I had the opportunity about a month ago to read and review an amazing book for Our Hen House—Animals and World Religionsby Lisa Kemmerer (review was posted today). This book in many ways restored my faith in the potential of religion to make social change.
When I was growing up, my relationship with religion involved a semi-tumultuous exposure to Christianity and a rather benign exposure to Judaism and Buddhism. Despite being raised sporadically attending an Episcopal Christian church, I turned to studying Tibetan Buddhism in high school. In many ways, the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism resonated with the way I had been raised, with its commitment to love and compassion for sentient beings. In other ways, Tibetan Buddhism gave me refuge as an open-hearted and non-judgemental practice that did not require what at the time I thought was a tenet of Christianity—to ‘believe’ or go to hell (I know now this was just one interpretation of Christian teachings). One of the primary mantras of Tibetan Buddhism is, ‘love and compassion for all sentient beings.’ I realize now that it was that practice, paired with being raised in an active social justice household, that set the stage for my journey to veganism and advocating for anymals. But at the time, Tibetan Buddhism saved me in small ways. It taught me the importance of trying to bring compassionate practice into every moment of my day (of course, I fail at this most of the time).
When I was 17, I would ride the bus to the local university for night classes. Riding the bus definitely can be an experience that tests patience and can make one cranky, especially at the end of a long day. People can be rude and loud and annoying. In many ways, this was the perfect place to practice compassion. I would sit quietly on the bus and start by watching one person. I would watch them doing whatever they were doing and try to love them just as they were. No matter how long it took, I would sit there watching until I picked out one quality that I thought was lovable. Sometimes it was the deep smile lines in their faces from years of laughter. Sometimes it was how worn their hands were. Sometimes it was the way a parent held their kid on their lap, or the way a child asked questions of the person sitting across the aisle from them. Whatever that single quality was, I would meditate on that until I felt that I truly could love that person—whoever they were. And then I would move on to the next person. Occasionally, I would make it all the way around the bus. Other times, I wouldn’t make it past one or two people. Once I found that one thing, feeling compassion for that person became easier.
Now, I think back to that time and in some ways, I feel sad about how hopeful I was—that if we just practiced compassion in our daily lives, we could change the world. All you need is love…Doop dee doop dee doop. (I was listening to The Beatles’ canon at the time.) Now, studying the lives of anymals in the food system, the world’s problems seem much more complicated than just calling for more compassion. The exploitation of anymals is tied to such complex political, economic and social processes. And yet, Lisa Kemmerer’s book helps to restore my faith in the power of faith and the simple power of an unwavering commitment to compassionate practice. Kemmerer outlines how all major religions, at their core, advocate love and compassion (specifically for all animals–human and otherwise). Clearly, throughout history, we have seen what immense power religion has to move vast populations to action (albeit frequently actions like war and genocide). What is so moving about Kemmerer’s book, however, is how she shows the potential religion has to advocate a call to compassionate action for anymals.
What are your thoughts on religious practice as activism? Have you seen ways in your own life that religion has been a powerful catalyst for compassionate social change?