The feast of St. Francis is celebrated in the Catholic tradition this week, and we join in blessing our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom. Last year at this time, we had a service of sharing and blessing, and you told us about your cats, your dogs, about the birds that come to your feeder. The year before that we voted to be one of the sponsoring organizations who presented a motion to the floor of the 2017 general assembly to change our first principle to “the inherent worth and dignity of every being” because we believe that it is not only human life that has worth.
Many of us born and raised in this European-American culture were clearly taught that humans are the most important living being. We are the pinnacle of evolution. But not every culture believes this. Many of the indigenous cultures, the older cultures, believe that each life has value, that each life is worthy of respect, and that our relationship to the divine is no more special than the relationship of the smallest creature. This notion we have of our human superiority, of human exceptionalism is wrapped up a set of ideas called the “great chain of being” which predates Darwin’s theory of evolution by millennia. Within the Great Chain of being, life can be ranked from most important to least important, and we humans come right after God and the Angels in this ranking. Even if you’ve never heard of the great chain of being, people in Western European culture generally assume that this whole biosphere is really all about us, for our use and pleasure. It’s so deep in our cultural assumptions that people will look at you funny if you imply that non-human life has its own inherent worth. Cats have worth because they amuse us and are cute, not because they have some on worth in their own right.
Even among Unitarian Universalists, my own belief about this is pretty radical- I believe that every being, not just humans, and cows and kittens, but trees and moss and even viruses have inherent worth. I certainly don’t understand what good a mosquito is, or that virus that ruined my family’s trip to New York City, but I take it on faith that all life has worth, even if it is ugly, or gross, or chews up my garden, or threatens human lives. I believe this is a logical extension of the UU principle “every person” because aren’t some humans gross, or inconvenient, or sometimes threatening to other humans? That’s why I believe that even those beings we dislike or fear should be treated with at least respect, and given due process. I believe that every life has worth, even though that makes ethics confusing and sticky.
The motion to change our first principle was withdrawn from the floor of our general assembly, not only because we found in the mini-assembly that very few folks had thought about the complexities of this idea, but more importantly because the 2017 GA was dedicate to Racial Justice, and the group of mostly-white proposers wanted to honor that commitment and de-center ourselves in the proceedings.
The following year we passed a Congregational Study Action Issue (CSAI) about multi-species justice that said:
Life on earth is under threat, fueled by humankind's false sense of separation from nature. How can we create a biosphere sustainable for all beings while taking into account the inherent worth, value and well-being of every living individual and the profound interdependence of all life? Addressing the intersection of injustices, we improve life for all.But when all the congregations had submitted all the CSAIs, there were only 2 issues- Multi species justice and Intersectional White Supremacy. We hated the idea of these two ideas which are so dear to us as a congregation being in competition, And so we asked the CSW to open a dialog between the congregations to see if we could find common ground.
Affirming respect for the interdependent web of all existence, we deepen our faith by taking up for the first time the call to multispecies justice. We draw on our anti-racism, animal welfare, animal rights, environment, economic justice, and environmental justice work, analysis of intersectional oppression, Transcendentalism, and earth centered spiritualties.
What I learned was a great shock to me; there is an old, old wound that cries out for healing that leads to severed connections between the animal rights movement and the racial justice movement. That great chain of being has historically ranked the human races as well. For example,
“the French naturalist Julien-Joseph Virey, placed Europeans, Africans, and apes in a series and casually connected the dots…” Virey’s 1944 theory “ran from amoebas, through other species and other races, to Europeans: saying that “The leading characters, in short, of the various races of mankind, are simply representations of particular stages in the development of the highest or Caucasian type.”[ii]This reasoning, that not only humans, but specifically white humans were at the top of the great chain, was a justification of slavery, and other forms of oppression.
That is why it is so disturbing to hear in 2018, the president of the United States say about immigrants to our nation “These aren't people. These are animals.”[iii] Not only because it is intended as an insult, but because it is being used in support of oppressive policies. Policies that are hurting people right now, and have the power to shape lives for years to come. [iv]
When we make comparisons between people of color and animals it happens in a context of centuries of dehumanizing oppression. If you compared me (I identify as white) to a fungus, or a chicken or a tree, it would not even occur to me that you meant it as an insult. I often use the language of “humans and non-human animals”, to remind myself that, in fact, we are totally animals, I am totally an animal. But knowing the history, and the current political climate, listen with sensitive ears if I construct the phrase “people of color and non-human animals” and you kind of want to wash out your mouth with soap, right?[v] Add to that the history [vi] of the environmental and animal rights movements which have historically been dominated by white folks. We don’t have to look too deeply into that history find abundant examples of straightforward and more subtle racism. So when we talk about combining multi-species justice and racial justice issues, our words are judged and measured within that history.
When our elected leaders refer to certain groups of people as animals, it is a hurtful insult, because of this entrenched belief that animals lives are less valuable than human lives. But it’s more than insulting, it has a direct effect on how we treat one another, what policies we create and how we enforce them. Emile Bruneau, a neuroscientist and director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab, asked a diverse group of participants to rank groups of people on the “Ascent of Man” diagram. Americans of all races ranked Muslims were 10-15% less human! [vii] And “people who rated Muslims lowest on that scale, they were more likely to say they [were]… for the torture of terror suspects”. Humans are open to treating people more harshly, more violently if we perceive them as “less human” than us. So when the president says that "These aren't people. These are animals."[viii] It’s not just an insulting and hurtful thing to say, it is being used to justify violating basic human rights and to help make those policies palatable and widespread.
Folks who are working for multi-species justice, like myself, often argue that since the same reasoning, the same Great Chain of Being mindset that allows us to be cruel to animals, or to cut down old growth forests is the same mindset that allows people of different races to be oppressed, then if we work to change the mindset, all species, including humans will benefit. But during the discussion leading up to the vote for our new CSAI, it was mentioned multiple times that white activists have a history of broadening the race conversation to include other oppressions, and then using that as an out to avoid working on issues of racial justice; giving us permission to go back to working on something more comfortable for us, like LGBT issues, like women’s rights, like animal rights. I think what I am hearing is that when we say “all species matter” what some folks of color are hearing is “all lives matter.” Which sounds like, “we are not going to put any attention or resources to the specific and urgent concerns of black people.”
On floor of GA one critique of the multi-species justice CSAI was that the group forming it (the group that includes us, this congregation) did not reach out to people of color and accountability groups like BLUU or DRUUMM. Actually, we did. We reached out and folks said, among other things, that “instead of being invited to a table that has already been set, we want to help set the table”. Part of dismantling white supremacy culture is to support people of color who are setting their own agenda, and then as allies or co-agitators we put support behind the agenda being created by the stake holders. What we were hearing is that the priority on the agenda of the accountability groups in the UUA is undoing white supremacy culture in the UU world and beyond. Our UU movement made a promise in the 1960s to UUs of color that was never kept. I believe it’s time to keep that promise. There are many times that white liberals have depended on the activism of black allies, and then when the time came to support the causes dear to our black kinfolk, we were suddenly busy elsewhere. Part of fusion politics is that when your co-conspirators say “now is the time” you show up. That is why this congregation is part of the Promise and the Practice campaign. And this is why our congregation did not sponsor a final Multi-species justice CSAI.
Here’s the catch 22. Multi-species justice rarely gets the attention it urgently needs. Animal rights activists have so often been told that our priorities are out of whack- that it’s wrong to speak for the animals, for the trees. To some it seems kind of frivolous when compared to the prison industrial complex, to massive poverty, to war and the corruption of democracy. Couldn’t we come back later when some of these more urgent problems have been addressed? I myself have often been silent because I have been judged and put down for my deeply held beliefs.
But right now, according to the Center for Biological diversity “Scientists estimate we're now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.” [ix] This problem can’t wait. And after months of research and discussion, specifically about the intersection of multi-species justice and racial justice, the UU Congregation of the Low Country and UU Animal Ministry felt called to continue. And so Carla Golden, a committed vegan activist, and Rev. Laura Kim Joyner (who spoke to us here at UUCAS about the People and the Parrots of Latin America) bravely stood up before the whole GA and spoke on behalf of multi-species justice, knowing that everything I just mentioned would be there in the room.
The General Assembly could vote for only one action, and by an overwhelming majority, voted for our new CSAI “Undoing Intersectional White Supremacy” This was an important moment in our movement.
But it left those of us who had spent so many hours, or years and decades, trying to bring the issue of multi-species justice before the UU world, not sure what to do next, without betraying the lives of the non-human beings for whom we advocate. We have talked often about intersectional justice, and now we have come to an intersection that is not an easy place to be.
Perhaps what happens next comes down to faith. If we really believe that these issues are deeply interwoven, if we really believe that working to end oppression for one helps move the line on oppression for all, if we really believe that re-visioning the great chain of being as a web of life of which we are all a part helps everyone in that web, then it follows that anti-racism work is a crucial piece of the animal rights movement, is a crucial piece of the environmental movement. Can we have faith that de-centering whiteness might have powerful ripples that begin with affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of the black members of our human family? The worth and dignity of immigrant families ripped apart at the border? Could we have faith that any act to dismantle oppression will ripple out into the web of all beings ? That healing racial oppression could heal some old, old wound in the web of life?
In this spirit I urge us all to come together in support of the brand new Study Action Issue that your General Assembly passed last June “Undoing Intersectional White Supremacy” which will guide us for the next 4 years which challenges us:
“Racism is fundamental to U.S. social systems. White supremacy culture operates economically, institutionally, politically, and culturally, shaping everyone’s chances to live healthy, fulfilling lives. It is also the nation’s most toxic export, shaping policies and practices that do profound harm to the Earth and all living things.”At the same time, as we are called to work for the rights of non-human beings, whether stray dogs and cats, or the animals we eat, or the diversity of species facing extinction, or the old growth forests being cut down, or our warming planet let us notice and work to transform white supremacy culture as we encounter it in that work . I pray that this painful place at the intersection of these injustices can be healed, and I want to participate in the healing of that wound, guided by those most impacted by it. Where are you being called? Wherever the spirit is leading us in this moment, may we include in our work the intention of healing this tender intersection in the web of life.
[i] I didn’t realize until Tuesday that I plagiarized this title from a book of the same name, by David Livingstone Smith a professor of philosophy at the University of New England.
[ii] “Great Chain of Being,” Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, COPYRIGHT 2008 Thomson Gale
[v] Why do some words and phrases and actions that don't hurt me hurt other's so deeply? To learn more check out this video. These are words or actions that when taken by themselves, and directed at people of privilege, are small things, but when used in the context of a particular oppression, are like hitting and old bruise. For example, I am a cis-gender woman. If you called me “him” I might not even notice. But if you used the wrong pronoun for someone who is gender-queer, it has the power to touch an old achy wound, or a new still open wound. If my mechanic called me sweetie, I would immediately be on high alert and wonder if he would treat me fairly as a woman customer.