Monday, July 28, 2008

Eating Involves Killing -- No Matter What

In discussing a recent press statement by PETA about fur Wesley Smith here brought up the rarely discussed deaths of animals during harvesting. As he points out:

Plant agriculture results each year in the mass slaughter of countless animals, including rabbits, gophers, mice, birds, snakes, and other field creatures. These animals are killed during harvesting, and in the various mechanized farming processes that produce wheat, corn, rice, soybeans, and other staples of vegan diets. And that doesn’t include the countless rats and mice poisoned in grain elevators, or the animals that die from loss of habitat cleared for agricultural use. . . . Field animals may flee in panic as the great rumbling harvest combines approach, only to be shredded to bits within their merciless blades; they may be burned to death when field leavings are burned; they may be poisoned by pesticides; they may die from predation when their plant cover has been removed.

One might think this is just some conservative tu quoque argument, or else an artifact of awful, inhuman, industrialized factory farming. But actually the idea of grain agriculture as an animal holocaust is a fixed part of Buddhist belief, at least. In a recent study of Tibetan nomads, who lived off of slaughtering animals, the author Rinzin Thargyal notes:

Most of [his nomad informants] thought that farmers were bigger sinners than themselves as nomads, because the farmers killed countless worms and other living beings in the process of ploughing and sowing their fields. Nomads did not take too many lives and the preference for killing bovines was that one single animal could provide enough meat for many people over a longer period, thus involving much less total life-taking overall (p. 182).

And don't think the slaughtering the nomads did was all that humane:

Suffocating the animal was the standard form of killing. The animal was first hobbled and then felled down on the ground, then a rope was tied around the mouth very tightly. The whole process took about half an hour, after which the eyes of the animal became bluish, indicating a lack of oxygen (p. 87).

And the offspring of ox-yak crossbreeds were starved to death:

All tole or zomo calves were starved when very young [i.e. the people took all the milk and let the calves starve]. My informants hesitated to impart this piece of information to me initially, but they gradually admitted that they sometimes had to resort to what was a sinful act in Buddhist terms in order to survive as they did. Since only a few households kept zomo, most of them could avoid committing this form of killing (p. 83).

Even so, the killings involved in agriculture play a major role in the Buddhist view of the world. Here is a great analysis (from this book) based on field-work in Ladakh:

. . . Monks were discouraged from agricultural labor, and particularly the production of staple crops such as barley and peas. Both monks and laity agreed that such work was digpa (a term often glossed as 'sinful,' but more accurately implying an action which causes negative karma), since it killed many insects and worms, as did any digging or plowing. Normatively, involvement in agricultural activity was expected to decrease as a monk entered more senior ranks . . . Most agreed that it would be out of the question for the head monk to involve himself in any act of agricultural production, with some laity feeling that he should not even enter the fields of the village during the later summer months (p. 70).

Of course the other side of monastic renunciation is social reproduction (i.e. marriage and heterosexual relations). As Mills shows, plowing and sex are both seen as creating wealth (plowing by creating seeds, and sex by creating laborers for the farm). The householder is the wealth creator, producing both the grain to feed the monks, but also the future monks themselves. The practice of farming and sex are necessary to the survival of the monastic community, but the two are separated strictly by rules that separate the two in separate but complementary roles.

Not to speak of the viewpoint of the Manicheans whose founder Mani had a vision of plants suffering from the knife . . .

Like all world-changers, vegetarians are convinced that with a few simple adjustments, a life without inflicting harm on anyone are within our grasp. I have my doubts. Maybe it is because I sometimes feel uneasy swatting mosquitoes or crushing ants in my house. (And then I do it anyway and feel uncomfortable.) And when I have planted a plant, I have a deep-seated reluctance to kill it; especially if it seems to have a strong desire to live, despite frequent blows.

Maybe I'm just nuts, but I also have a feeling that the permission granted men and animals to eat plants worldwide in Genesis 1:29-30, and for Adam to eat Eden's plants in 2:16, and the extension to animals (including creeping things like worms and insects) of Gen. 9:2-3 was not just pro forma, that without God's specific permission it really would be wrong to eat plants. After all He made them and they are also our fellow creation. Do they actually belong to us?

(It's also worth noting that Genesis 1:29-30 and 2:16 are not saying the same thing. One gives all the plants of all the world to all men and animals. The other gives the plants of Eden to Adam alone. If you don't just assume, well, eating plants is always OK anywhere anyway, then that's a pretty big difference. Only by Genesis 3:23 does Adam come into a relation with the plants outside Eden; in Gen. 2:15 he only cared for the plants in Eden. Assuming that caring for is connected to eating, this places the universal permission to eat after the expulsion from Eden. This is grist for my mill that the blessings of Genesis 1:28-30, and the description of the world as "very good" in v. 31 are properly read as describing the situation after the expulsion from Eden, not before.)

One final thought in an incoherent post: as people out to change the world, vegetarians share the key characteristic of moral reformers and activists of all causes: that with a few changes, we can all lead sinless lives -- if we really want to. I appreciate the simplicity and purity of the reformers' zeal, I really do. But somehow I just can't share it. Somehow to me the idea that we are stuck in a world in which we cannot help but sin -- ethical fatalism, the idea that we are not in charge of whether we are good people or not -- seems a lot truer. (Of course moral reformers might say that's because I'm complicit in all sorts of evil I don't want to end, because I benefit from it. Or maybe I'm just passive. I suppose that might be true too.)

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Two Possible Purposes of Ecumenical Discourse

Over at the Boar's Head Tavern (July 24-25, 2008) there is a big dispute going on about the Lord's Supper and Baptism.

The whole discussion is interesting for the substance. But even more interesting is the implicit issues (the meta-discussion) about what ecumenical discussion is supposed to do.

For people like me, or Josh S, or John H, who have been baptized in one tradition and then moved to another, it's obvious what the purpose of ecumenical discussion is. It's to get you to evaluate the claims of the denominations and chose the one that is true. (Whether on the basis of evaluating its truth claims, or using "genetic" criteria like apostolicity, or evaluating the fervor or good works is for this purpose irrelevant.) Thus it is crucial to draw distinctions, and particularly draw distinctions that divide denominations by their very nature. Southern Baptists don't have apostolic succession, and can't, by their very nature. Catholics don't have believer's baptism and can't by their very nature. Some distinction like that is very useful for motivating a move from one tradition to another, much more useful than vague and ambiguous ones like the presence of good works, spiritual fervor, etc., all of which vary widely within a single denomination.

Now it's true, we all know people rarely are argued into a different denomination. That's a bug in our system: we're too proud to change. But fortunately, the Spirit can get around that. Stymied in a frontal attack, He can sneak around the rear and by Bible reading and Christian contacts and web discussions and so on change less strongly defended beliefs which then leave our doctrinal Maginot Lines isolated and defenseless. (John H describes the process here.)

But as Michael Spencer points out (key posts here, here, here): that all assumes that moving denominations is like voting in an election. You make your decision in a secret ballot, and go back to your life without direct consequences. But that's just not so. Our denominational choices come from our life stories. Often times its just a simple issue of location. For example, if you live in most parts of eastern Kentucky, becoming a Lutheran is in practice flatly impossible. (Unless giving up your job and moving for a denominational change is something you have to do.) There's simply no Lutheran church near enough. Or what if you are married to a woman who absolutely will not worship in an Orthodox church? Then being an Orthodox church member might be impossible. (Of course that depends on how you evaluate the priorities of marriage and denominational affiliation.

In sum, people with particular types of lives are practically speaking excluded from certain denominations.

Michael Spencer then turns to his basic belief: it is unbelievable that Jesus would prevent those who have heard his message and Gospel from living Jesus-shaped lives, simply because of some fatality of birth or life story that keeps them from belonging to the right denomination.

If this is so, and if a Jesus-shaped life depends on His presence in church fellowship, then it must be the case that no denomination that is Christian at all can claim to have any decisive advantage to the Jesus-shaped life that all do not have. If one denomination claims an infallible teaching magisterium, then either all have it or the claim is false. If one denomination claims to have Jesus's body present in Communion, then either all have it or the claim is false.

To put it a bit differently, while Michael Spencer accepts the "scandal of particularity" with regard to Jesus, he does not accept it with regard to denominations. That a believer in Jesus is saved, while a non-believer is not, he accepts. But that a Lutheran Christian is advantaged in the Christian life by his membership in a denomination in a way that a Baptist is not, this he categorically denies is possible.

Thus he insists that there cannot possibly be any way in which a Southern Baptist believer is qualitatively disadvantaged in the Christian life, simply from not being a member of a Catholic or a Lutheran church. All denominations must have equal resources for the Jesus-shaped life, if only the members of them would claim them.

In this case then, the hard-edged "by their very nature" denominational distinctives are not good, but bad. Lutherans and Baptists and Catholics can all share emphases and idea and spiritual advice. Each one can find his or her spiritual life enriched by that -- without moving to a different denomination. Southern Baptists can have a higher view of the Lord's Supper. Catholics can take evangelism more seriously. Lutherans can try to be less cranky . . .

But once it gets to a claim that our priests are infallible because they have received a charism as members of the Catholic church, or only we are really baptized because only believer's baptism is real baptism -- suddenly that is a claim that doesn't do any one any good unless they move. And if they can't move -- if they can't just believe that where they are -- then that claim will have the effect of intoning at them: You are disqualified from being Christian. You live in the wrong part of Kentucky. You are married to the wrong woman. You have the wrong social ties -- and as a result, your Christian life will always be second-rate.

So by their very life stories, John H and Josh S and me will see ecumenical discussion as having exactly the opposite purpose and characteristics as Michael Spencer will. For us, it's to sharpen distinctions and force a change. For him it is precisely to muddle distinctions and force our Christian denominations to converge. For us, the fact that no one ever directly changes their denomination due to a web discussion forum is a bug. A bug the Spirit can get around, but still, a bug. For him, it's a feature: only by people refusing to change denominations will Southern Baptist churches become sacramentally minded, and Catholic churches emphasize new birth.

Those who switch denominations have a lot of Scriptures on their side -- if they ASSUME that getting the right denomination is the same thing as becoming Christian. Those who don't have a lot of Scriptures on their side -- if they ASSUME that being in a particular denomination is like being in a particular marriage or job.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Thoughts on a Shrinking World, Mass Migration, and Changing Customs

Under the Mongol dynasty in China, the Yuan, unprecedented numbers of Westerners -- Uyghurs, Tibetans, Turkestanis, Persian, Arabs, Russians, Ossetians, Armenians, and even the odd Frank, like Marco Polo -- migrated to the country. Once they migrated there, receiving high position in the Mongol-run administration, many, if not most, stayed, and their sons and grandsons began adopting Chinese customs.

The attitude of Chinese to this differed. Leaving aside a small cranky minority in South China who still maintained loyalty to the defunct Song dynasty, most Chinese scholars were proud that people were coming from all over the world and converting to Chinese ways. But what about those who changed their surnames and customs to adopt those of China? Was that a good thing? Some thought that truly filial and Confucian Westerners would not change their family name and hence insult their ancestry as something to be gotten over. Others thought it was natural for people to change their name and customs when entering a new world.

Here is a sample of viewpoints on this phenomenon drawn from Chinese-language essays of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The source is Chen Yuan's Western and Central Asian in China Under the Mongols, translated by Qian Xinghai/Ch'ien Hsing-hai and L. Carrington Goodrich. (I have modernized the spelling, but I haven't necessarily referred to the original Chinese to check, so I cannot vouch for the correctness of each phrase or terminology.)

Wang Li in his Linyuan ji, thought it showed how the Mongol Yuan dynasty has expanded the brotherhood of man.

The language and tastes of the people of the Western Regions differ from those of the Chinese. Although since the days of Han and Tang intermarriage has occurred, still each retained his own racial allegiance and could not live permanently in the other's domain. How could those born in the lands of the West be interred in Jiangnan [the lower Yangtze area]. Now under our imperial house of the Yuan, when the foundation of the empire was being laid, the people of the Western Regions rendered valuable service. By the time of the Renovating Founder [that is, Qubilai/Kubla Khan], the land with the Four Seas had become the territory of one family, civilization had spread everywhere, and no more barriers existed. For people in search of fame and wealth in north and south, a journey of a thousand li was like a trip next door, while a journey of ten thousand li constituted just a neighborly jaunt. Hence among Western people who served at court, or who studied in our south-land, many forgot the region of their birth, and took delight in living among our rivers and lakes. As they settled down in China for a long time, some became advanced in years, their families grew, and being far from home, they had no desire to be buried in their fatherland. Brotherhood among peoples has certainly reached a new plane (p. 252).

Liu Yin in his Jingxiu wenji thought the custom of changing one's surnames to fit Chinese models a sign of bad morals. The Guli family of the Jurchen (a people of Manchuria, ancestors of the later Manchus) had taken on the Wu surname, and Liu Yin comments:

When I heard this, I said that this was a great mistake. The family surname had been received by the clan's forefathers and handed down to posterity, and the lineage should not be confused in the slightest degree. . . . They have of their own volition cut off their own roots, and allied themselves with another family. This is indolence and drifting with the current (p. 236).

Other critics like Wu Hai in his Wengaozhai ji, blamed this on careerism. Officials would receive surnames from the government and would not refuse them, lest doing so impede their careers:

The idea was that the new family name, bestowed by the Son of Heaven, could not be refused; while the old name had been handed down by his ancestors and should not be discarded. [A friend of his had showed him his genealogy, where he had listed both family names, old and new, side by side]. Hence both were retained. The moral sense of the people at present is enfeebled. People are bent on acquiring official position and wealth. Some have willingly sacrificed their ancestral heritage and adopted that of this country in order thereby to gain promotion in their careers. Is there one who has accepted a surname bestowed on him and yet is reluctant to give up the old one? On glancing over this genealogical record I could not but feel regretful. One may hope that people who have given up their forefathers may take a look at this record, be moved by it, and change their course of action (p. 237).

Others, like Song Lian in his eulogy of Pu Bo, a Muslim whose family settled in S. China, argued that when situations change, culture should change too:

The people in countries of the Western Regions had no family names; they were known rather by the tribes to which they belonged. They were unsophisticated and their affairs simple; as a consequence, it was easy for them to get along in this way. As to Master Pu [Pu Bo, a man of the Muslim Arghun people of Inner Mongolia], his family lived for three generations in regions of China known for their culture [i.e. in the Lower Yangtze]. He equipped himself with understanding of the History and the Odes [books in the classical Chinese canon] and put into practice the principles of our rites and rules of propriety. His old name he kept, however, which is not as it should be. On consultation with fellow officials and scholars he adopted Pu as his surname. In former times when the people of rank of northern Dai [northern Shanxi, on the northern edge of China proper] followed the rulers of the Northern Wei [a early Mongolic dynasty of the fifth-sixth century AD] and pushed down into Henan, they all followed Chinese customs, changing their three and four syllable names to those of one syllable, and in other respects adopting Chinese ways. The step taken now by Mr. Pu coincides with ancient principles and current practice. Were he not a man of unusual insight, he would not have seen this. Those who abide by ordinary practice might say that their forefathers did not introduce the change. That is because they are unqualified to talk about accommodation [or changing to conform]
(p. 240).

Wu Chen praised Shadi, with the courtesy name Xingzhe, for the adoption of the Chinese system of given names (ming) and courtesy names (zi), the later bestowed by respected colleagues or teachers. He was a member of a sayyid (descendant of Muhammad) family from Central Asia which settled in Yuan China and achieved high position, :

In remote antiquity, people had given names, but no courtesy names -- a sign of their simplicity. In ancient times people had both given names and courtesy names -- a sign of their culture. Within the nine provinces [of China], civilization was emphasized, as it was in medieval times and thereafter. Outside the nine provinces simplicity was stressed, just as it had been in remote antiquity. This difference in practice has existed throughout the ages. The domain of the reigning [Mongol Yuan] dynasty is the most extensive one of all times. All countries, both those within and without the nine provinces are in this domain and form one household. Each having its own customs, it has not been possible to unify them . . . . [Wu Chen then describes how he was given a courtesy name by his fellow officials] What is commendable in this Chinese custom is that the rules of what is right and proper, as laid down by the Duke of Zhou and Confucius, are admirable. Whoever esteems the rules of the Duke of Zhou and Confucius should follow them. Those who think highly of them but fail to follow them are untrue to civilization; they esteem culture, but are false to it. This is not like the genuineness of esteeming simplicity . . . (p. 228).

For others, the answer was to adopt a surname that had some connection with one's ancestry, thus preserving both a justifiable loyalty to one's ancestry and a fitting appreciation of culture. The Xie family of Uyghurs, for example, chose a rare form of this name due to its use in the Chinese transcription of Selengge, the river in Mongolia where his ancestors had come from centuries earlier. Xie Chaowu's name was based on the Mongolian cha'ur "warrior." So Wang Deyuan wrote about him in a eulogy thus:

Xie Chaowu, courtesy name Angfu, was a Uyghur. His given name was Mongol and his courtesy name Chinese. Men spend their life in different regions. As he continued to use the name of his tribe and did not forget his ancestor, he was filial. As he served in a glorious period of the house of Yuan and continued to use his given name not forgetting his country, he was loyal. In studying the standard literature of the Chinese, he freed himself from the charge of illiteracy. In continuing to use his courtesy name he did not forget his teacher, which indicates his sensibility. Being dutiful, loyal, and wise, his moral foundation was laid (p. 143).

For some adaption was a difficult process in which they had to try to find some common moral principles between their ancestral principles and their adopted country's mores and ethics. Xu Youren records the ambivalence of Heshu, another Muslim migrant to China -- and also reminds us that many immigrants made no effort to adapt:

When our house of Yuan launched expeditions against the countries of the northwest, the Western Regions were the first to become part of our realm. Accordingly, many more natives of the West were accorded high positions than those of other lands. Great merchants monopolized advantages in operating profitable enterprises on land and sea. They occupy key places in well-known cities and regions throughout the empire, and enjoy their large incomes, but few are successful in adapting themselves. They live in this country, are clothed and fed here, but they still cling to the customs of their own countries. Heshu, however, declared: 'I do not dare to alter our customs, and thereby become estranged from my own people. I wish only to change what is contrary to moral principles. I have lived in this country, been clothed and fed here, and shared the life of its people. I take no pleasure in altering our ways in order to conform to the customs of this area. But when I reach a decision about them, I wish to conform to that which is right. One of my ancestors came to China as an ambassador and his bones lie buried here. Can I afford to ignore the Odes, History, Rites and Music? [These are books in the Chinese classical canon.] When customs are dissimilar due to differences in underlying principles, should I follow them?' Ah! Heshu was certainly good at adapting himself in the way Mencius proposed [a reference to where Mencius tells the story of people who reformed non-burial of the dead simply by natural feeling, without ever being taught to conduct burials]. According to their mores [that is, Muslim ones], they did not erect monuments at the tombs of their ancestors, but he did so (p. 243).

These are the cultural options still today, in a shrinking world of mass migrations. Perhaps the most distinctive element is the sense of attachment to a particular land, in which the migrants are "fed" and "clothed" by the land, and hence owe something to it.

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