Complicity and Purity

vulturesthreefloridafeb20071I’m almost finished with Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about eating locally and sustainably. It’s our bookgroup read for this month or I would never have cracked the cover. I sort of dreaded reading it, and it has been tedious, seemingly taking forever to get through.

But bits of it are amusing and motivating, and some chapters are thought-provoking, particularly the one on raising, killing and eating animals, ‘You Can’t Run Away on Harvest Day’. It hasn’t made me any more of an omnivore yet (I do eat some fish but not poultry, beef, pork, etc.) but she presents several strong arguments, imo, for the benefits of eating sustainably and humanely raised animals rather than vegetables, grain or soy products trucked in from a distance. And for people in less fertile terrains, for subsisting on animals rather than plants.

One of her strongest arguments for me is that millions (perhaps billions) of animals are killed collaterally in the growing, harvesting, and transportation of plant food in the U.S. every year. Lots of insects are killed even through organic gardening methods (I’ve decimated my share of horn worms), many more through non-organic pesticides and fertilizers,  and everything from insects to reptiles and amphibians to birds to mammals like foxes and rabbits through active destruction like threshing (you may remember this if you saw Winged Migration) and passive destruction like habitat loss.

I don’t buy the idea, generally, that if we can’t do something completely and perfectly, it’s not worth doing. We make (good) choices every day that involve trade-offs. Trying to align our actions with our ethics and priorities for those ethics is almost always a matter of more-or-less. I don’t think the point is to get it perfect, or even to assess our successes and failures, our effectiveness.

So I’m not saying that because plant-eating requires some animal-killing we shouldn’t eat plants, or that since we kill animals even by being plant-eaters, we may as well kill other animals, too. On the other hand, how different it might be if vegans and vegetarians freely acknowledged the animal death required for all of us to eat, and not only to eat but also to shelter and clothe ourselves, to drive and use transportation, to kill ‘germs’ and use anti-biotics, and on and on; and instead of instituting a steel wall of purity between vegans and vegetarians (pure) and meat-eaters or meat-product-users (impure) and arguing then from an unimpeachable place of moral superiority, rather accepted as a starting place that we are all complicit, that we all actually have to kill other life in order to survive.

If your highest ethic is to ensure that you don’t cause sentient beings to suffer needlessly, then you will want to minimise harm to all people, all animals, all habitat.

This sounds simple on the surface, but everyone who’s tried it knows that minimising harm — even inside a small family unit or in a friend-relationship — is much more complex than it sounds. And all the more so when every sentient being on the globe is considered! And all the more so when we aren’t necessarily aware of the consequences of our smallest actions (buying a pack of gum or a CD, driving to the library, e.g.).

(One could say that if we don’t know the consequence, then we are free from having to consider it, but in this day and age, we could almost all know much more about the economic, environmental, emotional, social, global consequences of our actions than we do. The line between intentional harm and collateral damage has grown quite fine. But is it worth taking the time it does take to sort through so much information and dis-information to learn? What if that time takes time from your pet’s walk, your daughter’s recital, your meditation time?)

For me, Buddhism and Christianity together provide another ‘highest ethic,’ though I wouldn’t call it an ethic.

Buddhism sees the world as imperfect and subject to continuous change. We humans (and other animals), too, are subject to imperfection and impermanence. Usually, we experience imperfection as unsatisfactoriness, and we crave permanence, perfection, ground under our feet. This results in lots of behaviours and attitudes that work against the reality of impermanence and imperfection: grasping, addiction, being hooked and triggered, escalation, reactivity, clinging, obsession, compulsion, co-dependency, denial, outsized need for control, conflict avoidance, anxiety, neurosis, victim behaviour, victimising, defense mechanisms to protect identity and viewpoint, perfectionism, rigidness, smothering, scapegoating, and so on …. pretty much anything that will keep us from actually experiencing unpleasantness.

Christianity, as I understand it — i.e., particularly looking at the Sermon on the Mount (as I did recently through Richard Rohr’s book, Jesus’ Plan for a New World) and through a Girardian lens — continues Judaism’s subversive indictment of idolatry of false gods, including the use of purity laws and other religious boundaries to keep groups and people in violent rivalry.  For Jesus, the kingdom of God belongs to those without a need for their own righteousness. We live in the kingdom when we are outside the “hall of mirrors, the world of imitation and spiritual competition” (Rohr), when we let go of the “false self of power, prestige and possessions” (Rohr). We are free (alive) when we have nothing to prove. [You can see how radical this is when you imagine what it would be like to have nothing to prove, to let go of idols, to live without the exclusion of groups and who belongs to what. Many people think this would be boring. We’d all be alike! Where would the excitement of life be if everything were peaceful? That reaction, which I sometimes share, tells me that we have a paltry imagination for what abundant life and peace really are.]

In both Buddhism and Christianity, at least as I interpret them, one main similarity is that we tend to work against ‘reality’ or ‘the kingdom of God’ — another way to think of it is that we are not in ‘the flow’ — by clinging to our need to be right, to be good, to succeed, to progress, to effect positive change, to be pure. We like to think we are on the right path, doing the right thing, being good people, striving to be better. That, I think, brings suffering, as we want to hold onto this ideal of ourselves against the vagaries of a transient world.  And, it’s very hard to see oneself as good without making others bad. The same with being pure, faithful, right, sustainable, ethical; we seem to use these kinds of words and ideas to create a little rivalrous barrier between ourselves and someone else, our group and another group. Sometimes we do it intentionally, sometimes not.

And it’s both the barrier and the striving for solid self that I think both Buddhism and Christianity see as simply unreal, an illusory place from which to operate, and therefore an obstacle to compassion and loving-kindness (maitri) —  the kind of compassion that will lead us to want for all beings the fullest life possible.


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