Friday, June 11, 2010

Save a Life, Save the World

Gandhi used to say that you could judge a nation's moral progress by how it treats its animals. If that is true then the soul of our nation in on display in the Gulf of Mexico. It is both the best of times and the worst of times for Americans.

Every evening the news networks broadcast pictures of pelicans, turtles and other marine animals struggling to survive this man-made disaster. Yet there is barely a word spoken about this from BP or Washington.

Most of the talk is about money and blame. (The eleven men who died on that rig have been practically forgotten by Day 53.) People talk about damage to the seafood industry and the loss of livelihood by fishermen, shrimpers and oystermen. There is talk about spoiled beaches and damage to the tourist industry. There is much talk about damage to the environment in general, but there is precious little action to save the wildlife.

Those taking the lead in rescuing animals are groups such as the Louisiana State Animal Response Team, International Bird Rescue Research Center, the Audubon Nature Institute and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. I applaud their work.

The treatment of these animals reveals a spiritual dimension of this crisis. It shows the compassion (or lack of it) that people feel toward the other sentient creatures. I am not an animal rights activist. I eat my share of meat, and I am not reluctant to kill animals for food, health or safety reasons. Neither am I elevating the status of animals to that of humans under the law. But the needless suffering of animals inflicted by human negligence makes me cringe.

When I was a young teenager I read the autobiography of Albert Schweitzer, entitled "Out of My Life and Thought." (Do kids read books like this these days?) I have never forgotten it. He held an ethic of nonviolence to all living creatures that he called "reverence for life." It was drawn from the ancient Indian philosophy called ahimsa, practiced by such religious groups as the Jains, and to a lesser extent by some Buddhists.

This ancient wisdom is worth reviewing in the light of this ecological disaster. It is based on the premise that all life is related. You can't hurt one without hurting all. It is much like the apostle Paul's teaching on the Body of Christ: "If one part suffers, all suffer with it." Only in this case the Body is composed of all creatures and not just humans.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to experience this interconnectedness of Creation directly. You just have to take the time to really look at a bird, mammal or even a reptile, and you will see a fellow creature. We have shared this planet for millions of years. DNA research tells us that we are all cousins. To hurt them is to hurt ourselves.

There have been editorials recently about the animal rescue effort, saying that it is "a wasteful exercise in feel-good futility" and that the money and man-hours could be better spent elsewhere. But the Talmud says, "To save one life is as if you have saved the world." 

It is not about the number you save; it is about the heart that seeks to save. The Hebrew Scriptures say, "For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." In that case the Lord is seeing a lot or very hard hearts ... and a few tender ones.

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