Call to Compassion


The truth that our ancestors acknowledged (even as they made use of their nonhuman and human neighbors) is that nonhuman animals show us something beautiful, wonderful, sacred, something to which we owe our care and admiration. They are not to be seen only as tools or useful stuff, but as living beings in their own right, who should be given the chance to live out their “natural” lives, the lives for which, in some sense, they were “made.” Different religious traditions have articulated this in many different ways, and these essays collected by Lisa Kemmerer and Anthony Nocella testify to this variety, and also to this underlying message.

STEPHEN R. L. CLARK preface to Call to Compassion

Call to Compassion offers eighteen thought-provoking essays at the intersection of religious ethics and animal ethics, including not only Christian, Islamic, Jain, Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist, Indigenous, and Wiccan traditions, but also essays stemming from branches inside these traditions. This anthology carries readers from India and China to Southeast Asia and North America, from sacred writings to core religious ideals, from time-honored practices to contemporary animal advocacy.

Call to Compassion is divided into three parts that focus on Asian religions, Abrahamic religions, and Indigenous traditions and Wicca. The Introduction sets the stage for the text as calling for change, as revisiting religions with regard to animals.

Our spiritual lives too often take a backseat to convention, habit, convenience, and the mindless ritual of day-to-day life. But what is the point of religion if spiritual beliefs don’t touch and improve human lives? What is the relevance of sacred writings if they fail to mold our interactions with other creatures—the vast majority of sentient life on Earth?

Lisa Kemmerer, Introduction to Call to Compassion

Part I, Religions of Asia:
Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Daoist Traditions

Indic Traditions and Animals:
Imitation, Reincarnation, and Compassion

In the first chapter of Part I, Christopher Key Chapple introduces Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions, focusing on sacred writings, moral teachings and practices, and stories from the lives of founders and exemplars. He calls attention to yogic poses that imitate and are named after anymals as evidence of appreciation for other species. Chapple also profiles the lives and teachings of Mahavira and the Buddha, the founders of the Jain and Buddhist traditions, stressing the importance of reincarnation and karma, which support a deeply animal-friendly religious philosophy. Finally, Chapple introduces the Hindu Bishnoi, and describes how their beliefs led them to firmly but peacefully protect the natural world—plants and anymals—even at the cost of their own lives.

Vaishnava Hinduism:
Ahimsa and Vegetarianism

In the second essay, Steven J. Rosen examines a particular Hindu branch, the Vaishnava tradition. He explains Hindu nonviolence, and the Vaishnava version of the Golden Rule (found in most religious traditions): Whatever we do to others will also be done to us. While he notes that a few Hindu sects continue to sacrifice anymals, he explains the origin of this practice and notes that it contradicts core moral teachings. Rosen quotes Bhishma in the sacred Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, who speaks out against eating flesh and also explains Hindu reverence for cattle. Finally, Rosen reminds readers that nonviolence is not passivity—nonviolence requires that aggression be used only in response to violence, to protect those who need protection.

International Society for Krishna Consciousness:
Lord Krishna and the Animals

The next essay focuses on the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly called the Hare Krishnas. In this chapter, Krishna Kripa Das and Peter Alan Medley introduce the founder of ISKCN, Prabhupada, who carried Krishna consciousness from India to the United States, bringing Indian vegetarian meals as a form of devotion to God. Das and Medley explain the importance of the Hare Krishna chant and note parallels between core Hindu sacred literature and the teachings of other religious traditions, especially Christianity. They also compare ISKCON teachings to common statements in the animal liberation movement, exposing shared, core ethics.

The Jain Center of Southern California:
Theory and Practice across Continents

Charlotte Laws writes of her exploratory adventure into a Jain temple in Southern California. She describes the basics of the religious tradition, including strict ascetic practices and the Jain vision of karmic liberation, which requires a life of nonviolence—especially in the kitchen. Laws shares conversations she had with Jains during her temple visit, presenting a Jain understanding of fundamental religious practices, including their tendency to purchase and release captive anymals (especially those destined for slaughter) and their willingness to found and manage animal sanctuaries, whether for birds, mammals, or insects. Laws ponders the Jain vision of dietary nonviolence, which forbids flesh and eggs—as well as tubers—yet does not include dairy or a requirement for animal advocacy. In her search for understanding, she presents a few brief scenarios to the temple teachers, and then asks not only what they would do, but why.

Buddhism and Animal Liberation:
A Family of Sentient Beings

Norm Phelps, writing from inside the Buddhist tradition, defines good and evil as joy and suffering experienced by every living being. Phelps grounds the Buddhist call to animal liberation in a fundamental, deep equality that stems from our shared existence as living beings, exemplified by the “Buddha Nature” that is inherent in all creatures. He also focuses on compassion and empathy, and the first and most important Buddhist precept: Do not kill. Phelps note that this precept protects all sentient creatures, is accepted universally among Buddhists, and requires a vegan diet. He explains Buddhist attempts to justify the flesh habit but asserts that the teachings of the Buddha are clear: “Meat eating I have not permitted to anyone, I do not permit [it], I will not permit [it]” (Lankavatara Sutra 1999, 219).

Buddhist Reflections on Animal Advocacy:
Intention and Liberation

Matthew J. Walton explains the Buddhist understanding of karma as linked to intention, then applies this understanding to animal liberation. In the process, he explores fundamental Buddhist concepts such as the unavoidability of suffering and change, craving as the source of suffering, and the importance of “nondiscriminating compassion for all beings”—compassion that does not allow separation between “self” and “other.” From a Buddhist perspective, Walton notes that liberating nonhumans not only sets suffering beings free (physically), but also liberates animal exploiters from the negative karma that is accrued through exploitation and the causing of harm. Walton concludes that Buddhist animal liberationists would do well to act without malice and anger, and with right intentions—as required by Buddhism and he takes the topic one step further, explaining how this change of attitude will, ultimately, lead to more effective form of animal advocacy.

From Meat Avoidance to Compassion-Based Vegetarianism

Louis Komjathy moves readers from India to China to explore Daoist teachings and practices both ancient and contemporary as regards diet. Daoist precepts, like Buddhist precepts, include an injunction not to “kill or harm any being,” yet Komjathy notes that the Chinese diet has rarely been shaped by concern for nonhumans or the environment, and has instead been determined by ritual purity or an interest in attaining immortality. Fortunately, a conception of vegetarian Daoist deities eventually emerged, and the fleshless diet became a means of drawing nearer to beloved gods and the heavenly realms. Additionally, Buddhism was introduced in the eighth century and the Chinese people have long “recognized vegetarianism as a clear requirement” of Buddhism. These new Indian views of compassion and karma influenced Daoism over time, most notably the School of Complete Perfection, in which Komjathy has been ordained as a monk.

As Lama Kalsang told me that Sunday morning many years ago, at the beginning of my Buddhist education, Buddhism’s first—and most important—precept, “Do not kill,” applies to all sentient beings. This is not, and has never been, a matter of dispute within Buddhism. All schools agree on this point.

Norm Phelps in Call to Compassion

Part II, Abrahamic Traditions:
Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Traditions

Global Warming, Animal Products, and the Vegan Mandate

Richard Schwartz writes the first essay in Part II, shifting attention to Abrahamic religions, focusing on Hebrew Bible passages that teach compassion, preservation of human health, and delineating the duties of dominion. Through scriptures, he exposes the Hebrew Creator as compassionate toward all beings and notes that human health is harmed when we consume animal products. Schwartz also refers to Isaiah and Psalms regarding the Peaceable Kingdom, establishing the Creator’s expectation of future peace. H Schwartz e highlights the connection between global warming and animal agriculture and provides Biblical teachings in support of a vegan diet (though he often uses the term, “vegetarian”). Schwartz then responds to eighteen common arguments against a vegan diet, including conceptions of “dominion” and humans as created “in the image of God,” Jewish feast days, dietary laws, and a faulty conception of what constitutes a healthy diet. In a world plagued by factory farming, global warming, world hunger, and oil wars, Schwartz affirms the Jewish moral imperative to choose vegan.

Catholic Exemplars:
Recent Popes, Medieval Saints, and Animal Liberation

Judith Barad explores the place of anymals in the Christian tradition through the lives and words of popes, theologians, and saints. She begins with the words of Pope John Paul II, then explores St. Thomas Aquinas’ works teaching that all anymals have souls. Barad then turns to St. Francis of Assisi, retelling stories that demonstrate his compassion for animals, especially those under the cruel thumb of humanity, whether turtledoves, rabbits, lambs, or even wolves, reminding of this saints efforts to settle disputes between species peacefully. Barad explains how Catholic moral exemplars, from recent popes through Aquinas and back to St. Francis, remind Christians that they are to be compassionate, and that they owe vulnerable creatures of god their kindness, protection, and mercy.

Christian Mysticism:
Unity and Love for All

Andrew Fitz-Gibbon investigates animal advocacy through the lens of Christian mysticism. He admits that the ascetic, world-denying tendencies of mystics might seem to work against worldly efforts for animal liberation, but assures that this is not the case. Toward this end, he cites the central role of unity (or oneness) in mysticism, and in the process, explains the difference between pantheism and panentheism. In the mystic’s absence of dualism—where all are contained in One—there can be no human/nonhuman distinction. To further support the sensibility of activism among mystics, Fitz-Gibbon explores the lives of Christian mystics who provided animals with protective care, reminding readers that hagiographies were written long before there was any need for animal liberation, and that these mystics therefore can’t speak directly to a contemporary movement, but nonetheless provide an example of “a way of life deeply sympathetic to animal advocacy.”

A Society of Friends (Quaker-Christian) View:
Prophets and the Hidden Paradise

Through Society of Friends insights and spiritual visions, Gracia Fay Bouwman Ellwood explores the central importance of the Inner Light, which is present both in every human being and in the divine. Ellwood explains how love is connected with this Light, and with God. She quotes mystics and poets to unveil the Hidden Paradise that is “present throughout our world, despite pervasive alienation, violence, and pain”—despite the “ocean of darkness” and violence in which we tend to live. In the tradition of “prophetic challenge,” Ellwood explains how Friends created boycotts and petitions and worked with the Underground Railroad to further the cause of abolition. Through Society of Friends’ spiritual understandings and practices, Ellwood outlines a precedent for activism on behalf of animal liberation.

Christianity and Scapegoating:
Understanding and Responding to Oppression

“Scapegoating” is when a dominant group blames a subordinate group (or vulnerable individual) for personal or community misfortunes or natural disasters. Stephan R. Kaufman explores two authors, René Girard and Ernest Becker. Merging the work of these two authors, Kaufman notes that humans are likely to experience shortages, leading to conflict, which can escalate so that social cohesion is threatened. At such times humans frequently band together against a scapegoat, whether human or nonhuman. Kaufman calls attention to conflict around Hebrew sacrificial traditions evidenced by the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus as an innocent scapegoat in the New Testament, revealing “the lies that underlie scapegoating” in a religious tradition that teaches “that God sides with those who are weak and vulnerable.”

Muhammad, Sacred Writings, and Animal Liberation

The next chapter, written by Lisa Kemmerer, carries us to the world of Islam, exploring sayings from the life of the Prophet and core teachings from the Qur’an, including the importance of love and compassion, the human obligation to tend what Allah has created, and the imperative for zakat (sharing, almsgiving). Islamic sacred texts enjoin Muslims to be compassionate and to share with those in need, no matter who “those” might be. Kemmerer exposes Islamic laws as forbidding cruelty to anymals, especially for frivolous or unnecessary ends, thereby protecting the myriad creatures from the fur industry, the entertainment industry, and almost all exploitation for science. For most of us, eating animal products is also unnecessary, and Kemmerer notes that these same Islamic laws therefore require Muslims, when possible, to avoid the consumption of factory farmed products, whether flesh, nursing milk, or reproductive eggs.

Al-Hafiz B. A. Masri:
Muslim, Scholar, Activist—Rebel with a Just Cause

Academics and activists alike view Al-Hafiz Basheer Ahmad Masri (1914–1992) as a pioneer in the field of animal welfare/rights and Islam. Masri’s grandson, Nadeem Haque, leads readers through Masri’s life—from a noteworthy youth in India, through a tumultuous political life in Africa, to animal activism in England in the mid (to late) twentieth century. Masri, who worked with the World Society for the Protection of Animals and Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), was commissioned to publish papers and books on the subject of Islam and animal welfare/rights, culminating in his most definitive work, Animals in Islam. As an important religious leader and lecturer, Masri strengthened Christian understandings of the Islamic world and Muslim understandings of Islamic religious obligations to animals.

“Faith-based animal advocates may glean practical insights from the history of abolition among Friends. We must be prepared for resistance, perhaps hostility—even from members of our spiritual family— but we must respond with love. We must commit for the long haul. There will be a time for compromise, a time for civil disobedience, and a time for new visions that find new ways and means. Steadfastness, courage, and compassionate love for all beings are central to the spiritual journey. Anyone with a prophetic call to advocate for animals must keep turning to the Light that is Love, to God-with- Us, for courage and strength to take action against evil systems of destruction and death.

Gracia Fay Bouwman Ellwood in Call to Compassion

Part III, Ancient Indigenous Religions Traditions and Modern Wicca

Indigenous Peoples:
Kinship and Killing

In the next chapter, Lisa Kemmerer retells a variety of engaging indigenous myths to explore human-animal relations. These myths portray nonhumans and humans morphing from one species to another, engaging in competitions that determine future relations, and portray an important balance of power between humanity and the rest of the natural world that requires human respect and deference. Indigenous myths tend to provide a vision of extended community—of kin across species—such that humans have important responsibilities toward animals, including an abiding respect. Indigenous peoples across time have tended to recognize their dependence on the larger world for survival, asserting that amiable, respectful relations between nature and anymals are both important and beneficial. It is therefore not surprising that many indigenous myths (indeed, myths from every religious tradition) hearken back to a peaceable community, a time when all beings lived without bloodshed, in the process explaining how this universal harmony was destroyed or lost. Indigenous traditions teach that peaceful relations are preferable, so what does this mean for hunting traditions at a time when many natives are able to select other foods?

Mother Earth and All Her Children

Linda G. Fisher, Ojibway and Cherokee, describes childhood experiences with fish and snakes, writing: “I do not understand cruelty and indifference, whether directed toward people or other creatures.” Consequently, she cannot understand contemporary Native American ceremonial costumes made of leather and feathers, the ongoing glorification of “traditional” fishing and hunting, or any other “traditional” practices that demonstrate a lack of empathy or respect for nonhumans and “Mother Earth.” She reflects on oppression—of her people and of nature—and shares her fear that all Americans (natives and immigrants alike) now tread the same path, a path of exploitation and destruction. Fisher, a vegan whose mother is vegetarian, is also fully Indian: She attends powwows, wears beaded jewelry passed down from distant ancestors, and keeps a picture of Chief Seattle in her art studio lest she forget his words: “We are all one breath.”

Wiccan Spirituality and Animal Advocacy:
Perfect Love and Perfect Trust

Dianne Sylvan describes Wicca as “a religion of Earth and stars, wind and rain, of ivy growing in spirals and people dancing in spirals”—a religion with room for both the feminine and the masculine, a religion that now satisfies the spiritual needs of those who are no longer comfortable with the religions of their childhood. Sylvan comments on our tendency toward alienation from nature, exploitation of anymals, male domination, materialism, and the unending quest for profits—all inimical to Wicca. There are no established Wiccan laws, Sylvan notes, only general understandings and tendencies. She provides a few Wiccan basics: freedom for all, individuality, and “not to harm” and presents the Wiccan vision as holistic, leading many practitioners to activism. For Sylvan, the Wiccan injunction “not to harm” is central to her ongoing animal advocacy. In a religion where strands of belief and practice are interwoven, where change “is the only eternal truth,” Wicca highlights the power of the individual and provides support for grassroots activism.

Wicca, Ecofeminism, and Animal Advocacy:
The Earth Path Less Traveled

The final chapter, written by Fireweed, exposes a Wiccan path that rejects contemporary dualisms and hierarchical dominance, whether patriarchy, animal exploitation, or environmental degradation. She calls attention to commonality between Wiccan spiritual visions and practice and the feminist, anarchist, environmental, and social justice movements, expressing frustration with Wiccans who fail to include anymals in their circle of compassion. Fireweed notes that some Wiccans and ecofeminists reference an assumed “natural” food-chain hierarchy even though they strongly reject all other hierarchies as unnatural and harmful, that some argue—against medical evidence—that animal products are necessary for human health, and that some assert that prayer or a moment of thanks neutralizes an exploitative diet of flesh, eggs, and dairy products. Fireweed calls attention to the many feminists, ecofeminists, and Wiccans who rightly include other creatures in their “earth-honoring spiritual practice based on immanence, interconnectedness, and harm reduction,” reminds readers that “healing from the wounds of patriarchy requires radical shifts in perspective,” and that these shifts have the power to free wounded individuals—including nonhuman individuals—from the constraints of a limited vision.

Healing the wounds of patriarchy requires a radical shift in perspective. On the Earth path less traveled, vegan and vegetarian ecofeminists are committed to “unlearning” power-over, which objectifies “the other.” To deepen respect literally means to look again, to respect. We are choosing neither to look away from animal suffering, nor to resist the power-with of compassion. It is an appropriate choice in Wicca to look again, and with new vision, to see beyond our own reflection in the eyes of those looking back.

Fireweed in Call to Compassion

More about Call to Compassion