We all like sheep are gone astray (Isaiah 53:6)


One of the tragedies of our times is the war on animals, the war we have been waging for two or three centuries, seizing their territory and subjecting them to ever more inhumane conditions.

Human activity was one of the causes of this year’s bushfires in the Eastern States which took away from koalas much of their habitat. Iconic species such as the Bengali tiger and the white rhinoceros are on the brink of extinction. Presumably the thylacine (the Tasmanian tiger) and the dodo would still be thriving in Tasmania and Mauritius if human beings had not ravaged their living space.

Only a few wild animals thrive under the relentless expansion of human activity. Mobs of kangaroos near my town relish in the green pasture and endless water supplies human beings have created.

We clobber our domestic animals too. In the past decades, more and more cattle have been squeezed into feed-lots, unable to exercise and terrified by their imprisonment. Battery hens are confined to less than a square metre and never see the sky or scratch in the fresh air.

We use horses and dogs for sport. Not only do they strain to entertain us, but our society allows some of their keepers to inflict on them excruciating pain when they are away from public view.

Our treatment of animals shames us human beings.  We are given no licence by Scripture to dominate the environment and crush our fellow-creatures. There is no Biblical excuse for setting ourselves up as gods destroying whatever we will.

We consider ourselves superior to other creatures, but the evidence shows that we do not make a good shepherd. We are cruel and despotic in our treatment of the environment.

In today’s Gospel, John teaches us two things about animals and salvation. The first is that Jesus is the good shepherd. No creature, including us human beings, can put ourselves above other creatures. Jesus is our shepherd, caring for us, and he is the shepherd of all creation, restoring all things, not only the human world.

Secondly, we are called to be part of the community of creatures, living together with animals and ecosystems as our brothers and sisters. This is the great vision of Saint Francis of Assisi: to live in harmony with all life as part of the community of creation.

The Good Shepherd proclaims to us that God will draw into a community all his creation and that we will live in harmony with death adders and scorpions, both of them wild animals Jesus ’was with in the wilderness’ (Mark 1:13a), as we will with cats, horses, and especially dogs, the animals who have co-evolved with us and who are our familiars. 

There are many signs of new life. Most farmers I know are concerned about any animal cruelty and do all in their power to care for their animals. WWF and other organisations keep on reminding us of the plight of the non-human world and establish programs to restore habitat and rescue species. More and more middle-class people express real care for pets. Our Jack Russell Lottie is our little sister, a member of our family. There are new ways of feeding the hungry that do not exploit animals, so I have hope that lifting the poor out of poverty will be done ethically.

The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks, 1834

[‘We have like sheep gone astray.’ (Isaiah 53:6). Quoted in I Peter 2:25, and in the Introduction to Evening Prayer in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer]

Easter Hymn


My new Easter hymn had its premiere at St Mary’s Busselton at the 8 a.m. Eucharist this morning. Apparently it went well.

New Eternal Breath

Christ is risen! He’s been sprung
from the once locked prison of death.
Christ is risen to be sung
With our new eternal breath.

Christ is ris’n! Women and men;
animals on farm and wild,
Christ is ris’n! Magpie and wren,
voice of life, sing to God’s Child.

Christ is ris’n! With cosmic power,
the old order overturned,
Christ is ris’n! Aleph and Taw,
For us endless life has earned.

Christ is ris’n! Noongar* and white
in Christ’s death are reconciled.
Christ is risen! All made right,
God’s life-giving power has smiled.

  • * or Koori, or black folk
    Ted Witham  2018
    7777 (Savannah TiS 219(i), Easter Hymn (with alleluias))

This, and others of my hymns, can also be found at http://www.franciscanhymns.wordpress.com

 

 

 

Psalm 148 for Western Australia (revisited)


Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the sky!
Praise him in the heavens!
Praise him, all his angels!
Praise him, all his heavenly mob!
Praise him, O sun and moon!
Praise him, all you shiny stars!
Praise him, O Milky Way,
and you Southern Cross at the heart of the skies!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for he gave the command and they came into existence.
He established them so they would endure;
he issued a decree that will not be revoked.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you orcas and all you great whales,
O fire and hail, snow and clouds,
O stormy wind that carries out his orders,
you Porongurups and all you Hamersleys,
you quandongs and all you karri trees,
10 you merinos and all you cattle,
you bungarras and you emus,
11 you elders of the Wardandi and all you Noongars,
you Aunties and all you Yamaji and desert folk,
you refugees and you fifth generation Australians,
12 you young men and young women,
you elderly, along with you children!
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his majesty extends over the earth and sky.
14 He has made his people victorious,
and given all his loyal followers reason to praise—
the West Australians, the people who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

New English Translation (NET)

NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Orcas off Bremer Bay, W.A.
Orcas off Bremer Bay, W.A. Image by Dave and Fiona Harvey

Punishing sharks


I know nothing about surfing or fishing. My ignorance about boats is profound. So I shouldn’t say anything about the recent fatal shark attacks, except to state how appalling they are for the families of the men killed.

Since records started in Australia in 1791, there have been about 220 fatal shark attacks or about one each year. There were nearly 1300 motor vehicle accident deaths in 2011. But each shark attack gets media headlines.

I can’t help remembering that during the Middle Ages, animals that killed people were brought to court and tried. They were led into the court room on a leash. If they played up, further charges of affray were laid against them.

They were always executed: pigs and dogs that attacked their masters whatever the provocation, frightened horses that had trodden people to death, circus animals that escaped and ate for hunger.

It was a farce, of course. Magistrates could not take into account the animal’s intentions. If the animal had responded to one too many whippings, there was no charge of justifiable homicide. If horses trampled people because there were no exits in a crowded barn, the court didn’t care.

But the people probably felt better when the animal was killed. The taking of the animal’s life satisfied somehow the outrage at the human death. Old Testament justice was served: ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life.’

We no longer bring animals to trial. We look back at the medieval practice with amazement that people’s thinking could be so defective. Animals don’t form criminal intentions. And even if they do, they cannot defend themselves in a human court. They can’t talk, you know.

Proposals to punish sharks that that take human beings by killing individual sharks or culling sharks generally are not so different from medieval animal courts.

Firstly there seems to be a problem of identity, being sure that you capture the shark that did the killing. Without that certainty why kill any shark that happens to be nearby? Even if you are certain that this shark killed a man, killing the shark certainly guarantees that that individual will not kill again. But scientists know little about the reasons for shark attacks. Is there a reason to think that this shark will attack again if left alive?

Neither can we know enough about bonds between sharks to know whether killing one shark will provoke a family member to kill in retaliation.

Scientists say they do not know why sharks kill. They do not have a clear picture of how many great white sharks there are around the south and west coasts of Australia. They do not know how they interact with top predators like orcas off Bremer Bay. Our ignorance is great. So we can have little confidence in the effectiveness of any intervention. We simply do not know what effect any of our actions will have.

We do know that the ocean is the sharks’ home. I object to a worldview that claims first place for human beings whatever the cost to other species. It seems to me to be arrogance to demand that the oceans be safe for human beings. We are responsible for own actions. We know the ocean has dangers, and it falls on us to take prudent precautions if we enter the sharks’ habitat.

To drive sharks out of the ocean for our comfort is to change the ocean into something with less value, and may have unintended results of changing our environment into something less liveable for all creatures – including ourselves.

So by all means let’s grieve appropriately for those taken by sharks, but let’s also pause before behaving with the same muddled logic as our medieval forebears and executing sharks for murder, because that’s all the sense I can make of polices of ‘capture and kill’ and culling.

Oh, the farmer and the greenie….


The Farmer and the Greenie Should Be Friends …. But

I am sitting in my brother’s farm ute. My brother is driving. His best dog keeps his distance from the slow-moving mob of pregnant ewes. We are taking them to a paddock where they’ll have more room for lambing. It’s a slow progress across the paddocks. It’s important not to stress these sheep: by the time their lambs are born they will need to be in top condition with the best pastures easily accessible to them.

This care for animals is not only prudent business: my brother treats the animals on his farm well for their own sakes. I know many farmers like him. Farmers in general are unlikely to be cruel to animals, or allow others to be cruel to their stock coming from their property.

Like many others over the last few years, I have become concerned about the way some animals are treated. I was too distressed to watch to the end the Four Corners program on the slaughtering of cattle in Indonesia. I worry that cattle and chickens are force-fed in smaller and smaller pens. I wish we could always buy free-range animals and eggs.

But one thing I am sure of is that farmers are not enemies to animals. Most do what they can to look after sheep, cattle, dogs, pigs and hens. I am angry at activists who call for radical changes to farming practices without investigating how the majority of farmers do things. Often activists ask people to rally around causes that are based on old or incomplete information.

Take the story on mulesing sheep. Mulesing is a drastic operation where skin is cut away from around the sheep’s backside. Before farmers mulesed, there was a high incidence of fly-strike. When flies lay maggots in sheep, the maggots eat away the flesh of the sheep while the sheep is still alive. Mulesing – with much milder consequences for the animal – reduced the rates of fly-strike considerably.

PETA and other activists groups called for the abolition of mulesing. They showed graphic pictures of a sheep’s rump after the skin had been cut. Rarely did they mention the maggots threatening the lives of sheep, and they certainly showed no gruesome pictures of half-eaten still-living sheep. The farmers could well have countered the arguments of PETA by demonstrating the benefits of mulesing. Instead, the farmers went a step further and agreed to a total ban on mulesing. An enormous research effort produced chemical mulesing.

Animals Australia tells this story with reasonable accuracy, but its concluding call to action does not follow logically from the story and is any case out-dated.

I don’t believe that a perfect solution has been worked out, but I do believe the farmers wanted the same end result as the activists.  And with their first-hand knowledge, they could be honest about the situation.

Animals Australia condemns all live sheep export and describes their investigations showing cruelty against animals in transit and in market countries. It counters industry claims to improvement; but not with detailed evidence, rather with graphic photos.

Their ethical arguments begin with the assertion that raising animals to eat is wrong in itself, and therefore any instances of cruelty, however isolated, prove the point. The reality, however, is that our society accepts the use of animals for eating. Finding enough protein for a healthy and balanced diet without meat is currently an expensive challenge.

Farmers who grow animals for meat are not acting illegally, nor are they anti-social, and to claim that all their activity is unethical is at the very least controversial, and is usually insulting. Environmental concerns may well price meat out of existence over time and we will simply be forced to find replacement protein. But we are not at that place yet. Discouraging cruelty to animals makes more common sense in the short to medium term than calling for a total ban on meat.

Animal activists come over as either unrealistic idealists or deliberately undermining the livelihood of the very farmers on whom we depend for our food.

The greenies and the farmers should be friends. Both groups are genuinely working towards a world in which there is less cruelty to animals. But polarising the debate by calling for a complete ban on meat and demonising all involved in its production and transport is unwise and unproductive. It is no wonder farmers defending live sheep exports organise their gatherings off-line away from the glare of volatile social media. Their cause is so easily hi-jacked by easy and sentimental appeal of the animal activists.

Life After


Life after

I stand heart-still on bush-edge trail.
My height nothing next to bunched boughs
of sage green gums.  The great wedge-tail
eagle soars: all before it stoops, bows.

The eye zooms: the bird has stalled:
gravity forgot; upheld by thermal.
All potential at rest, just the air mauled
by fierce talons; wings held formal.

Then, straight down from pin-head highs
the eagle drops, wings tucked, a grey stone-streak.
The lizard struck and killed, in cold eye’s

wink.  Wings wide as Passion Week.
For all of us in God’s surprise
are taken alive in Christ’s dear beak.

The dignity of the jabiru


I saw one of these at the beach this morning. I think this type of stork is called a “jabiru”. She was almost stationary with one spidery leg held in the air ready to be replaced on the ground. She stood among sparse beach shrubs about her height in such a way that you had to search to see her even though she was in plain view. Her right eye was fixed on us humans.

The jabiru’s dignity made her appear larger than her perhaps 50 cms in height. With her left leg poised, she had all the time in the world to be herself, the monarch of her world.