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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

Saint Louis – one of our patron saints? September 11, 2013

Posted by Ted Witham in : Franciscan , add a comment

We tertiaries have inherited from the Secular Franciscans the notion that Saint Louis is a patron saint of the Third Order. I was excited to learn that the great French scholar of Francis and Clare, Jacques LeGoff had undertaken a 10-year study of Saint Louis and published it. I managed to obtain a copy of the 1,000-page tome for $15 (it’s usually about $80) anxious to read what Saint Louis could teach me about living as a Franciscan.

Saint Louis is worth the effort. The book is beautifully written and smoothly translated by Gareth Evan Gollrad. It has three parts: the first outlines the life of Saint Louis based on the best evidence available; the second goes more deeply into aspects of the evidence to explore how much we can really know about a personality from 800 years ago (quite a lot, it turns out), and Part III contains family trees, maps, charts, notes an bibliographies.

I have written a more detailed review at http://wp.me/p1E0m7-3n

King Louis IX, like his brother-in-law Henry III in England, surrounded himself with Franciscans and Dominicans. The new Orders were in royal flavour. And Louis’ life was strongly influenced by the mendicants and the Carthusians. He made justice and peace the main values of his kingdom. When he went on Crusade, like Saint Francis, he tried to convert the Muslim leaders. He cultivated humility and poverty. He toned down his dress and personal style.

As I read, I was reminded often of Queen Elizabeth II and her commitment to serve the people of her kingdoms and the Commonwealth as a Christian vocation. Likewise, King Louis, crowned as a “most Christian king” aimed to live that out in every aspect of his life.

Saint Louis, as it turns out, was not a member of the Third Order. Jacques LeGoff, however, draws a sympathetic picture of a charismatic man conscientiously living out his vocation. Saint Louis is not a plaster saint, nor is he some kind of tribal Franciscan hero: he is a human being and a Christian from whom we can learn.

Brother Duck – the latest biographer of St Francis July 5, 2013

Posted by Ted Witham in : Franciscan, Story Telling , 2comments

Jay Stoeckl SFO, Saint Francis and Brother Duck, Paraclete Press 2013, from $US 16.38 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

French clergyman Paul Sabatier published his Life of St Francis of Assisi in 1893. Since then, there have been hundreds of lives of St Francis. Sabatier’s Life has had a powerful influence on those who followed him, but ironically it was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books because of its unreliable telling of the story.

Jay Stoeckl, a Secular Franciscan from the United States has produced a life of St Francis in part aimed at children. The only invented character in the story is Brother Duck, a drily humorous fellow who followed St Francis after he saved him from the cruelty of soldiers. Brother Duck brings a wry and innocent voice which enables us to hear the thoughts of St Francis as he makes decisions to follow Christ more closely, and to choose Assisi and humility over Rome and glory.

Saint Francis and Brother Duck is a graphic novel, a comic book. It is not the first graphic novel about saint Francis: in the early 1980s, Marvel Comics teamed up with Fr Roy Gasnick OFM to produce the first telling of the story in this style. Jay Stoeckl’s new graphic novel is full colour making the experience of reading the story immediate and bright.

The challenge for those who tell the story of St Francis to children is make sense of the motivations that drove St Francis to defy his parents and to defy the normal pathways of marriage and work. Stoeckl makes good use of the graphic novel genre to make Francis accessible to children. After the scene in front of the cathedral where Francis returns everything of his father including his clothes, Jay Stoeckl shows Francis asking for forgiveness for the hurt that he had done to his family. While there is no evidence of the attitude to his father that Francis held from then on, this invention does help ground St Francis for children.

This would be an appropriate book to put in the hands of any child 8 years and upward, or in the library of any Primary School. While it does not claim to bring new insights to the story of St Francis, it has a high level of detail, making it suitable as a comprehensive introduction to the Saint’s life.

Compating Jay Stoeckl's stigmta scene (left) with that of Roy Gasnick

Comparing Jay Stoeckl’s nativity scene (left) with the stigmata scene of Roy Gasnick

Francis and al-Kamil show the way to peace May 17, 2013

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

Kathleen A. Warren OSF, and others, In the Footprints of Francis and the Sultan: A Model for Peacemaking, Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media 2013.

DVD-ROM ($US 19.99 + postage from Franciscan Media; from other suppliers > $15) plus free on-line resource material.
Peace makingDaring to Cross the Threshold: Francis of Assisi Encounters Sultan Malek al-Kamil. The book appears to be the academic and ecclesial support for the DVD.

The DVD, produced with film-maker Jaysri (Joyce) Hart, is a fascinating resource based on the meeting between Francis and the Sultan. It consists of two segments of 22 minutes each, 50 pages of online materials, plus recommendations for other resources. These are free and can be found at www.FranciscanMedia.org/francissultan.

The first part of the DVD shows the differing versions of the story. The second segment encourages the viewers to use the story as a basis for making peace, particularly in interfaith dialogue. The shots in Brother Robert Lentz’s workshop, as he creates a triptych of modern icons, are visually stunning.

The online resources suggest ways of using the DVD in groups, ranging from a one-hour session through to a whole day of reflection. These would be particularly useful for groups of Tertiaries, both in guiding groups through discussion and in preparing people for action ‘in the field’: not just talking among ourselves but also how to initiate interfaith dialogue. Sister Kathleen urges her fellow-American Christians not to assume that there are no Muslims in their community. Muslims are likely to be there, and a first step is meeting them and engaging them in general conversation. This observation is true of Australia, too. We moved to the regional town of Busselton six years ago. I assumed, lazily, that if there were any Muslims in town, they certainly wouldn’t be practising. But I have made friends with my barber from Morocco, who prays five times daily (in the tiny space behind the barber’s shop), and who, along with his wife and brother and the owners of the Halal fast-food stall, travels every Friday he can to prayers in the mosque in Bunbury.

A variety of guidelines for dialogue, including specifically Franciscan considerations, are given and explained.

Neither the DVD nor the online resources lived up to the claim that the meeting between the Sultan and saint was ‘a model for peacemaking’. The emphasis is much more on interfaith explorations, and the occasional reference to making peace with the Other was generalised. Those seeking instructions on non-violent peace-making for Franciscans would do much better to use the resources of Pace E Bene (www.paceebene.org and www.paceeebene.org.au).

Apart from this reservation, I have no hesitation in recommending this DVD for Tertiaries to watch, reflect on, discuss in groups, and act on.

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.

Remembering St Francis of Assisi September 30, 2011

Posted by Ted Witham in : Franciscan, News , add a comment

On the night of October 3, 1226, Francis of Assisi was dying. He asked to be laid naked on the bare earth near the little chapel of Portiuncula, down the hill from Assisi, the place he had made his base for his peripatetic ministry.

He was only 44 but nearly blind, in constant pain from an illness in his stomach, worn out from the lack of care he had given his body. It is true that he once apologised to Brother Ass, as he called his body, for the abuse he had inflicted on It, but there is no evidence that he heeded his own health message!

He died singing, and the legend says that at the moment of his death, larks flew singing into the sky.

Why do I find such a man such an attractive model of the Christian faith?

In a nutshell because he was passionate about God. He could be spectacularly wrong, as he was with the treatment of Brother Ass, but even that is a result of his never-ending enthusiasm to spread the message of Christ.

And in St Francis’ life, and on St Francis’ lips, what a message that was.

God, he said, is love. Well, we all know that. But for St Francis, God is love that never comes to an end. You’ve heard of Médecins sans Frontières, Doctors without Borders, well, St Francis proclaimed that God was Amour sans Frontières, love without boundaries. God loves every creature infinitely and equally.

Francis’ energy was spent in going about telling everyone this transforming message. If you really let God’s love take hold of you, you will never experience the end of it: it will always be there, always supporting, holding, delighting in you. Knowing that love, you can then pass it on. And because it is amour sans frontières, as you give love away, the supply never runs out.

That’s the whole message of the Cross, the whole meaning of the life of Jesus, the whole purpose of God. And I thank God for sending Francis of Assisi to refresh that message in me.

Immerse yourself in the infinity of Divine Love – love without boundaries!

Ted Witham
Minister Provincial

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