What does compassion for animals have to do with world peace?
To most of us, not much. But, as my husband and co-author Ken Beller and I realized when we were doing research for our book, Great Peacemakers, they actually go hand-in-hand.
Studying the lives of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and others was incredibly inspiring; but, it was also somewhat depressing, as we learned about the harsh injustices and violence they experienced. Sometimes we felt overwhelmed and started to ask ourselves,
“How can people be so cruel?”
And that caused us to ask the bigger question,
“What starts violence?”
What Starts Violence?
Like caring people throughout the ages, perhaps you too have asked yourself this question. As we considered many possible answers, the one that seemed to resonate most was that violence begins with disconnection.
As infants and toddlers, almost everything we encounter is cause for wonder. From the family dog to a caterpillar on the ground, we generally approach them with fascination and connection. In time, though, the actions of people around us can weaken that connection.
Often, those messages start with the treatment of animals and insects. Perhaps we see a parent catching mice in deadly traps, stepping on cockroaches, swatting flies, etc. The lesson is: “They’re just things, not beings. They’re not like us. We matter more.” These actions subtly teach us to see a divide between “us” and “them,” in other words, to “other-ize” them.
This might seem harmless. But this disconnection, repeatedly reinforced by the culture around us, can be a foundation for further abuse of power. For some people, after harming animals, the leap is not so large to later harming humans—children, women, people of other ethnicities, etc.
As humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer said,
“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
In fact, animal cruelty is often a gateway crime to human cruelty, as many studies show that a high percentage of criminals who commit violence against people began by abusing animals. For example, of seven U.S. school shootings over five years, all involved boys with a history of animal cruelty. Recognizing this dangerous link, the FBI now tracks animal cruelty crimes alongside other violent crimes.
So, how much human suffering and death could be prevented if we could stop this process by helping children connect with, and not abuse, animals?
As author Bradley Miller said,
“Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.”
It is also as valuable to the society.
A Solution to Violence
Continuing our search, we found this point emphasized by several peacemakers, especially Dr. Albert Schweitzer. The German humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize recipient is famous for his medical service in the jungles of Africa. However, he believed his greatest contribution to the world was something else.
During World War I, he was deeply worried about the future of humanity and desperately sought a solution to human violence. But, intensely studying various religions and philosophies, he could not find a solution. Then one day, it suddenly flashed on his mind: Reverence for Life.
Schweitzer explained, Reverence for Life is the realization that each of us wants to live, and we are surrounded by other beings who also want to live.
Just as we want our life to be honored, so should we honor their lives—we did not breathe life into them and have no right to take it from them. He proclaimed,
“Everything that lives has value simply as a living thing, as one of the manifestations of the mystery that is life.”
Could this realization end most human violence?
Schweitzer believed it could. After all, if a person is reluctant to kill a mouse, he or she will probably also be reluctant to kill a fellow human being. Schweitzer declared,
“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”
Looking further, we found similar beliefs shared by many other peacemakers. For example, Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi believed in the ideal of ahimsa (nonviolence toward all living beings), tried to live it to the best of his ability, and said,
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Also valuing ahimsa, is Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, who said,
“If we are motivated to protect the lives of all animals, even the smallest insect, then we will never want to take human life.”
On the other side of the world, we discovered a lesser-known, but influential, figure sharing these beliefs. English scholar Henry Salt wrote extensively on the link between animal wellbeing and human wellbeing, saying,
“…as we treat our fellow beings, ‘the animals,’ so shall we treat our fellow men.”
Similarly, American labor leader Cesar Chavez believed,
“…the basis for peace is respecting all creatures. We cannot hope to have peace until we respect everyone, respect ourselves and all living beings.”
More recently, South African Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu shared,
“I have seen firsthand how injustice gets overlooked when the victims are powerless or vulnerable, when they have no one to speak up for them and no means of representing themselves to a higher authority. Animals are in precisely that position. Unless we are mindful of their interests and speak out loudly on their behalf, abuse and cruelty go unchallenged.”
Perhaps most direct of all, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, whose beliefs about social justice influenced Gandhi and other peacemakers, proclaimed,
“As long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields.”
A Suggested Practice
So, if violence begins with disconnection, how can we re-connect?
One way is to first, simply notice the beings around you—your dog or cat, a bird outside your window, a caterpillar on your patio, etc. Look closely at him or her, and think to yourself, “A fellow life form,” or, “A manifestation of the mystery that is life.”
Allow yourself to feel a sense of awe and connection. Perhaps admire his or her beauty and marvel at the fact that you share this planet with such a vast array of fascinating creatures.
In time, you might feel moved to shift some behaviors to help your new friends. For example, you might like to start humanely catching and releasing household “pests,” buying products that are not tested on animals, or removing meat from your diet (even if just one day a week such as with Meatless Mondays.)
By reconnecting with all beings and extending compassion to them, we can enjoy a clearer conscience, greater connection with the community of all life, and the fulfilment of knowing we are saving lives and helping create a less violent, more peaceful, world.
This article was first published in Imagine magazine.