“Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies,” remarks Andy Dufresne in the movie Shawshank Redemption when things are at a low ebb. I remind people of this hope when they express despair at the apathy shown towards the daily slaughter of 200 million land animals for human consumption. Why do we seem not to care? Will we ever stop the unnecessary slaughter of innocent creatures? Is veganism a hopeless cause? In response to their despair, I strive to offer hope, a Christian virtue that helps us persevere in trusting in God’s promise of bringing peace on earth.
Given the apathy toward human caused animal suffering, despair seems reasonable, while hope seems foolhardy. Universal care for animals appears to be wistful thinking; the rainbows and unicorns that will forever remain in the realm of fantasy. We become jaded, and so devolve into cynicism: care for animals is a hopeless cause. However, Paul J. Wadell, a professor at St. Norbert College, writes, “We have lost sight of hope’s transcendent dimension because we have forgotten the incomparable promise to which hope always beckons… Hope empowers us to live differently because a Christian understanding of hope is rooted in the unshakable conviction that God loves us and wants our good.” For Christians, hope differs from wistful thinking because we know that God has promised us good things. Thus, our hope is not based on a fantasy that masquerades as positive human thinking while blithely ignoring reality. Nor is it a fickle emotion that depends on shifting internal moods or changing external circumstances. Christian hope is based on trusting in God’s promise of goodness because God, who is all-powerful, loves us.
Injustices favoring the majority maintain their stranglehold for long periods of time. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The arc indeed bends towards justice, but usually that bend toward justice is beyond our horizon or even our lifetimes. When we cannot see the end of an injustice, we must turn towards a Christian hope that trusts in God’s goodness, and sovereignty over His creation.
As we await an end to animal cruelty in our society, I wish to use the history of the fight against slavery to give us hope in the long journey ahead. The experience of overcoming obstacles in outlawing slavery strengthens us to fight the obstacles to ending animal cruelty.
“Slaveholding was always a choice”, writes Chris Kellerman in his book, All Oppression Shall Cease, which chronicles the history of the Catholic Church’s teaching on slavery that for centuries tacitly condoned slavery. However, the Church’s lack of condemnation of slavery never required any Catholic to own slaves. Permission is not an injunction to action. A Catholic in good conscience could have opposed slavery by actively protesting or by silently refusing to participate in this evil institution. The Catholic Church eventually changed its teaching on slavery and officially condemned it, long after many anti-slavery champions were dead.
In a similar way, the moral teachings of the Church are slowly changing to include animals in our circle of compassion. In his encyclical Laudato Si written in 2015, Pope Francis notes (LS 92), “Moreover, when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one… We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity”… Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures…” We have begun to recognize that animals deserve to be treated with kindness because we are related to them by the love that God has for all creatures. Animals are not mere soulless beings or senseless automatons whose only worth is human utility such that we can treat them as we please. They are capable of experiencing love, and mistreating them erodes human dignity.
While waiting in hope for a world in which kindness to animals is a norm, vegans ought to deal with non-vegans with kindness and empathy. I remind myself that I was apathetic to animal suffering for decades before I saw how my food caused suffering to animals. Thus, vegans ought to give others the benefit of the doubt, and be genuinely curious about the reasoning behind the acceptability of meat consumption. When the opportunity for dialogue arises, we ought to find some common ground in which we can appreciate their good actions (such as care for the environment, compassion for the unhoused, etc.), and then inquire whether they would be willing to extend their goodness towards unseen animals on far away factory farms. We need to remember that people are inherently good, and do not indulge in cruelty for its own sake. Non-vegans do not take pleasure in animal suffering, but merely desire to consume animal products because humans have been socially conditioned to do so for centuries. They don’t desire animal suffering, but seem unable to make the sacrifice of giving up certain foods.
In my experience, I have noticed some people hold on to their meat-eating habits for no reason except to avoid admittance of error. Leah Libresco, in her book Arriving at Amen (p.26), writes “Admitting an error usually feels like a loss. Loss aversion tempts us to rationalize and delude ourselves to avoid the short-term pain of noticing a mistake or sunk cost, and it blinds us to what we can still salvage by backing away from error.” Instead of the boxing ring ambiance of social media battles in which the winner is glorified and the loser is vanquished, vegans need to create a space where genuine kindness and empathy allow for honest conversation and conversion. We ought to make it easier for people to change their minds. The goal is not to win battles, but to win hearts.
Personally, I wish I were not vegan or that I could at least keep silent on the issue. Being vegan is burdensome because I am now high maintenance in my dietary preferences. Previously, I could go anywhere at any time. Now, I have to plan my food options in advance before travels and social engagements. Furthermore, there is a tension between the desire to be liked by others, and the desire to be consistent with my beliefs. Cooking and/or eating food is a primary way of camaraderie in Jesuit communities. But I cannot unsee the cruelty to animals that I have seen in farming documentaries, nor is silence an option when the voiceless animals are victims of a cruel system. I am left with the difficult choice between being included in social circles, and being authentic to my beliefs.
So, I turn to prayer. In the words of Prophet Jeremiah (Jer 1:7-8), “But the LORD answered me, ‘Do not say, “I am too young.” To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak.’” I trust that God is with me in my struggles of speaking up for voiceless animals. When speaking about care for animals, I examine my intentions for traces of holier-than-thou, ego-inflating behavior. I pray that my speech is always directed towards spreading the message of kindness to all of God’s creatures. And when circumstances appear bleak and hopeless, I pray the words of The Romero Prayer, by Bishop Ken Untener:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
I wait in hope for the coming for God’s peaceable kingdom when “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” A day will dawn when all oppression of animals will cease.