Perhaps more than anything else, we Unitarian Universalists take pride in our history of working for social justice. While we’ve made our share of stumbles, UU’s have been, and continue to be, on the front lines of some of the most important social justice issues in our nation’s history. From the struggle against slavery and for marriage equality, to current campaigns for Black Lives Matter and the rights of immigrants, our faith has a long legacy of pushing back against oppression. Oftentimes, we’re combatting oppressions that are justified by a group with power pointing out arbitrary differences between themselves and the oppressed, in order to justify an unfair status quo.
I think we’re all in agreement about various differences that should not factor into matters of justice. For example, one’s skin color. One’s skin color shouldn’t determine whether one is treated with respect and kindness. Another thing that’s not relevant in this context is what country one is born in. Other factors that shouldn’t matter include a person’s gender, or whom one loves. All of these differences should be irrelevant when it comes to determining whether an individual deserves rights, and to be treated with decency. Today I’d like to posit another thing that shouldn’t matter either: species.
A quick bit of background: I grew up attending the First Unitarian Society of Newton, Massachusetts. I’m so glad my parents brought me up in a UU community. One of the best parts of families raising a child in a UU congregation is that you surround them with other adults who care, and who take the child and their ideas seriously.
These people taught me to learn from the work of past and current social justice trailblazers, but to not be satisfied with that. They taught me that in a world with so much suffering, we all have a moral duty to continue to question.
When I was in middle school, a teacher showed me a short documentary of the horrible ways animals are treated in the “factory farms” that provide virtually all the meat, dairy and eggs sold in grocery stores and restaurants today. This video showed mother pigs locked for months in barren metal cages so small they can’t turn around. It showed today’s typical “meat chicken,” bred to grow so large, so fast, her legs can’t keep up, leaving her crippled under her own body weight. It showed turkeys, who aren’t protected by a single federal animal welfare, being violently killed.
This hit me hard. My extremely patient parents had allowed me to accumulate a house full of beloved pets. But I still ate pork chops and chicken breasts. I soon started asking myself how I could treat some animals with such care and compassion, while being complicit in a system that abuses and commodifies other animals. As I grappled with these issues, and eventually became a vegetarian, the adults around me, including those who I looked up to so much at my Unitarian church, were continually supportive, and for that, I’m forever grateful.
Humans have long tried to come up with excuses for why it’s acceptable to treat animals as inferior beings. Why we can use their bodies for our pizza toppings, their skin for our hand bags, or their immune systems as test tubes for our chemicals. At different points, humans have said it’s because animals don’t have language, don’t use tools, or they aren’t intelligent. HAPPY Over time, each of those claims has been thoroughly dismantled by scientists. For example, some species of fish can use tools. Pigs are so intelligent they can been taught to play video games. Cows have complex system of tail movements and vocalizations to communicate with each other. While cows form relationships with every member of their herd, individual cows have repeatedly been shown to develop a strong relationship with one other cow – a “best friend.” The magazine Scientific American had a cover story a couple years back entitled The Startling Intelligence of the Common Chicken. The magazine wrote “mounting evidence indicates that the common chicken is much smarter than it has been given credit for.” A sweet note about chickens: mother hens start clucking/communicating to her chicks before the chicks even come out of the egg.
But even before those claims had been refuted, we should have been asking ourselves: so what? So what if an animal can use tools or speak? Imagine what you’d think if a politician claimed that people who are less intelligent or lack verbal communication deserve fewer rights. So what distinction does matter? What shared thing do we all share that make us worthy of moral consideration? I don’t think it’s that we’re Homo Sapiens. I think it’s that we’re sentient. The ability to feel, whether it’s pleasure or pain, love or loneliness, contentment or despair. Is that the distinction that truly matters? And if it is, than surely we have to extend our sphere of compassion to other sentient beings.
Before I go further, I want to make clear that this sermon isn’t about lowering humans. While we have enormous flaws, we are an amazing species. And there are of course huge differences between our species and others, and major differences between various social justice struggles. This isn’t about bringing down humans to the level of animals. It’s about questioning why we’ve got animals down so low in the first place. It’s about crystalizing a strong moral foundation for all of our social justice work: sentience.
The philosopher Jeremy Bentham was one of the 19th centuries leading voices in the fight for a more just world. He worked for many issues, including equal rights for women and the decriminalization of homosexuality. He also pushed for the rights of animals. He wrote “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Let me now turn from an 18th century English philosopher to a 21st century Canadian…pig.
Here’s the story: Two guys named Derek and Steve are a married couple up in Ontario. For years they had a few rescued cats and dogs, but weren’t particularly plugged into animal issues. One day an old friend contacted Steve and asked if he’d be willing to adopt a micro-pig who the friend could no longer take care of properly. Without getting approval from Derek, Steve said yes. (This, by the way, totally sounds like something my wife would do…) So in moves this adorable little pink piglet, and they name her Esther. They’re smitten, and Esther becomes part of their family. She becomes house trained, snuggles with them on the couch, and romps with their dog Shelby. But…Esther keeps growing. And growing. It turns out Esther wasn’t a micro-pig. Fast forward to today, Esther is now 650 pounds. She still lives in their house and plays and cuddles with the guys and the dogs. And her life is documented to her more than 1 million fans on social media, many of whom have been inspired by her to stop eating animal products.
Theory and statistics have their place, but Esther’s story is so valuable because stories of individuals are much more likely to resonate with the human brain. And it’s one of the barriers we who work in farm animal protection face. Most people only encounter farm animals when they see part of the animal’s dead body wrapped in cellophane in a grocery market aisle. How do we get people to know the individual, and help people realize there isn’t that big of a difference between their cat and a chicken, their dog and a cow? I don’t have a perfect answer to that. But if you need some inspiration, and a daily chuckle, I encourage you to follow Esther The Wonder Pig on social media.
Fortunately for us, there are many social justice leaders who have made the connection between the exploitation of our species and the exploitation of other sentient species. People like US Senator Cory Booker, Colin Kaepernick, Dexter Scott King and Coretta Scott King, Angela Davis, Gandhi, and Dolores Huerta all switched to plant based diets. The civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez said “I became a vegetarian after realizing that animals feel afraid, cold, hungry and unhappy like we do. I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom. It was my dog… who led me to question the right of humans to eat other sentient beings.”
Every UU has many issues she or he is passionate about, and there are only so many hours in a day. UUCSS’ers are doing important work on racial justice, transgender rights, clean energy. Fortunately, you don’t have to take your focus away from any of your other social justice work to make a meaningful difference for animals. The single best thing you can do to help animals is to choose plant-based meals more often. Next time you’re at Chipotle, skip the chicken and try the Sofritas, made of tofu roasted with peppers and various spices. Grab one of the pamphlets I brought and try one of the recipes for the next church potluck. Just type “vegan dishes” into Instagram or Google and you’ll see the amazing variety of delicious meals from cultures around the world that you can make without animal products….
And as you likely know, the benefits of reducing your consumption of animal products go beyond reducing animal suffering. The world’s top scientists have repeatedly determined that raising animals for food is a leading cause of water and air pollution, and that a plant-based diet has a far smaller carbon footprint than a traditional Western diet. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide equivalent savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.
In addition, the nation’s leading association of nutrition professionals found that vegetarian diets result in lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.
Every one of us agonizes at times over the problems in the world and how we can help. Many issues are so multi-faceted and nuanced that we become paralyzed by their complexity. But this issue is something we can each do something about three times a day, every time we sit down to eat. That’s tremendously empowering. I’d venture to say most of us in this room have the good fortune to be able to choose what we eat. So why not choose kindness?
Thank you for having me here today. Amen.