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Monday, June 5, 2006

This week at Heroes' dilemma.

Next Tuesday, two founders of the Unitarian Service Committee will be posthumously inducted into Israel's Yad Vashem memorial honoring people who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. Michelle Bates Deakin writes an in-depth profile of Martha Sharp and the Rev. Waitstill Sharp — highlighting the sacrifices they and their family made. It's a complex portrait that raises the question, how much would you give up to help people in need? (You'll find links to Michelle's earlier coverage of this story in the article's sidebar, just under the Sharps' picture.)

Also this week, Keith Kron reviews the Newbery award winner, Criss Cross, written by Unitarian Universalist Lynne Rae Perkins.

And in the news, Don Skinner reports that the 500th Unitarian Universalist congregation has completed the denomination's Welcoming Program — which means that almost half of UUA congregations are now formally and self-consciously welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. (Copyediting factoid of the day: Did you know that the UUA is one of the few organizations that uses "BGLT" rather than "LGBT" or "GLBT" to refer to them?) Don also reports that First UU Church in New Orleans can now house volunteer crews that sign up through the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge's Hurricane Relief and Social Justice Project. And Sonja Cohen keeps the news blog humming with links to Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 5 June 2006 at 7:42 AM

Previous: Unitarian Universalists in Mass.'s ten cultural regions.
Next: Mrs Philocrites at 'Beauty Tips for Ministers.'




Jeff Wilson:

June 5, 2006 09:32 AM | Permalink for this comment

Interesting, I didn't know that the UUA used BGLT, I've rarely if ever seen it written that way. I'll take a guess and assume it's simply in alphabetical order, either because a style purist thought it should be or because that doesn't privilege any particular catagory (B, G, L, or T) within the order? By the way, in case you don't hear it enough, I'm one of many people who really appreciate the online work of UU World and are glad to get these weekly updates. It's been a very satisfying development.

Steven Yanis:

June 6, 2006 12:19 AM | Permalink for this comment

Yup same here Jeff. UU World's online works rock :-)


June 6, 2006 07:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks, guys! You can also get updates by email or by RSS.

Charlie Talbert:

June 6, 2006 11:47 AM | Permalink for this comment

It's a sad irony (but maybe a hopeful one too) that the same edition of the UU World touting the bravery of Martha Sharp and the Rev. Waitstill Sharp during the Holocaust (somewhere else, in yesteryear), also carries a two page ad from the Unitarian Universalists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (UFETA), attempting to awaken Unitarian Universalists to the holocaust of factory farm suffering in our midst today.

I wish Unitarian Universalists did need to be awakened to this issue. You'd think our proud heritage of standing up to traditions that rationalize and institutionalize moral wrongs would itself be enough for us to see the immorality of using other beings for food -- causing them to suffer horribly just so we humans can pleasure ourselves with their flesh and secretions. But tradition and popular culture whisper to us that "it's all OK -- enjoy", and although we UUs pride ourselves on asking critical questions, we seem reluctant to apply them to ourselves, at least on this issue.

So as the article on the Sharps' bravery and sacrifice from an earlier generation causes us to ask what we might give up "to help people in need", my hope is that Unitarian Universalists will consider helping billions of beings in terribly desperate need today by no longer eating them.

Jeff Wilson:

June 6, 2006 12:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

My wife and I are vegetarian UUs, we certainly dislike the factory farming you speak of, Charlie. But I'm not sure it's fair to paint UUs with such a broad brush. I travel in veggie and liberal circles, and I've encountered a disproportionate number of UUs therein--indeed, I'd say that I've found more veggie UUs (comparable to the denomination's actual size) than any other religious group. That includes loads of Buddhists.

I'm not sure the issue is so black-and-white as you believe, or that UUs are merely complacent or hypocritical when it comes to the suffering of animals. Rather, my own observation is that many UUs who eat meat have previously gone through a vegetarian phase--they're entirely aware of the issues, and have decided that actions you and I believe to be immoral are indeed moral. That's the thing about UUism: even if UUs aren't always living up to their righteous rhetoric (cue PeaceBang), they nonetheless aren't necessarily as ignorant or complacent as we'd like to think. Often they've thought things through and come to their own conclusions. That's how UUism works. This doesn't mean that I agree with their decisions, but one thing I can't in good conscience do is claim that they've been lax as UUs when they come to different conclusions or that they are ignoring suffering when they've concluded that what I label suffering and immorality is not suffering or immorality.

It's rather like pro-lifers who say "UUs claim to respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people, but then they overwhelmingly support the murder of babies." Well, it just isn't that simple. If most UUs I know don't consider a zygote or blastocyst to be a "baby," then they aren't violating their principles about people--they just don't define personhood in the way some might wish to do.

Charlie Talbert:

June 6, 2006 01:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

Vegans and vegetarians probably do make up a disproportionate share of our Unitarian Universalist church, compared to many other groups. I’ve heard that 1% of the general population is vegan. In my church, more than 6% are vegan, and even more are vegetarian headed towards vegan. Our minister – herself a vegan – has spoken out on the immorality of humanity’s treatment of other beings. But I don’t see or hear the wider Unitarian Universalist church body speaking out on this issue, the way it’s spoken so clearly and with one voice in the past about other institutional wrongs, such as slavery, sexism, and racism. On the contrary, most Unitarian Universalists eat other beings, and thereby give credibility to the animal exploiting industry’s chilling claim that “it is only following orders” when it tortuously confines, mutilates, and slaughters billions of innocents every year.

Jeff, you seem to imply that as long as we think deeply about our actions, we’re absolved of their consequences. I doubt, though, that you would condone racist or sexist behaviors, even ones that the perpetrator had first mindfully considered.

Jeff Wilson:

June 6, 2006 03:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

You're right, I wouldn't say we're necessarily absolved when we've thought about things deeply. But I think there's a long way from slavery to eating meat. There's nothing approaching a consensus that eating meat is wrong; it's perfectly possible to eat meat and be a deeply moral person with strong religious sentiments. After all, Jesus, Buddha, and just about all the other figures UUs regularly venerate were not vegetarians.

Historically, we didn't speak nearly as clearly or often as you seem to think on the issues of earlier days. Unitarians were not as a denomination united publicly against slavery; there were prominent Unitarian ministers who led their particular local congregations into abolitionism, but there were also Unitarians on the other side too. Likewise agitation for women's rights has overall been much less of an organized denominational concern than we may believe in hindsight.

I haven't found rhetoric such as yours effective in moving UUs from omnivorism into vegetarianism. Usually, it has made UUs defensive and decreased their likelihood of giving up meat. Much of this comes from the unwillingness of people saying things similar to you to recognize that many UUs are in fact former vegetarians and have in fact thought deeply about the issues and tried to inform themselves. Polarizing the conversation effectively ends it, in my experience, which leaves exactly as many animals headed to the slaughterhouse as before.


June 6, 2006 11:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm enjoying the considered nature of the comments here.

I am puzzled, though, by the charge of "polarizing," Jeff. May I ask what in Charlie's post you see as polarizing? And, similarly, what sort of rhetoric you do see as effective in moving people to reduce animal suffering?

My own experience suggests to me that people sometimes dismiss or hotly criticize arguments that make them uncomfortable with their own behavior. I certainly do that in my own life. If someone makes a rhetorical point that resonates, but that calls to my awareness an ethical shortcoming of mine, and I might try and dismiss it rather than sit with the discomfort and explore the issue. I'm not saying that is what you were doing, but I do think that is often what is at play when people dismiss pleas for justice for animals other than humans.

I suspect that every movement working for social justice or to reduce suffering is called too radical or too polarizing or just plain wacky at some point. And yet these movements have achieved remarkable advances and changes.

Regarding slavery and meat being not comparible, there is a fascinating book written on that very topic called, aptly enough, "The Dreaded Comparison." It is written by Marjorie Spiegel and has an introduction by Alice Walker in which she says: ""The animals of this world exist
for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men."

I think that analogies are tricky, and often pull the attention off the main issue(s) and onto arguments about semantics and rhetoric and whether one form of suffering is worse than another. However, I cannot agree that drawing parallels and finding connections between different forms of oppression is an empty exercise.

On a side note, while the historical Buddha and Jesus did, from what we can tell, eat meat, they did not eat meat from factory farmed animals. It's hard for to imagine them approving--or even turning a blind eye to--today's animal agriculture systems. The ex-vegetarians I know may have decided that they needed or were okay with eating animals again, but I know none who decided they were okay with factory farming -- yet many of them still support this brutal industry (as does my UU congregation, sadly). It is still an area of ethical disconnect for them--and, I believe, for the denomination as a whole.

Listening to a service in which our collective love for creation and respect for the interdependent web is proclaimed, and then seeing platters of factory-farmed ham, eggs, chicken, etc. being served up for the congregants is mind-boggling -- and heartbreaking.


June 7, 2006 07:23 AM | Permalink for this comment

As a non-vegetarian who happens to be appalled by factory farming, I'm probably in a good position to say why certain kinds of arguments haven't yet converted me into a vegan. Some of us simply find direct appeals to idealism or high principle uncompelling. Don't get me wrong; I'm persuaded, but I'm also turned off by self-congratulatory idealism, rhetorical extremism, and arguments that dismiss out of hand the many factors that make change difficult for people to accept.

I am looking for ways to reduce my meat consumption and for ways to support local small farmers, but I do not see the moral claims for animals and for humans as equivalent. Similar, perhaps, and real -- but not equivalent. Human enslavement is worse than animal domestication, and genocide is much worse than factory farming. But factory farming is genuinely bad.


June 7, 2006 01:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

Fair enough, Chris/Philocrates. Thanks for your perspective.

I am curious about what differentiates "self-congratulatory idealism" from just garden-variety idealism (which is at the root of all social justice movements). And how does holding the view that human suffering is worse than the suffering of other animals impact our behavior towards those other species?

If you are indeed "persuaded," what is stopping you--and the denomination--from taking the next logical steps? Is it the offputting rhetoric or certain activists & groups? That puzzles me, because such rhetoric is part of every movement--and yet it doesn't, or shouldn't IMO, stop people from taking right action.

I guess one thing about activism & advocacy, no matter what the issue, is that different tactics appeal to different people. UUs are no exception, despite our reputation as an (overly) intellectual bunch!

For Chris and anyone else interested in knowing specifically how they can help animals, a resource I like *very* much is Vegan Outreach ( This is a group whose approach often ticks off more hard-line animal rights activists, so it might be just up your alley! ;-) Their site has a wealth of information--from recipes to facts about farming to brief, thoughtful essays about practical ethics. I truly think they have something that will resonate with almost anyone.

This group frames the issue very simply and clearly: ANYONE, veg or non-veg, can reduce animal suffering by reducing the amount of animal products they consume.

They take the view that whether a person effects a 5 percent reduction or a 100 percent reduction, every bit helps (although an actual 100 percent reduction is impossible in a society where animal parts are incorporated into a mind-boggling array of products--but that's a whole other ball of (bees)wax!)

Our denomination prides itself on pursuit of social justice and compassion. Given the almost unimaginable scale of animal suffering at human hands (more than 10 BILLION animals killed each year in U.S. agriculture) I would like to see the faith take a serious look at this issue--and at our own individual roles in perpetuating suffering. Our collective silence on the issue seems deafening to me.

Kevin M:

June 7, 2006 06:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

The author whose perspective on the ethics of meat-eating I find most convincing is Michael Pollan. See this essay from the 11/10/02 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

Pollan makes what I think is a proper distinction between animal rights (which, by analogy with humans, implies an inherent right to autonomy and self-determination and is a concept that simply doesn't map well from humans to animals) and animal welfare (which is grounded in basic compassion toward the suffering of other beings).

What frustrates me about animal rights advocates is the way they often blur the distinction between eating meat on the one hand and supporting industrial agriculture on the other. It's undeniably true (to me, at least) that factory farming is an inhumane evil; you need only read a book like Fast Food Nation to see that. But the prevalence of evil farming practices does not mean it's unethical to eat meat. It means it's unethical to support those practices.

I have serious doubts whether animal rights activists will ever convince the majority to see meat-eating as immoral. What is far more achievable is for animal rights activists to convince people that factory farming is immoral (not to mention shockingly gross), and to promote humane alternatives. The American Humane Association has been promoting the Free Farmed label as a way to identify meat products that have been farmed without cruelty. It's a great idea that hasn't really caught on except among expensive specialty retailers like Whole Foods.

I, for one, am a meat-eater who cares about animal welfare, and I would like to be able to know more about the meat on my table. (It's very hard to find out much about the conditions under which your meat was raised; I've tried.) That's the ethical consumer movement that I would like to see catch on, among UUs and others.


June 7, 2006 07:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

When I was a vegetarian, I simply wasn't as healthy as I am as an omnivore. We do buy almost all of our meat at Whole Foods or other places that sell organic, free range, etc. I don't eat beef. We have cut down on the amount of meat we eat.
I resonate as much with plants as with animals -- yet we eat them. Why aren't you up in arms about cruelty to plants?


June 7, 2006 11:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Interesting discussion. I've never found comparisons to the Holocaust very helpful in that, legit or not, it mostly just freaks people out and they say "Whoa, those animal rights people have really gone over the top.” (No offense, Charles - that's just the reaction I've seen.) I'm a strict vegetarian, wanna-be vegan, and I wish that it was more widespread. That said, somehow the animal rights movement has managed not to be terribly convincing and so many, for whatever reason, view the movement as radical, crazy, or painfully self-righteous. In my few discussions bringing up UFETA I hear stories about the weird animal rights person who posted pictures of slaughtered animals on the church message board, or some variation of that. So I think that there is a lot of room for a voice of friendly non-judgmental vegetarianism/veganism.... my personal approach is to say that vegetarianism/veganism is a VERY effective way to 1) reduce suffering in the world (something we are all concerned with and struggle to do (I think)) and 2) have a very big impact on the environment. If you don't want to cut all animal products out of your life, reduce it little by little until it is a rareish thing. Habits can change with time, including what we are used to eating. It isn't about purity, but reduction reduction reduction. We all do what we can. But by being attentive to the impact our eating habits have on the environment, we can contribute to the overwhelming amount of change that needs to happen to make life on this planet possible for our children and grandchildren and contribute to the prevention of overwhelming and tragic suffering that takes place because animals, milk, and eggs taste good to us.


June 8, 2006 01:54 AM | Permalink for this comment

Kevin--I agree with much of your post and am stirred by much of Pollan's writing (and am frustrated by some of it, as well--see below).

I did want to note though that the question of promoting more humane farming versus promoting abstinence from all meat is actually a hotly debated topic amongst animal advocates. I personally believe that the goal is to make animals suffer less, and if smaller non-industrial farms do that, they should be supported. The other label to look for (in addition to Free Farmed) is Certified Humane. Products carrying these labels can be hard to find, alas -- the vast, vast majority of farmed animal products come from animals kept in factory farms.

One of the problems with the way Pollan (and others) promote small animal farms as a solution to factory farming of animals is the issue of sustainability. There is not enough land here to raise 10 billion animals the way animals are raised at Polyface Farm (which Pollan holds up as an ideal). So reduction of consumption of animal products would still be required--which is why that is a primary focus of farmed animals.

I agree with you, though, that I do not find the argument "eating meat is wrong" to be the best way to talk about the issue. For me the issue is "it is wrong to cause undue suffering in another creature."

Kim: That "what about plants" question (usually, in my experience, not posed seriously, but rather to try and derail a discussion about animals) is an old one. But assuming you were posing the question in good faith, I will say that when I see a scientifically credible study that shows that plants feel pain and are capable of psychological suffering as farmed animals are, then perhaps I will consider my views. But until such time, I'll work to reduce suffering of those beings that actually suffer.

Elizabeth: I think your considered, moderate approach is the one shared by most animal advocates. Unfortunately, it can get drowned out my louder voices (as is true in every movement).

Everyone: Factory Farming was being considered as a study issue (can't recall the official UU title) a few years back, but failed to make the cut. Do you think it is a worthy topic for congregations across the U.S. to study and discuss seriously, and to take a stand and make policies about?


June 8, 2006 08:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

Why is idealism generally unpersuasive to me? Because I recognize that -- like the vast majority of human beings -- I don't make most of my decisions by appealing first to my conscience. (Gasp! Shock! Horror! For shame!) In a UU context, I put it this way:

Sure, we have our Principles, but we also have our interests. Unfortunately, we're better at appealing to our principles than we are at recognizing and examining our interests. Even worse, we frequently think that our principles are the best or most ideal expressions of our values, and that our interests are the least admirable expressions of our values. But many of the things we take for granted, many of our habits, many of the cultural forms we inhabit without much reflection, are in fact deeply meaningful to us. I have come to the conclusion that they provide the roots for our principles and ideals. They are foundational.

An example before this gets too abstract: One of the values that I realize is important to me is hospitality. I love to be able to accept an invitation to eat with someone. I want to be gracious enough to accept and enjoy what is served to me (and I have the good fortune of not being allergic to anything and being young and healthy enough to be able to eat pretty much anything). This value (unexpressed in the UUA's Seven Principles) competes with the values that inspire vegetarianism because it's rude to go into someone else's home and not eat the food they offer.

(Other competing interests in my case include unadmirable ones like laziness -- I have not yet disciplined myself to buy lunch only from vegetarian restaurants, of which there are none immediately near my office -- and cheapness -- I am only gradually forcing myself into the habit of paying more for more ethically produced foods.)

I'm not defending myself, nor am I making an argument about why people should eat one way rather than another. I'm not even attempting to blunt the criticism of scolds and activists who think I'm a conformist. I'm simply saying that arguments that appeal strictly to ideals almost never hit home for me. (Children should be selfless! Love should be unconditional! No one should ever have to do anything they don't want! Gendered pronouns are sexist!) I know I am not alone in this.

My basic point is that other values matter more than idealism to many of us. To me, this helps explain why the resolutions at the General Assembly -- which so clearly matter so much to their advocates -- look like a kind of exotic sport to others. They just don't hit home.

I'm a liberal, but I'm not an idealist or an activist. I'm more interested in the next step than in the ideal outcome. And now you may wag your fingers.


June 8, 2006 12:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

No finger wagging here--if I understand your post correctly, it sounds like a more pragmatic discussion about animal issues would speak to you more than a philosophical one. There are lots of animal advocates (this one included) who share that inclination!

The only way to get anywhere--be it to an ideal outcome or an expression of a value or simply getting to the next day--is through steps. And every moment provides an opportunity to take a step that is compassionate (however a person may choose to define that).

(Still not sure how self-congratulatory idealism is different from just plain idealism, though....)


On another note, I also wanted to say to Kevin that there's another interesting debate going on within the animal protection movement right now, and that is on the topic of lab-grown meat.

(I am going to put aside for now the many other issues associated with food concoted in a lab: practicality, health, cost, the "ick" factor, etc.)

Many animal people think that if this meat could be grown safely, it would be one of the greatest things that could ever happen for animals, reducing suffering more than decades of activism and legislation have.

Others hold fast to the goal of wanting people to not eat animals or animal-derived products, and to the belief that eating or otherwise exploiting animals is morally wrong.

The point being, "animal rights advocates" are not monolithic in their approaches--or even their beliefs.


June 8, 2006 01:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

An interesting piece of writing on the ethics of eating animals is the essay "Consider the Lobster" by David Foster Wallace.

Oh, and by the way, as I was scrolling through the comments above I misread "exploring humane alternatives to factory-farming" as "exploring human alternatives to factor-farming". Jonathan Swift would have been proud.


June 8, 2006 02:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

"Consider the Lobster" really is a terrific essay; it originally appeared in Gourmet magazine, and caused quite a stir. Here's a PDF of the article: It's also the centerpiece of Wallace's newest book.

Alan and Terri Scheller-Wolf:

June 8, 2006 06:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

Yes, we know this post is long, but people kept saying more things we wanted to respond to…

When we first started exploring UU’ism we liked many things about it, but we were puzzled and disturbed by the apparent lack of concern about how human beings treat other animals. When we discussed this with our minister (who is very supportive of our efforts to bring these issues to the attention of the congregation) he said these issues are “not even on the radar” of most people in our congregation. And, outside of UFETA, we see virtually no discussion of these issues among Unitarians on the Internet or in UU World.

So we have a hard time believing that many UUs who eat meat are “entirely aware” of the issues. We’ve been very concerned with these issues for years, and yet we are still regularly surprised by the novel ways human beings devise to exploit and abuse animals. It is impossible to grasp the enormity and reality of the suffering experienced by the animals.

People who have gone through a “vegetarian phase” likely did so for health reasons, rather than as a result of deep consideration of the moral issues involved. We do not understand how anyone who has given the issues serious thought could come to the conclusion that the unnecessary killing of sentient beings is moral. But if serious thought can truly lead people to that conclusion…well, we’d normally say that is something they have to take up with their own consciences, but we guess that’s not applicable to people who don’t appeal to their consciences when making moral decisions. We don’t even really understand the concept of “appealing” to your conscience; our consciences don’t wait to be appealed to –they usually whack us over the head and say “hey, you have to try to do something about this whether you want to or not.” But maybe consciences get discouraged and atrophy if they are ignored too often. And consciences are ignored because no one wants to speak up and be accused of being an “extremist, self-congratulatory, inhospitable finger-wagger.”

The current issue of UU World includes an excellent article relevant to this discussion, entitled “Resisting Reasonable Atrocity.” The article says, “We must keep ever vigilant against good people, with good, rational reasons trying to convince us of terrible things.” This is something we think many UUs (and people in general) have a hard time grasping— the concept that otherwise good people can sometimes do terrible things. It’s not always George Bush, or fundamentalists in Kansas, or an evil dictator in some far-away country. Sometimes it’s you or me, our friends and relatives, or the people sitting next to us in our congregations.

“Resisting Reasonable Atrocity” says we must speak out, but speaking out is hard to do and takes practice, and our church community should be a place where we can get such practice, “where we can speak our minds and be taken seriously.” This is one of the things we were hoping to find when we became involved in the UU community; a place where we could speak out, and where we could hear others speak out about the issues they are passionate about.

In the article about Martha and Waitstill Sharp, which spawned this discussion, one of the Sharps’ grandchildren also mentions the importance of speaking out: “Who will take risks on behalf of unknown others now? We cannot all take physical risks, but who will take the risk of speaking out? Who will take the risk of bearing witness to the inhumanity of this era?" UUSC president Charlie Clements speaks of taking more direct action, "We want to inspire activism by asking: How will our grandchildren celebrate our righteousness in regard to the inhumanity that occurs on our watch?"

The way human beings treat other animals is one of the great inhumanities that is occurring on our watch, and it is not morally defensible to wait until there is consensus to address it. Nor is it morally defensible to wait until animal rights activists “convince” you that these things are immoral. We cannot imagine expecting other people to “convince” us of moral issues. It can be helpful if people alert us to issues, but ultimately it is our own responsibility to look deeply into issues and behave as morally as we can.

We suspect that, for most people, the difference between “self-congratulatory idealism” and admirable idealism comes down to this: If the idealism is about something that is safely in the past or safely far away and has nothing to do with me, it’s admirable, or at least harmless; if it does have something to do with me and my behavior, then it must be judgmental and self-congratulatory. Because most people do not want to acknowledge their complicity.

If analogies comparing the abuse of animals to the Holocaust or human slavery make you uncomfortable or indignant, you should explore why. Did the “soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld raise such discomfort and indignation? We don’t remember anyone being bothered by it –probably because it did not raise any uncomfortable questions about responsibility and complicity.

Many people have noticed the obvious similarities between the way our society treats animals and the way past societies have treated those they deemed inferior. And many have written about them in sensitive and enlightening ways. Examples include "The Dreaded Comparison" (mentioned by Beekind) and "Eternal Treblinka" by Charles Patterson.

Patterson’s book is dedicated to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote many passages denouncing the cruelty human beings inflict on animals. One such passage provides the title for Patterson’s book: “In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.” Eternal Treblinka includes the stories of people whose connections with the Holocaust inspired them to devote their lives to alleviating the suffering of others, including animals; people who exemplify the phrase “Never Again.” For many, the fact that so many stood by and allowed the evil of the Holocaust to happen was what impelled them to be activists –so that they themselves would not be guilty of standing by in their own time. These people recognize that all social justice issues are interconnected, and that they all spring from the same source: from one group deciding that their interests, no matter how trivial, are more important than another group’s interests, no matter how vital.

As someone whose mother fled Nazi Germany, where many members of my extended family were murdered, I am very much aware of the societal desensitization that allows people to do everything and anything to those they deem inferior. I understand that might does not make right –we have no right to needlessly harm others, including animals, for our own ends.

And if concerns like this are somehow too idealistic for you, maybe you will find self-preservation a more compelling argument. The reasons to end, or at least drastically reduce the consumption of animal products continue to grow. The July/August 2004 issue of the Worldwatch Institute magazine included an editorial entitled “Meat, Now It’s Not Personal!” which states: “As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future –deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.”

And for those who can be influenced by idealism, there is Albert Schweitzer: "Until he extends his circle of compassion to all living things, man himself will not find peace."

h sofia:

June 8, 2006 07:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have to say that this has been one of the most interesting and multi faceted discussions I've ever read in the UU blogosphere. I must be an idealist because I am persuaded by these arguments against animal abuse. It's not that these are new issues for me, but this conversations serves as a reminder - and I am remembering how important this really is. I'll probably post more about it in my blog later today, but for now I can say that I am committing myself to not eating any more factory farmed meat.


June 9, 2006 07:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

Here's Hafidha's entry about mindful eating.

I wonder if the UFETA people might consider setting up a blog to share tips, news, personal stories (like Hafidha's), recipes, etc. -- or whatever they think would be most usefully persuasive.


June 12, 2006 07:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have a hard time understanding why the Sharps are considered particularly heroic. They worked in Prague in the summer of 1939, before the war, and in unoccupied France in summer of 1940. In both places the United States had diplomatic representatives with whom the Sharps cooperated. Neither environment was particularly anti-American. In Prague, the Sharps do not appear to have done anything remotely ilegal or even anti-Nazi. The Nazis _wanted_ Jews and Czechs to leave so there would be more room for Germans. The Sharps' primary fight seems to have been with US immigration bureaucracy. The Germans would let people out, but the US would not let them in.

In 1940, the Sharps did the same thing in southern France. As a result, the Yad Vashem citation is very strained. The rules are that you are supposed to risk your life and the Sharps obviously didn't. So Yad Vashem makes a big deal over the claim that Waitstill Sharp bribed Vichy border guards when they escorted Lion Feuchtwanger from Vichy to Spain. However, there is no direct evidence that that happened. In any case everyone in the party was travelling on legitimate US government documents and both Vichy and Spain had reasonable relations with the US. It is not obvious that the Sharps were doing anything illegal, let alone dangerous.

Varian Fry, an American who _did_ commit massive document fraud in Marsailles in 1940, was apprehended by Vichy and deported to the US. It is hard to believe the Sharps ever risked anything worse.

This isn't in any way a criticism of the Sharps. Helping refugees with US paperwork is noble and I am sure they saved dozens of lives. They appear to have been skillful, imaginative, and dedicated. But they weren't doing something that was dangerous. Many, many people were risking far more.

LoraKim Joyner:

June 16, 2006 05:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm coming in late to this discussion, in part because I was occupied last weekend with putting together a city wide commemoration service for Martha and Waitstill Sharp. Our congregation did this in conjunction with the El Paso Holocaust Museum and the Reformed Jewish Temple.

What I learned from that intentional remembering of the Holocaust, coupled with this blog discussion, is that we as a movement could have done more in Europe 45 plus years ago and could be doing more now. For if we claim that liberal theology helped motiviate the Sharps and we can claim them with pride, then we must also claim that liberal theology only inspired a few to go to Europe and inspires only a relative few to stand (fly, jump, slither, and swim) in solidarity with other species.

Frankly I am shamed. This is not too bad a deal because I consider shame a postive force in my life and it helps motivate me to a broader, more joy-filled, compassionate activism.

Yet, shame is hard to swallow, and I think it's one reason we UU's don't do more with nonhuman animal issues. Who wants to feel any worse than we already do?

What I'd like to suggest is that working towards liberation of all species helps liberate our own aching heart from denial and disconnection. And this can help heal our hearts, not burden them further. But this road of liberation is not an easy one, and not one to take alone.

We need each other in our endeavor to wake up to our connection to the web of life, and we need each other to handle the shame, and to share the joy.

General Assembly is fast upon us and I invite all you UU's out there to come by the UFETA booth and talk with others. Let us share this wonderful life with one another, and make plans to make life more wonderful for all beings.

Con esperanza para todos los seres (with hope for all beings.


June 16, 2006 07:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

LoraKim, you raise a point I want to reemphasize. I agree that shame can be a good motivator. And you're right that few religious liberals actually do get engaged in difficult transformative activities — perhaps more than in other traditions, but of course still not that many.

But what I want to emphasize is that a religion or a community that sustains people in hard work — that keeps them engaged and committed even while encouraging them (or shaming them) to do what is hard for them — must also ground them really deeply. You have to be more committed to the community than to the sense of your own self-righteousness if you're going to survive being corrected by the community. And we're not set up that way. (I'm not saying this judgmentally so much as saying it descriptively. I think I'm accurately describing the social condition of our religious communities.)

Shame only works if people from a community whose opinion you really respect start looking at you funny and ask how they can help you get back on track. And unfortunately this is where Unitarian Universalism largely fails — because we don't really respect each other enough to tolerate judgment, not to mention reprimands or chastisement. Most of the time, when a UU tries to shame me, it rolls right off me because I don't really feel especially bound to them. And I suspect I couldn't effectively shame them into seeing things my way, either.

Sure, lots of people say shrill things about what each other should do, but we don't have much social leverage to move people along. We're better at repelling each other than at building strong bonds that can take the strain of correction.

That's a theological and social problem that can't be solved by making resolutions, taking strong stands, or simply shaming each other. We have to be bound together first. This is why I'm personally more interested in how religions and other communities can "thicken" social ties than I am at looking for ways these communities can tell the rest of the world what they think.

Charlie Talbert:

June 17, 2006 12:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites makes a good point that I’ll attempt to paraphrase: social cohesion within a congregation gives more traction to appeals for it to change its attitudes and behaviors. The more I like and feel connected to someone, the more I’m likely to take to heart that person’s concerns and admonitions.

Adding to that, I believe most people value cohesion within their congregations for its own sake, and not just for its benefit in rallying the troops. Personally, I had no greater reason for becoming a Unitarian Universalist than seeking the friendship of others.

Perhaps we have less cohesion in Unitarian Universalist congregations because we have no creed that separates ourselves from others, and so we have no “Them” to align ourselves against (with possibly the exception of the Republican Party). Some of the most cohesive religious communities I’m aware of are bound together tightly in their condemnation of others who see things differently. That’s a price of togetherness that no Unitarian Universalist will pay.

Also, as David Rankin points out in “Our Beliefs”, we Unitarian Universalists tend to value independence more than most other groups. Here’s a favorite passage from that wonderful essay (although it’s difficult to pick just one):

“[A survey of UU members] found that of instrumental values, Unitarian Universalists place lovingness, independence, intellectualism, imagination, and logic much higher than did people of other religious groups. The values of obedience, cleanliness, politeness, self-control, and forgiveness were ranked lower. (Indeed, the disdain for obedience and politeness goes far toward explaining the occasional chaos of our meetings together.) It is good that we are loving.”

It can be difficult to nurture cohesion in a group that highly values independence. Even so, that should not stop us from appealing to our congregations – through encouragement, shame, education, or any other effective way – for the merciful treatment of the other Earthlings on this planet. Ten billion beings in the US alone suffer horribly agonizing deaths each year at humanity’s hand, for absolutely no reason other than “they taste good.”

I woke up full of shame at what my species is doing to others on April 4, 2004 when I saw “Peaceable Kingdom” at its Chicago premier, and changed my life accordingly. That happened without my knowing, being friends with, or feeling bound to any of the principals appearing in that film.

Perhaps we can’t rely on congregational cohesion to amplify the message of mercy, but I think we can count on the independence, imagination, logic, and lovingness of Unitarian Universalists to question the traditions and the cultural norms that allow us to pet dogs but stab pigs.

Pat McLaughlin:

June 19, 2006 03:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

Charlie wrote "most Unitarian Universalists eat other beings"...

Indeed. We do.

Our minister will be preaching the sermon that won her the Albert Schweitzer 'Reverence for Life' Award from UFETA at GA. She's one of several vegans at our Fellowship.

I don't foresee (I could be wrong) the majority of us being persuaded soon. Oh, abandoning factory "farmed" food, sure. We've got folks working on arranging a potluck where all the food will be, if possible, stuff members provide from their own yards. The objective being a no oil (or as little as possible!) went into this meal potluck. There will certainly be eggs....

As for myself, yes; I eat other beings. Given my own perspectives on the nature of life, I don't think that it's possible for us not to do so. Without intending to be snotty about it, I grant plants the same status. I've been as awed by the presence of a tree as by that of an animal. The fact that they lack moist eyes and forms I can easily evoke a sympathy for doesn't change my perception of them as beings.

It's a feature of the nature of life.

It's my understanding--or one of them--of the Buddha's statement that all life is suffering. Caught up in all life is the death of other life.

All that I can do then is to treat all life with reverence, care, and consideration; to treat nothing's life, or death, casually. I find no moral conflict in having gone to great lengths to save a hatchling dove and handfeed it--something my family's done to the point we have a bird we're trying to figure out how to release now--and going out and collecting eggs from the fat, glossy chickens that we care for, and making an omelet. When we buy meat, we spend more and go to some effort to ensure that the beef is grass fed, free ranged cattle (and from in-state... but that's another issue).

We'll see what time brings, but I've yet to come to believe that we can achieve a state where we cause no suffering. All I can do is seek to diminish it to the least possible level. If the circle is to be expanded beyond my species, then preferring some over others seems arbitrary.


June 19, 2006 01:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

Many vegans share that sense of “awe” about the plant kingdom, be it toward a cabbage or a cedar. I guess don’t really understand, though, how that plays into making ethics-based decisions about what to eat.

For many decisions about what to eat are not based on a personal sense of awe (do plants or animals care if we are “in awe” of them anyway?). They are based on whether how much suffering is being caused, and whether there are choices that could be made that would be satisfactory while causing others less suffering.

For some, grappling with this issue means deciding not eating any animals, for some it means not eating any sentient species, for some it means eating only wild animals, and for some it means buying “humane” animal products. Still others—most others, I think—ignore the issue completely, which is a terrible shame, given the amount of suffering those choices cause.

Regarding the charge that preferring to kill and eat one species rather than another is "arbitrary," I think it can only be viewed that way if one doesn't take into account the experiences of the species and individual in question (perhaps focusing more on our own experience, such as that of "awe").

When talking about the rights denied our fellow sentient animals, Jeremy Bentham asked, “It may come one day to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons…insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line?… The question is not can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?”

Science clearly tells us that the animal species we eat experience pain and suffering and terror, while suggesting strongly that the plant species we eat (and a few of the animal species we eat, as well) do not have those experiences. It's only "arbitrary" to make choices about which species to consume, I think, if such evidence--and its implications about experience--are ignored (and isn’t ignoring the experiences of others is how most cruelties are committed?).

Patrick McLaughlin:

June 20, 2006 12:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

I can't say that I've kept up on any recent science regarding the measured/observed reaction of plantlife to being killed. At least some years ago, there seemed to be significant data suggesting that there were such reactions. Whether we can call them "pain" and "suffering" requires a lot of stepping outside our experience. It's easy for us to recognize the reactions of an animal--we have innate, visceral recognitions of the pain and suffering of other animals.

I remember reading that trees injured and under attack by insects communicate their distress to others, in biochemical ways that allow others to muster their biochemical defenses against such attacks. That's not audible, but it sounds a lot like "crying out" to me.

I am not arguing for ignoring cruelty or suffering. I'm simply making the point that where my own tradition instructs us to observe Nature as the great teacher, I see no clear way or reason to believe that any living thing doesn't experience its injury or death as something painful (pain being a mechanism that tells us to move AWAY from a dangerous experience). For me, the answer is to make choices about how and what I eat that try to minimze and diminish the suffering of all beings. For me, "being" doesn't end at those creates categorized as animate.

I'm not uncomfortable with the idea that others make their own -- different -- choices and decisions based on the same (or similar) concerns and understandings.

Honor life, don't take it without need, and act to avoid suffering.

I simply have to extend the logic that says that just because a creature lacks characteristics that make it easy for us to recognize its suffering doesn't mean it's not. Moist brown eyes... aren't visible in an oyster, for example. And a plant can't twitch away from pain stimulus.


June 20, 2006 12:55 PM | Permalink for this comment

I guess if someone really believes that plants suffer as much as animals in the process of being raised and killed to be eaten, then it would seem "arbitrary" to use species as a guide to humane eating decisions.

I just think that is a poor reading of the evidence available to us--even given that that evidence may at this point be limited and incomplete. Every being wants to live, yes--but not every being is built to experience pain, terror, and suffering. We don't know what science might one day show us, but we do know what it says now--and thta evidence is clear about animal suffering.

(At any rate, when one considers the staggering number of plants that are killed to feed the farmed animals that are in turn eaten by us--a concern for plant suffering might also lead, paradoxically but logically, to a more plant-based diet. Meat tends to be a highly inefficient way to produce protein for the human diet.)

It's true that there is much we cannot (yet?) imagine about the experience of other beings, due to our lack of knowledge and our imaginative failings. However, I think that lack can often be used as an excuse to justify simply *not* including humane ethics in choices about eating. Not that that is what you are doing (your posts clearly suggest a lot of thought), but it is what I often think is at work when people raise the "what about plants" question. I think it usually doesn't come from a place of genuine concern and compassion for plants, but from a unwillingness to grapple (or perhaps reduce or even renounce) one's consumption of animals.

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