I Am My Brother’s Keeper
(This is the homily I gave when I led an animal-themed service at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland in 2003; it was subsequently printed in EarthLight Magazine.)
When I was seven years old, we adopted a puppy – a little gray Schnauzer with floppy ears and an energetic bark. I had begged my mother to choose this particular puppy from the litter and was thrilled when we brought her home. The first night she was with us, my mother had put her in a tall box so she’d be safe and couldn’t climb out. But all she did was cry and whimper. Being very upset, I woke up my mother, and we took Charmaine out of her box and stayed up with her all night. We did this the first three nights she was home.
When I was 8 years old, I found an injured bird by our mailbox. She couldn’t fly, and she was all alone. Being very upset by this, naturally, I built a little hospital cage for her and tended her until she was well, at which time she flew away – as healthy as could be.
Like most children, I had a natural instinct to act compassionately towards those who suffered, whether they were human or nonhuman animals. The adults around me as well as my parents – like all parents who seek to encourage compassion in their children — were supportive of my actions and generally praised my responses.
However, when I was 19, I did something radical in their eyes and received not praise but disappointment: I became vegetarian. I had just read a book called Diet for a New America by John Robbins, which reveals the horrific conditions under which animals are raised and killed for human consumption. I remember staring at the pictures in horror and shock and crying over the realities that had been hidden from me for so many years. I stopped eating land animals, then all sea animals, and after several more years – and several more books – became vegan; that is, I stopped anything that came from an animal.
However, many people didn’t quite react the same way they did as when I was a child, and I was totally unprepared for the reaction I would get to my vegetarianism – especially from my parents. The reactions I had elicited from people when I was a child – positive reactions to simple acts of kindness and compassion – were quite different when I became vegetarian and eventually vegan.
When I was a child, my parents had been incredibly supportive during the episodes I mentioned earlier – staying up all night with me with my dog, helping me nurse the bird back to health, etc. Like most parents do, they dressed me in clothing that depicted adorable baby animals, they hung pictures and mobiles of animals in my room, they bought me stuffed animals (that eventually crowded me out of my bed), and read me TONS of books about animals or books that used animals to teach lessons of respect and compassion.
So when I became vegetarian, I was absolutely surprised by the defensiveness and hostility I encountered – from society in general and my parents in particular. Gone was the support. Gone was the understanding. Gone was their nurturing. In their stead were anger and indignation. And yet it was clear to me that the motivation to become vegetarian sprang from the same source as that which motivated me to intervene when I was a child – the same source of compassion my parents encouraged and reinforced!
I remember many many years ago when I visited my mother for dinner right around the time I became vegetarian. She had made roast beef. I reminded her I was vegetarian. She said she remembered but went to the trouble of making it for me and so knew I’d eat it – for her. I didn’t – and it was the beginning of a real chasm between myself and my family. My mother doesn’t do that anymore, and I understand NOW why she did what she did, but her lack of support and understanding hurt and confused me at the time.
I’ve often said that although I’ve learned a lot over the years about animals and animal issues, I’ve learned much more about humans and human psychology.
You see – There are all sorts of misconceptions about vegetarians, vegans, and animals activists. Many people think it’s a hardship to ask for a pizza with no cheese, to check ingredients on a label, to make sure the product I’m buying wasn’t tested on animals, to buy shoes that aren’t made of skin. And I understand it to a degree. I was raised on pork chops and hamburgers. When I was growing up, my father owned several ice cream stores, and we had a separate freezer just for the gallons of ice cream he would bring home. So I can understand why some might think it’s challenging to be vegan in a society that invented the bacon double cheeseburger.
But it’s not. What most people don’t know (until they make the transition themselves) is that it is an absolute joy to live fully awake – and I use that word very intentionally. The transformation that took place in me when I became vegan was indeed nothing short of an awakening – I literally woke up to a level of awareness I hadn’t felt before.
My transition occurred after reading a book called Slaughterhouse. The book, as you can imagine from the title, details the horrors animals experience every minute of every day. The awakening I experienced while reading it was profound. It was literally gut-wrenching to get through the book, but I felt I owed it to the animals who suffered so much simply to fulfill my appetite. I felt I had to look straight in the face of it – to be a witness – since I had been culpable in their suffering. I let myself imagine their suffering, as painful as it was, as it became clear to me that every animal raised for their flesh or for their secretions wound up in the same place in the end. I went vegan immediately and, unexpectedly, felt a tremendous amount of freedom in knowing that this suffering of which I am now so keenly aware has nothing to do with me. I wasn’t looking for this awareness. It was an effect I had not anticipated. And yet it has given me the deepest sense of serenity and clarity I could have ever imagined.
Much to the surprise of many who make this transition, it is an expansive rather than restrictive lifestyle. My choices have increased, my perception has broadened, and my values have been strengthened. I have found no experience more profound than living my life in such a way that celebrates life, that “finds divinity in every living thing,” as we sang in that last hymn, that seeks to live as nonviolently as possible.
It’s definitely not hard to live this way. What is difficult, however, is responding to a common assumption that because I care about this issue, I don’t care about others. That in caring about animals, I don’t care about humans, as if compassion for one species means lack of compassion for another. The implication, of course, is that animal advocacy is a trivial cause and that it exists in a vacuum; that is, it is not connected with other social justice issues. I would argue against both.
Dr. Steven Best, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, University of Texas, responds to this assumption. He writes: “How corrupted do our sensibilities have to be to think that the message [of compassion, kindness, service, and love] applies only to human beings? Do love and compassion have boundaries? Of gender, race, tribe, nation, or species? We are to serve all those beings who need our assistance; the least among us have the greatest claim to our service, and thus the animals have a mighty claim indeed; they do not have a voice and so they must rely on the voice of human reason and compassion.”
It is certain that the oppression of non-human animals is connected with every other social justice issue. Cesar Chavez, the late labor activist and civil rights leader – and vegetarian, recognized that all oppressions are rooted in the same soil of violence and prejudice. He wrote, “Kindness and compassion towards all living things is a mark of a civilized society. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cockfighting, bullfighting and rodeos are all cut from the same defective fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves.”
Dick Gregory, author, activist, civil rights leader, and vegetarian – also recognizes this connection. He wrote, “Under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, I became totally committed to nonviolence, and I was convinced that nonviolence meant opposition to killing in any form. I felt the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ applied to human beings not only in their dealings with each other but in their practice of killing animals for food or sport. Animals and humans suffer and die alike…Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel and brutal taking of life.”
And feminist author and activist Carol Adams writes extensively about the institutionalized oppression of and violence towards women and animals. She writes that the treatment of “animals as objects” is parallel to and associated with patriarchal society’s objectification of women, blacks, and other minorities in order to routinely exploit them. This paradigm is most recognizable in the exploitation of female animals for their reproductive secretions – cows for their milk that should go to their babies and hens for their eggs, which are products of their own reproductive cycles.
Compassionate people all have the same goal: the elimination of oppression, exploitation, and violence. Abuse, violence, cruelty – they all spring from the same source, and they all have the same effect – more abuse, more violence, more cruelty. The link between cruelty to animals and violence toward people has been well established – it is a cycle well rooted in the homes of slaughterhouse workers, where the prevalence of domestic abuse and alcoholism is astounding.
A poem attributed to Buddha says,
All beings tremble before violence.
All love life.
All fear death.
See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?
Thich Nhat Hanh says the same thing when he says that the reason we are here is to awaken from the illusion of our separateness. Most of us have found that the more we understand someone, the more compassionate we are toward him or her.
See yourself in others
Then whom can you hurt?
Seeing myself in others is what formed the foundation of my innate childhood compassion and empathy for animals, but it was dulled by the many ways in which society encourages a schizophrenic attitude toward animals – categorizing those worthy of our compassion and those undeserving of it because they happen to be a different species. The truth behind humans exploitation of animals is so hidden, disguised, ritualized, rationalized – so much so that, as a child, I was totally unaware that I was saving one bird while being fed another.
It was only when I was willing to know – willing to look – at my role in this all-too-common dynamic of what I call “selective compassion” that I was awakened. Eddie Lama, the subject of the documentary film, The Witness, speaks to this in the film regarding the hidden atrocities of animal suffering: “People ought to know what the reality is, that it is ugly. If it weren’t ugly, people wouldn’t be aroused to change it. Slavery is ugly, the Holocaust was ugly, the Jim Crow laws were ugly. That’s the reality, and if you hide that, how would anybody know? It would just continue.”
Once I knew, once I was a witness, I couldn’t but act. And in doing so, I have not so much returned to the innocence of my childhood but rather have found a deeper, more profound place – a place where my eyes and heart are open not because of what I don’t know but because of what I do know.