Slouching Towards Justice by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonKecia Ali, one of the contributors to this Feminism and Religion blog, recently wrote an excellent article titled, “Muslims and Meat-Eating  Vegetarianism, Gender, and Identity,” (Journal of Religious Ethics, Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2015).

In her article, Kecia Ali “…argue[s] that Muslims in the industrialized West–especially those concerned with gender justice–ought to be vegetarians and that feminist ethics provides underutilized resources for Muslim thinking about ethics generally and food ethics in particular.”  She assures the reader that “productive dialogue” is possible when Muslims engage with non-Islamic (not “un-Islamic”) ethics.  The “engaged” parties may “disagree about basic presumptions but agree on desirable outcomes.”

Her article focuses on Muslims’ relationship to food, showing how food is not dissociated from other aspects of life such as sex, power, virtue, and feminism, noting that “Muslim ethical discourse already uses, but seldom acknowledges, non-religious thinking, particularly from scientific and social-scientific sources.”  (Since identity is an integral part of religious expression, Muslims often will “reject labels such as ‘feminist’ and ‘vegetarian’” because those words “challenge the primacy of religious identity.”)  It is that juncture–incorporation of “non-religious thinking” into “religious thought”–that intrigues me and is something I’d like to explore in this essay.

I think traditional understandings of religion are especially prone to using religious language as “an arbiter of acceptability” (Kecia Ali’s phrase) in order to lay claim to “truth.”  In other words, wrapping one’s thinking and actions in the language of accepted religious rhetoric gives one a sense of authenticity in a community that understands that religious “code.”  However, that same religious rhetoric can insulate both the individual and the community from examining the ways “things have always been done.”  Familiar and “holy” language often prevent us from asking questions that dig deeper into our belief system(s).

Questions such as:  Just what is my relationship (and what should my relationship be) to animals as well as to all creation?  Is the ritual killing of animals and the eating of meat really essential to living out my religious beliefs effectively?  One can find texts in various “holy books” that speak to the propriety and efficacy of slaughtering animals and eating their flesh.  Those texts are often “read” to mean that meat eating is essential to the proper practice of one’s religion.  However, some people have questioned the acceptability of emulating behaviors and calling them “right” just because they appear in Scripture.  Does description of behavior (eating meat, for example) imply prescription of behavior (you MUST eat meat)?  There are other examples.  Must we go to war because our Scripture commands it?  Must we be slaveholders because our Scripture gives instruction regarding the proper treatment of slaves?  How can we follow/obey the Scripture, in this case, if we have no slaves?

I think this is the juncture where people easily “get lost.”  Traditionalists (usually) of all religious stripes are often loath to incorporate thinking that springs from “secular” sources (sources outside of their religious tradition) into their worldview even when the desired outcome of that thinking (virtuous behavior that leads to a more just world) is the goal for both those inside and outside a particular tradition.  But if people within a religious tradition, committed to justice, use religious language “as an arbiter of acceptability,” well, I think that can be an effective way to challenge ways of “being and doing” that no longer serve humans or the planet well.  Abolitionists used this tactic.

Slave owners in the American South, most likely because they benefited from the practice, used their Scripture to uphold the institution of slavery, understanding Scripture in a way that preserved the status quo.  Slave owners accepted (for the most part) slavery as “just.”  It took “secular” thinking (thinking outside of conventional religious tradition), brought into the church, using “religious language…as an arbiter of acceptability” to begin the change that would abolish the practice of slavery.  The same Scripture, once used to undergird slavery, when seen through a different/secular lens, was soon being used to dismantle slavery.

I foresee a day when Scripture, used by religious people to promote (even insist on) the eating of meat (as well as other practices), will be used to dismantle those practices.  Some Christians quote Genesis, “…Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth“ (1: 28).  What does it mean to have “dominion over the earth?”  Many understand that phrase to mean that it is our right (even responsibility) to use animals exclusively for our use–human beings being the pinnacle of creation.  In other words, creation is “there” to serve us.

It has been “secular” thinking (thinking that does not conform to tradition or inherited understandings of sacred texts) bumping up against conventional thinking that often gives us light to see differently.  Is it possible to understand the phrase, “dominion over the earth,” in a way that contextualizes us within creation (not over/against creation), spurring us to see the earth and everything upon the earth as part of ourselves?  If so, wouldn’t we live more compassionately?

I don’t think cows, pigs, elephanimalsants, whales, dolphins, chickens and other animal species are on the earth for human disposal.  They do not “belong” to us.  Sadly, many animals (including humans) are exploited by those who have the power to do so.  Dominating the “other” (using the “other” to benefit oneself) is what lies at the heart of patriarchy.  Refusing to take part in that domination (as much as is possible in our interconnected world) will go miles towards dismantling that social structure we call patriarchy.  I think Kecia Ali rightly states that “…Muslims in the industrialized West…ought to be vegetarians….”  I would include all of us in the industrialized West, not just Muslims.

Makes me wonder, though.  What practices do we engage in today as a matter of course, believing them to be right and just–practices we will discard in the future as unjust?  Let’s continue asking the hard questions that allow us to see more clearly the path that leads us towards justice.


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.

24 thoughts on “Slouching Towards Justice by Esther Nelson”

  1. You are so right that it is not Scripture but interpretation of Scripture that is being used on both sides of every argument. The question is not “what does Scripture say” but “how do we understand what Scripture says.” Unfortunately this point is not understood by fundamentalists in any religion. Hopefully, it will be.


  2. Taoism, a path I follow among others including Zen, uses the way nature does things as its scripture. But how do we interpret nature’s laws and are they necessarily compassionate and just? The way animals act in nature can be very cruel. And meat eating is part of that. I am a vegetarian, which isn’t natural for my species, it’s something I chose, because it upsets me to eat an animal. I even dislike killing plants for food, but nature is built that way, and if I don’t eat I will die. There is a famous Taoist poet named Sun Bu-er (born in 1124 C.E.) whose teachings are magnificent and it is because of her writings, as well as the Tao Te Ching, that I keep going forward with Tao — here’s one of Bu-er’s great insights: the last two lines are absolutely magnificent — this poem is from a book called “Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women,” translated and edited by Thomas Cleary:

    A springlike autumn’s balmy breeze reaches afar.
    The sun shines on the house of a recluse
    South of the river —
    They encourage the December apricots
    To burst into bloom:
    A simplehearted person
    Faces the simplehearted flowers.


    1. Now I understand why your comments speak so directly to me, Sarah. Wicca, like Taoism, “uses the way nature does things as its scripture.” I’ve always said that Taoism is Eastern Wicca (and Wicca is Western Taoism).


  3. Thanks, Esther, for this thoughtful post. Like Sarah I am a vegetarian by choice but very aware that the biological life of all species is sustained by eating other life. Then excreting, which becomes the ground of more life. It troubles me that we human beings remove ourselves as much as possible from that give and take, wasting what we call “waste” and choosing to dispose of our remains in ways that preclude being eaten in our turn. (I have a longing to be left in a tree for vultures!) I am wondering if scholars of language might discover another way to translate what has come down to in English as “dominion over.” It is hard to find a kindly interpretation of that phrase. An authentic new translation could be helpful.


    1. Parsis have built “Towers of Silence” where they place their dead and the vultures can dispose of a body in minutes. But, you have to be a Parsi (Zoroastrian) in order to have access to the building.


    2. Elizabeth, interesting point about give and take after death. Perhaps a non-vulture option is organ and tissue donation, or cadaver donation for medical research/training — both of which are prohibited by some religious traditions for various reasons. I recently experienced the sudden, violent death of a healthy loved one who was an organ donor. Knowing that her heart, lungs, kidneys, etc. did not go to waste but instead helped to sustain the lives of others offered not comfort or peace of mind, exactly…but I do know that being generous even in death is what she would have wanted.


  4. Thank you for this, Esther, and the link to Kecia Ali’s article which I just skimmed through and will have to spend some time reading. It is interesting that you would bring slavery into the discussion. As it happens I have been working on an ancient Latin poem that I think implicitly (via mystical imagery) criticizes slavery and those who do not recognize sexual/racial egalitarian principles as well as animal rights. My next post will be on that.


  5. Human sexuality seems to undergo huge paradigm shifts. I’m thinking the next ones to change could be either the enforcement of celibacy on children or- if/when we develop the technology- only having live births in a laboratory setting (test tube the entire process, conception through fetal development). I picked these two largely because both areas have a certain amount of stigma and/or ambiguous ethics associated with them.


    1. Yes, nmr–you could very well be right. I do believe that as we move forward, that is, we perceive differently because our experience is different, our paradigms shift/change as well. Excellent comment.


  6. The latest research into plants says that plants feel pain, warn their neighbors of predators, scream when attacked, so how is being a vegetarian kinder? You are just rationalizing one thing is better than another that is just as cruel.


    1. Thanks for weighing in, elfkat. I don’t believe we (humans) have ultimate answers. We make “moral” decisions based on how we understand things in a particular place and time. One of the points I am trying to make is that justice is fluid. Asking the hard questions keeps us moving forward.


  7. Esther, your overall premise (or is it Kecia’s) that religion grows from the tension between sacred and secular understandings of a given period seems like an important historical reality. It’s not just the anti-slavery movement that had that effect, but today’s feminism, environmentalism, vegetarianism, pacifism, etc. that are pushing the envelope in many religious contexts.


    1. Once people could read the Bible, the tension was also between different readings of scripture. Did all opposition to slavery come from secularism, for example, or did some of it come from people who felt it contradicted parts of the Bible they took as challenging slavery? Did all ideas of women’s equality come from secularism, or did some women feel that God would not have created them as less than men because they knew God loved them?


      1. I think the line between what we call secular and religious is blurry and fluid, Nancy and Carol. Abolitionists thought differently from mainstream religion in the American South (late 1800s). Many religionists thought thinking outside a prescribed interpretation of Scripture was “secular.”


  8. Esther, I’m delighted to read this. I especially appreciated your succinct formulation: “Dominating the “other” (using the “other” to benefit oneself) is what lies at the heart of patriarchy. Refusing to take part in that domination (as much as is possible in our interconnected world) will go miles towards dismantling that social structure we call patriarchy.” A related and very cogent discussion about racism, anti-racism, and animal advocacy appears in this blog:

    It’s also nice, as always on F&R, to see thoughtful, engaged comments. I particularly appreciate Carol’s point that we confront competing understandings of scripture and tradition.


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