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A Tool of Oppression

Leonardo Da Vinci, Count Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, George Bernard Shaw, Susan B. Anthony, Percy Shelley, etc. were all vegetarian, and none of them were Jewish or Muslim.

Animal rights issues like circuses, fur, and vivisection (animal experimentation) have nothing to do with diet, eating, or food.

The real issue is the animals' right to life.

If vegetarianism were merely about "fit" or following a peculiar set of "dietary laws" why would pro-lifers be offended by pro-choice vegetarians and vegans?

They're offended because THEY KNOW vegetarianism involves the animals' right to life, and thus these pro-choicers appear to value animal life over human life under some circumstances.

Sometimes, being lighthearted gets the point across to Christians that vegetarianism is about the animals' right to life rather than "dietary laws": like Steve Martin in the '70s asking, "How many polyesters did you have to kill to make that suit?"


In my November 1995 manuscript on The Politics of Vegetarianism, towards the end of the manuscript, I wrote:

"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..."

And I went on to cite concern for animals within the biblical tradition.

Conservative Christians took offense at my words: "Religion has traditionally been a tool of oppression..."

(e.g., the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Ku Klux Klan, etc.)

But they're proving my point, because at every turn, they're using religion to justify exploiting animals! (e.g., saying "so much garbage" at every opportunity, etc.)

They're *not* using religion to promote vegetarianism and compassion for animals. Only a few clergy and theologians -- Reverend Andrew Linzey, Reverend Marc Wessels, Reverend James Thompson, Reverend Frank & Mary Hoffman, Reverend Dave & Patricia Koot, Reverend Annika Spalde and Pelle Strindlund, the late Reverend Janet Regina Hyland, Dr. Richard Alan Young, Dr. Charles Camosy, Carol J. Adams, etc. -- are doing this.

I would like to see organized religion join the struggle for animal rights.

Religion has been wrong before.

It has been said that on issues such as women's rights and human slavery, religion has impeded social and moral progress.

It was a Spanish Catholic priest, Bartolome de las Casas, who first proposed enslaving black Africans in place of the Native Americans who were dying off in great numbers.

The church of the past never considered human slavery to be a moral evil. The Protestant churches of Virginia, South Carolina, and other southern states actually passed resolutions in favor of the human slave traffic.

Human slavery was called "by Divine Appointment," "a Divine institution," "a moral relation," "God's institution," "not immoral," but "founded in right."

The slave trade was called "legal," "licit," "in accordance with humane principles" and "the laws of revealed religion."

New Testament verses calling for obedience and subservience on the part of slaves (Titus 2:9-10; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25; I Peter 2:18-25) and respect for the master (I Timothy 6:1-2; Ephesians 6:5-9) were often cited in order to justify human slavery.

Some of Jesus' parables refer to human slaves. Paul's epistle to Philemon concerns a runaway slave returned to his master.

The Quakers were one of the earliest religious denominations to condemn human slavery.

"Paul's outright endorsement of slavery should be an undying embarrassment to Christianity as long as they hold the entire New Testament to be the word of God," wrote Quaker physician Dr. Charles P. Vaclavik in his 1986 book, The Vegetarianism of Jesus Christ: the Pacifism, Communalism, and Vegetarianism of Primitive Christianity. "Without a doubt, the American slaveholders quoted Paul again and again to substantiate their right to hold slaves.

"The moralist movement to abolish slavery had to go to non-biblical sources to demonstrate the immoral nature of slavery. The abolitionists could not turn to Christian sources to condemn slavery, for Christianity had become the bastion of the evil practice through its endorsement by the Apostle Paul.

"Only the Old Testament gave the abolitionist any Biblical support in his efforts to free the slaves. 'You shall not surrender to his master a slave who has taken refuge with you.' (Deuteronomy 23:15) What a pittance of material opposing slavery from a book supposedly representing the word of God."

In 1852, Josiah Priest wrote Bible Defense of Slavery. Others claimed blacks were subhuman. Buckner H. Payne, calling himself "Ariel," wrote in 1867: "the tempter in the Garden of Eden... was a beast, a talking beast... the negro." Ariel argued that since the negro was not part of Noah's family, he must have been a beast.

"Eight souls were saved on the ark, therefore, the negro must be a beast, and "consequently, he has no soul to be saved."

The status of animals in contemporary human society is like that of human slaves in centuries past.

Quoting Luke 4:18, Colossians 3:11, Galatians 3:28 or any other biblical passages merely suggesting liberty, equality and an end to human slavery in the 18th or 19th century would have been met with the kind of response animal rights activists receive today if they quote Bible verses in favor of ethical vegetarianism and compassion towards animals.

Past generations of Christians quoted the Bible to justify human slavery, and Christians today quote the Bible to justify killing animals.

Some of the worst crimes in history were committed in the name of religion.

There's a great song along these lines from 1992 by Rage Against the Machine, entitled "Killing in the Name."

Someone once pointed out that while Hitler may have claimed to be a Christian, he imprisoned Christian clergy who opposed the Nazi regime, and even Christian churches were subject to the terror of the Nazis. Thinking along these lines, I realize that while I would like to see organized religion support animal liberation (e.g., as was the case with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American civil rights movement) rather than simply remain an obstacle to social and moral progress (e.g., 19th century southern churches in the U.S. upheld human slavery on biblical grounds), this support must come freely and voluntarily (e.g., "The Liberation of All Life" resolution issued by the World Council of Churches in 1988).

Religious institutions can't be coerced into rewriting their holy books or teaching a convoluted doctrine to suit the whims or the secular political ideology of a particular demagogue. American liberals argue that principle of the separation of church and state gives us freedom FROM religious tyranny and theocracy. Conservatives argue (the other side of the coin!) that one of the reasons America's founding fathers established the separation of church and state was to prevent government intrusion or intrusion by persons of other faiths or other denominations into religious affairs.

I agree with Reverend Marc Wessels, Executive Director of the International Network for Religion and Animals (INRA), who said on Earth Day 1990:

"It is a fact that no significant social reform has yet taken place in this country without the voice of the religious community being heard. The endeavors of the abolition of slavery; the women's suffrage movement; the emergence of the pacifist tradition during World War I; the struggles to support civil rights, labor unions, and migrant farm workers; and the anti-nuclear and peace movements have all succeeded in part because of the power and support of organized religion.

"Such authority and energy is required by individual Christians and the institutional church today if the liberation of animals is to become a reality."


Christianity can also be a force for change, a force for good, like the civil rights movement. In the early '00s, Maynard Clark, a prominent Christian vegan, asked rhetorically why should the animal rights movement even bother with religion?

I told Maynard that his words reminded me of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, who was on the lecture circuit in the '70s, explaining the problems of being a television producer: network censors, etc.

When someone asked him, "Why bother with television at all?" Gene Roddenberry found himself forced to defend the very medium he was so often at odds with!

"You can't just abandon a powerful medium like television," he explained. "It's one of the most effective ways we have of reaching people."

The same might be true of organized religion as well. My words may have resonated with Maynard, as my friend Albert, a Catholic vegetarian in Michigan, told me they were forwarded on to Reverend Frank Hoffman, who, with his wife Mary, runs the Christian vegan website.

Go on to: A Universal Ethic for All Mankind
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