Rev. Feargus O’Connor is Chair of the Animal Interfaith Alliance and Secretary of the World Congress of Faiths. He has been holding interfaith celebrations for animals at his Unitarian Church in Golders Green for ten years. Here he tells us why he believes that, as Christians and people of all faiths, we should share our compassion with other members of the animal kingdom.
SHOULD HUMANE AND COMPASSIONATE PEOPLE not feel a moral imperative to act to relieve the immense suffering of billions of sentient fellow creatures? Should we not feel impelled to do whatever we can to save countless animal lives? It has been estimated that the flesh of over 50 billion animals is consumed every year. Billions of God’s creatures are routinely abused, killed and experimented on in countries whose peoples proclaim their adherence to religious traditions, teaching compassion and respect to all God’s living creation. But how often is there evidence in practice of such compassion in our actions? So should we not, as religious believers, each adhering to our own tradition, perceive the need to examine our collective consciences to determine how far we have fallen short of the religious ideals of love and compassion we should not only feel for all living creation but, more importantly, show in our actions? In struggling to cultivate such an all-embracing ethic of love and care for all living beings, we may be inspired by the noble example of those who did show in their lives, not only the working out, but the fruits of universal compassion towards all life on Earth.
‘We bow to all beings with great reverence in the thought and knowledge that God enters into them through fractioning Himself into living creatures’, we read in the Hindu epic The Mahabharata: an ethic truly in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi himself.
This lesson is movingly illustrated in the life and teachings of one of the founders of the Jain religion, Neminath. A contemporary of the Buddha, Neminath was the son of a Rajah. He was on his way to marry a beautiful princess, we are told, when he saw many animals, cruelly packed tight in cages. They were looking frightened and miserable.
‘Why are all these animals, who desire to be free and happy, penned up in these cages?’ Neminath asked his charioteer.
‘They are to furnish a feast for your wedding’, the charioteer replied.
Neminath, full of compassion, reflected: ‘If for my sake all these living creatures are killed, how shall I obtain happiness?’Then and there he renounced his princely privileges, cast aside his fine clothes, gave away his property and vowed to pursue a life of universal compassion. Nemianth sought to propagate a religion which would benefit all living beings in a spirit of loving kindness.
The teachings of this founder of the Jain religion may be summed up in one sentence: ‘This is the quintessence of wisdom: do not kill any creature’. This doctrine of Ahimsa, later adopted by Mahatma Gandhi, counsels absolute non-violence.
‘All breathing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain or treated with violence, abused or tormented. This is the supreme unchangeable law.’
Likewise the Venerable Buddha showed immense and heartfelt compassion for all living beings. In one celebrated story he persuades a king to save animals about to be led to the slaughter. The wellsprings of Buddhist compassion are evident in the Buddha’s own words.
‘All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do? Those who seek happiness by hurting others who seek happiness, will never themselves find happiness. All your fellow creatures are like you. They want to be happy. Never harm them and when you leave this life you too will find happiness.’
In that much loved Buddhist scripture the Metta Sutta the Buddha compares tenderness to our animal companions to the love of a mother for her child.
‘Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings: radiating kindness over the entire world, spreading upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths, outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.’
A modern religious thinker who has embraced this essentially religious ethic was the humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who argued that any religion or philosophy, not based on a respect for life, was not a true and authentic one.
‘Today it is considered an exaggeration to proclaim constant respect for every form of life as being the serious demand of a rational ethic’, Schweitzer wrote. ‘But the time is coming when people will be amazed that the human race existed so long before it recognised that thoughtless injury to life is incompatible with real ethics, [which] is in its unqualified form extended responsibility to everything that has life. The time must come when inhumanity protected by custom and thoughtlessness will succumb before humanity championed by thought. Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things man will not himself find peace.’
Should we also be inspired the by vision of universal peace of the Prophet Isaiah?
‘Calf and lion cub feed together with a little boy to lead them.
The cow and the bear make friends.
Their young lie down together.
The lion eats straw like the ox.
The infant plays over the cobra’s hole.
Into the viper’s lair the young child puts his hand.
They do no hurt, no harm, on all my holy mountain.’
(Isaiah, chapter 11, Jerusalem Bible).
This imperative to care for all sentient beings is equally evident in the Muslim scriptures, in which the Prophet is seen showing mercy and tenderness to all creatures at our mercy. A story is told of an adulteress who was forgiven because, when she passed by a dog who was dying of thirst and holding out his tongue in desperation, she got water from a well to save the life of the dog. This act of mercy to a suffering fellow creature led to her pardon.
The Celtic Saints
In the Christian tradition we see such mercy and loving kindness to animals shown not only by St. Francis of Assisi but by many of the Irish Celtic saints. St. Patrick saved the lives of a doe and her fawn, St. Brendan was devoted to a crow,
St. Columba to a pet crane, St. Molua to wolves, St. Brigid to her lambs and it was written of St. Ciaran that his tenderness was extended to all creation.
If, as Schweitzer proclaimed, it is in such an ethic of compassion that ‘all ethics must take root’ and ‘can attain its full breadth if it embraces all living creatures’ must not such an imperative of empathy and loving kindness to all our fellow creatures lead us to life saving deeds?
Life affirming actions of compassion
Each of us can express that compassion in life affirming actions such as adopting a cruelty-free diet and being ever responsive to any cases of cruelty to animals we witness. Another positive act is to support the work of animal and humane medical research charities. One such charity is the Dr. Hadwen Trust for Humane Research (www.drhadwentrust.org), whose Universal Kinship Fund was launched in 2006 at the annual World Congress of Faiths’ interfaith celebration of animals. In supporting this charity we have the satisfaction of knowing that we are not only saving animal lives but contributing to valuable medical research into human disease and so help eradicate human and animal suffering.
Interfaith action for animals
One other important act of compassionate witness would be effective interfaith action to cultivate, among all adherents of religion, an ethic of universal reverence for life. In 2004, at our first World Congress of Faiths interfaith celebration of animals, Professor Andrew Linzey, the world’s foremost eminent theologian in this field, gave a truly inspirational address and, with the support of animal lovers of all faiths, these interfaith services continue the first Sunday in September every year. Among those attending are members of religious animal societies, among them Quaker Concern for Animals, Catholic Concern for Animals, the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, the Unitarian Animal Welfare Society as well as sympathetic Jains, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.
Inspired by these moving and inspirational encounters, several of us have launched the Animals Interfaith Alliance to witness to the need for loving kindness to all our fellow creatures. We shall seek to bring the riches of our several traditions to the service of this interreligious fellowship, whose vital mission is universal compassion expressed in loving deeds, to heal the world and strive for the happiness and welfare for all who live and breathe.