Extending Compassion and Vegetarianism by Xochitl Alvizo

“I did not know to recognize you as individuals when I bought you, but I know to recognize you as individuals now…”

I had been a vegetarian, and sometimes pescatarian, for more than 10 years before becoming vegan. Despite the length of my vegetarianism, in all that time I had not been inclined to go vegan. First, I really didn’t know too much about veganism and only began meeting a few vegans about five or six years ago here in Boston, none of whom had shared a compelling enough reason for their choice (at least not compelling to me). Further, I had no imagination for life without cheese or Cherry Garcia ice cream(!), and so I happily continued with my vegetarian ways. Then enters Carol Adams…

In a teleconference that WATER had with Carol Adams on March 14, 2012  (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual), the beauty of her veganism moved me to a new understanding of my food choices. I listened to the WATER audio recording some months after the actual event (these teleconference audio recordings are a great resource you should all access), and although I had been familiar with some of her work and had heard her speak before, I had not heard her talk about the compassion element of veganism. Her emphasis on increasing compassion, which I witnessed in action during her conversation with one of the listeners, was what moved me to my new practice.

Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams, vegan, veganism, compassion
Picture from WATER website

In the teleconference, Carol began by delineating three points of connection between vegetarianism and feminisms. First, she points out that meat eating is central to the social and cultural construction of masculine identity in a patriarchal framework (see chapter one of The Sexual Politics of Meat). Secondly, she explains how meat eating makes animals absent referents in the same way patriarchy makes women absent referents. Both are made into consumable products that don’t have rights over their own bodies. We literally make animals into products by killing them and transforming their body parts into ‘pork chops, chicken wings, bacon, hamburger, sirloin, etc.,’ and likewise make women visually consumable through media and popular culture, and sexually consumable through sexual slavery. These mechanisms represent a structure of overlapping absent referents that reinforce the hierarchical structure and domination core of patriarchy.

Then in her third point Carol highlights the value of all of our existences, animals included, and our mutual interconnection in the web of life. She brings a compassionate viewpoint to our eating practices and helps raise the question of how it is that we could be eating other animals. Carol explains that compassion is bringing attentive love to our lives and the lives of all others and being able to imaginatively respond to oppression, including the oppression of animals. If we were willing to be attentive to animals’ experiences and asked them the simple question, “what are you going through?” eating animals and the food produced at their expense would be a lot more difficult. For Adams, how and what we eat is a practice of extending compassion, of being a human willing to hear the answer of what animals are going through and caring about it. This is what got me, this emphasis, this desire to be someone who extends compassion, even to non-human animals, and takes seriously the injunction that all oppressions are interconnected and bad for us all. So, Carol states, “Being vegan is a spiritual practice.”

Carol Adams, vegetarianism, extending compassion, Xochitl AlvizoAnd here is what did it for me: Around minute 34 of the teleconference, Carol and a Franciscan nun on the call have a beautiful and transformative conversation. The sister expresses her disbelief at the fact that even though she and her other sisters are vegetarians it had not occurred to them to become vegans, as St. Francis was known to be an animal lover. Nonetheless, she is now moved to become vegan and will be having a conversation with her sisters about it; her only problem are the 6 chicken’s wings that are in her freezer; “I guess I better eat them first before I become vegan,” she says. Carol’s response to her in that moment changed everything for me. After her initial reaction of “no, no, nooo,” and then quickly affirming that everyone has to make their own decision, Carol suggests that perhaps the sister could bury the chicken’s wings and in that way begin to incorporate the idea of the chicken’s being-ness; that during the burial the sister can say, “I did not know to recognize you as individuals when I bought you, but I know to recognize you as individuals now…” This was the moment that brought me to tears and sealed the deal for me. In that moment I knew that I wanted to practice being such a person. I wanted to be a person inclined to such beautiful compassion, compassion extended even to the chicken and its wings; and in that very moment I chose to adopt veganism as a spiritual practice.

I know the issues around food are complicated. I know we don’t all have the same access and choices, and that the reality of our contexts impact our possibilities. We have had rich discussions about these complexities here on FAR, see Amy Levin’s post, for example. At the end of the day, we all need to make our own choices, and we don’t need to judge one another for them; the point is  not judgment, but the extending of compassion.  Carol states that “stopping our eating of animals liberates us into new relationships,” to compassionate ones. I have experienced this to be true and I hope to continue to do so as I grow in my practice of veganism.

Thanks to WATER’s teleconference with Carol Adams, not only did I learn a compelling reason for being vegan, I encountered a woman whose very being was so compelling, so beautiful, I couldn’t help but want to follow. Cheese and Cherry Garcia are just not that appealing anymore!

Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and a Ph.D. candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. She loves all things feminist. Finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters.

Author: Xochitl Alvizo

Feminist theologian, Christian identified. Associate Professor of Religious Studies in the area of Women and Religion and the Philosophy of Sex Gender and Sexuality at California State University, Northridge. Her research is focused in Congregational Studies, Feminist and Quuer Theologies, and Ecclesiology specifically. Often finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and the good one can do in any one area inevitably and positively impacts all others.

15 thoughts on “Extending Compassion and Vegetarianism by Xochitl Alvizo”

  1. Thanks for a compelling testimony and argument. It is a hard discussion in a meat-eating society. Another argument for veganism is that even in non-factory farming situations, the cycles of milk-cheese-yogurt production are connected to the cycles of killing the non-milk producing animals, the young males and the older females. PS I eat meat and try not to eat factory farmed meat, but I am moved by your choice and the argument for compassion. Compassion is what drives my environmental work–and prompted me to “project manage” a second response to the European Commission regarding our Complaint on faillure to protect the bird and wildlife habitats of the wetlands of Lesbos. I sent it in on Saturday after exhausting prodding, dialogues, and fights with other environmentalists about what we would say. Sometimes people ask me why I persevere against so many obstacles. I would say that love for the joy of life in other beings comes first on my list. Thanks for reminding me of that.


    1. “Love for the joy of life in other beings” – that is so cool Carol, thank you for sharing that here. Also, I hadn’t realized you were working on a second response to the Commission – that is so great. I wish you all the best with that work! Your life of compassion has always been evident to me – I am so grateful for you.


    1. Yes, indeed, and I don’t think that was her point – it was more about her own surprise at not having made the connection about animals and veganism herself, as a Franciscan. Not that Francis’ direct example had been vegetarianism. More about ethos I guess. Thanks for helping clarify that point.


  2. Very interesting. I’ve had vegan and vegetarian friends that I’ve always enjoyed teasing. One said she never ate anything with eyes; I mentioned potatoes to her, and she got upset. Seriously, I understand the philosophy of vegetarianism and veganism, and it makes sense to me. I can eat that way for two or three days in a row, but then my body wants a bit of meat. That makes me conflicted, but I still eat meat and wear leather from time to time. Good for you and good for Carol.


    1. Barbara, can you explain what you mean by “my body wants meat?” Doesn’t your brain make decisions about what you put into your body? Who’s driving the bus, here?


  3. Thank you for this moving account of your own epiphany. I agree, once you make the move away from consuming animals from a perspective of compassion, your heart opens up to greater care and awareness of our interconnection to all.


  4. My first question to those who consume animal products is this: WHY do you need them? Is it just habit, is it refusal to address the issues involved, or are you just averse to being “different?” The important thing is to be aware of our decisions and how and why we make them. I first became a vegan when my cholesterol started to rise after menopause. It didn’t make sense to me to keep eating foods that contained cholesterol if I had too much of the stuff in my system. As I researched veganism, I became aware of the devastating effects that factory farming has on the environment, and the terrible conditions these animals have to endure. I read the research that indicates that vegans who eat a balanced diet are healthier and live longer than those who consume animal products. Yes, there are times that I miss milk, egg, and meat products, but I realize that I don’t need them to be a healthy person – in fact, I’m probably healthier without them (my cholesterol dropped 70 points when I changed my diet to exclude animal products). There is no way to be “pure” in our approach to the environment. Something has to die so that I can live. I’ve decided that, as much as possible, I will limit my eating choices to the plant kingdom. I think it’s better for the planet and better for my health. We are all connected. Our decisions affect us all, and not deciding, is still deciding.


    1. Your cholesterol dropping 70 points is astounding! That has me thinking about moving beyond a no-beef, no-pork, only free-range chicken and healthy fish diet. The compassion component has me thinking, too. As a Wiccan and a UU, I know I’m a part of the interdependent web of all existence, and I love wildlife, especially birds. I’ve made the first two changes to my diet, because they’re bad for our planet and all living things on it. But having compassion for individuals within that interdependent web could be another step. Thanks to everyone for this blog post and responses.


  5. You just provided me with the push I needed to make the choice I have been thinking about for a while. Thank you, Xochitl!


  6. I’m with Jameelah. Thank you, Xochitl, for the inspiration and information (I listened to Carol Adams on the WATER audio) that is further supporting my heart-pull to veganism (I’m already vegetarian but, yeah, haven’t wanted to give up my Cherry Garcia addiction). Blessings!


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