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.
Is the vegan advocacy and animal rights movement on the cusp of transforming society?
Will it soon take its place alongside the feminist and civil-rights movements as a source of genuine, positive and lasting social change?
The Beet-Eating Heeb is not quite prepared to answer with an unqualified yes.
However, after attending last week’s annual conference of the Farm Animals Rights Movement, BEH is feeling decidedly more optimistic.
The Beet-Eating Heeb, in his previous career incarnations, attended more national conferences than he can possibly count, including some much larger than ARC, such as the massive AIPAC Policy Conference.
But never has he witnessed such energy, emotion and commitment at a conference as he did last week.
The exhibit hall bristled with activity as conference goers jammed the narrow aisles to buy vegan books and t-shirts, pick up brochures, and trade stories with fellow activists. Several speakers received rousing standing ovations as they discussed their work on behalf of animals. More than one speaker broke down in tears in describing the horrific cruelty inflicted on cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys. A high percentage of the attendees, perhaps half, were under 40 years of age.
To paraphrase legendary hockey announcer Mike Lange, “You would have had to be there to believe it.”
So, what is the source of this vibe, this passion at a conference devoted mainly to vegan advocacy?
There are two sources, the way The Beet-Eating Heeb sees it.
One, vegan advocates are feeling the momentum as our movement accumulates significant gains. Veganism, relegated to the margins of society for decades, is suddenly becoming mainstream as more and more thought leaders promote its benefits and as vegan options proliferate in grocery stores and restaurants.
Two, vegan advocates are drawing energy from the sense of moral outrage we justifiably feel, aware as we are that 9 billion farm animals are being brutally murdered in the U.S. alone this year, aware that about 8.5 billion of them are subjected to lives of abject misery before they are trucked to the slaughterhouse.
The pieces are indeed falling into place to create a social-change movement of historic proportions.
As was the case with the historic social-change movements of yesteryear, there exists a deeply rooted, pervasive, absolutely unacceptable condition in society. And there exists a growing awareness of the problem.
“History will look back at veganism as one of the most important, transformative movements in human history,” Melanie Joy, a vegan author and psychologist, said at the conference.
A couple of week ago, The Beet-Eating Heeb might have dismissed such a statement as wishful thinking.
But after spending a few days with his fellow advocates, BEH can see the seeds of something big, very big, starting to bloom.
Which leads to a final, and, in The Beet-Eating Heeb’s mind, a very important question:
As the movement matures and gains ever more adherents, will people of religious faith be at the vanguard or on the sidelines?
There were several Jews at ARC. May there be many more next year. Compassion for animals is not just a Jewish teaching, it’s a core concept of our religion. Our Torah narrative, Mishnah and Talmud express exquisite sensitivity to the suffering of animals. We should be overrepresented in this new social-change movement, just as were in the feminist and civil rights movements of prior generations.
Will we be?
Vegans are excelling at the highest levels of a wide range of sports, from ultramarathon running (Scott Jurek) to boxing (Tim Bradley).
But if one sport lies beyond the reach of the March of the Vegans, it would seem to be auto racing.
Let’s face it. Stock-car racing is the sport that is most closely identified with the South, with Dixie, and with all the shredded pork, barbecued beef and fried chicken that clogs arteries down there.
So The Beet-Eating Heeb is particularly happy to report that this fortress of bad-for-you, bad-for-animals, bad-for-the-planet food has been breached. Meet Leilani Munter. Vegan. Stock-car driver.
Munter may not be challenging Dale Earnhardt Jr. for supremacy in the NASCAR standings. In fact, her most recent racing has been on the lower-level ARCA circuit. But she is lapping most of her competitors in the most important race of all: the race to save the planet. And she has received more media attention than most other drivers and for all the right reasons.
A longtime vegetarian and relatively new vegan, Munter is a staunch advocate for animal welfare, clean energy, and other environmental causes. In fact, she is perhaps best-known for racing four months ago at the famed Daytona International Speedway in a stock car decorated with images from “The Cove”, the Academy Award-winning documentary about dolphin slaughters.
More recently, she has been working to line up sponsors for a vegan-themed race car. (Tofurkey, are you reading this?) You won’t see huge decals for Exxon or Burger King on her vehicles.
When she races, Leilani offsets the carbon emissions by donating money for rainforest preservation.
While she might not be Jewish (yet), she is a living, breathing, racing manifestation of the concept of tikkun olam. Certainly, more Jews, more of everyone, should aspire to live to a life of such moral integrity.
Leilani paid a short business trip to The Beet-Eating Heeb’s hometown of Pittsburgh recently and took time out to give BEH an hour-long interview. Among other things, The Beet-Eating Heeb learned that Leilani’s eldest sister is married to the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. (In contrast, The Beet-Eating Heeb’s eldest sister is married to an HMO administrator. )
Here are a few other highlights of the interview:
BEH: You’re a trailblazer as one of the very few female race-car drivers. But you’ve also distinguished yourself by using your high-profile status as a racer to promote causes, including environmentalism and veganism.
LEILANI: “I’m a messenger and I’m a race-car driver and I’m not what you would expect. People relate to me because they like race cars, so when I talk to them about veganism or clean energy or alternative fuels, there is a chance they will listen.
“You cannot have a green movement, you cannot have an environmental movement and leave behind 75 million NASCAR fans. It’s wonderful to go to vegan conferences and restaurants and be around people like you. But you’re not moving the needle by talking to people who already get it. You have to talk to the people who don’t agree with you yet.
“My goal is to make veganism mainstream. And you don’t get any more mainstream than NASCAR.
“Not everyone is going to go vegan or vegetarian, but I’m asking everyone to give it a shot. I’m hoping they’ll try Meatless Mondays and it will spill over into the rest of the week.”
LEILANI: “Not at first. What prompted me to become a vegetarian is that I love animals. I didn’t want to be any part of the torture and killing of them. It’s just an inhumane and cruel industry and I don’t want any part of it.
“I just switched to vegan in the past year, after reading “Diet for a New America” (by John Robbins), watching (the documentary) “Forks Over Knives,” and watching Gary Yourofsky’s “Best Speech You Will Ever Hear.”
“It’s not only about animal cruelty. You have the health benefits of being vegan, you have the fact that it’s a much smaller carbon footprint for our planet, and then you have the world hunger issue.”
BEH: As a passionate environmentalist, you do make it a point to draw the connection between animal agriculture and climate change.
LEILANI: “Yes. Unfortunately, most people don’t associate their carbon footprint with the food that they eat. They really associate their carbon footprint with their traveling. For some reason, that connection between the food you’re eating and its impact on the environment hasn’t taken off yet.”
BEH: So The Beet-Eating Heeb has to ask, what’s it like being a vegan in the stock-car-racing world?
LEILANI: “There were definitely a lot of raised eyebrows when they found out I was vegetarian. I even had NASCAR people say that the lack of meat in my diet must have stunted my growth. But I’ve had many events in my house where I’ve had meat eaters in my house and I’ve fed them all kind of meat substitutes. In some cases, they didn’t even believe it wasn’t meat.
“More and more people are discovering that you don’t need to put dead animals in your body to live, you can be perfectly healthy and happy without that, and enjoy it.”
This shouldn’t surprise you: Leilani Munter is The Beet-Eating Heeb’s favorite race-car driver. Shouldn’t she be your favorite, too?