2.gif (3271 bytes)Part One
The Politics of Vegetarianism
Chapter 16 - Voices Calling for Justice

In his book, The Food Crisis in Prehistory, author Mark Nathan Cohen suggests that agriculture developed because the world was overpopulated; the environment could no longer support any more hunter-gatherer tribal populations.   Humanity is once again at a crossroads.

Since its founding over two hundred years ago, the United States has been both a haven for the oppressed, yearning to breathe free, as well as a nation with a liberal and progressive concept of "human rights."

The phrase "all men are created equal" once referred only to white, male property owners.  With the abolition of human slavery, it has since been expanded to include women and minorities.  Why should our concepts of equality, rights and justice end with the human species?  Religion has traditionally been a tool of oppression, but there have been voices calling for justice towards the animals:

From history, we learn that the earliest Christians were vegetarian.   For example, Clemens Prudentius, the first Christian hymn writer, in one of his hymns exhorts his fellow Christians not to pollute their hands and hearts by the slaughter of innocent cows and sheep, and points to the variety of nourishing and pleasant foods obtainable without blood-shedding.

St. Richard of Wyche, a vegetarian, was moved by the sight of animals taken to slaughter.  "Poor innocent little creatures," he observed, "If you were reasoning beings and could speak, you would curse us.  For we are the cause of your death, and what have you done to deserve it?"

According to St. Francis of Assisi, "if you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."

St. Filippo Neri spent his life protecting and rescuing living creatures.  A vegetarian, he could not bear to pass a butcher's shop.  On one occasion, he exclaimed, "if everyone were like me, no one would kill animals!"

John Woolman (1720-72) was a Quaker preacher and abolitionist who traveled throughout the American colonies attacking slavery and cruelty to animals.   "Where the move of God is verily perfected and the true spirit of government watchfully attended to," taught Woolman, "a tenderness toward all creatures made subject to us will be experienced, and a care felt in us that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation which the great Creator intents for them."

"Thanks be to God!" wrote John Wesley, founder of Methodism, to the Bishop of London in 1747.  "Since the time I gave up the use of flesh-meats and wine, I have been delivered from all physical ills."  Wesley was a vegetarian for spiritual reasons as well.  He based his vegetarianism on the Biblical prophecies concerning the Kingdom of Peace, where "on the new earth, no creature will kill, or hurt, or give pain to any other."  He further taught that animals "shall receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings."

Wesley's teachings placed an emphasis on inner religion and the effect of the Holy Spirit upon the consciousness of such followers.  Wesley taught that animals will attain heaven: in the "general deliverance" from the evils of this world, animals would be given vigor, strength and swiftness...to a far higher degree than they ever enjoyed."  Wesley urged parents to educate their children about compassion towards animals.  He wrote: "I am persuaded you are not insensible of the pain given to every Christian, every humane heart, by those savage diversions, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, horse-racing, and hunting."

In 1776, Dr. Humphrey Primatt, an Anglican priest, published A Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals.  This may have been the first book devoted to kindness to animals.  According to Primatt:

"Pain is pain, whether it is inflicted on man or on beast; and the creature that suffers it, whether man or beast, being sensible of the misery of it whilst it lasts, suffers Evil...

"It has pleased God the Father of all men, to cover some men with white skins, and others with black skins; but as there is neither merit nor demerit in complexion, the white man, notwithstanding the barbarity of custom and prejudice, can have no right, by virtue of his colour, to enslave and tyrannize over a black man...

"Now, if amongst men, the differences of their powers of the mind, and of their complexion, stature, and accidents of fortune, do not give any one man a right to abuse or insult any other man on account of these differences; for the same reason, a man can have no natural right to abuse and torment a beast, merely because a beast has not the mental powers of a man...

"We may pretend to what religion we please," Primatt concluded, "but cruelty is atheism.  We may make our boast of Christianity; but cruelty is infidelity.  We may trust to our orthodoxy; but cruelty is the worst of heresies.   The religion of Jesus Christ originated in the mercy of God; and it was the gracious design of it to promote peace to every creature on earth, and to create a spirit of universal benevolence or goodwill in men.

"And it has pleased God therein to display the riches of His own goodness and mercy towards us; and the revealer of His blessed will, the author and finisher of our faith, hath commanded us to be merciful, as our Father is also merciful, the obligation upon Christians becomes the stronger; and it is our bounden duty, in an especial manner, and above all other people, to extend the precept of mercy to every object of it.   For, indeed, a cruel Christian is a monster of ingratitude, a scandal to his profession and beareth the name of Christ in vain..."

The "Quaker poet" and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92), wrote: "The sooner we recognize the fact that the mercy of the Almighty extends to every creature endowed with life, the better it will be for us as men and Christians."

Roman Catholic Cardinal, John Henry Newman (1801-90), wrote in 1870 that "cruelty to animals is as if a man did not love God."  Or another occasion he asked: "Now what is it moves our very heart and sickens us so much at cruelty shown to poor brutes?  I suppose this: first, that they have done us no harm; next, that they have no power whatever of resistance; it is the cowardice and tyranny of which they are the victims which make their sufferings so especially touching...there is something so very dreadful, so satanic, in tormenting those who have never harmed us and who cannot defend themselves; who are utterly in our power."

General William Booth (1829-1912), founder of the Salvation Army, practiced and advocated vegetarianism.  Booth never officially condemned flesh-eating as either cruelty or gluttony, but taught that abstinence from luxury is helpful to the cause of Christian charity.

"It is a great delusion to suppose that flesh of any kind is essential to health," he insisted.

Reverend Basil Wrighton, the chairman of the Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare in London, wrote in a 1965 article entitled, "The Golden Age Must Return: A Catholic's Views on Vegetarianism," that a vegetarian diet is not only consistent with, but actually required by the tenets of Christianity. (Genesis 1:29)  He concluded that the killing of animals for food not only violates religious tenets, but brutalizes humans to the point where violence and warfare against other humans becomes inevitable.

"Honourable men may honourably disagree about some details of human treatment of the non-human," wrote Stephen Clark in his 1977 book, The Moral Status of Animals, "But vegetarianism is now as necessary a pledge of moral devotion as was the refusal of emperor-worship in the early Church."  According to Clark, eating animal flesh is "gluttony," and "Those who still eat flesh when they could do otherwise have no claim to be serious moralists."

"Clark's conclusion has real force and its power has yet to be sufficiently appreciated by fellow Christians," says the Reverend Andrew Linzey.  "Far from seeing the possibility of widespread vegetarianism as a threat to Old Testament norms, Christians should rather welcome the fact that the Spirit is enabling us to make decisions so that we may more properly conform to the original Genesis picture of living in peace with Creation."

The Reverend Dr. Andrew Linzey's 1987 book, Christianity and the Rights of Animals, may be regarded as a landmark in Christian theology as well as in the animal rights movement.  Linzey responds to criticism from many of the intellectual leaders of the animal rights and environmental movements--Peter Singer, Richard Ryder, Maureen Duffy, Lynn White, Jr.--that Christianity has excluded nonhumans from moral concern, that Christian churches are consequently agents of oppression, and that Christian doctrines are thus responsible for the roots of the current ecological Crisis.

"We do not have books devoted to a consideration of animals," he acknowledges.  "We do not have clearly worked-out systematic views on animals.   These are the signs of the problem.  The thinking, or at least the vast bulk of it, has yet to be done."  Reverend Linzey, an Anglican clergyman, has been called "the foremost theologian working in the fiend of animal/human relations."  Christianity and the Rights of Animals, is a must-read for all Christians.

In Christianity and the Rights of Animals, Reverend Linzey not only makes a sound theological case for animal rights, but states further that animal slavery may be abolished on the same grounds that were used in biblical times to abolish human sacrifice and infanticide:

"...it may be argued that humans have a right to their culture and their way of life.  What would we be, it may be questioned without our land and history and ways of life?  In general, culture is valuable.  But it is also the case that there can be evil cultures, or at least cherished traditions which perpetuate injustice or tyranny.  The Greeks, for example, despite all their outstanding contributions to learning did not appear to recognize the immorality of (human) slavery.  There can be elements within every culture that are simply not worth defending, not only slavery, but also infanticide and human sacrifice."

Reverend Linzey responds to the widespread Christian misconception that animals have no souls by carrying the argument to its logical conclusion: "But let us suppose for a moment that it could be shown that animals lack immortal souls, does it follow that their moral status is correspondingly weakened?  It is difficult to see in what sense it could be.

"If animals are not to be recompensated with an eternal life, how much more difficult must it be to justify their temporal sufferings?  If, for an animal, this life is all that he can have, the moral gravity of any premature termination is thereby increased rather than lessened...In short: if we invoke the traditional argument against animals based on soullessness, we are not exonerated from the need for proper moral justification.

"Indeed, if the traditional view is upheld, the question has to be:  How far can any proposed aim justify to the animal concerned what would seem to be a greater deprivation or injury than if the same were inflicted on a human being?"

Go on to Chapter 17 - More Voices Calling for Justice
Return to The Politics of Vegetarianism Table of Contents

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