Category Archives: Reflection

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

Franciscans helping Jews in the England of Henry III

The Martyrdom of Little St Hugh

Little St Hugh – Lincoln Cathedral
Franciscans arrived in England five years before the death of St Francis in Italy. By 1224, there were Franciscans in Oxford and Cambridge, helping to establish those two places of theological learning. King Henry III, known by some as Henry the Pious, was impressed by the Franciscans and their friendly rivals, the Dominicans. In 1226, the King gave to the Franciscans in Cambridge half of a stone house which had belonged to Benjamin the Jew.

The Jews were tolerated in England, mainly as money-lenders to the aristocracy. Henry borrowed staggering sums, and was unable to repay them. He then devised heavy taxes on Jews as a way of getting out of debt. He had, for example, passed a law aimed at the wealthy Jews that gave him the right to huge taxes or fines from any man convicted of capital crimes.

The Franciscans were missionaries: they had a strong desire to convert the Jews, so they took a special interest in the Jewish community. Friars took the trouble to learn about their customs and literature, and follow the politics of the place of Jews in the English community. Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon, the famous intellectual, was given special responsibility for the converts from Judaism.

On 27th August 1225, the body of nine-year-old Hugh was found at the bottom of a well in Lincoln. A friar, sadly, was the first to accuse the Jews of kidnapping little Hugh and ritually executing him, using his blood to make matzos for Passover. Emotions flared all over England and Henry saw a chance. He thought he would ride public opinion and have ninety Jews convicted for the double crime of kidnap and murder. He arrested them, had them tortured and locked up in the Tower of London.

18 of the Jews hanged themselves rather than risk the anger of a Christian court-room.

Many Franciscans refused to be caught up in the angry outcry against the Jews. Risking their friendship with the volatile King, they pleaded in court for the release of the remaining Jews.

The crimes alleged, the Franciscans said, could not possibly have been committed by Jews. Eating blood in any form is comprehensively prohibited for Jews, and Passover takes place, not in August, but in March/April.

The pleas of the Franciscan friars did not succeed in gaining the Jews’ release. However, they were not hanged but kept imprisoned for many months while the Jewish community all over England gathered together a massive ransom payment for their freedom.

The Feast of the martyr Little St Hugh is July 27, a day on which we Franciscans can both repent the history of maltreatment and misunderstanding of Jews and recognise three Franciscan traits: firstly, the desire to understand people and respect every human being as made in God’s image. Secondly, as our Principles put it, the desire of Franciscans to ‘make our Lord known and loved everywhere’, and thirdly, even when faced with spectacular failure, the willingness to stand up for justice, particularly to take up the cause of those falsely accused.

If you’re interested in Little St Hugh and want to know more, read Robin R. Mundil, The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England, London: Continuum Books, 2010, or, for Franciscan beginnings in England, relevant chapters in Maurice Carmody OFM, The Franciscan Story, London: Athena Press 2008.

Max the Word of God

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