BY KATHY FRESTON
Dateline June 29, 2007
There is a growing sense these days that the issues that plague our planet — war, injustice, and blatant abuse of nature — are intensifying and perhaps moving us toward the point of no return. And that if we don’t snap to attention and start doing things differently soon, we as a civilization, could be in real trouble.
These macro-issues are big, and they require big solutions. One question that I struggle with more and more these days is this: Beyond the obvious, are there ways that we could live, in our personal lives, day to day, that can have an impact on these big picture issues?
What I’m realizing is that peace is a circle, that the more peaceful we are internally, the more peace shows up around us. And if you look at it at the macro-level, the more peaceful our home lives are, the more peaceful our world will be. So is there a link all the way from our inner lives, or inner peace, to the world at large? Or conversely, could it be that a peaceful world would necessarily be one in which that world’s inhabitants are peaceful? I believe so, and consider it a useful challenge — to ourselves — to consider changing ourselves as one part of changing our world for the better.
I’m convinced that a world that is peaceful, a world without war, will be a world where the inhabitants are at peace. And a world where all the inhabitants are personally at peace will be, by necessity, one where war is impossible.
This is Utopia, of course, and many will suggest that such a thing is not attainable — maybe not, though some great dreamers have imagined it. For me, I would like to at least hope that we can move in that direction, that we can do SOMETHING that would take us by quantum leap into a higher standard of living across the board for everyone. I believe this is called conscious evolution, which describes the creative power we have to envision and then affect the advancement of life on earth in a positive way. So the question is this: Is there anything I can do now that approximates this world?
My focus in recent years has been on peaceful relationships , on finding your soul mate, in part because I am convinced that if our relationships are broken, it makes it very difficult (if not impossible) for us to achieve inner peace, and if our inner life and personal life are not right, it seems inconceivable that we will be available, spiritually or emotionally, to create a more peaceful world.
More recently, there is something that has become important to my inner spiritual life, and which I’ve recently discovered has a much longer history of spiritual and philosophical practice than I’d previously realized — vegetarianism and kindness toward animals. The basic argument goes like this: How can we work toward a less violent and more merciful world if our daily diet requires violence toward animals and denying these others of our global inhabitants some basic mercy?
I understand that the idea of adopting vegetarianism as a way to move toward world peace will be met with protest among some meat-eaters; none of us wants to consider that perhaps our most basic of practices are not in keeping with our values or ethics. But please keep an open mind for a moment, and please consider that some of the giants of both philosophy and the study of nonviolence have made this argument — it’s certainly not just me who is finding a truth in this concept.
In fact, if not for the well tread path of a wide range of moral and intellectual heavyweights, I would feel much less secure in my belief that peace and violence are circular — that the Biblical adage that we reap what we sow can be taken all the way down to issues of what we eat. So please bear with me as I drop a few important names in making my very simple, but also (I know) controversial, point.
Before the word “vegetarian” was coined, those who refused to eat animals on moral grounds were known as “Pythagoreans” because Pythagoras (~580-500 BCE) was a vegetarian who believed that society would not attain health or peace if people slaughtered animals. “For as long as people massacre animals, they will kill each other,” he proclaimed. “Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.”
Almost 2500 years later, no less a thinker than Albert Einstein echoed these sentiments, writing, “It is my view that the vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.” So Einstein agrees that a vegetarian diet will influence up, from personal to social.
Also more than 2500 years ago, the Bible was begun. Whether handed down directly from God or not, we can all agree with the beauty and profundity of the messages of love, kindness, forgiveness, and mercy within the texts. These writings, which are the foundation of both the Jewish and Christian faiths, consistently include not just humans, but all animals, as a part of God’s Covenant.
For example, after the flood, the author takes pains to make it clear that God is “establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you: all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals that were with you and came out of the ark” (Gen. 9: 9-10). Five more times, God restates the covenant, and every time, it is specifically stated that the covenant is with both human beings and the rest of the animals.
And in the Gospels, when Jesus is looking for a metaphor to explain his desires for humanity, he says that he has “yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Luke 13:34). Sadly, more than 95 percent of today’s hens never build a nest, let alone meet or protect their children.
And it’s not just Pythagoras and the Bible’s authors who felt that macro-violence (i.e., wars) and micro-violence (i.e., being unkind to animals) to be linked. In fact, Leonardo daVinci, Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Albert Schweitzer all made exactly this point.
For example Leo Tolstoy, whose teachings are responsible for both Gandhi’s campaigns in India and Dr. Martin Luther King’s in the United States, proclaimed that “Vegetarianism is the taproot of humanitarianism,” arguing that if we were not leading lives that are as kind as possible at the micro-level, how can our cries for peace at the macro-level be taken seriously? How can a society that feeds on the bodies of the oppressed (if you’ve ever seen animals in factory farms, you would agree that they are indeed oppressed) do anything other than make war, he wondered.
One of the most studied scholars of all three men is a Jesuit Priest and peace activist by the name of John Dear, who has written and preached extensively on Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King — and whose brand of Christianity is so impressively universal that even Richard Dawkins (the world’s most famous and devout atheist) would approve. Dawkins, by the way, is deeply “spiritual” (in an “awe of the world” sort of way) and deeply committed to humanitarian concerns. He is also passionate about debunking what he calls “flagrant speciesism” and “speciesist vanity” because of his recognition that scientifically speaking, other animals are our “cousins.”
But back to Fr. Dear. In a lovely pamphlet called Christianity and Vegetarianism: Pursuing the Nonviolence of Jesus, Fr. Dear writes, “We need to understand that if we’re eating meat, we are paying people to be cruel to animals… Vegetarianism proves that we’re serious about our belief in compassion and justice, that we’re mindful of our commitment, day in and day out, every time we eat. We are reminded of our belief in mercy, and we remind others. We begin to live the nonviolent vision, right here and now.”
Similarly, the Jewish religion has an entire code of laws, Tsa’ar ba’alei hayim, mandating that Jews not cause pain to any living being. The Torah is full of commandments regarding the humane treatment of animals and many Jewish religious leaders advocate a vegetarian diet, as detailed by the Jewish Vegetarians of North America. Rabbi Isaac ha-Levi Herzog explains that “Jews will move increasingly to vegetarianism out of their own deepening knowledge of what their tradition commands … A whole galaxy of central rabbinic and spiritual leaders…has been affirming vegetarianism as the ultimate meaning of Jewish moral teaching.”
Making the point, a video by the brilliant young novelist Jonathan Safran Foer has been getting some traction, especially since it includes guest appearances by noted Jewish scholars (and vegetarians) Rabbis Yitz Greenberg and David Wolpe. Tikkun founder Rabbi Michael Lerner stated that “Watching [Foer’s video] is a moral imperative for anyone who eats meat or chickens … Foer’s message is for all people who wish to live a morally coherent life.”
I love the spiritual arguments, but it’s also worth remembering that in addition to Einstein’s support of vegetarianism and Dawkins staunch anti-speciesism, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, John Rawls, was an ethical vegetarian, as was Carl Sagan, who once famously asked just how intelligent an animal has to be before killing her would constitute murder.
And of course, you can’t talk about compassion for animals without mentioning Eastern spirituality (or, you shouldn’t anyway). Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism extol the virtues of mercy and respect for all life. During a recent speech, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists, spoke out against experimenting on animals, eating meat, and other practices that harm animals. Of course, he was simply echoing the teachings of the Buddha, who said, “Let him not destroy life nor cause others to destroy life and also, not approve of others’ killing. Let him refrain from oppressing all living beings in the world, whether strong or weak.”
Then there was Gandhi, whose program Dr. King used in the civil rights movement, speaking for hundreds of millions of Hindus, declared that “the life of a lamb is no less precious than the life of a human being.” And peace prize winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer stated that “Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.”
There are those of you who might be saying, “But they’re only animals” or “Human concerns come first,” I know. First, as the foremost living Darwin scholar, Richard Dawkins, explains again and again, these other animals — cows, lamb, pigs, etc. — all share common ancestors with us, and they are more like us than they are unlike us–they are our “cousins.” Animals may not speak in words that humans can understand, but they do have emotions, interests, and individual personalities that deserve our regard and respect. Albert Einstein called human bias according to species an “optical illusion of consciousness.” He stated that the human task is “to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures …”
Or to quote Voltaire, ” … [Animals] are animated like ourselves; they have the same principles of life; they have, as well as ourselves, ideas, sentiment, memory, and industry. They want but speech; if they had it, should we dare to kill and eat them; should we dare to commit these fratricides?”
I would not suggest that someone who is working for peace and justice in some other realm change their focus in any way at all. I am simply suggesting that we follow the advice of some of the greatest thinkers throughout history and not sacrifice animals’ most basic needs (e.g., to live, to breathe, to be animals) for our most trivial (a momentary gustatory pleasure). Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”
Every time we make a dining choice, we make a choice between compassion and cruelty, a choice between the law of the jungle and the law of higher moral consciousness.
I know that these concepts can be upsetting: Some will protest that I’m simplifying, that there is no way adopting a vegetarian diet will bring about world peace. Of course we need the big picture full frontal assaults on the macro-violence in our world. Yes, the micro-peace work I’m suggesting may not lend immediate and obvious global results. But I can tell you that it is a step — a quantum leap even — toward being a more peaceful people.
And by being more conscious about the way we choose to eat, we would be walking the path of the greats from Pythagoras to Schweitzer to Gandhi to John Rawls to the Dalai Lama.
As our lives, day in and day out, become more peaceful in every way where we have a choice, and as our relationships become peaceful and soulful, we may just find that our world, also, will circle around to peace.
Feel free to check out “One Bite at a Time: A Beginner’s Guide to Conscious Eating” for tips on how to take the first steps.
Kathy Freston writes often on the need to re-examine our ethic toward animals.