August 19, 2007

Thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount

Posted in veganism at 1:55 pm by nevavegan

With a special thanks to Bruce Friedrich for his assistance and the fixing of my typos!

As a child I spent many summers without air conditioning, without TV, reading the Bible during the worst heat of the day, memorizing and later reciting key passages. Other days my mother sent me over to the house of one of leaders of our church and I would spend afternoons with her, talking and delighting in the wild birds that came to her feeder. Living like this, surrounded by trees and animals and clear springs streaming out of rock, it was easy to feel like this really was Eden, that the world was beautiful and whole and everything was as it should be.

I have tried to look back over my life and identify those moments where I began to see animals as individuals and the early influences that lead me toward compassion. I’m not sure exactly where religious and secular thoughts blended, but somewhere in all of this thinking of a compassionate God, and thinking of the kindness and gentleness of Jesus had a powerful effect on me. I remember that church leader reading to me that no sparrow falls without God noticing, and I thought that if God cares for the sparrows then I should care about them too.

This is a hard topic for me to write about because I grew up in more than just one religion and found value in all those practices. I found more in inclusiveness and commonality than maybe most are comfortable with. This is not meant to tell anyone what or how to believe, but just to share something that was meaningful to me and may ring a bell with others.

My grandmother always said with regard to our neighbors and acquaintances of other religions “It doesn’t matter, we all worship the same God anyway.” Her best friend was Muslim, and this never created a conflict for her. “Religion is about how it helps and changes you, not about changing other people.” Growing up I had a Jewish best friend and my great uncles were born Jewish though they didn’t practice, and I was friends with Hindus, Wiccans, and Seiks, Atheists and Agnostics. I’m sometimes reluctant to even speak on spirituality for fear of not being inclusive enough or somehow making someone uncomfortable.

Not too long ago my friend Britney said that she hated to see me not talk about things that mattered to me because I was afraid of being associated with intolerance. Why not claim it for yourself again, she asked. It’s not like the fundamentalists own the Bible. She felt that if I found parts of the Bible important in my own development of compassion I should talk about that, not hide from it.

So, here goes. To touch on what my grandmother said about spirituality or religion being important because of how it changes us, not because we use it to change others, I feel that it’s not enough to say the words of certain prayers or wear a certain symbol. We have to examine our lives and try to do better. In both the physical world around me and in wisdom handed down to me through religion I tried to find my own ways to do better, and so often my thoughts came back to how I treated other people and also how I treated animals.

My father performed marriages and funerals, and along with my own memorization of Bible passages I remember watching him give talks of love and of comfort. So often he returned to “The Sermon on the Mount,” particularly the opening known as the Beatitudes, or the later part on faith and worry, as instruction for how to live in this world and not be consumed by it. The words were always so beautiful and echoed in my mind days afterward. When asked to recite a passage out loud, those were the words I always returned to.

In contrast to the voices in our culture that say we have to be cruel because the world is a cruel place, this sermon emphasizes why, despite the cruelties we may see around us, we must still struggle to be compassionate and gentle. Jesus warns us it will not be easy for us to love the way we should and to care the way we should, but that we shouldn’t let our fears and the obstacles in our path stifle that love. He also tells us that others will not always understand or appreciate when we try to do the right thing, but we should not give up.

When I first became vegetarian many of my friends and family members reminded me that the world is an unfair place and that we need to “take care of ourselves first.” This was somehow to them a justification for eating animals. At first I was doubtful about how I’d make it as a vegetarian (and then later as a vegan) because I was so used to eating animal based meals. During that unsure time I thought again about the words “consider the fowl of the air, for they reap not, neither do they sow, yet the lord thy father provideth for them.” I felt reassured that if I was doing something to care for the weak and exploited by no longer eating animals, that somehow this would be ok.

This doesn’t mean that I took the idea of nutrition lightly or didn’t do my homework. It only means that I had to believe that there’s room enough in this world for compassion and empathy. When we talk about protecting the meek and gentle, we cannot help but think about all the exploited animals around us. Jesus never said it was acceptable for us to use others simply because we are stronger, or smarter, or more powerful. Instead he emphasized mercy, which is having the ability to do harm, even the desire to do harm, and choosing instead to help and protect. As our understanding of non-human animals has grown, and we have found that they think more deeply than we ever gave them credit for, that they feel emotion, and feel pain and fear just as we do, then we have to also think of them as our neighbors in this world. When Jesus instructs us to care for the needy and help others, to me this means not only our extended family of humans, but also the animals who are suffering in unprecedented ways and surely need our help as well.

This is an antidote to the ingrained belief so many of us hold that we need to be cutthroat (quite literally) in looking out for ourselves. When we live in a world, like those of us lucky enough to live in the US or Western Europe do, where we’re surrounded by plenty, then our instincts to stock up against famine, to hoard against disaster backfire on us. We have stores of grain rotting while people elsewhere in the world starve. We suffer diseases of excess, too much fat, too many calories but not enough nutrients. And we still believe this idea that we have kill animals for our own survival, that we have to be hard-hearted or the world will eat us alive. Jesus told us that the poor will be rewarded, that the meek are literally our future, and that those who act with love and kindness will lead the way. We can create a world based on kindness, but only if one by one we all take that leap of faith and do something selfless. So often in my life I fall short of that goal, but in becoming vegan I gave up something I liked, something I had trouble imagining my life without, because I felt it was kinder to the earth, kinder to the animals and kinder to people all over the world. I thought it would be a sacrifice, but I found instead love and beauty I hadn’t imagined. Naturally I was provided for, more than provided for. Veganism no longer feels like a sacrifice to me at all.

Of course this is a small thing. It isn’t giving up all my worldly possessions and wandering the earth as a beggar. It’s a small thing with huge benefits, for the animals, for me, and for the world.

When I think also of what the Sermon on the Mount meant to me in particular I go back to this theme of the incredible care and love that God invested in creating us, the world, and all the plants and animals in it. Those lines about the lilies of the field, though ultimately about impermanence, also remind us that though we try to create beauty ourselves, we cannot come close to what God has created. Each wild flower, however common, was formed in beauty and love. Every bird is cared for, his wings crafted exquisitely for flying, the seeds and berries perfectly suited for his diet. So if we acknowledge all of this as gifts, how can we toss it aside like garbage? When I realized the destruction animal agriculture was causing to the planet, all the forests lost, the water polluted, and the animals maimed and deformed, it seemed that we were taking everything we had been given and destroying it. The only responsible choice seemed to be to step away from that destruction and find a new way to live in harmony with the world.

One argument my family brought up when I first decided to stop eating animals was that meat-eating is natural because animals eat other animals, and because people all over the world eat animals. Aside from the obvious concern that so much of what we, as humans, do now has very little to do with nature, I also think about the spiritual instruction that we should try to do better than what we see all around us. While Jesus spoke with reverence and kindness toward animals many times, he never said that we should be like them in every regard. Instead we are capable of thinking about our actions beyond just instinct and desire. Although animals also demonstrate mercy and kindness, we hold ourselves to a higher standard to pursue these qualities in all aspects of our lives. Jesus also tells us it’s not enough to just imitate what those around us do, instead we concentrate on doing right ourselves and trying to live a merciful and just life.

I’m not a theologian, I can’t pretend I understand every word of the Bible, but there are some passages that just stuck in my head and I found my thoughts turning to them again and again. I know enough to know that many people find different meaning in these words than I do. For example, most of my family disagrees with me on my interpretation of the lines about being the salt of the earth. For me personally, these lines conjured images from museums of ancient salt cellars that demonstrated the value of salt in pre-industrial ages. In biblical times I know that salt was both common and precious. It was something that people needed every day just to survive, it wasn’t pretty or showy, but it was difficult to pry from the earth or filter from the sea. So when I think of a person as the salt of the earth, I think of someone who is nurturing and sustaining of life, but also human, or “down to earth,” not flashy, or wealthy. This says to me that we should try to protect and care for other people, but also for all life, including animals, and try to sustain the planet itself. So in my view, veganism isn’t glamorous, it’s the opposite of conspicuous consumption actually, it doesn’t make anyone famous or powerful, but it is a simple, often private, commitment to protect and nurture life.

Not all or even most of my reasons for being vegan are spiritual. I find so much logic, so much self preservation even in veganism. Anyone, of whatever religion or non-religion, can find value in compassion and mercy of course. But I do think that people who are spiritual can find that veganism is the natural extension of the beliefs they already hold. We can look back at words that have always helped us through difficult time, and now with new eyes understand that we should extend our love to all living creatures and to the earth itself.


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