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1 March 2007

Eat your neighbours

The problem isn't what we eat but who...

By Graham Harvey

Don’t get me wrong: I am not encouraging cannibalism! I’m just grabbing your attention so we can think about what we eat. In my first blog I said that animists view the world as a community of living beings, persons. I also indicated that animists aim to show respect to everyone, human and other-than-human. And I noted that all living beings are related. So now I should be clear: the problem isn’t what we eat but who. How can we eat respectfully?

Just as Harwinder Singh’s blog noted that Sikhism is a way of life, so too is animism. (So are all religions, it’s only in the last couple of hundred years that people have decided that religions are private matters of an individual’s interior faith or conscience. But that’s another story). There isn’t only one way of being an animist, instead there are some broad similarities between different animist worldviews and lifeways. Some animists are hunters, others are gardeners, farmers or shoppers. Some live in small scale societies, others in cities. Some have basic levels of technology, others rely on a surfeit of machinery — but all humans are cyborg-animals, reliant on our tools and our flesh (as are our close-cousins the chimpanzees).

Whether our food comes from our own gardens or from across the world, whether it is animal, vegetable or mineral, it is, in animist understanding, derived from living beings. As all life within this small planet is related, to eat is to consume one’s neighbour. This is even more evident when you do obtain food locally, especially if you grow it in your garden or field, or if you catch or shoot it nearby. (Do I mean “it” or should I say “him” or “her”?).

In introducing the inherited spirituality of his people, T.P. Tawhai, a Maori writer, said that “the purpose of religious activity here is to do violence with impunity”. He explains that rather than reaching for redemption and salvation, or conveying messages of praise and thanksgiving, religious activity “seeks permission and offers placation”. Because Maori culture places a high premium on hospitality, Tawhai notes that it is necessary, among other things, to provide food for guests. He uses the example of kumara, sweet potatoes. When you know that kumara arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand in the same canoes that brought Maori to their new home, you begin to get a sense of the intimate relationship between these different kinds of people, Maori and kumara. Religious activities are part of the planting, tending, picking and preparation of kumara. In relational terms, kumara are husbanded and then killed. Those who do so address the plants to seek permission to take life. They offer gifts of gratitude that also request that any penalty for taking life be waved.

Tawhai doesn’t call this “animism” but it is rooted in a strong sense of the world as a community of related persons each deserving respect and each seeking to enhance its own well-being and that of its close kin and neighbours. (Tawhai’s article is reprinted in my edited book, Readings in Indigenous Religions [Continuum 2002]. I should note that Tawhai was a Baha’i but writes about the spirituality shared by many Maori, of whatever religion, or none).

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If animism can be seen in rituals addressing living beings who we wish to eat, it is also evident in an attitude to the world as a community rather than a resource. It is not only peculiar activities but also everyday living. As members of an ever expanding family of life, we have no right to take but are invited to share, to participate, to engage and relate. Animist elders slowly teach younger animists about ways of being that negotiate the difficulty of eating neighbouring, related beings. They show others how to pay attention, to listen, to know whether permission is given to gain nutrition and pleasure from consuming others. They also indicate what is inappropriate, arrogant or insulting behaviour towards others. The precise nature of these understandings and actions varies from one animist culture to another. But the common theme is always “respect”.

There is another sense in which we eat our neighbours. We’ve become familiar with the notion of a “carbon footprint”: the effect our consumption of fossil fuels has in the world around us. In the context of global climate changes we’ve caused, we need to consider not only our carbon footprints but the results of all our footsteps. Animism has a harder edge than is implicit in the comparison of fuel-use to footprints! We are inescapably part of a world of eating and being eaten. We can only do “violence with impunity” in small scale and local ways, and even here only with considerable care. The massive acts of violence that support modernist consumerist lives have no place in any form of respect for life.

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