Friday, March 19, 2004

An Exposition of Christian Panzoism (Sogn Mill-Scout)

Panzoism: A philosophy of peace for all animals

(Panzoism: From Greek pan="all" and zoion="living being")

Most people in our society would agree that peace is a laudable goal toward which we should exert considerable effort. It is self-evident to most of us that peace is intrinsically desirable, largely because human beings flourish in peaceful conditions.

In the history of humanity we can discern a series of advances in terms of popular understanding of what peaceful coexistence implies. At one time it was normal to regard only the members of one's own tribe or clan as legitimate objects of moral concern. All others were outside the circle of moral obligations.

Gradually people learned to look outside their local groups to regard others who were previously outcasts as worthy of concern. In our nation's recent history, blacks were long considered inferior to the white majority. Similarly, women were second class citizens in a male dominated society. Now, however, there is a more widespread inclusion of formerly outcast groups within our consensual circle of ethical concern.

In the eyes of most people, humanity still defines the outer limit of their moral obligations. I submit that this fixation on our own species is an arbitrary and unjustifiable boundary to our moral sensibility. Just as our civilization has gradually expanded the perimeter within which individuals and groups are recognized as making moral claims upon us, now we have the opportunity to see ourselves as members of a much larger group. We can choose to recognize that we are all part of the vast number of sentient beings that are united in our capacity to suffer and feel pain. It is our unique privilege as a species to be able to choose to refrain from inflicting suffering upon our fellow sentient beings. The challenge we face is to recognize that there is no morally compelling reason not to take this step into moral solidarity with non-human beings. We have the great opportunity to enlarge the circle of our moral concern to its logically utmost extent.

Panzoism is the term my wife and I coined for this philosophy of life that embraces all sentient beings as worthy of our compassion and concern. It is a way of life that strives to bring about genuine peace on earth by renouncing violence and, to the best of our ability, eschewing participation in all activities and commerce which rely upon or promote the suffering or exploitation of not only fellow humans, but all sentient beings.

What I've written here to this point does not depend on any particular religious or philosophical outlook. It presupposes nothing more than the capacity to feel compassion for any being capable of suffering. Much of the preceding material was written before my wife and I became Christians. It was our panzoism which, in part, paved the way for our return to faith in Christ, the Savior who bore the suffering of creation in His own body. Since our conversions we have realized that the Christian faith provides the most reasonable and consistent basis for the panzoist way of life. This makes it all the more tragic that Christendom - i.e. Christianity as a set of denominational institutions - has failed to fulfill its proper role in the vanguard of those who would bear the love of Christ in their hearts and bodies, and bring peace to a blood-soaked world.

Most meat-eating people in our society are able to live in a state of blissful ignorance regarding the violence inflicted on thousands of innocent beings every day in the routine course of providing the masters of the food chain with the meat they crave. Most of us never have to handle or interact with the animals we devour, much less kill and dismember them. But if we dare to inform ourselves about the industry of mass-slaughter, and if are hearts are not hardened and dead to compassion, we will be sorely troubled by the way humans treat weaker beings. And if we already love an animal companion, such as a cat or dog, the haunting question is inevitable: why is it wrong to kill and eat my pet but appropriate to slaughter cows and pigs? (or pay people to do it for me!) For me, vegetarianism requires no more basis than that; the mere fact that I can and do love even one animal dictates that I refrain, if at all possible, from harming any of them. And to be the cause of suffering after having tasted the boundless love of Christ would be an act of sacrilege.

In my experience of discussing panzoism with other Christians I have found all too many of them far more interested in finding biblical excuses to continue their carnivorous habits than in honestly confronting the magnitude of suffering to which they contribute with their blood money. Instead of asking, "Is this an opportunity to show the merciful love of Christ," their question seems to be "what can I get away with in the name of some bible verses?" It fills me with sorrow and bewilderment that fellow Christians who talk so easily of the love of Christ can so harden their hearts as to be stone-deaf to screams of pain and terror just because they don't come from humans.

It seems to be enough for many Christians to simply say, "look, Christ ate fish," and happily resume eating the steak on their plate, serene in their toothsome joy. Such cynical use of scripture is a transparent rationalization, as shown by the preference for looking historically backward through scripture rather than prophetically forward to the peaceable Kingdom envisioned by Isaiah. I often wonder why Christians don't want to do whatever lies within their power to anticipate the promised Kingdom by renouncing violence and harm here and now. The habits of the palate are indeed powerful and hard to escape; it is no wonder that gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

As for Jesus' consumption of fish (the only flesh he his documented as eating, the sometimes-assumed Passover lamb being nothing more than conjecture), it is irrelevant for us today, in American society, unless the only meat you ever eat is fish. Consider the recently popular WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) motto and then ask yourself: How do you imagine Jesus would react if you accompanied Him on a tour of a modern slaughterhouse? The rubber meets the road here. Christians who seriously consider the issue of vegetarianism need to confront their beliefs about Jesus and his compassion. I think in order to justify continuing one's economic participation in our carnivorous culture, such a Christian would have to conclude (most implausibly) that Jesus would give his blessing to our industrial abattoirs. If you can believe that, I can't imagine anything that could change your mind, and wouldn't waste my time trying.

Another point to be made to meat-eaters who cite Jesus' fish-eating in their defense, is that Jesus - and the Bible in general - tolerated slavery, yet virtually no Christian today would dream of defending slavery on that basis (though, sadly, this was done not so many generations ago). In general I find that the use of Scripture in defense of one's preferences or habits is extremely selective.

The simple question I pose to anyone who is genuinely willing to face this issue is this: Why should we continue needlessly to do violence to innocent beings? It is a plain fact that we in the technologically advanced nations do not need to harm other creatures in order to pursue our lives happily. Therefore, we all ought to answer this question: Is there any reason which could possibly justify such practices? I believe that most people, when they openly and honestly grapple with this question, will find it difficult if not impossible to continue a violence-based, exploitative lifestyle. And if they are also Christians, they must bear an extra burden of conscience whenever the subject of innocent suffering is raised.

Having asserted that there is no need to harm other beings, I may be challenged to defend this claim. Let us consider the issue together. First, it is certainly true that we do not need to eat the flesh of animals to survive. We are not carnivores. We are omnivorous in the strict sense, in that we are capable of digesting both vegetable and animal foods. However, it is becoming increasingly clear in the light of medical research in recent years that humans are generally healthier on a vegetarian diet than when regularly consuming meat. Our digestive system is not optimally suited for digesting meat, and we see widespread consequences in high cholesterol, clogged arteries and heart disease. (There may be cases of medical conditions - Dave Armstrong cited his own situation - in which an individual is unable to thrive on a vegetarian diet, but this is rare and of no avail to the vast meat- eating majority.)

Secondly, it is not necessary to wear clothing derived from animal products, though avoiding all such clothing does pose a much greater challenge than abstaining from meat. It is gradually becoming more feasible to do this because there are synthetic alternatives to every essential article of animal-derived attire. However, whether it is feasible for any particular person to completely avoid animal-derived clothing depends on how this would affect that individual. For example, a person whose feet are uninjured and of a typical size may easily obtain appropriate synthetic shoes, but if one needs an unusual size shoe, or orthopedic shoes, or must use orthotic devices, the search for synthetic shoes can be almost impossible (just as it might be for leather shoes).

It is also very feasible to reject many common items of everyday use that are derived from animal byproducts and/or tested on animals. Cruelty-free alternatives are widely available for cosmetics, household chemical products like detergents, shampoos and deodorants, and sundry other such items taken for granted in our civilization.

Beyond that point the issue becomes more challenging and controversial. What about medical drugs and medical procedures that have been tested on animals or manufactured with animal byproducts? This is a very divisive issue, and understandably so. People are inclined to pose the issue in stark terms, as, for example, a choice between the life of my child and the life of a rat. Although this is a simplistic and rhetorically charged view of the problem, we can't deny that there is a real ethical issue that is confronted by anyone who wants to forego all violence, yet must turn to medical science when seeking relief for the suffering of themselves or their loved ones. CS Lewis, for example, was an outspoken anti-vivisectionist and Christian, but I doubt that he abstained from medications - and, in any case, he (inexplicably!) ate meat.

There are some proponents of animal liberation that are intransigent on this issue no less than on vegetarianism: animals must not be harmed - period - for any purpose. However, while it is true that the suffering of any creature is never good or innocuous in itself, it seems at least arguable, in Christian terms, that compensatory goods for humans might outweigh the evil of our sacrifice of innocents in the cause of medical research. One might even try to draw an analogy to the horrific death of Christ, which was, paradoxically, our greatest good. This is why I would assign this issue the lowest priority of moral persuasion, and vegetarianism the highest.

Nevertheless, I believe that in an ideal world it would not even occur to any sensitive person to exploit another sentient being for any purpose, just as most people now would never even consider harming another human even if that was the only means of saving someone else's life. In such a world the present situation could not even arise, where we are faced with the option of availing ourselves of medical methods of dubious moral status when we face desperate situations.

Honest disagreement over this particular issue need not and should not be a cause of strife among people who can at least be united in their concern that the unnecessary infliction of suffering is to be avoided
to the utmost degree consistent with conscience. Ethical choices are faced every day in whether to consume medications that are tested on animals or whether to allow an operation that was tested on animals, etc. When no other alternatives exist or when the alternatives have not worked, we are left with difficult decisions. We may differ in some of the particulars of our choices while nevertheless sharing a common ultimate goal. Surely our goal should be a peaceful world where no sentient beings are intentionally harmed, and where the temptation to do so is a thing of the past because we have found means of promoting our welfare that do not depend on such violence. Emotions run high from all who are concerned but the one thing we should be able to agree on is to actively promote the search for alternatives to animal research methods.

I recognize the difficulty involved in making sweeping changes in one's everyday lifestyle and behavior, especially when living in a society that is generally so hostile to the commitment to peaceful existence.
It is nevertheless imperative that we all take some steps toward establishing our civilization on a foundation of peace among all the inhabitants of our planet. The cost to each of us, especially for vegetarianism alone, is some inconvenience and psychological adjustment. The cost of rejecting this noble goal, however, is continued bloodshed and suffering on a terrifying scale.

Dave Armstrong has recently written: "Christians ought to oppose all unnecessary cruel treatment of animals (e.g., painful traps, excessive hardships in research and caged environments ..." Yet he views vegetarianism as optional. Any informed person knows that meat obtained by typical means (bought in stores) is derived from conditions of unspeakable cruelty to the animals on whose flesh we feast. No fair and reasonable person who uses English in a normal way could possibly claim that the savagely cruel methods of today's industrial slaughterhouses are necessary. Therefore, for a Christian living in typical urban or suburban circumstances, vegetarianism is a no-brainer, and anything but optional.

I wonder if so many conservative Christians would be so antagonistic to animal liberation if they really believed, like Dave Armstrong, that it's a biblical idea that people have a moral obligation to treat animals well and minimize their suffering, "to oppose all unnecessary cruel treatment of animals." Clearly most Christians do not believe that. Does any informed person seriously believe that industrial
slaughterhouses treat animals well, much less minimize their suffering? What I often observe is Christians giving lip-service to an ethic of kindness to animals, while continuing their habit of procuring meat from the local supermarket. This is, at best, culpable ignorance, and, at worst, hypocrisy in need of repentance.

I'm sure that most Christians, if asked by a pollster, would say they care about animals and would claim to treat animals well and avoid unnecessary cruelty. People do like to feel good about themselves, after all, so if forced to confront this issue, most Christians would say what one 'should' say. But after the question or discussion has passed, they resume their typical American consumer lifestyle and give nary a thought to how that meat in the supermarket was treated while it was still alive.

Furthermore, even if, as Dave Armstrong and countless Christians contend, we are permitted by God to eat animals, and thereby permitted to kill them for that purpose, it by no means follows that we are permitted to give financial support to the meat industry. After all, as Dave says, we shouldn't support "unnecessary cruelty." And thus the typical American lifestyle is indicted simply by the biblical ethic mandating treating animals with kindness. In other words, even if we believe we can continue to take their lives under SOME circumstances, the question is, WHAT circumstances? Do those particular circumstances conform to the biblical ethic of kindness in which we purport to believe? If not, we are presumably called upon to make certain sacrifices, certain inconvenient adjustments, lest our profession of a vital biblical principle be exposed as empty rhetoric.

I don't mean to single out Christians for criticism; most people, Christian or not, conduct their lives in terms of relatively unreflective convenience. The reason I'm discussing Christians specifically now is because of Dave Armstrong's invitation to me to hold forth on the relation between Christian faith and panzoism (vegetarianism and/or animal liberation).

I have also observed that some Christians who oppose the cause of animal liberation (Charles Colson comes to mind) like to characterize panzoism as an anti-Christian, even naturalistic and Darwinian, philosophy. This would be funny if the slander weren't so widely accepted. The truth is that no ideology could be less conducive to panzoism than Darwinism. And I don't know where one would get the idea that panzoism is essentially naturalistic. Of course it's true that there is not a singular and consistent metaphysical philosophy underlying the animal liberation movement. For example, Peter Singer, a utilitarian and atheist, is one of the principal philosophers behind the movement. However, there is nothing essentially naturalistic about panzoism, any more than it's essentially theistic.

In fact, I believe panzoism's proper and logical foundation is Christian theism and the biblical concept of humans as benevolent stewards of God's creation. It is our glory as creatures bearing the divine image - albeit tarnished - that we can choose not to kill or harm weaker creatures. You can't get less Darwinian and more Christlike than that. And I'm happy to see that Christians are increasingly coming to the awareness that they belong in the vanguard of the animal liberation movement, just as they once were in the anti-slavery movement, and are now in the anti-abortion movement.

I urge you to take steps, if you haven't done so already, such as adopting a vegetarian diet - no meat of any kind -and ideally, if feasible, a vegan diet and lifestyle. (Veganism is abstention from consumption or any kind of use of animals or animal byproducts. This has ramifications for choices of clothing, household products, and so forth, as well as dietary change.) This rejection of socially sanctioned violence has been embraced by an increasing number of people in recent years. My wife and I are trying to do our small part to further this transformation of civilization. These words are not intended to demean anyone nor to emotionally manipulate anyone. I only want to provide people - especially my fellow Christians - with the challenging opportunity to think long and deeply about the malignant effects of maintaining a society based on violence to innocent beings, and consider the glorious possibility of extending the love and grace of our Lord and Savior to the weaker of earth's inhabitants, who have suffered so much and so long at human hands.

May God grant us wisdom!
Isaiah 11:6-9; Romans 8:19-22

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