A personal plea for 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

3 thoughts on “A personal plea for kinship”

  1. Ted I can perhaps understand some of the tension that you are feeling. I was born onto a farm, but I no longer feel that I can be responsible for the deaths of other living beings for my consumption, especially when I can eat a perfectly healthy and kind diet. Certainly eating meat is culturally acceptable, but I don’t find that a good reason to continue the practice. http://carnism.org/ There is much that we have done in the past that was considered culturally acceptable (slavery etc) that we are horrified by now.
    I saw a little girl sitting in a trolley in the supermarket. Her mum beside her. At her feet was a culturally acceptable plastic wrapped lamb roast. This child may well have patted a lamb in a petting zoo and her mother would have been cooing, probably taking photos on her iphone. There is a great disconnect and we teach it to our children at a very young age.
    Why say that the poor need meat for protein? Or that we need meat farmers to help the poor? Certainly they need good nutrients, of which protein is only one. Lentils, beans and rice are a staple diet in many places (and these are in fact the basis of my diet). For many reasons meat is not the best choice, and certainly those who bring aid into areas of famine don’t bring meat -unstable shelf life, not nutrient dense- but instead provide them with some type of nutrient rich nut based paste. http://malnutrition.msf.org.au/how-is-malnutrition-treated.html http://awellfedworld.org/issues/scarcity
    Since becoming vegan it has surprised me that those without faith didn’t believe that faith and caring for animals was compatible. I was even more surprised to discover that they may be right. I have had a lot of trouble finding those who feel called, as I do, to protect ALL created beings – and I am not protecting them if I am paying someone to breed them and kill them for me. I am also with Fr John Dear (and Will Tuttle)- I believe not eating our brothers and sisters is part of living non-violently, and a key to world peace. (And of course it is not just about eating them. )http://www.animalpastor.eu/html/english_dream.html http://www.jesusveg.com/scholar.html http://www.fatherjohndear.org/

    I also want to say that I respect both humankind and the animal kingdom. I do not believe we need make a choice between them. I look into the eyes of both, see Jesus and feel great compassion.

    There is so much more that I could write. Perhaps I will yet. Of course there is that same tension in writing this… will I be condemned for my beliefs? Will I hurt someone’s feelings? Will others feel judged? But tonight I want to speak my truth. x

  2. It is a sad thing to associate St Francis with the animal rights terrorists. The Saint’s association with the animalism is due to one apocryphal children’s story about him preaching to the birds and animals – we have just had a blessing of the pets service here, to celebrate his day, as if that is all he was – an animal blesser. St Francis’ legacy is much much much more than that.
    To say that we should move away from the subduing of nature is to ignore a clear instruction of scripture, and to move towards pantheism.

    As an aspiring Tertiary I will re-think my intentions this is where it is going.

    1. Dear Alfred

      Please be glad that the among tertiaries there are a variety of views and that we are able to express them. The Third Order doesn’t have a particular view, but I did post the blog because I wanted to promote thought and discussion about the issues you and Asta both raise. The issues are complex, and include interpretation of scripture, the raising of people out of poverty, the ethics of farming, the blessing and care of creation and the limits of protest in a democracy. For me the key is to state our views in love.


Comments are closed.