How many vegans can you name who live in Southeastern Montana, where cattle outnumber people by a ratio of about 100-to-1? (Conservative estimate.)
Think that’s tough. Try this one:
How many religious studies professors can you name who research what our sacred texts say about the proper treatment of animals?
The Beet-Eating Heeb hates to show up his beloved readers, but he can name someone in both categories. It helps that it’s the same person.
Meet Lisa Kemmerer.
Tenure-track positions are hard to find in academia, which might explain why the professor who has written one of the most authoritative books on the intersection of animal welfare and religion is on the faculty of the Montana State University – Billings.
BEH, as one of the very few bloggers who writes about the theology of veganism, feels fortunate to have found Lisa.
Her book “Animals and World Religions” (Oxford University Press) is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the role that religion can play – make that, should play – in ending the oppression of animals.
Lisa and The Beet-Eating Heeb recently talked about her important work – and about what it’s like to be a vegan advocate in cattle country.
BEH: Lisa, what’s it like to be vegan in Billings, Montana?
Kemmerer: My social life is limited. It’s a ranching place, very conservative—not always comfortable.
I know there are other vegans out there, but they’re students, in a different space in life. They can’t provide a community for me. I don’t know any vegans in Billings that I have commonality with, and of course I simply don’t eat out.
BEH: Many of your students are cattle ranchers themselves. How do they respond when you tell them that the widespread suffering of farm animals is a violation of religious principles?
Kemmerer: I have lots of ranching students in my classes and they bristle at animal ethics. They especially bristle at hearing that what they’re doing is inconsistent with their own faith.
Why am I beating my head against a wall with a bunch of ranching students? I’m needed here. It’s not socially comfortable for me, but I think it’s necessary.
BEH: If the major religions emphasize the compassionate treatment of animals, how did we get into a situation where we’re slaughtering 9 billion farm animals in the U.S. alone?
Kemmerer: People can ruin any religion. There is no religion that teaches us that what is happening in animal agriculture is OK.
Humanity has a tendency toward ignorance of religions. We have a tendency toward selfishness. We tend to be arrogant. Between ignorance, selfishness and arrogance, we create a recipe for the dismissal of religious teachings.
In Genesis 1:29, after creating a vegan world, God said creation was “very good.” People can read these passages three times, but they aren’t hearing that the world was intended to be vegan. That’s where arrogance and selfishness come in.
One of my frustrations is that the religious community isn’t generally interested in these issues. It’s frustrating and sad because it’s so important—the suffering is so great.
BEH: The Beet-Eating Heeb knows a lot about the emphasis in Jewish texts on the compassionate treatment of animals, but what about Christianity?
Kemmerer: It is true that the Jewish tradition is rich with how to relate to nature and animals. Christians share these texts with the Jewish tradition. I wish they would pay more attention to this part of scripture. Too many Christians are ignorant of Jewish texts, but they are foundational to Christianity.
BEH: Was Jesus a vegetarian? There seems to be some debate about that.
Kemmerer: The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus ate. And what he ate doesn’t make much of a difference, no more than it makes a difference what Jesus was wearing on his feet.
The real question is: What would Jesus think of what we’re eating today? What would Jesus think of our slaughterhouses? No sincere Christian can say, “Those slaughterhouses are fine. Jesus would only worry about human needs and suffering.”
Jesus would not like what we’re eating today, based on the suffering of animals.
BEH: What about Islam?
Kemmerer: Though Judaism does, Christianity doesn’t have laws for the protection of animals, and Christians ignore the ones they’ve inherited from the Jewish tradition.
Islamic law is very strict with regard to animals. Muslims are supposed to satisfy the basic needs of domesticated animals, which goes right to the heart of factory farming. Animals are not supposed to be targeted in warfare; we have no right to cause animal suffering through human conflicts. These are wonderful teachings! Such direct laws are very important for the protection of animals.
Muslims tend to restrict their focus to laws governing the slaughter of animals, but this is not the only issue covered by Islamic law.
BEH: That’s a problem in Judaism, too. Sigh.
Now what about Hinduism? Many of the Hindus whom The Beet-Eating Heeb knows are vegetarian, although not vegan.
Kemmerer: Hinduism has the wonderful ideas of ahimsa (not to harm) and karma.
Hindus are ahead of most of the world’s people in terms of actually living up to some of their basic religious beliefs. But milk is a huge part of their diet, and in contemporary times milk is associated with tremendous suffering. That is something Hindus need to look in order to adhere to the central tenets of their religion.
BEH: One last question Lisa. Some people in the animal-rights and veg-advocacy movement blame religion for our society’s horrible treatment of animals. That’s the wrong place to put blame, if you ask The Beet-Eating Heeb. But if we’re ever going to have a more compassionate and merciful relationship with animals, can religion be part of the solution?
Kemmerer: Yes, religion is critical to bringing change for animals.
When I show people want’s happening on factory farms and point out how these methods are inconsistent with their most fundamental religious beliefs, they’re inclined to change — they feel compelled to change. But if you are talking to an atheist, you don’t know what their ethical code is, and they can simply say, “I don’t care.” Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus—they can’t say they don’t care. Religious teachings call us to care — require that we care.
If we’re going to talk about religion with others, we need to be informed so that we can be sensitive to the beliefs and practices of others. If we are educated, we will be more effective advocates for the animals. I would like to believe that “Animals and World Religions” can help us to be more effective in our advocacy, which is to say, I hope that this book will help bring change for animals.