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Monday, July 28, 2008

Called to Be Their Caretakers: A Q&A with Michael Bruner

St_francis_of_assisi Recent articles in magazines such as The New Yorker and Campaigns & Elections have examined the changing role of religious voters at the polls. I’ve been thinking about the impact religious voters will have on Proposition 2 in California—the measure to end the abusive confinement of animals in industrial factory farms—given the heightened awareness in religious communities of animal protection and environmental issues.

I recently spoke with Michael Bruner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and theology professor at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college in southern California. He writes the blog “Cruelty to Compassion” which is dedicated to the religious, ethical, and social concerns surrounding Prop 2, and I wanted to share some of his thinking with blog readers.

Michael Markarian: How did you become involved in animal protection?

Michael Bruner: I grew up in the Philippines as a child of missionary parents, and we lived next to a farm on the edge of a jungle, so as a child I felt a special connection to animals. We had pet dogs, cats, and birds, as well, so I lived in a veritable menagerie of animal life. It was sort of like Charlotte’s Web meets The Jungle Book with some Lassie thrown in for good measure.

When I became ordained in 1996, I took up a position as a pastor in a small church in Hopewell, New Jersey, and my two dogs, Annie and Rosebud, were my constant companions. I would go around on home visitations with my dogs in tow, and soon I became known as the pastor in the pickup with the dogs who made house calls.

After returning to teaching, I began working with The Humane Society of the United States’ Animals and Religion program, which I am very much enjoying. 

MM: There seems to be an increased awareness of animal protection in religious communities, thanks to films like Amazing Grace and the resurgent interest in historical figures like William Wilberforce. Is this a new movement that’s taking hold?

MB: It’s taking hold slowly, I think. Among the more liberal churches, it’s really beginning to take root, and you’re beginning to see animal blessings on the feast day of St. Francis (October 4th this year) and Sunday school curricula that include sections on compassionate care of God’s creation. Thanks to books like Dominion by Matthew Scully, On God and Dogs by Stephen Webb, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, along with many others, most notably the writings of Andrew Linzey, a religious awareness of the plight of animals is being fostered. But I’m afraid among the more conservative elements of the church, which I count myself a part of, the movement is still just a trickle. I think that will change as we continue to see the devastation wrought by global warming and its connection to factory farming and this country’s addiction to factory farmed meat.

MM: How does the religious tradition of social activism influence your thoughts on animal advocacy?

MB: True social activism is a continuum. It doesn’t stop at one issue or one concern or one species. The Christian faith at its best understands this, which is why it has a rich heritage of activism that spans, in the modern era, from William Wilberforce and the formation of the SPCA in the 19th century to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement in the 20th. In fact, when you consider the totality of Christian history in regards to social activism, there’s almost nowhere you can turn on the globe that hasn’t been profoundly influenced by people of faith who have had a commitment to compassion and peace. Animal advocacy is simply a part of a long line of religious activism that spans all the way back to Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets.

MM: What role should the protection of animals play in our faith and in our daily lives?

MB: I say to people all the time that, one way or the other, you will interact with an animal today. You will cuddle and pet one, or you’ll eat one, or you’ll wear one. The fact is, whether or not you have a pet or work on a farm, there’s no escaping the absolute connection we have to animals, not to mention the dependence we have on them for our well-being. So like it or not, their fate is inextricably bound up with our own.

That’s the more anthropocentric reason for protecting animals—because our own well-being is on the line. But a more compelling reason to protect animals, at least for me, is that they are sentient, soulful beings that understand fear, happiness, comfort, suffering, and love, and we share the planet with them and are called to be their caretakers, which means we need to work, whenever we can, for their welfare.

MM: Proposition 2 in California would give farm animals enough room to turn around and stretch their limbs, and that measure has been endorsed by Catholic and Protestant leaders. Why is Prop 2 important for Christians?

MB: Because it gives us a stake in a true effort for good and allows us to be involved in the work of redemption. Redemption isn’t simply a spiritual reality in the Christian tradition. All over the world Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed, which states that we believe in the resurrection of the body. So redemption is both a spiritual and physical reality in Christian belief. Think of the physicality of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and “Give us this day our daily bread.” Prop 2 is all about physical need—about making this earth a little more like heaven, and taking care of the daily needs of God’s creatures. I think believers intuitively realize that Prop 2, in a very deep sense, is part of the redemptive work of God.

MM: Do we have moral obligations when it comes to factory farming and animals raised for food?

MB: Absolutely we do. Religious or not, human beings instinctively recognize the need to care for those who are less fortunate, who don’t have a voice, who are suffering. There aren’t many people who wouldn’t stop in order to rescue a puppy injured by the side of the road. If that’s true, and I believe it is, then why is it okay for millions of cows, pigs, and chickens to suffer a far worse fate every day in our nation’s factory farms? Well, it’s not okay. The difference is, we weren’t able to see the suffering that goes on in those factories—that is, until now. Prop 2 and the undercover work of The HSUS have brought to light the abuses that farm animals are subjected to every day, which effectively opened the doors of factory farms to the general public. The veil has been removed, the cat’s out of the bag, the curtain has been rent. No more excuses. Time to effect change.

MM: If we have a personal responsibility to care for animals, how should that be reflected in our laws and public policies?

MB: Laws and public policies legislate morality. That’s why we have them. Ideally, our public policies reflect our collective private moralities. So if we ourselves would never cause an animal to suffer, then it’s only right that we advocate for legislation that doesn’t allow others to cause suffering either. There’s been too much press given to the notion that my truth is my truth and your truth is your truth. Actually, nothing’s further from the truth. Animals should not be caused to suffer, period. Simple as that. Which means, at the very least, that if you care for your own pet, you’ll vote “Yes” on Prop 2. That would be the only morally consistent thing to do.

MM: What does this mean for your home state of California?

MB: Californians have always been on the leading edge of social reform, particularly when it comes to animal welfare. Our governor signed a law back in 2004 to phase out both the production and sale of foie gras in California. Prop 2 gives us another chance to be on the leading edge yet again, this time by becoming one of the first states in the country to ban battery cages and gestation and veal crates. The quiet revolution for animal welfare has begun, and the passage of Prop 2 in California is going to be a big part of that.

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