Separating Image from Reality

I’m reading this book right now that is rocking my world.  It’s called A Church of Her Own by Sarah Sentilles and it shares the story of multiple women who are ordained ministers and the obstacles they faced from the church when, to quote the back of the book, “the minister isn’t a man.”  I attempted to read it a few years ago but I had just left a church myself and was too raw, too close to that world to take any of it in – it just upset me too much. Now with distance and time, I am able to read it without bursting into tears or rage.  It’s still hard to read some of the experiences these women have gone through but I am in a much better place to process their stories now.

Why am I bringing this up?  Well, linked oppressions aside (women and animals have a lot in common when it comes to being exploited and then silenced), I can see similarities between the attitudes some people adapt towards faith or God as they do toward animals – and why it is so difficult to change.

I grew up with the image of God as the old white man with a beard looking down at us from above, keeping a list of our good and bad deeds.  Although Jesus was introduced later on as God in human form and certainly seemed more relatable than his big, bad dad in the sky (Jesus was the one who loved us unconditionally, God was the one who judged us), Jesus was still presented as white and male and someone we needed to please which didn’t exactly level the playing field in an already-patriarchal society. Yet God and Jesus were supposed to be the same person so naturally, it got confusing.

I think this is one of the reasons my own relationship with God was so painful – I had more questions than I did answers most of the time. What I was being told was God’s character – love, compassion, acceptance – was the opposite of what I so often felt and saw. As I continue to work through some of these issues, I’m beginning to see that I wasn’t so much at conflict with God as I was with the image of him I’d been presented with nearly my entire life. Perhaps this is one of the reasons people are so resistant to the idea of animal rights, because their understanding of animals would need to change too.  And that can be scary.  As one female priest from this book put it: “It then becomes like a house of cards, and if you pull one card out to say, this is what the Bible says, but maybe they got it wrong, then there is the terrifying prospect of the whole deck of cards coming down.”

From the moment we enter the world, animals are presented to us with a certain image: some we eat, some we love, some we keep in cages, others we wear and never more than a few scriptures or incorrect stereotypes to justify this treatment. So when undercover footage of factory farms makes the news, when these images of abuse, terror and bloodshed splash across our screens, we become confused because it is the exact opposite of the image we’ve been presented with. When farm animal cruelty is revealed or the cost of animal products to our health, it directly contradicts what we’ve been told is reality, a reality that has been carefully crafted into fiction in order to sell products.

For a long time I thought I knew what God was about in the same way I used to think I knew what animals were about.  But my knowledge of God was limited – limited by what was taught in church and limited by what could be found in the Bible.  In the same way, my knowledge of animals was limited by what I saw on television and on the food packaging: cows grazing in idyllic pastures, chickens pecking the ground in the sunny outdoors.  Surely this must be how it is.  People in authority are telling me this, surely they must be right.  

But when I see a person who professes to follow God’s teachings of love and compassion holding a sign that says, “God Hates Fags” at the funeral of a murdered gay man, or more recently, a public servant refusing to honour the process of a couple’s civil rights to be married, it doesn’t add up with the message of love and acceptance.  Likewise, when I see undercover video where live turkeys are being hit with shovels or mother cows are being kicked and punched, I am forced to question what I’ve been told about just how “humanely” animals are actually being treated.

No one wants to consider the possibility that maybe some of what they believe is wrong; good-intentioned people don’t want to believe they are making harmful choices.  To an extent, I understand the reaction to want to dig our heels in, shout louder and cling harder to something we thought was right for so long; no one wants to risk that house of cards coming down.  But oh, we need to get over this.  We are never going to mature as a species if we refuse to change or examine our choices.  The damage being done by refusing to see another side of an issue or a person or an animal is evident by the people who have been ostracized by the church because they didn’t meet some outdated criteria and six hundred and fifty animals are killed in this country every year because we refuse to see their lives as important.

No matter what our journey, or what we are seeking – God, animal rights, religion, peace, liberation – we must first separate the image from the reality if we are ever going to find the truth.

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