Suffering and Injustice Concern Us All
by Vasu Murti
Do you feel like you’re being forced to practice Quakerism, because the government does not allow you to own a slave? Did the Quakers impose their morality on the rest of American society when slavery was abolished, or was it social and moral progress for all mankind?
Animal rights should not be solely aligned with a particular political party. Neither should they be tied to a particular religion.
In past decades, the stereotype of “religious vegetarians” was that they are all followers of Eastern religions, believing you might be reincarnated as a cow in your next life if you’re not careful. Now people are gradually becoming familiar with the strands of vegetarianism within Judaism, but many are unaware of the long history of animal advocacy, concern for animals, and vegetarianism in Christianity.
As I told Dr. Richard Schwartz (author, Judaism and Vegetarianism) via email in 1997: arguing as some Christians do that animal rights and vegetarianism are solely “Jewish” concerns is like saying, “It’s only wrong to own a slave if you’re a Quaker.”
No. Suffering and injustice concern us all. Like the abolition of slavery or the emancipation of women, animal rights and vegetarianism are moral absolutes and apply to everyone, including atheists and agnostics.
Richard agreed with me that churches should have animal issues at the top of their agenda as well.
The sad irony here is a lot of liberals see abortion as sectarian, too! They dismiss it as a “Catholic issue” or a fundamentalist Christian issue or say if you’re not born again, you don’t have to be pro-life.
If vegetarianism were solely 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.
And issues like animal experimentation, circuses, and fur have nothing to do with diet, eating, nor food, but do involve the animals’ right to life.
Sometimes being lighthearted gets the point across to Christians that vegetarianism is not about “dietary laws” but about the animals’ right to life, like Steve Martin in the ’70s asking, “How many polyesters did you have to kill to make that suit?”
Animal rights activist B.R. Boyd writes in The New Abolitionists (1987):
“Seventy to one hundred million, including lost and abandoned pets, are quite literally injected, infected, mutilated, driven insane, strapped immobile for years on end, blinded, concussed, burned, mechanically raped, dismembered, disemboweled, mutilated, and otherwise violated–often without adequate anesthesia–in order to test shampoos, oven cleaners, make-up, and scientific hypotheses; to advance medical science or personal careers; to develop and test nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional weapons; or for general scientific curiosity, and because public funding is available.
“Twenty million unwanted pets undergo euthanasia every year and countless others are abused by their owners. Spay-neuter clinics get little or no public funding, while the pet-breeding industry continues to enrich itself by pumping out living, disposable toys.
“Seventeen million wild fur-bearing animals (and twice as many ‘trash’ animals) are mangled in steel jaw traps and 17 million more factory farmed, then gassed or electrocuted, that we may wear furs.
“170 million animals are hunted down and shot to death in their habitats, mostly for sport, often leaving their offspring to die of exposure or starvation.
“Industrial pollution, habitat destruction, and our transportation system kill and maim untold millions, while we kidnap and imprison others for our entertainment in zoos.
“Ten billion animals are killed in America every year; 95 percent of them are killed for food. We force-breed, cage, brand, castrate, and over-milk them, cut off their beaks, horns, and tails, pump them full of antibiotics and growth stimulants, steal their eggs, and kill and eat them.”
“I have no doubt,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “that it is part of the destiny of the human race in its gradual development to leave off the eating of animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came into contact with the more civilized.”
Like pacifists and/or pro-lifers, vegetarianism, in itself, is merely an ethic and not a religion. As an ethic, vegetarianism, like the pro-life ethic, has served as the basis for entire religious traditions: Buddhism, Jainism, Pythagoreanism, and possibly early Christianity all immediately come to mind. As an ethic, vegetarianism has attracted some of the greatest figures in history: Leonardo Da Vinci, Count Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Susan B. Anthony, Sir Paul McCartney, Rosa Parks, etc.
At the end of 2007, shortly before moving to Israel, Pete Cohen of Veggie Jews in San Francisco said to me, “PETA’s not Jewish.”
When I told Jim Frey of Berkeley Pro-Life, a Catholic, that animal issues are secular and nonsectarian and thus applicable to everyone including atheists and agnostics, he said, “Well, just like with abortion.”
Pro-lifers must not play a sectarian game with animal activists. Saying, “your religion says it’s wrong to kill animals, mine doesn’t” is pointless when someone from a differing denomination could just as easily say, “Your religion says it’s wrong to kill the unborn, mine doesn’t.” There are pro-choice Protestant denominations, like the United Church of Christ.
As an animal advocate and a secularist, I’ve never understood the attempts of pro-life Christians to unsuccessfully deflect the issues of animal rights and vegetarianism by depicting them solely as someone else’s “religious belief” which they think doesn’t apply to them.
A lot of people look at abortion that way, too, you know!
Vasu Murti is the author of
They Shall Not Hurt or Destroy: Animal Rights and Vegetarianism in the Western Religious Traditions