Let’s Begin With Compassion by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonEvery year, several churches in my area set aside a Sunday morning service to celebrate “The Blessing of the Animals.”  Parishioners bring animals (mostly dogs) with them to church.  The service centers around St. Francis, a Catholic friar and preacher (1181-1226), known for giving us the Christmas crèche, an artistic display prominently figuring Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and angels.  St. Francis soon added cows, donkeys, and sheep to his art.  He said, “Surely the animals praised the new Messiah just as the shepherds and angels did.”  The bulletin of one of the local churches participating in the celebration said, “In honor of this blessed saint [St. Francis] of the church we gather today with our animals, here and in spirit–our pets, our service animals, police dogs and horses, zoo animals and all God’s creatures and give thanks for what they do for us and for what they mean to us.”

The collective prayers that followed thanked God for “animals that comfort us, delight us and give us companionship.”  Also, “thank you, Lord, for animals that give us wool and feathers to keep us warm.  We thank you for animals that give us milk, cheese and eggs to help us grow and to keep us healthy.  We thank you for horses, donkeys and oxen that work hard on farms around the world.”  True enough, we do delight in an animal’s companionship.  We also benefit from animal products and their labor.  However, it seems to me that today, in industrialized societies (especially), we view animals predominately for their instrumental use, ignoring their intrinsic value.  In other words, our concerns center around how we can use animals to further our own wealth and well-being.  Isn’t that called exploitation?

I realize there are animals (usually cats and dogs) that are doted on and given nothing but the finest cuisine and medical care in exquisite surroundings during their lifetimes.  Many other animals enjoy a decent life, even if not luxurious, with their “human family.”  What I want to draw attention to in this forum, addressing people who (most often) contextualize ourselves within a framework called the “web of life,” is the horrific suffering “factory-farmed” animals (this includes most animals) endure as they produce (eggs, milk, silk, feathers, leather, and fur) while also laying down their bodies for humans to consume as food.

I grew up, shaped by a particular interpretation of the command God gave humanity in the book of Genesis.  “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (1:28).  The words “subdue” and “dominion” were understood to mean that we (humans) were responsible to bring all of creation under our control.  Since animals, plants, and the earth exist primarily for us, we’re free to use them as we see fit.  (There are alternate readings of this Genesis passage, however, the one I was exposed to seems to be the way many people have absorbed the narrative.)  Isaac Bashevis Singer in his work, Enemies: A Love Story, writes: “As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: in their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis.  The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the…principle that might is right.”

It’s difficult to engage people critically about “ways of being and doing” that go against their mythology/ideology/theology (subjugation and domination), nonetheless, I believe it’s essential to do so in order to live compassionately–a value that all religions profess to “believe in.”  If we are part of the “web of life,” what affects one part of that web affects every part.  Do we not do damage when we turn a blind eye to suffering?  Chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys, sheep, and ducks–all animals in many ways like us–are systematically killed (often sadistically) by people who work in slaughterhouses owned by large agricultural corporations.  When we buy “meat,” we buy animals that have been butchered and sold to us in “parts,” bearing no resemblance to the beings they once were.  Carol Adams (contemporary activist/scholar) says, “…animals become absent referents.”

The sexual politics of meatIn her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat  A Feminist Vegetarian Critical Theory, Carol writes, “Because I see the oppression of women and the other animals as interdependent, I am dismayed by the failure of feminists to recognize the gender issues embedded in the eating of animals” (p. 26).  She speaks about the “texts of meat,” explaining that production of meat happens within a political-cultural context.  “…[W]e generally fail to see the social meanings that have actually predetermined the personal meaning [of eating meat].”  We have become inured to the “patriarchal nature of our meat-advocating cultural discourse.”  We’ve assimilated the message that people SHOULD eat animals because that’s good for us.  Animals become “consumable bodies” and rarely is this cultural text closely examined.  The words “subdue” and “dominion” as they unfold within fixed gender roles nicely envelop her work.  Patriarchy as a social system where power-over is paramount subdues and dominates women and other animals, assuring us that it all is really for our own good.

There is a growing movement of activists and scholars attempting to make us more aware of ourselves in relationship to the environment – of our food choices, for example.  Is it necessary to kill a sentient being in order to sustain my own life?  Must I eat dairy products that are produced as a result of horrific suffering?  Male calves are taken from their mothers at birth and kept in small crates for several months before slaughtered and served up as veal.  Humans appropriate the mother cow’s milk.  Chickens, kept in wire cages in close proximity to one another, have their beaks seared off (without anesthesia) so they won’t peck each other to death in their close quarters, allowing them to focus on their job of laying eggs during their abbreviated lives.  Most chickens never see daylight.  These are but two examples.  Exploiting sentient beings with nary a thought given to the beings’ welfare (other than how can I benefit) is easy to do when we are unaware of what Carol Adams calls “the sexual politics of meat.”

We don’t really need to delve into the subject theoretically (although I would encourage us to do so) to be horrified by the abject cruelty of factory farming.  Undercover investigations of animal torture and abuse in factory farms can easily be accessed on the Internet.  (The video footage is difficult to watch.)  In many states, agri-business has taken undercover investigators to court, sometimes effectively placing a “gag-order” on disseminating the horrors they’ve uncovered.  Some states have passed anti-whistle blower laws, making it illegal to report on factory farms.

I am not suggesting that all our environmental woes would cease if we stopped eating meat, although that might be a good place to start as we think critically about the food choices we make living on a finite planet.  The ecological problems we face are complex, multi-faceted, and interrelated.  Food production/consumption is one facet.  It seems to me, though, that compassion would make us pause and consider the question Jeremy Bentham, British philosopher and social reformer (1748-1832), wrestled with years ago.  “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but rather, ‘Can they suffer?'”  How can we devour hamburgers and chicken wings knowing the suffering animals endured so we can “enjoy” what we call “meat,” something not even essential to the sustenance of our own lives?

St. Francis’ compassion reached well beyond the world’s human inhabitants, calling all living creatures his brothers and sisters, even preaching to the birds on occasion.  I’m certain we can create a more loving world by using compassion towards all of the natural world as one of the essential building blocks.

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

15 thoughts on “Let’s Begin With Compassion by Esther Nelson”

  1. Thanks for this, you certainly point out a contradiction in our shared worldviews. Most people who have pets would agree that all so-called higher animals not only suffer but feel positive emotions which might be called forms of love. If we do away with the distinction between higher and lower animals, then with process philosophy we might consider that all individuals have the ability to feel the feelings of others and to respond, which is the bedrock of intelligence, and which goes all the way through the web of life in different forms.

    Disclaimer. I do eat animals, but I try to avoid meat that is factory farmed, not always successfully. Living in a culture that has farmed sheep and goats for millenia, I do draw a major distinction between traditional farming and factory farming, though even here in traditional Greece, people have been “carefully taught” (often by the Orthodox church) that animals do not have feelings and intelligence “like” our own. Sigghhhhh…

    In traditional Greece meat was not eaten every day, sheep and goats (and sometimes beef or pork) was at seasonal festivals, weddings, and baptisms. People were lucky to have chicken or bunny once a month. This is a very different relationship to “meat” than what we have in the modern industrial world. The “need” to eat meat at every meal, along with population explosion, has created the “need” for factory farms.

    What is perhaps most upsetting is that aside from within the vegetarian community, there is very little discussion of factory farming. So thanks for bringing it up again here.


  2. PS Have you ever noticed how animal rights activists are routinely portrayed as mad wacky violent terrorists on tv crime dramas? Very rarely does the plot line elicit sympathy for their causes.


    1. Yes, that’s true. We resist change (so it seems). Tradition dies hard. People have been eating animals for a long time. You know it goes…”my grandparents and their parents _________________ (fill in the blank) did this for years, so I’m not about to stop now.” I think, though, if/when people are exposed to the horrific suffering animals endure, that just might elicit change.


  3. Thanks, Esther, very moving and important post!!

    The killing and eating of animals by other animals exists throughout creation. And there are even carnivorous plants. That viciousness of nature is horrendous. But since we ourselves are part of nature, so is our compassion for the suffering of our own and other species, along with our concern for the ethics of how we use or treat them, including plants. Is it right or wrong, for instance, to cut down a healthy, young tree in your backyard, just to get a better view of the river?


    1. Yes, thanks, Sarah for your response. I think it’s important to be more “mindful” with everything we do. If/when we really think about the things we do and the consequences that inevitably ensue, we often become more compassionate creatures. I think we can assuredly say that there is no question at all that animals suffer horrendously in factory farm environments. What puzzles me is why people refuse to acknowledge that–put their heads in the sand, so to speak. However, you very appropriately carry the argument further. Sometimes when we begin our journey on an “obvious” path (realizing the horror of factory-farm), the path becomes clearer (how to treat that young tree in the backyard, for example).


      1. I love that environmental saying, “step lightly.” The idea I think is that the human footprint we leave on the Earth needs to be as sensitive and loving as possible and including every aspect of our interaction with Nature, from banning factory-farming to hugging trees.


  4. Thank you for this important blog, Esther. I do not eat animal products for the reasons you mention. Humans do not need to eat animals. We can be healthy on a plant-based diet, so the only reason I can see that people continue to eat animals is that it’s “easier.” Change is difficult, but in this case, it’s worth working towards, since it’s better for us, the animals, and the planet.


  5. I couldn’t help noticing how self centred that prayer is! I do see a movement growing however that gives me hope. We might actually be evolving to understand that “All is One” – the animals, the trees, the earth itself. I look at the tar sands and feel a pain in my heart. But I still drive my car. Evolution is such a slow process.


  6. Thanks for writing this thought-provoking post. My first reaction is to either weep for the animals or become a terrorist on their behalf. I won’t do that, of course, and I do eat meat and wear leather, but I try to be careful. We do indeed live in the web of life. It’s Gaia and all of her children, not just the human ones.

    I remember hearing Christians talk about “stewardship” a few years ago. Is that discussion still going on? That humans are in charge on earth but we need to be kind?


    1. I don’t really know, Barbara, if that discussion is still happening. I do recall hearing something like that once upon a time which is one of the reasons I had to remove myself from places where such discussion happened. As best I could tell, being a “steward” of the earth still meant humans needed to “subdue” and “dominate.” There’s nothing “kind” about that–to my way of thinking.

      I weep a lot for the animals–especially those in factory farms. I cannot eat them, nor their “secretions,” Just can’t!

      Thanks for responding.


      1. “Steward” of the earth still meant humans needed to “subdue” and “dominate.”

        Sadly, this is at the heart of most discussions I see as well (it is a buzzword though). To recognize animals as deserving of kindness and protection seems to open up a can of worms, so the discussion is always “trickle down”. Men, Women, children, animals, plants. All linear. Imagine how different it would be if we just change the straight line to a blurry little circle.

        Thank you so much for this post.


    1. Stewardship seems to be just a reflection or continuation of the philosophical Great Chain of Being, devised (I think) in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. That’s God in his hovering throne above the metaphorical mountain, the angels hovering just below him. Mankind–meaning men–stand on top of the mountain with the “royal animals”–eagles, lions–that he has subdued walking or sitting obediently around him. As we go down the metaphorical mountain, we get mammals, birds, fishes, reptiles, amphibians (all properly stewarded or subdued), then plants. Finally, at the base of the mountain–women and mud. Also stewarded and dominated and subdued. I like to play with the “enlightened” metaphor, as I did in my last blog where I had the women speaking up. But, yeah, domination is trickling down the mountain/Great Chain.


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