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A personal plea for kinship September 30, 2013

Posted by Ted Witham in : Reflection , 3comments

A PERSONAL PLEA TO LIVE IN KINSHIP.

I find myself caught in a tension between my farming family and my Franciscan friends who oppose the use of animals for food.

To suggest that my family engages in cruelty to animals is neither fair nor factual. To deny the viewpoint of my Franciscan brothers and sisters would be discourteous and narrow-minded. I think I have to live in the tension.

I read in friar Daniel Horan’s excellent book Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith that thinking of humanity’s relationship to creation as one of ‘subduing’ has long past. But, Horan argues, the idea of ‘stewardship’ should also be consigned to the past. Francis saw 800 years ago that ‘stewardship’ çan be equally paternalistic to most creatures. Francis invited us to see all creatures as sister and brother. Our relationship to creation is not ‘kingship’’ but ‘kinship’.’

I get that. And I get it that we should defend animals against maltreatment. The cow that is repeatedly shocked with an electric prod feels the pain. The pig that is clobbered with a sledge-hammer feels the pain, just as a human being would. We know they feel the pain because they are brother and sister to us.

But there is a tension there. In an imperfect world, human beings must sometimes be treated as more brother or sister than animals. I have finite funds to give away. I think I should give more money to children abandoned on railway platforms in India than to dogs mistreated in Australia. I shouldn’t have to make that choice, but I do.

I think I have to wrestle with the demands for human habitat and the habitat of the western ring-tail possum. It’s not a fair choice, and I should never allow our society – that is, our local governments, our Department of Parks and Wildlife, developers – to assume that humans win as a matter of principle.

I watched last night with horror the story of an abattoir in Victoria closed down after a single clandestine visit from Animals Australia. The government agency gave to this long-established business no opportunity to defend itself. It simply accepted a few minutes of footage in which abattoir workers followed government guidelines to the letter as evidence of cruelty. An escaped pig was bludgeoned with a sledge-hammer. The guide-lines actually recommend this course of action as the safest and most humane in a situation where there is a frightened, unpredictable animal loose in an area with sharp knives and dangerous equipment.

In fact, the presence of the Animals Australia photographer probably caused the animal to flee. Had she not been there, the situation would not have arisen.

An abattoir is not necessarily a pleasant place. Animals die there. But this abattoir was audited regularly and animals were apparently treated well. If this one incident was cruelty, then justice should mean that the operators were given the chance to correct their practices. But instead their licence to operate was withdrawn immediately. A score of employees lost their jobs, and the farmers dependent on local abattoirs were financially hurt. Some were forced out of business.

Landline took sides. I know that. But even if the program showed a distorted view of this particular case, there is a real tension here. Our brothers and sisters who are called as farmers pride themselves on their ability to feed the rest of us. Their role in our society is both vital and humane. Farmers generally look after their animals. It’s good business. They are our brothers and sisters and deserve respect for what they do, not condemnation.

Our brothers and sisters who eat meat do so because it’s culturally appropriate. Meat is part of the Australian diet. But as Franciscans we are concerned not just about those who can afford $40 restaurant steaks, but those who live on a subsistence diet. To help the poor out of poverty requires protein, and there is as yet no easy substitute for meat. We need our meat farmers to help the poor.

There is a tension between them and our brothers and sisters who are bred for eating. I look forward to a time when the human race can feed itself without killing pigs, cows and chickens. But that time is not yet here. The best we Franciscans can do for our brother and sister meat animals is to continue to commend the best in animal practices in our abattoirs. And we should, out of respect for our brothers and sisters the farmers, the small business owners, be properly informed before we condemn.

If we genuine live in kinship, then we are bound to live in tension. We need to speak gently and justly.

Ted Witham
September 2013

Max the Word of God July 1, 2013

Posted by Ted Witham in : Reflection , add a comment

I spend much of my day in the company of our dog Max. In the Franciscan tradition, dogs, and all other creatures, are Words of God. Not Christ, the Word of God, but little Words. Pets, animals, sunsets, algae, indeed all creatures speak to us a message from the Creator.

Max is a 2½-year-old cocker-spaniel. His luxuriant golden coat shines in the sun. He walks with his leonine head held high. The long floppy ears hang down over his jowls. He is a striking dog. When people see him out walking they always exclaim how beautiful he is. Max loves that attention. For people who love dogs, Max is in the image of God, at least to the extent that he has irresistible beauty. He is the kind of dog who compels you to admire him.

If a dog can command that level of instinctive admiration, then how much more should God. If Max shines in the light, how much more does God shine. If Max walks proudly, how much more does God walk with pride among his people and his creatures. When we think of God, we think of an attractive beauty that invites our rapt attention. We should stop and praise him for his extraordinary loveliness.

Max reminds me that how often I forget that God is present in beauty. I even have a sneaking suspicion that God loves to be told that God is beautiful!

Max is bred to be a companion animal. Max greets us both in the morning; and the greeting is appropriate for each of us. He greets Rae with effusion, bouncing up to her and wrapping his legs around her in his version of an embrace. He knows I respond to a different greeting, and he nuzzles my hand and waits for me to pat his head. He never forgets our morning greeting.

During the day, he continues to love us, delighting us with tricks and obedience when he can, jumping up to embrace us when we arrive or leave. If we accidentally tread on his tail or leave his water-bowl empty, he forgives us without question.

Max models God’s way of praying. God greets us every morning. God wants to embrace us over and over again during the day using whatever means he can find. Whatever we do to God, God forgives us. There’s no reserve when we have sinned, he doesn’t stand back for a while to let us feel more guilty; he simply resumes the enthusiastic loving.

Max reminds me how often I forget that God takes the initiative in prayer. My role is a poor attempt to catch up with the enthusiasm of God’s love for me. My response is not to resist the reality of God’s love (why would God love me without reserve?) but to marvel in its reality.

Max takes me outside several times a day. I’m an indoor person, and my health keeps me even more indoors than when I was younger. Max insists we inspect the village. He points out the birds in the hedge, often scaring them away. He paddles through the water on the road, splashing himself and me. He tugs at the lead so I will take him to watch the coy in the fish-pond. I don’t know what Max is thinking, but the effect on me of walking this dog is to see the glory of the world through his eyes.

Max reminds me to praise God for the fish, the birds, the sparkling water and the sun bringing warmth to a crisp winter’s day.

Max came to us with his name already decided. Now when I think of Max, I think of Ad Dei Maximam Gloriam, to the Maximum glory of God!

Ted Witham
July 2013
Max himself

Are Animals Christians? May 2, 2013

Posted by Ted Witham in : Resources , 1 comment so far

Laura Hobgood-Oster, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s compassion for animals, London: Darton Longman Todd, 2010.

Paperback 228 pages, $AUD 18.32 (online) Kindle E-book $USD18.95
The Friends We Keep

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Saint Francis would be saddened to see the crises affecting the world’s animals, and even sadder to realise that humans are a main cause of habitat loss for wild animals, cruelty to food animals and neglect to companion animals. The Friends We Keep is a thorough examination of what Christian theology has to say about animals. Professor Hobgood-Oster wonders whether we have made of Christianity a faith that concerns only humans.

She notes that, while there is not a huge literature on animals and Christianity in any period, from the time of the Reformation on, animals seem to disappear altogether from Christian thought. She attributes this disappearance partly to Luther. Luther emphasised the Word, and so elevated human beings to a high point – Jesus the Word was a human being, so human beings must be distinct from and of more concern to God than other animals. In emphasising salvation, other Reformers followed the humanists of the Renaissance in also giving pride of place to the salvation of humans.

Before the Reformation, animals played different roles in the lives of the saints: St Anthony the Abbot was often depicted with a pig. Jerome kept a pet lion in his monastery. A bird nested in St Kevin’s outstretched arm. St Francis tamed the wolf from Gubbio. The great Saint Hilda kept snakes at Whitby. Animals were both companions and helpers for humans. Some of the legends are based in fact. Others are charming and have little historical value except to illustrate that animals were more visible to pre-Reformation Christians.

Going even earlier in the tradition, the Bible has a positive role for animals. The giants Behemoth and Leviathan are God’s playmates in Job. In Genesis 29, Jacob waters Rachel’s mother’s flock, putting their needs above his and Rachel’s. In the New Testament, Jesus is happy to agree that dogs should get crumbs from the table (even if only metaphorically)! Hobgood-Oster tells a delightful anecdote from an apocryphal Gospel in which Jesus expresses compassion for a mule whose owner beats him until it bleeds.

Hobgood-Oster catalogues human cruelty to animals both in anecdotes and in statistics: the effect is almost overwhelming.

In today’s world, animals suffer in many of the places where humans interact with them. We breed horses with ankles the size of human ankles and wonder why race-horses “break down”. We crush pigs into tiny pens so that the sows can move only enough to feed the piglets. At puppy farms we keep bitches in elevated cages and continue to fertilise them until they stop having pups. Even the pets we choose we neglect.

How should we respond as Christians? Is Christianity good news only for humans? Laura Hobgood- Oster is Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies at Southwestern University. She argues we should show hospitality to animals in every way possible. She is personally involved in the rescue of dogs, but she notes many ways in which Christians might unleash their compassion for animals. In her University ethics committee she argues for fewer animals to be “sacrificed” for research, and for the most humane use of animals when they are necessary.

She suggests we eat compassionately, and one practical way of doing this is to eat less meat. Christians might return to the Friday fast and have a weekly meat-free day – at the least. They should be aware of the conditions their food animals lived and died, and where possible source their meat from local farmers whose animals are free-range.

If we bless animals, we should do it seriously. We should consider blessing food animals and wild creatures. The Friends We Keep includes liturgical resources, including a prayer from the Australian Uniting in Worship. Many organisations are listed, nearly all in the US, that promote better treatment of animals.

One of these organisations is The Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare (www.franciscan-anglican.com/enaw) which acknowledges a Franciscan influence. I read The Friends We Keep as a Franciscan, conscious of St Francis’s teaching that every creature is a little Word of God, revealing something of God’s nature to us as we encounter each one in love.

It is encouraging to read a Christian address these issues. While I admire much of the Australian ethicist Peter Singer’s radical understanding of animal rights, we Christians do have a distinctive viewpoint which should be heard.

The Friends We Keep is a book both to alert Christians to the theological dimension of God’s hospitality to all creatures, and an activists’ manual to help us engage lovingly and compassionately with the animals whose lives we humans affect. A book for Franciscans – and the animals we may bless.

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