I am not a vegan but I wish I was.
There are many injustices in our food systems that could be corrected by eliminating animal products from the human diet but for me, veganism is a response to an unjust system reliant on the suffering of animals.
Years ago, Fiona and I sat through a presentation by a faith representative from the Humane Society. We watched video footage of the horrors of factory farming and came home committed to never eating meat from factory farms again. Financially supporting systems of cruelty by purchasing meat from factory farms was terrible enough, but the thought of enjoying the taste of a tortured life was emotionally overwhelming. This was not a commitment against eating meat. This was a call to participate in the transformation of systems that treat animals as though the only purpose for their lives was to become meat for my dinner plate. The problem was not that humans eat meat. The problem was that animals were being treated as though they were meat before they were even born.
Last Friday, I took Fiona and her friends to the Wildlife Sanctuary in Keensburg, Colorado. Spanning over 10,500 acres, the Wildlife Sanctuary provides natural habitats for more than 600 rehabilitated animals. These lions, tigers, bears, wolves, leopards, and other rescued carnivores experience horrific living conditions for most of their lives. But here, at the Sanctuary, tigers and lions can be witnessed laying belly up in large, open habitats enjoying the warmth of the sun on a cool winter day.
At the Sanctuary, the rehabilitation of rescued animals includes phased introductions into larger spaces and reintegration into new family groups. While some animals are so traumatized they need to live alone in small enclosures to feel safe, other animals adjust to a life of freedom and form deep bonds with members of their same species. These bonds are visible in each habitat where a new family is created. A pack of orphaned wolves napping together in a formation as tight as puzzle pieces. Two male lions lying forehead to forehead, grooming one another after a late afternoon meal. For a handful of animals at the Sanctuary, placement with their own species comes as a confusing confrontation with their own self-identity.
A camel, named Morrison, rescued from a horse boarding facility in Colorado arrived behaving like a horse. Although he now shares a habitat with another camel at the Sanctuary, this camel will struggle to find belonging for the rest of his life. This camel behaves like a horse but was born into this world to exist as a highly social camel. This camel has never learned the language of his species which makes many sounds, including moaning and groaning sounds, high-pitched bleats, loud bellows, and rumbling roars. This camel never heard the hum of his mother or learned to hum back to her.
This emotional displacement may be unique for a camel but for a human, it is arguably commonplace.
Outside the systems of the Sanctuary, our own species seeks fulfillment in consumption and finds identity in domination. Our mistaken understanding of ourselves is evident in the practices of factory farming. We confuse our identity when we identify cows as hamburgers and pigs as bacon, tigers as attractions, and camels as transportation. We have lost touch with our created purpose when we assign identities to other species based on their usefulness to our species. When we claim to belong to a community of crude consumption, we deny the presence of caretaking communities that claim us as their own.
Dr. Alexis Shotwell pulls from indigenous scholar Dr. Kim Tallbear when she explains that the individual (human) identity comes not from the community the individual claims but from the community that claims the individual as their own. This claim of a community on an individual manifests from the embodiment of the individual. We are claimed by the community based on our likeness in appearance to any given community. This theory projected onto the more than human community appears congruent. A camel may identify as a horse, but it is the community of camels who claim the camel as their own because no matter where a camel lives or how a camel behaves, the community of camels will be those who claim that outlier as their own.
The blessing in this worldview is that true belonging is not reliant on our certainty about who we are in this world. There may be forgetfulness or confusion of identity, but there is never an absence of belonging. A community’s claim on an individual supersedes the false identities we create to survive. Humans may live as though our identity is the violent dominator and driven consumer, but this is not the community that claims us.
Whatever names this world has used to teach you who you are, the community who claims you know you as Beloved.
The community that claims us exists beyond the systems of exploitation our lives have become dependent upon. We are not who we know ourselves to be in the practices of colonialism or in our loyalties to capitalism, where all lives are singular and cutoff and abandoned to survive in the world alone. We are not who we tell ourselves we are in the echos of the exclusionary language of a world teaching that we will never be good enough for belonging.
In this Sanctuary we call, The Land, we embark on our own collective rehabilitation from the toxic identities offered to us since birth. At The Land, we take small steps away from the tight, airless spaces of emotional, physical, and spiritual suffering present in a system that knows only objectification and extraction.
In the presence of the prairie, we see what has been present all along. A community of deep interconnectedness soaked in generosity and abundant in grace. Here all living creatures rely not on the restrictive human constructs of church polity, economic policy, and socioeconomic categories to be called and claimed and cared for by the Community of All Beings.
This Community of All Beings is the inescapable community of care connecting all things. This community conspires on our behalf, on behalf of all creatures, so that we might have food from the sun and breath from the plants. This community thrives within systems reflective of the expansiveness of the diversity of God’s love.
There is no fall, no failure, no flaw that betrays the deep relationality into which we were all born. We were formed of the earth which sustains our lives and receives us upon our last breath.
There is nowhere else to go.
There is nowhere else to belong.
This is the community that claims us as its own.
We are Beloved not because we know ourselves to be but because the Beloved Community to which all of Creation belongs calls us and claims us as their own.
At the Sanctuary, peace is possible for rescued animals because the system is designed to comfort all the animals who come to know this place as their home. Meals are served in abundance as to not cause competition among fragile families. High walkways are constructed for human visitors to ensure that the animals below feel secure in their territory. The limits of each animal are respected because the caretakers accept that for each animal, rehabilitation will have a different outcome.
The systems of Sanctuary are founded in relationality. They are based on respect, generosity and love, and they can exist anywhere we wish Beloved Community to be seen. The deep blessing, the one beyond human comprehension, is that whether these systems of Sanctuary are visible or not, the claim of the Community of All Beings remains the tender voice of the collective calling us their own.
Whatever names this world gives you to claim who you are and who you are not.
Whatever boxes the world puts you in to tell you where you fit and where you do not.
It will always be the community that knows you as Beloved that claims you as their own.