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October 2, 2014

Capturing wild animals and confining them, assuming ownership of them, controlling everything about their lives, buying and selling them, and deciding when and how they will die, is a prerogative that humanity has assumed for itself for millennia.

Relegating a being to the status of an object is necessary before we can happily exploit and use it. I have written ‘it’ because that is precisely how we routinely speak about the other, non human beings of our earth – unless they happen to be chosen by us for the status of companions or pets. Then we will confer individuality onto them, by naming them, and referring to them by their gender. Nobody would call their dog friend ‘it’ any more than they would call their child ‘it’ or their friend across the road.

I read a book about a boy who was called ‘It’ by his alcoholic and violent mother. She called him that so she could switch off every single feeling of empathy for him that she might have had. This enabled her to do whatever she liked to him, and suffer no pangs of conscience. We call such people by many names – criminal, child abusers, disturbed, insane, inhuman – to mention just a few. We recognise this behaviour as bad, deviant, even evil. We might describe someone like this as ‘a monster’.

The Nazis did exactly the same thing with those in their population that they considered inferior and worthless. It enabled atrocious cruelties to be perpetuated and mass slaughter. They relied on fear to keep anyone who might object, quiet, and the machine, created by them and kept going by the silence of the masses, rolled on relentlessly, murdering millions in the most inhumane way imaginable.

Black Africans were, for centuries, viewed as objects to be owned and sold. They were ‘treated like animals’. They had the status of objects so inferior to the white races that anything could be legally done to them. They were ‘factory farmed’, sold in markets, branded, whipped, forced to work, beaten, starved and continually abused. Women were raped by their owners so that there would be more slaves born, to work on the land and to sell for profit.

Christian people saw nothing wrong in any of this. It was what God had ordained – everyone in their place, master and slave, as it should be. When the abolitionists came along, their revelations and truths were not welcomed – those who made vast profits by the slave trade wanted them silenced. Some slave owners were kind, but enslaving others can never be considered ‘kind’, in my book. They did not, however, see black people as persons in any sense – they were property. You looked after your property and assets, if you were sensible.

The Christian bible does not condemn slavery as an institution, merely laments that the Israelites, God’s chosen, were slaves in Egypt and other places throughout the history of the nation. St Paul counsels slaves to obey their masters, and masters to be kind to their slaves – that is all. So, most  good Christian people saw no reason to abolish slavery – it was all fine with God.

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Many people today don’t much like it when animals enslaved in the agricultural sector are compared to human slaves or people murdered in concentration camps. The reason for this is because they are still failing to give other animals a status higher than the traditional one – object for use, commodity to own. When you begin to realise that these other beings on the earth with you have their own inherent worth and dignity, you can no longer think of them as something which is there for you to use, like a tomato or a stick.

If you bother to look deeper into it and discover the intelligence of so many of them, and the wonder of their uniqueness, you can only be shocked at how humanity has come to be in the situation of viewing them all as just some ‘stuff’ to manipulate to suit our needs. It begins, very quickly, to seem like monstrous arrogance or some societal sickness.

We are dragged into this mindset as babies, just as the children of slave owners in the past were given their attitudes by their parents. We have no reason but ages old customs and beliefs ,for doing any of the things we do to other animals. Calling them ‘livestock’ says it all – black Africans were called ‘stock’ once too, and all the imagery we use to describe farm animals was applied to them.

I believe this to be very dangerous attitude. It is often called ‘otherisation’. When we can ‘otherise’ another, it gives us permission to treat them badly. In evolutionary terms  an ‘other’ or stranger can be a  threat. It comes all too naturally to us to ‘otherise’.

What comes naturally, however, is no basis for our morals. Recently I saw compassion described as ‘ethical intelligence’. I might turn that around also and say that it is ‘intelligent ethics’ to allow compassion to guide us.

Compassion seems to be the heart of Christianity to me, so it is very troubling when so many Christians, past and present, seem to lack it. All the evils done in God’s name, with the Inquisition in Medieval Europe and all the ‘holy wars’ , make one’s blood run cold to read about. I am similarly chilled by the slaughterhouse.


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