Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Animals at War

Bishop Dominic Walker preached this sermon at St Jude's on Sunday 10 October 2010 at the service for the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals.

The gospel ends with those haunting words, Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is upon you. Jesus continues to proclaim the message of John the Baptist - that we must repent if God's kingdom, which is marked by peace and justice, is to come. There is no point praying in the Lord's Prayer Thy kingdom come unless we first learn to repent, and the word in Greek, metanoia means to turn around and face the other direction. Start looking at new things with eyes wide open and you will start to see the world - God's world - in a new light.
I recently went to the theatre to see Warhorse - it's on at the New London Theatre in Drury Lane and it's an amazing production that had excellent reviews. If you haven't seen it I won't spoil it by telling you too much - but it is about a horse that was sold to be used by an officer in the First World War. The horses used in the play are incredible life size puppets controlled by two men inside and the puppets move just like real horses and come alive on stage, as does some of the reality of war and the suffering of both people and animals.
I could of course, tell you about the millions of horses that were killed in the First World War or even about the cats that were kept in the trenches to kill the mice or the hundred thousand pigeons that were used to carry messages between ships but if the gospel message is about repentance, then I would question the value of asking people to repent of something for which they were not responsible or over which they had no influence. Instead I would like to reflect on how animals are still used in warfare today and what we can do about it.
The use of animals in warfare is nothing new. In the third century BC, Hannibal used elephants to cross the Alps in his campaigns and since then animals have been used in military and naval campaigns and have also become the victims of war when people are forced to flee and abandon their animals. One of the sad lessons that we learn in animal welfare is that so often when humans and animals come into contact it is to the detriment of the animals, and yet we are called to have a stewardship of creation and to care for God's creatures. Jesus himself taught that not a single sparrow falls to the ground without his father's knowledge.
In the past animals have been used in warfare largely to carry men, ammunition, gun carriages and supplies. Today, they are used in different ways. In the Iraq and Gulf conflicts at least 75 dolphins and 20 sea lions have been trained by the US Government for warfare. They are called ‘Advanced Biological Weapons Systems'. They are transported over long distances in water-filled sleeves and the dolphins are used to detect mines in the water and the sea lions to detect enemy frogmen. In order that they can be controlled they have their snouts tied so that they cannot eat so when they are hungry they are forced to return so that their snouts can be released and they can eat. The use of dolphins endangers other dolphins in the area because the enemy troops don't know which ones are being used and so they kill them indiscriminately.
Dogs are used as bodyguards and bomb detectors - some 5,000 dogs were used in Vietnam but only 150 returned home. Pigeons are sometimes used - rather like canaries in the coal mines - to detect poisonous chemicals even though hi-tech sensors can detect gas clouds from three miles away.
Animals are also used for laboratory experiments and millions of animals have suffered and died. Sheep, goats, mice, rats, guinea pigs, monkeys, dog and cats are being used today to test the killing power of biological and chemical weapons and the effectiveness of their antidotes. Pigs have been left with huge blisters after mustard gas experiments, and there is evidence to suggest that when vaccine experiments were done on animals and deemed to be safe, they turned out not to be safe when administered to the troops. You may remember that during the Gulf War many British troops were reported to have fallen ill following multiple vaccines all of which had been tested on animals.
Moneys have been used in flight simulators and trained by electric shock treatment.
They are strapped to a chair and taught how to control a flight simulator when it rocks and rotates and then when they have learned how to do it they are given doses of drugs, poisonous gases or radiation to see how they react. The next step up from drones - pilotless remote controlled planes - is to implant electrodes into the brains of animals so that these ‘roborats' as they are called, can be controlled to carry out dangerous tasks.
War also causes immense suffering to animals that are abandoned. You may remember the zoo in Baghdad and how the animals were left to starve or were stolen. The same happened in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. When warfare results in large numbers of displaced people, it also results in large numbers of abandoned pets and farm animals.
This Church has a memorial to the eight million horses that died during the First World War. There were also countless mules and donkeys. Jilly Cooper's book called Animals in War is a moving account of the suffering of animals and their loyalty to their masters. They were chosen for their strength or natural instincts and huge numbers were killed, often dying from wounds, starvation, thirst, exhaustion, disease and exposure. Perhaps when it comes to Remembrance Sunday and we remember the men and women who often died in similar circumstances we should also remember the animals. But what can we do about the animals that are still suffering at the hands of human beings - not just animals that are being used in warfare or peacetime experiments, but also animals that are being intensively farmed and denied a natural habitat as we demand cheap meat.
Firstly, I would suggest that we need to stop and repent - to look and think again about our role in creation. If you say to most Christians, what was the great moment in the biblical creation narratives, they will say when God made us in his own image. That's wrong. It was the seventh day when God rested and the world was at peace. There is a theme in the Hebrew scriptures that tells us that we only ate meat after the Fall and it looks forward to a return to Paradise where the lion will lie down with the lamb. Our role in creation is to have dominion - not domination - perhaps stewardship is a better word - to have stewardship of creation knowing that we shall be judged for how we have cared for God's world and that includes all sentient beings.
Secondly, I think we need to put animals on the church agenda. We could begin by including them in our prayers. At this time of year I attend various harvest celebrations and we pray for the farmers, the food producers and the crops - but rarely do we pray for animals.
Thirdly, we need to open our eyes to animal welfare issues and make moral decisions. We make moral decisions whenever we go shopping - what we buy may be harming or enhancing the welfare of people or animals. Fair trade food and ethically farmed produce, free range eggs and environmentally friendly products may cost more but it is the price of acting ethically.
And fourthly, we can support animal welfare charities that campaign against the thousand of experiments that take place on animals each year for the purposes of developing their use in warfare and their misuse in so many other ways - and if you are an Anglican, you could join the Anglican Society for the Welfare of animals. Making our world a better place for animals and human beings is about achieving justice with peace which are signs of the kingdom of heaven.

And finally, if you have not been already, treat yourself to a trip to the theatre and see Warhorse. Amen.

The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS is the Bishop of Monmouth, president of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, and a vice-president of the RSPCA