Kith and Kin
Presented December 16th, 2018
This month you have probably seen a nativity scene somewhere – the one with the baby Jesus lying in a manager, with Mary and Joseph adoring him, with a donkey and ox looking on.
You might also find the magi with their camels, and a shepherd and some sheep and lambs honouring the babe of Bethlehem. It is the Christian image of the peaceable kingdom – all of creation coming to adore the new born king.
A few years ago, the previous Pope, Pope Benedict, reminded Catholics that the Gospels don’t actually mention any animals attending Jesus at his birth.
And he’s right. The bible doesn’t say a word about animals in the stable. The nativity scene as we know it today was created by St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
In the year 1223, St. Francis, then just Francesco, an Italian monk, has come home after visiting the Holy Land and being in Bethlehem.
He feels uplifted by being in the birthplace of Jesus.
Francis wants people to commemorate the nativity of Jesus with more devotion, to feel what he felt being right there in Bethlehem. Francis writes to the Pope of the time and asks permission to set up a living scene in a cave near Grecio, Italy on Christmas Eve.
The Pope says yes, so Francis finds a manger, fills it with hay, and brings it up to the cave. Francis loves animals, so he borrows an ox and donkey and brings them up to the cave.
Then, as an eyewitness writes: “The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.”
Francis wants people to love Jesus as he loves him, to see that he came into the world simply, in poverty. And for Francis, love of God means loving creation, loving animals. The evening in the cave – the night made glorious – was a success. The idea spread quickly, and in the years to come every church in Italy had a living nativity scene on Christmas Eve.
Today, almost 800 years later, nativity scenes are set up on church lawns, in private homes, turned into a play for kids. And there are the ox and the donkey and the sheep and the camels. But as Pope Benedict noted, there are no animals in the gospel stories. That doesn’t seem to matter, even the Vatican didn’t listen to the Pope, and continues to include animals in their nativity scene.
The association of Jesus with animals is an essential part of his story. In the first thousand years of Christianity, Jesus was most often depicted as a shepherd – images show him with sheep and lambs. In early Christianity Jesus was in the world, tending it with love.
It is only in the second thousand years that Jesus on the cross and in heaven became emphasized in church imagery and teaching.
Christianity has a complicated relationship with nature – having been used to justify dominion and control over nature and indigenous people – but also offering a God who in Jesus became incarnate in the world – living in nature.
An ecological ethic of caring for the earth – not subduing it – is now returning to Christian thought – the idea of relationship and stewardship – that to love creation is to love your neighbour.
From our Christian heritage, Unitarian Universalists can see our theology echoes back to early Christianity, with the divine present and part of nature. To love nature is to love your neighbour.
When the Buddha was young he was Siddhartha the monk, travelling and learning. One day, Siddhartha comes across a shepherd driving a large flock of sheep along the path. He sees a little lamb limping and struggling to keep up with the flock. He asks the shepherd where he is taking the sheep. The shepherd tells him he is taking them to a powerful man who wants to perform a big sacrifice ceremony. The little lamb is bleating and stumbling.
Siddhartha decides that the good he can do right in this moment is now is to care for the little lamb. So he picks up the lamb and walks with the shepherd and sheep. When they arrive at the ceremony site, Siddhartha goes up to the powerful man, still holding the lamb, and says: “Life is precious. These animals want to live, just as you do.” Siddhartha speaks about compassion and karma. To do no harm to any creature.
The man listens to Siddhartha’s words of compassion and peace and stops the ceremony. He asks Siddhartha to stay and teach him more.
Siddhartha refuses, saying he still has much to learn, and continues on his journey.
The Buddhist tradition has an explicit ethic on the human-animal relationship.
In the Sutta Nipata he says:
I am a friend of the footless,
I am a friend of all bipeds,
I am a friend of those with four feet,
I am a friend of the many-footed
May all creatures, all breathing things,
All beings one and all, without exception,
experience good fortune only.
May they not fall into any harm.
For the Buddha, animal nature is essentially the same as human nature, we all have the ability to become enlightened, and so animals must be treated with the same compassion as you offer a person.
An early Emperor that unified much of India in the 3rd century BCE, Ashoka, converted to Buddhism in the final years of his reign. Ashoka issued many edicts promoting animal welfare. He had his household stop eating meat, ended animal sacrifice in ceremonies, and stopped hunting for sport.
Ashoka’s edicts called for caring for both people and cattle through the planting of shade trees along main roads, he called for medicinal herbs to be grown both for animals and people. These edicts, from over 23o0 years ago, demonstrate a sense of kinship and responsibility to animals.
Buddhism says we are all one, the essence of life is common to both animals and people. We are animals, in a very deep sense.
In reincarnation, we may live as animals for a time and then as people and then as animals again. One reason some Buddhists don’t eat animals is that you might be eating a reincarnated relative. This is a very literal understanding of animals as kin!
From Buddhism, Unitarian Universalists can be inspired by the concrete call to do less harm to animals by treating all beings with compassion and care.
If we understood that we are animals, that there is an essential unity in life, how might we live differently?
Christianity reminds us to love all our animal neighbours as we love ourselves.
Buddhism asks us to have compassion for all, to see that animal’s essence is our own.
In our UU tradition, our theology is grounded in being aware that we are part of the interdependent web of all life. We are connected to all other life on this planet. The seventh principle reminds us that we are part of nature – not beyond it.
As indigenous writer Linda Hogan says “we are of the animal world. We are part of the cycles of growth and decay. Even having tried so hard to see ourselves apart…we are in relationship with the rest of the planet and must reconsider the way we see ourselves.”
(Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World)
And yet while we may be kin to animals, a part of the interconnected web, we are evermore disconnected from that web. Humans are growing more intensely urban, ever farther from the animals which offer us food and clothing. And most of us are even more distant from wild animals, as we destroy habitats and species after species goes extinct.
Being part of this religious tradition can help us to acknowledge our connections to the other beings which also live here, help us to reframe how we treat other animals. By extending our first principle – the inherent worth and dignity of each person – to the inherent worth and dignity of all creatures – we can extend love and compassion to animals.
And by reminding ourselves that we ourselves are animals – creatures that are part of the interdependent web – we might behave with a little more humility and gratitude.
With a little humility we might begin to behave like Siddhartha, and see animals as kin worthy of compassion.
With a little gratitude, we might bring our animal relatives back into closer loving relationships.
With humility and gratitude we might begin to see ourselves as part of a wider network of relationships – ones that require reciprocity.
This is a great challenge – what would our society look like if animals had greater moral standing – if we took their well being as a fundamental principle in decision making? What would society look like if we spent more time appreciating animals and all their gifts?
Linda Hogan says that to have health we must maintain our connections with other people, animals and the land – all our relations.
Given the state of the world, perhaps its time to honour our kinship.
As Unitarian Universalists I believe we are called to take seriously our relationships with animals – our interdependence calls us to love and justice – for all creatures.
May we hold in our hearts and minds gratitude to all our relations.
May we hold to a vision of love and compassion for all beings, everywhere.
So Say We All.