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On Honoring Living “Things”

William Horden's, "The Sacred Space of the Shared Heart" is exactly the type of piece I am talking about when I express frustration over "spiritual" people who kill nonhuman animals or who have them killed for a meal.

"My father once explained to me that he felt the profoundest guilt for having to kill other living things in order to survive, so much so that he never took more that he needed and he always apologized to the spirit of the animal or plant for cutting its life short. He always promised to use its life wisely and never waste it on trivial pursuits. In this way, he had come to hold sacred everything he encountered in life–and come to have a sense of his own sacredness. It took a while before I really began seeing everything the way he did, but now that is the view and those are the feelings that I carry with me all the time.

. . .

The big change, of course, was my realizing that I didn't feel any remorse for having to eat animals and plants to live.

. . .

This isn't about what we should eat. That's a matter of personal conscience. What it's about is this: Honoring. Honoring the lives of the animals and plants that die so that we can live.

. . .

Who knows–maybe we are the shaman, the healer of the community we have been waiting for. Maybe it is as simple as the turning of the tides: We enter the age of peace and prospering for all simply because too many people have stepped into the sacred space of the shared heart of goodwill and nonviolence to keep it at bay any longer."

That last sentence is the final sentence of the piece and my mouth was agape when I got to the word nonviolence.

Let's deconstruct:

  • When he refers to living "things," he is referring to nonhuman animals as well as plants. As frequently happens with "spiritual"types, there's an apology to a corpse. In this case, the spirit of the corpse. Horden's father promises the corpse not to waste "its" life on trivial pursuits. Now, in 2010 in the developed world, therein lies the rub: killing someone to eat them is a trivial pursuit for you. And for the animal, it means death. How exactly does an apology in any way alter that fact or affect what has occurred? The apology is for the person holding the fork, and tossing around "sacred" and "community" and "thinking about feeling for them" is meaningless to the being whose life was taken in order to be on the other end of the fork.
  • Horden's "big change" was completely internal. He changed his relationship to what he was doing (by choosing to feel remorse); he didn't change what he was doing (i.e., the animals are still dead).
  • I find the bit about personal conscience completely backwards. It's not about conscience, he says, it's about honoring. No. It's about conscience because honoring doesn't mean anything to the being whose life you just took. Conscience, on the other hand, might have stopped you from taking that life.
  • And finally, if I were to think about the job of a "healer of the community," I'd require that person to indeed be nonviolent, as Horden implies. Truth be told, I'd dispense with the language of sacred spaces and instead say that a healer of the community would be someone for whom justice was paramount.

And if justice and nonviolence are your mission, the living "things" you eat wouldn't include beings as sentient as your dog companion. We can argue about where to draw that line all day long, but here are the facts of the case:

  • The "spirit" of my dog companion, Violet Rays, may or may not exist. We have no proof that it does and just because a spiritual tradition says it does, doesn't mean it does in reality.
  • The sentience of my dog companion Violet Rays is a fact.
  • To kill Violet Rays so I may eat her (or for any other reason other than to relieve her suffering) would be a betrayal, not to mention unnecessary. Once she's dead, all of the apologies in the world don't mean anything to her.

The same is true for cows, pigs, fishes, turkeys, chickens, buffaloes, sheeps, goats, and many other nonhuman animals whom we call "food." This is indeed a matter of conscience.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Scu #

    This is what Emile Durkheim (and those in the French sacred sociology movement) referred to as the fundamental ambivalence of the sacred. The sacred was both protected and revered while at the same time was the object/being to be put to the side, to be sacrificed, to be destroyed. These spiritual types are simply returning to classical tropes of sacrifice, and the belief that sacrifices are necessary, not really violence, etc.
    People like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver are simply secularized versions of such sacrificial violence.

    March 11, 2010
  2. Seems like such a self-serving package… To say that as long as one respects the "spirit" of life, they may violate the body however they please. And how another "spirit" sanctifies it all, as long as it suits man's needs/wants.

    No matter what the "denomination", sect, or mystical cant – It's all the same fable created to appease whims. And yes – Pollan and his ilk all worship at the same sacrificial alter. They are *happy*! "The Great Spirit" is happy! And so are the animals for they have been "honored to serve" their "purpose".

    None but a heretic could possibly challenge this cozy arrangement! So those with a conscience? Beware of molten lead!

    March 11, 2010
  3. To me, this also has a whiff of culture-vulture about it–the old "Native Americans always thanked the animals they killed, so it's okay for me to do it too." It's a very selfish sort of thinking, as you point out, in that all it does is let the person feel better about his or her choice to eat animals, but does nothing about the consequences of that choice.

    March 11, 2010
  4. Olivia #


    What astounds me is how evil shows up more often cloaked as goodness than as obvious wrongdoing; it cannot take the light itself, and doesn't want to be seen in the light by others. "The banality of evil" (thank you for the apt phrase, Hannah Arendt) pretending to be spirituality, peace, honor, and, yes, even conscience.

    March 12, 2010
  5. "This isn't about what we should eat. That's a matter of personal conscience."

    No, what we should eat is a matter of common sense. And to say that it's a matter of "personal conscience" admits that it is a moral issue, and hence there is right way and a wrong way to approach the situation to which our conscience can direct us. "Personal conscience" either means our inner sense of what is right, or it means nothing, and is just a smoke screen for "personal preference."

    March 12, 2010
  6. babble #

    Claiming that eating animals is okay if you "honor the spirit of the animal" strikes me as about as sensible as claiming that human slaves are acceptable to keep so long as you honor the "humanity" of those slaves.

    It's completely self-contradicting.

    March 13, 2010
  7. Porphyry #

    But, but, but, in Avatar, the Na’vi said prayers honoring the spirits of animals they hunted and surely they were connected with their world and all life in deep and profound ways. Are you saying that Native Americans are immoral? Ugh. It’s painful to even write that in jest.

    The most atrocious is the “all life equivalent” rationale; see vegans are only concerned with animals, but what about plants and bacteria? Oh no, never thought of that! Certainly living things are killed to make tofu! Surely the solution is to eat a cheeseburger and say a few prayers in honor of the one hundred or so bovine animals that may be ground up in a single patty.

    No, of course no one argues that we consume industrial animal food (and other products); people are supposed to buy grass fed, pastured, cage-free, local farm blah, blah, blah etc. since everyone on the Internet with an opinion apparently does so. Supermarkets, fast food chains, and 99.9% of restaurants serving animal products to consumers from the industrial food system are a figment of my imagination.

    It’s interesting that the only way to trump the concept of non-exploitation of animals is to advocate universal organism rights. But you would think the practice would be equivalent to being a Jain monk whisking a broom before him lest he step on any life form. Jains assign a sort of point system sentience to everything, including rocks that are assigned with sentience level of one. Oh look, early vegans who thought about “all living things” centuries before humanity began honoring the sacrifice of Christ. The modern practice of “honoring all life,” if advocates even bother to practice in any halfway consistent manner, doesn’t seem all that remarkable from mainstream animal consumption patterns, except for the layer of mysticism that doesn’t serve any practical purpose.

    Everything dies, so may as will exploit and kill. How profound. Surely this will shake the bedrock of Western thought.

    I have to remember to keep my sense of humor at such diversions. As Henry Salt put it in Seventy Years Among Savages (p. 173):

    “The ‘mystics’ were often a great joy to us; for example, Mr. J. W. Lloyd, author of an occult work called Dawn-Thought, expressed himself as follows ‘When I go afield with my gun, and kill my little brother, the Rabbit, I do not therefore cease to love him, or deny my relationship, or do him any real wrong. I simply set him free to come one step nearer to me.’ Here was Brer Fox again, only funnier. We suggested to Mr. Lloyd that ‘ Brawn-Thought’ might be a more appropriate title for his book.”

    On a related note, Jonathan Balcombe was recently on the Diane Rehm Show:

    The interview was fine until the host took callers. Listening to those tired old arguments was grueling. I couldn’t believe Balcombe actually had to answer those inane comments and kudos to him for being as polite as was. Once “I’m-not-Native-American-but-I-play-one-on-the-radio” guy came on describing his brand of shamanism it really diminished my hope for the future of humanity. Seriously, why did NPR even let that caller on the radio? And in those types of animal discussions why is there always, always, a deer hunter that calls in?

    Rhetorical questions of course. I’ll wrap up with another quote from Salt (p.169):

    “It was said by Gibbon, that it was the privilege of the medieval church ‘to defend nonsense by cruelties.’ Nowadays we see the patrons of sport, vivisection, butchery, and other time-honoured institutions, adopting the contrary process, and defending cruelties by nonsense. And by what nonsense! I do not know where else one can find such grotesque absurdities, such utter topsy-turvydom of argument, as in the quibbling modern brutality which gives sophisticated reasons for perpetuating savage customs.”

    March 20, 2010

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