Tag Archives: Justice

Breaking the silence at Yarl’s Wood

On 24th March, M and I got on a 7am train to travel to Yarl’s Wood detention centre near Bedford. We went to join a solidarity demonstration, aiming to give support and encouragement to the (mostly) women inside the centre who were themselves protesting their treatment. 120 of the detainees had been on hunger strike for a month, and we felt so moved by that show of courage and desperation that we felt we had to show up to support them and do what we could to make their voices heard.

Yarl’s Wood is an immigration detention centre. People who do not yet have leave to remain in the UK can be raided and taken to these centres, and locked up there indefinitely. Sometimes they are released, sometimes they are deported, and often without notice. Those detained may be undocumented immigrants, or they may be detained during the process of claiming asylum. They may have had asylum claims rejected and are either in the process of appealing their rejection, or have been left destitute with no means of leaving the country (and in any case, nowhere to go to if they feel that ‘home’ is no longer safe for them). It is government policy that asylum seekers may neither work nor claim benefits, so that if their claim is rejected they are often left destitute, in theory to ‘persuade’ them to leave.

Claiming asylum is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If a person is in danger and has to flee their country, they may claim asylum on arrival in the first country they arrive in after escaping. If the receiving country finds their claims to be reasonable, they must accept the person and give them protection as a refugee. But countries such as the UK make it a very difficult process. As part of the policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ towards immigration, targets are set for the number of deportations, which means officials are under pressure to reject as many claims as possible to keep numbers of accepted refugees small. As a result, asylum seekers are often lied to or given confusing and conflicted information on arrival about the proper process to making a claim, meaning they can easily be refused refugee status later when it is shown they didn’t follow procedure. If they do claim, they can be kept waiting long periods, refused arbitrarily and forced to go through long appeals processes, made to give concrete proof of their claims, or provide documentation they cannot obtain without putting themselves further at risk. Conversely, they may be ‘fast tracked’, giving them just days to make their case. And all the while, they may be detained and risk deportation.

We first became aware of what was happening a few years back, when a couple we knew were detained, mistreated and deported.

The husband was involved in a political party in his home country, but his political involvement attracted the attentions of a rival, more extreme political group that were known for ‘disappearing’ political opponents. Realising they were in danger, but not understanding their rights to asylum, the couple decided to escape to the UK where they could study towards their profession under student visas. When their studies and visas ended, they then tried to claim asylum, but were rejected as they hadn’t claimed on arrival. They appealed the decision; whilst in the UK, the situation back home had deteriorated. His brother had been hunted down and murdered by the extremists, and furthermore, the couple had become Christians here, which put them at additional risk of persecution back home (and was also how we had come to know them). They went through lengthy appeals; they had the documentation necessary to prove their identities, their political involvement, the activities of the rival group, their relation to the murdered man, his death and the facts surrounding it, and there was plenty of evidence for their new faith being genuine. At the end of the process, their claims were eventually thrown out on the grounds that, as corruption existed in their country, they could in theory have bribed multiple agencies to falsify all the documents. There was no evidence that they could provide that would be accepted in any circumstance, simply because of their country of origin. (That is particularly awful; I challenge you to find me a country in which corruption is completely absent.)

Now pregnant, the couple were detained, I believe in a sudden raid, and taken to Yarl’s Wood. Whilst there, we got word that the husband was being physically abused. The church attempted to gain access to him, to have his wounds investigated, and gain access to a legal investigation into how he had been hurt, but this was denied. The border agency then made a rushed, botched attempt to deport them. The private security firm guards contracted by the agency tried to force them to board a flight to their country of origin; when they struggled to resist this and screamed for help, they were both beaten, subjected to anti-Christian abuse, and handcuffed so tightly that their hands turned blue due to loss of blood circulation. Other passengers on the aircraft who expressed concern were told not to worry, and that the guards would keep them safe from the ‘illegals’ who were making such an unruly racket. The pilot then intervened, and upon seeing how the couple were being treated by the guards, ordered them all to leave the aircraft.

Eventually the agency managed to deport them by separating them, holding them in solitary confinement in different detention centres for a period, and then misinforming both of them that the other had been deported so that they finally consented to be taken. We heard from them shortly after their return that they had immediately fled the country again and were now in hiding over the border. Thankfully their baby survived.

What outrages me most about this process is that people fleeing danger in their own countries are treated with fewer rights than criminals, despite having done nothing wrong. I accept that our country’s resources and capacity to help are not infinite, and also that some bogus claimants will try to play the system, and that it is legitimate (though in my opinion not necessarily moral) to want to exclude such people and ensure that they use legal means of entering the country if they wish to do so. But I don’t accept that we should deny compassion and human rights to anyone, especially those who come to us claiming to be in grave danger and seeking a safe refuge.

Even the most dangerous serial killer is considered innocent until proven guilty (this is because it is easier to disprove a person’s claim to innocence by producing evidence of their culpability than it is to produce evidence that nothing happened, as well as to avoid the possibility of a miscarriage of justice). They must be given a fair trial. They have access to legal representation, medical care, and protection of their lives. Once they are found guilty, they are given a defined sentence. Once they are locked up, they lose their freedom for the duration of that sentence, but are still given adequate food, clothing and medical care, and allowed contact with their families unless deemed dangerous to them.

But an innocent person seeking sanctuary, who has committed no crime but may have escaped a war zone, or torture, or persecution due to their religious or political beliefs or sexuality, is considered guilty until proven innocent. They can be detained without warning, and without trial, denied access to legal representation and medical care. Their detention can be of any undefined duration. And whilst detained, they may not be given adequate nutrition or medical care and may be held in solitary confinement, without access to their families or other detainees. And all this is extremely damaging to a person’s physical and mental health.

Human rights abuses are occurring. In addition to taking away a person’s freedom, access to adequate care, dignity and rights to a fair trial and determined period of detention, there are allegations from former detainees of physical, sexual and emotional abuse taking place within the secretive confines of the detention centres, away from public scrutiny, so numerous that such treatment may be the norm.

When we heard the women of Yarl’s Wood were on hunger strike as a result, we felt we couldn’t stand by and do nothing to back them up.

When we arrived at Yarl’s Wood, we saw a large, long accommodation block, surrounded by a tall, green security fence and CCTV cameras. Outside the fence, stretching most of the length of it, was a crowd of fellow demonstrators, many of whom were themselves former detainees of Yarl’s Wood or other centres, with PA systems set up. Inside the fence, though the windows of the centre were only able to be opened a hand width, we saw the vague shapes of many women detainees in the windows, heard their voices calling for freedom, human dignity and closure of detention centres, and saw their waving hands. Many of them had put up placards in the windows with slogans such as ‘No human is illegal’, and some were waving bras(!) or beating the windows with plastic bottles. Placards on the outside of the fence held encouraging messages about other detention centres that had been closed down. The demonstrators had put up a phone number that detainees could call to be put through to speak to us over the PA, and between chanting (‘Yarl’s Wood – shut it down!’) and beating on the fence to make a noise that the detainees could hear to know we were there with them, we were addressed by speakers from both sides of the fence. It was incredibly powerful; the stories we heard and the courage evident in the detainees’ protest were moving and humbling.

We heard both current and former detainees tell their stories. Some had escaped torture. Several were in danger of persecution or of the death penalty for their sexuality (they told of the difficulty and humiliation of having to try to prove their sexuality). One was in danger because of her opposition to the government. Some could not speak of what they had escaped. They told how they were qualified in fields such as nursing and engineering. We heard from some how they longed for home, but could never return whilst the danger persisted, from others how frustrating it was to be unable to do the jobs they were qualified for here and realise their potential.

We heard story after story detailing demeaning treatment from officials, of dismissed evidence, of being detained without warning in dawn raids. We heard of lies they’d been told whilst in detention to repeatedly raise and dash hope, amounting to psychological abuse (the worst example was from one of the current detainees, telling us how another couple had suddenly been summoned early one morning, told they were being released and to pack because they would be leaving in a mere matter of hours, and being overjoyed – only to find it was a deportation attempt). Several reported that detainees were offered a paracetamol for any medical complaint, regardless what it was or how severe, so that detainees themselves sometimes had to call an ambulance to gain proper medical attention, and of suicide attempts being met with removal of possessions and humiliating denial of privacy as the suicidal person was put under constant watch. And we heard that they were offered ‘work’ such as cooking, decorating, cleaning and repairs at the centre – for £1 a day! Tantamount to slavery, and assisting in their own detention. Several former detainees had told how they had been detained and released multiple times.

We also heard stories of courageous resistance; of hunger strikers, of detainees standing up to the authorities, of those put to work in the centres deliberately being non-cooperative (for example, one man told how, made to work in the kitchen, he had emptied a pan onto the floor in front of the guard who was ordering him to work). Former detainees urged those inside to stay strong, to keep resisting, to make life difficult for their captors (one spoke of how he had been accepting and compliant during his first detention, believing what he was told about his release being sped up if he behaved well, but found that those who made the most trouble were released sooner, and had subsequently learned to fight back), and to believe that change is possible and that we were here supporting them. They told them the authorities were running scared, and encouraged them to keep up the pressure.

These people showed tremendous strength of character, enduring and resisting under conditions I don’t doubt for a moment would break me. I was profoundly humbled.

It was clear that the process was both inhumane and damaging for individuals, but also ineffective and costly to the state.

These detainees strike me as brave, educated people, wanting to contribute to society and with so much to offer; already brave in escaping such awful dangers, they are now speaking out for justice in a shamefully hostile environment here. I was humbled and inspired by their bravery and strength. I felt honoured to have the chance to meet some of them, to hear their stories, and I couldn’t help feel that these heroic individuals could only be of benefit to our society for their courage, compassion, wisdom and determination to see the world change for the better. The more I heard, the more I was inspired to keep speaking out with them.

Short-term, I want to see asylum seekers treated like (suspected) criminals – and it appals me that that would be an improvement on the current situation. I want to see the hunger strikers’ demands* met. I want to see asylum seekers informed properly of their status, rights and procedure, and what they can expect of their treatment from the outset. I want to see them given fair trials. I want them to be presumed innocent until proven guilty (ie, that their claims would be taken to be true with the onus on us to try to disprove what they were saying and produce contrary evidence, or else accepted). I want to see those detained given definite, fixed detention periods, and full access to food, clothing, contact, legal services, medical care, protection from abuse, and human dignity whilst detained. Medium-term, I hope one day we can see the end of detention all together, and a much fairer and more compassionate approach to asylum.

Long-term… I dream of a world that is safer and more equal, where people can move freely as they choose, where borders are reduced to a line of an address and an administrative convenience, and no longer deny anyone’s freedom. So long as some countries are relatively poor, dangerous or unstable there will naturally always be both a flow of refugees and a separate pressure of net migration away from them, but I believe the better response to this (though more difficult) is to work towards the prosperity, stability and safety of those places, rather than to close the borders of our country and our hearts against those trying to find a better life here.

Break the silence, cross every border that divides us, unite us…’

– Delirious?, Break The Silence

Below is a copy of a letter I’ve written to my MP; if you want, please feel free to use this as a template to write to your own MP, though I’d advise you to put it into your own words since I’ve written it from my own perspective as someone who attended the demonstration and heard these stories first-hand. You can send an email to your MP quickly and easily here, all you need to know is your own postcode as the site finds your MP’s name and contact details for you from that.

I recommend the Detained Voices blog for more stories from inside the detention centres, and Liberty for more on asylum and human rights.


Dear MP,

On 24th March, after hearing that 120 detainees had been on a month-long hunger strike in protest at their treatment, we went to attend a solidarity demonstration at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. I want to tell you what we saw and heard there, and ask you to speak up on their behalf and mine as one of your concerned constituents.

(I here added much of what I’ve written above)

I believe human rights abuses are taking place in these detention centres and in the asylum system as a whole. It appals me that people who have committed no crime but are fleeing danger and horrors are given worse treatment and fewer rights than even the most dangerous criminals. I want to at the very least see asylum seekers treated like suspected criminals: I want to see them informed properly of their status, rights and procedure, and what they can expect of their treatment from the outset. I want to see them given fair trials. I want them to be presumed innocent until proven guilty (ie, that their claims would be taken to be true with the onus on us to try to disprove what they were saying and produce contrary evidence, or else accepted). I want to see those detained given definite, fixed detention periods, and full access to food, clothing, contact, legal services, medical care, protection from abuse, and human dignity whilst detained.

Please would you do all you can to put pressure on the government to:

Short-term:

  • Meet the demands of the hunger strikers (which are detailed below*, as written by them)

    Longer-term:

  • Close detention centres like Yarl’s Wood and move towards a fairer, more humane process
  • End the ‘hostile environment’ policy to immigration

Our country is not ‘full’, and I believe there is plenty of capacity, will and ability to help many more people seeking sanctuary than we are currently. Furthermore it is inhumane to set quotas on the numbers of people fleeing for their lives who we will help.

I want to see the government stand up to xenophobic rhetoric head on and assert the UK as a place of safety for those in genuine need of it, as far as we possibly can as a prosperous nation, whilst working towards a safer world, tackling the dangers that force people to flee their countries in the first place.

Thank you for your time.


*The demands of the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers:

1. Shorter bail request periods
Legally it should 3-5 days, however it can take anywhere up to 21 days, or even a month before you get a bail hearing date

2. Amnesty for those who have lived in the UK 10 years and above

3. End indefinite detention
Detention periods shouldn’t be longer than 28 days

4. End Charter flights
Charter flights are inhumane because there are no prior notifications, or only an oral notification with no warning. They give no time to make arrangements with family.

5. No more re-detention
Redention should not be allowed – if you have been detained once, you should not be re-detained if you are complying with the laws they have applied. This is a contradiction, you are being punished for complying with the law; it ruins the whole purpose of expecting compliance

6. End systematic torture
Systematic torture takes place in detention – at any point an officer could turn up and take your room mate; you’re constantly on edge, not knowing what will happen next. Those who are suicidal now have their privacy taken away because they are being watched – you don’t know if an officer is coming to check on you or coming to take you away. Our rooms are searched at random and without warning; they just search first and explain later

7. Stop separating families
Separating families is inhumane – people in here are married or have British partners and have children outside, and they are denied their right to private life and right to privacy; their Article 8 rights

8. No detention of people who came to the UK as children
Young adults who came to the country as minors should not be detained, deported or punished for their parents’ immigration histories

9. The beds need to be changed
Some of us have been here for a year on the same bed; they’re the most uncomfortable beds

10. LGBT+ persons’ sexuality be believed
It should be understood that explaining your sexuality is difficult

11. Fit emergency alarms in every room in the detention centre
Only some rooms have them, and there have been a lot of cases of people being very ill in places where they can’t call for help

12. Give us access to proper healthcare

13. Give us proper food to look after our diets

14. Release people with outstanding applications

15. We want to speak to Alistair Burt MP for the constituency

Advertisements

Looking for Europe 11: Dublin – getting the party going

October 27th

It was another very early start after a late night but I no longer had any doubts. I was doing this. I had stayed over with some Bristol fans after the show and we had even stayed up ‘fanduding’ and having late night tea and toast after getting back so hyped up! But 6am came and I was soon up and back on the train.

Ireland happened almost by accident.

I had planned to see all seven shows in the UK when they were announced and had snapped up tickets for those straight away. However I hadn’t planned to go to either of the non-UK shows. I didn’t feel the need to try and do that this time; seven was easily enough!

However, one of those shows was in Belfast. There was a day in the schedule either side of the Belfast show, which I assumed would be plenty of time for travel. But when I came to working out travel plans it turned out that if I didn’t want to fly (and I absolutely didn’t), the only options were either another day travelling back up to Glasgow, or to go via Dublin, arriving the night before.

Dublin, the night before… hmm..!

I checked ferry and train times, and yes I could actually be in Dublin by the start of the show! And so, ticket number eight was purchased!

I had a gorgeous journey over. I had to send out an urgent prayer request when my first train was delayed, resulting in me missing my connection on to Wales and therefore the ferry, but prayers were answered; I was put on the next train, which turned out to be a better, faster train, and I made the ferry in good time. It was a glorious day, and the journey up through Wales, past beautiful coasts, castles and mountains, and across the sea on the ship was spectacular. I even saw dolphins!

20171027_141735

I arrived in Ireland for the first time as the sun was setting, and just had time to check into the hostel, where my friends had left me some food and I could drop off my suitcase before heading to the show. I arrived at the show just in time; the queue to go in was still short and my friends, who had VIP passes got me a spot centre stage! I’d honestly thought I would be arriving after doors and would be at the back for a change!

20171027_181835

The venue, located mercifully just round the block from our hostel, was a smart, black-painted club, picked out in red light, and absolutely freezing cold inside! Even the crowd barrier seemed to be refrigerated! We kept layers on right through the support band, and hung coats over the barrier to insulate it.

The Alvarez Kings were fun; as on previous nights they continued to prank one another during their set, but the kit seemed to be pranking them too this time. The cymbals fell over in No Resolve (the song in which the singer picks a girl in the audience to be his human mic stand!), causing giggles and panic, then the singer’s guitar strap snapped during their final song!

Switchfoot opened with The Sound this time, a powerful way to kick off. As he’s done previously, Jon added a section calling out ‘Let justice roll down..!’, and ended with a drum jump.

Stars followed, and then Dark Horses; things were starting to warm up now! Jon sang me a couple of lines in Stars 🙂

They then went into YLIAS; this time Drew’s solo started out quite understated, but then he got creative with it before suddenly hitting epic! He continued soloing underneath the remains of the song but in harmony with it, in a way I’ve not heard before. An amazing guitarist! On the second ‘eyes wide open’ section they stripped right back to Jon on acoustic guitar before the whole band came back in.

Jon got in the crowd for Bull, and there was much hat swapping! He nicked a phone to film with, and stood on rail at the back working the crowd, whilst Drew threw in another awesome solo!

20171027_220131

Still in the crowd Jon started everyone off singing When We Come Alive. He went back and forth through the crowd through pretty much the entire song, people taking selfies with him the whole time, and he ended back on stage holding the mic stand high and getting the crowd to sing.

And then they again played Oh! Gravity. This time there was an awesome jam session in the middle, Jon soloing with Chad. Tim almost knocked the mic stand over, resulting in lots of amused smiles between him and Jon at the irony of gravity, and smiles and hugs between them as they played. And Romey’s piano crash solo!! Wow!

Jon introduced IWLYG, saying ‘This is about a love that won’t let go, the transcendent love of the Maker Himself’.

They followed this with Hello Hurricane, played acoustic around the ‘fancy mic’, but I could hear them audibly, so close I could hear each of them and their individual harmonies, which was lovely. Some girls in the crowd provided nice backing vocals throughout! The sound at this show wasn’t the best quality; it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly was wrong but it just wasn’t coming over at its best somehow. But this song sounded lovely on the different mic.

20171027_213348

For tonight’s cover, the guys chose to play The Boys Are Back In Town by Thin Lizzy – and they were clearly having a lot of fun!! Drew told us a funny story at the start about how he was really into Wham as a kid and bought a tape, but his big brother literally knifed it to the wall and told him he should listen to this instead! Jon said ‘Let’s hear it for Drew’s big brother y’all! He could’ve ended up in a Wham cover band!’ 😀

And then Jon sang me that same line in House Burns! I’m really going to have to ask 😀 He began Where I Belong by singing snatches of the second verse over the introductory chords, so skipped it in the actual song.

And then again they closed with Meant To Live. Romey came right to the front leading on rhythm guitar whilst Jon and Drew passed the riff between them awesomely. He actually rocked rhythm at front most the way through, at one point going back and playing the keys at the same time!

Bizarrely the crowd encored with ohley ohleyohleyohley! Again they played Float, Live It Well and Dare You To Move. Jon went into the crowd again during Float and came up by me, I had to help lift him back onto the barrier!

The venue was cleared immediately after that, and Jon tweeted no aftershow, so we decided to go straight back to the hostel for some much needed sleep! But my Dublin friend was devastated; it was her only show. 😦

In spite of the somewhat ropey sound, that show had a real party atmosphere; I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jon spend so much time in the crowd, there seemed to be a lot of connection.

20171027_222159

Chasing the wind?

I read the book of Ecclesiastes this summer. If you’re not familiar with it, it is the musings of an old ‘Philosopher’ on life; what satisfies, what is the point of it all? He tries to make sense of life, and what the purpose of both life itself and its pleasures are, given its brevity, the randomness of chance, and the fact that, taking the long view in his eyes, everything comes around again in an endless cycle in which nothing lasts. ‘Everything is meaningless, like chasing the wind’. He speaks with great wisdom, and yet I found myself debating with him as I read.

It occurred to me I’m thinking like the Philosopher, and not in a good way; in the long, slow recovery from the depression that has knocked back my energy for activism, if not my desire to see things change, I’m starting to succumb to the feeling that everything has happened before and will happen again, it all comes around again and nothing makes a difference. And then as I try to nurse myself, I find I am just trying to ‘feed’ myself, give myself the things I want, as if that could satisfy, and finding unsurprisingly that it doesn’t.

The Philosopher blows back and forth on this, on the one hand saying it’s useless as chasing the wind, on the other that enjoying what we have is all we can and should do.

But is that true?

I think adding Jesus to the equation changes everything. In Him there is a bigger narrative of hope and direction. There is eternity. Everything is headed somewhere. There will be justice – beyond the timeframes of our lives. Which side of that we choose to stand on now matters, not because we can change the endless cycles of rise and fall in this world in our lives, but because He sees it, and is honoured and assisted, or dishonoured and hindered, in His work by our actions and inactions in all things.

Recently at church the speaker preached on the whole book! Their conclusion was similar, that you need Jesus to complete the picture. The service was focussed on wisdom, rather than any other aspect of the book, but it took a similar course. The Philosopher points out that wisdom does not guarantee success, and asks what the point is, and yet concludes that it is still the best way to live and enjoy life. And yet wisdom is personified in Jesus; without Him, there is a hole in the logic. Why live wisely if it doesn’t bring us any benefits, except to know and please the one who is Wisdom?

The speakers made a big deal of how ‘depressing’ the book is to keep emphasising the reality of death. But isn’t this an important, and even life-giving, perspective, a wake-up call to remind us to actually remember to live whilst we have time? It is good and healthy to look at the material and remember how transient we are. But the conclusion of that should not be that we can only consume it in the time we have, but that we need to find contentment. And more than that, we can do far more than simply enjoy what we have; we can actually use it to help others thrive. We are blessed to bless, given to to give. In this way we build something bigger and more lasting than anything merely material we could build and invest in here for ourselves.

Everything may well come around. The justice, peace and progress we work for may well never be seen in our lifetimes, and may be undone in the generations to come. It is important to remember that I cannot fix the world. Even small acts of good that I do may be undone again afterwards. Does that mean it is worthless? No, it is worth it if I can help others now nonetheless. It is not my own legacy that I’m working for, but God’s, not my own kingdom but the eternal Kingdom of God. Never let fatalism become an excuse for apathy! It matters now!

What struck me most from the church sermon was when we were told the meaning of the word translated as ‘meaningless’ – ‘hevel’. It means vapour, breath, smoke.  Real, but intangible, transient, hard to grasp, hard to hold onto. Life is like this. It isn’t meaningless, but we cannot hold on to it, or anything in it. We can enjoy them. We can live in the now. But the only solid, lasting thing we can build is the Kingdom of God, and making life more enjoyable for others.

This is the perspective that I need right now. I cannot truly care for myself and nurse myself back into health by simply feeding my desires, though a certain amount of that is no bad thing. It won’t actually satisfy; but blessing others will. And whilst I cannot fix the world, I can always look for the opportunities before me in all situations and take the baby  steps towards bringing in God’s Kingdom that will get me walking again with some direction.

Don’t try to run from what’s uncomfortable; look for what opportunities you’ve been given to do good, and take them. That will satisfy in a way that feeding our comfort and material desires never could. It will outlast us all.

Veggie Theology

“All creatures of our God and King

Lift up your voice and with us sing

Sun, moon and stars rejoice on high

Praise to the Lord of light divine!”

 

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise Him all creatures here below

Praise Him above you heavenly host

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost”

 

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”

 

 

What do you think of that? We sing these songs, and others like them, all the time, but do we ever think about what we’re singing?

 

My initial reasons for going veggie were purely ethical, and I was extremely surprised when my Christian boyfriend, now husband, told me that he was veggie for spiritual reasons. It hadn’t occurred to me that being veggie related at all to Christianity. However, over the years, I have come to appreciate the links between my faith and our relationship to animals.

 

Here is some research I did into the subject a few years ago for a workshop I was leading at a food justice gathering; if you want to study along, I’ve included links to each scripture I quote, which will open in a new window, or you can look them up in your own Bible:

 

A Brief Biblical History:

In the beginning, all things were made by and for God (Colossians 1:16).*

We were made together with the animals, but we alone were made ‘in God’s image’ and put in charge of other animals and the rest of the Earth. We were given grains and fruits to eat. God looked at it all and was pleased with it. (Genesis 1:24-31) Jesus is our model for how to be good rulers.

We were put in Eden to care for and work the Earth, in companionship with animals (Genesis 2:15-20).

We were permitted to eat animals as well as plants following the fall and flood, when much of the Earth was destroyed (Genesis 9:3).

When the law was given, animal welfare commands were put in place (for example Exodus 23:12 and 19, Deuteronomy 22:6-7 and 25:4).

 

God’s plan:

We often assume animals have no soul, but the most the Bible says explicitly is ‘who knows?’! (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21) There are strong hints that they do, in that the creation story uses the same original words for the bringing to life of other animals as for humans, but this is translated as soul for humans, and breath for animals.

In Isaiah 11 a return to Eden’s peace (restored relationships, not mere absence of conflict) is prophesied.

John 3:16 says that God so loved the ‘kosmos’… (meaning pretty much exactly what it does in English); God’s purpose in Jesus was far bigger than just humanity.

This is expanded in Romans 8:19-21 and Colossians 1:20 – all created things are waiting for salvation, via us, via Christ!

 

So that’s the Bible’s view of our relationship with animals. However, I don’t think it stops there, as the Bible also teaches us ethical principles:

 

Ethics:

How we treat others is important, so we should always think about our impacts on fellow human beings and how we can best live in love (Matthew 22:36-39 and 25:31-46, Romans 12:1-2, 1 John 4:16, and many more!).

Meat impacts on the lives of other humans in many ways. About 10% of the average Brit’s carbon footprint comes from meat and dairy; beef and milk in particular have huge carbon impacts associated with them as cattle produce a lot of methane, which is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. A vast amount of land is also being deforested globally for livestock farming, either directly for pasture or indirectly to grow animal feed, releasing more greenhouse gases, removing a carbon sink, and also often taking land away from indigenous people. All of this matters as climate change is already hitting the poorest and most vulnerable people hard through famines, land losses and natural disasters, and adding to human migration pressures. Meat production also requires up to 20kg grain per kg of meat produced (and a vast amount of water); whilst there are still so many people going hungry in the world, isn’t it unjust to make more food into less food just for our own personal preferences? The land we have could feed many more people if we used more of it to feed people directly, rather than feeding so many livestock and making a relatively small amount of meat. I’m convinced that being veggie reduces my impact on others, and that this is therefore another way I can choose to live with a slightly more Christlike attitude.

 

And yet in spite of this, I still hear people say some weird stuff about Christianity and veg(etari)anism. Here are a few, and why I think they’re false:

 

  • Animals were made for our use

Animals, along with us and all other created things, were made for God and God’s praise and pleasure (Psalm 24:1, Colossians 1:16).

This is the stunning truth we so often, so easily sing in church without even thinking about it; we are not the only part of God’s creation made for worship, but everything that has breath should praise the Lord! Are we helping or hindering that praise to rise..?

 

  • We were given dominion over the animals

Absolutely; but Christ is to be our example, not a crazed, exploitative human dictator! Philippians 2:6-11 sets out what this looks like, a life of selfless love and service.

 

  • Christian men should be ‘real men’ (… which means eating lots of meat)

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christians must conform to Hollywood stereotypes, or indeed, eat meat. Being a good Christian man means Christ-like selfless love, not machismo (Ephesians 5:25-33).

There are no rules for the Christian – although not all things are beneficial (1 Corinthians 6:12); we are under grace, not law, and this statement comes dangerously close to undermining this Gospel truth.

 

  • We are called to be responsible stewards of the Earth

Absolutely; but let’s go a bit further. Stewardship implies that we are guardians of a resource to be used wisely. However, Biblical language speaks far less of animals as a resource to be used, and far more as living beings made of the same flesh as we are, made for God’s praise.

We are called far beyond mere stewardship, to bring the whole cosmos, including its people and animals, to salvation and resurrection in Christ  – see John 3:16, Romans 8, Colossians 1.

 

  • Animals will not be resurrected

Says who? All the Bible says directly is ‘who knows?’(Ecclesiastes 3:19-21), but ‘living creatures’, probably representing all animals, are present in the vision of heavenly worship in Revelation 4.

 

  • God made us carnivores

God made us not only vegan but fruitarian! (Genesis 1:29)

We are also made with sufficient intelligence to understand our nutritional needs and creative enough to meet those needs fully in more compassionate ways than our mere instincts would permit.

 

  • If I stop eating meat, it won’t make a difference as everyone else will carry on

This is not a Christian attitude – our smallest acts make a difference in God’s kingdom (Matthew 25:40). Mother Theresa was once asked why she did what she did, as her work was only a drop in the ocean. She wisely replied ‘Yes, but the ocean is made of many drops.’

 

  • If I stop eating meat, farm animals will go extinct, so meat eating keeps them alive

We have managed to conserve all kinds of species of non-economic importance, and any visit to a farm park or petting zoo will tell you that we love domestic animals enough to preserve them in the very least as tourist attractions if nothing more. Humanity, made in God’s image, has a unique ability to conserve, and even improve upon, creation in its current state – Genesis 2:15.

 

  • Vegetarians have weak faith; Romans 14:2 says so

Read the rest of Romans 14 too. The context of this advice is that some Christians were avoiding meat altogether as they were worried about accidentally eating something unclean or becoming spiritually unclean by eating meat sacrificed to other gods; they were afraid of accidentally angering God, a sign that their faith in God’s saving grace was weak. Weak faith may be one reason for some people to abstain from certain activities, despite all things being permitted the Christian. However, whatever reason a person has for abstaining, to them, doing that activity would be wrong, and we should not attempt to force them to change their views in case we caused them to act against their conscience.

Many Christians are well aware that there are indeed no food laws to adhere to any more, and are not afraid of accidentally losing their salvation in Christ, but still have ethical reasons for boycotting certain foods for the sake of loving others as ourselves – from meat to non-Fairtrade chocolate.

 

  • We were commanded to eat meat

We were commanded in Eden to eat grains and fruits, and later permitted to eat meat after the fall and after the flood had destroyed much of the land – Genesis 1:29, Genesis 9:3.

 

… and therefore, if Jesus was sinless then meat eating cannot be said to be a sinful act in itself.

However, Jesus modelled deep, border-crossing compassion that gives us an example to work towards where love has no limits.

It is also true that issues like factory farming, climate change and global hunger did not exist in the same way in Jesus’ time; perhaps He would take different ethical stances in today’s globalised world..?

 

I’ll finish there, but if you want to explore more, this is an interesting organisation to check out. Here is a prayer to close, which blew my mind when I first read how ancient it was; its powerful, beautiful insight far pre-dates today’s mass-market mistreatment of animals and is all the more relevant today:

“The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.

Oh God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things,

Our brethren the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.

We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty

So that the voice of the Earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song, has been a groan of travail.

May we realise that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee,

And that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve Thee in their place better than we in ours.”

– St Basil of Caesarea, 4th century church father

 

*I’m leaving aside questions over whether the Genesis account of creation was literal or figurative here; I do firmly believe it has a lot to teach us about God’s plan and intent and why things are as they are, and that that is not dependent upon it being literal.

A decade vegan

I have been vegan for ten years this year! I was 24. I get asked about it a lot, so here’s my story:

I never actually went vegetarian.

I grew up a real meat lover in a normal omnivorous household. My favourite foods were roast dinners, steaks, seafood, and meat stews. And pizza. But it had to have pepperoni on it really. If I was taken out for dinner, it was always my mission to order the meatiest thing on the menu that I was allowed; the biggest steak, a whole chicken, a mixed grill… When my younger sister went vegetarian when we were older children, I mocked and criticised her mercilessly! Surely it was unnatural, we evolved to eat meat, we need it to be healthy..?

So, what happened?!

I’ve always been passionate about nature, science and the environment, so studying environmental science at A-Level and then university made perfect sense (if you’ve not come across it, environmental science is the scientific study of all aspects of the natural world; the physics, chemistry, biology and sociology behind weather and wildlife, geology, oceans, soils, landscapes and more, and the way they interact…). I was 17 when my A-Level ‘Env’ class studied a module on agriculture and food production. For the first time, I had to really look closely at the way my food was produced. I knew meat was made of dead animals; I unemotionally thought this a fact of life and quite natural. It wasn’t a surprise to me to learn about how animals are grown for food and slaughtered. What did shock me was how unnatural we have made the farming system, and how much of an impact it has upon the rest of the natural world.

The kind of farms I thought of as a child, small land holdings run by a family, keeping small flocks and herds of a range of farmyard animals, are largely consigned to history.

Today, most of our food is industrially mass produced. Animals do not have names. Large companies run the farms purely for profit. Many animals, chickens in particular, never see sunlight or reach anything near adulthood before slaughter, and have been selectively bred away from their natural shape and size to produce more meat or milk than their bodies can physically support, crippling them in various ways before their early slaughter. Those that are kept outdoors are kept on huge scales, and unable to be supported by grazing the land they live on, require feeding with tonnes of mass-produced animal feed. This has to be grown of course. To do this, vast amounts of land many times the size of the livestock farms themselves are required; land is constantly being deforested to grow more and more animal feed, including in the rainforests, and to keep producing the quantities of animal feed needed requires constant inputs of industrial fertilisers and pesticides to be produced and sprayed over the land. Gallons of water are needed to irrigate the feed crops, as well as to rear the livestock themselves and produce the meat. Both the production of feed and livestock farming cause shocking amounts of pollution; water pollution from run-off contaminated with fertilisers, pesticides, slurry and bacteria, impacting aquatic life and human health; air pollution from spraying agrochemicals and from ammonia from industrial poultry units; greenhouse gases from the methane the livestock produce, fertiliser production and transport of feed. In addition, stocking animals at high densities of the same species leads to disease outbreaks. In many places, this is mitigated by routinely feeding antibiotics to livestock, but this is leading to the rise of antibiotic-resistant disease in both animals and humans.

The more I learnt (and there is more), the more I became convinced that industrial livestock production was not environmentally sound. I cared deeply about the world we live in, so because I could no longer eat meat without knowing how it was produced, I felt I needed to make sure that any meat I ate had been produced to good environmental standards.

So I did some research, and decided that certified organically farmed meat was  produced in much more sensitive ways, with much higher environmental and welfare standards than factory-farmed meat. So I decided to go ‘organic vegetarian’ – vegetarian, unless the meat was organic. Because organic farming has higher standards it costs more to produce, so is more expensive. So I therefore ended up eating less, but better quality, meat. I was not at all vegetarian, but I was eating many more vegetarian dishes, and eating vegetarian food or seafood when eating out. I got used to eating a wider variety of foods, and to the vibrant flavours in vegetarian cooking, though I still loved my meat.

I lived like this for a couple of years before it occurred to me (or I had to admit to myself!) that eggs and dairy were also factory farmed, so for consistency if I was going to cut out all my support for intensive livestock farming, I’d have to go organic there too.

And this is where things got tricky.

Milk and eggs are ingredients in a lot of foods. Reading labels to find out if they contained animal ingredients, and if so, how they had been produced, got boring and time consuming. And the social impact – having to ask, before anyone fed me, ‘Is it organic?’! Nope.

I was living this awkward ‘organic vegan’ lifestyle when I moved to my second university. And it was here I met several real-life vegans, including the man who became my boyfriend and then husband. They seemed to have it a lot easier than me! They didn’t spend hours in the shops scouring ingredients lists. They could shop and eat out in normal shops and restaurants. They didn’t have to ask socially awkward questions – a simple ‘I’m vegan’ sufficed to explain their diets. And they could eat chocolate!! I’d previously assumed being vegan was miserable and difficult, and probably unhealthy, but the reality I encountered was anything but!

So, I gave it a try. I was helped by the discovery that, to me at least, soya milk tasted far, far better than the cows’ milk I’d hated the taste of all my life! I missed and craved all sorts of animal-based things. But I made what turns out to have been a very wise decision to be extremely gracious with myself; if I had a craving (for cheese or pork for example), I would wait a short while to see if the craving went away (as it sometimes would). If it didn’t, I would allow myself to go and get some (if I could find it organic!), eat and enjoy it, and then, be vegan again the following day. I found over time the cravings got fewer and further between, and went away more quickly. I found I was having to give into them less and less, and eventually, after a couple of years, I found I just wasn’t feeling the need to buy animal-based foods. Today, whilst I do remember what animal-based foods were like and that I enjoyed them, it no more occurs to me to eat them as it would for me to eat cardboard. It doesn’t register to me as food.

The final straw was unexpected. I was on a train, passing through some beautiful countryside, where a few extremely sleek and contented looking cattle were happily grazing in a huge, open landscape. I thought to myself as I passed, ‘This is how farming should be…’, and was just beginning to feel pleased with myself when I heard God say to me, ‘So who are you to cut short those happy lives?’. Wow. I was hit with the compassion for animals that I’d never really experienced before. It was a perspective I’d not even thought of, that yes these animals were living happily on such farms, but that in demanding meat from them, I was taking that happy life away prematurely. So. No more meat.

Over that time I’d also learnt more and more recipes. I’d got a lot more creative and adventurous with my cooking (and started writing recipes!), finding ways to produce my favourite meals, desserts and snacks without animal ingredients. I actually put on a lot of weight (this was a positive, I’d been underweight for years), mostly I think from baking more than ever!

The last thing to go was the seafood; I’d been convinced for a long time that this was free from the concerns of factory farming, which was largely true for wild-caught fish at least. However, much of our seafood is also farmed, with similar associated problems, plus requiring huge amounts of wild-caught small fish for feed, to the detriment of seabird populations (as a bird lover this is the killer for me!). And wild caught seafoods have a myriad of associated environmental and ethical issues of their own. I realised, reluctantly, that this was also an ethical minefield I was best off out of. In my 24 years to that point I concluded I’d already eaten my fair share of the world’s fish stocks, so I decided to stop. That was a little sad; however, there is so much good food still out there for me it really hasn’t been a major loss. Including chocolate. 😉

Most foods are not made from animals at all, and are therefore on the menu. Almost everything that is can be replaced straightforwardly, especially if you have a good grasp of what flavours and ingredients suit the cuisine you are cooking. For a long time, the only things I couldn’t replace were cheese (for sandwiches and crackers – I could make cheesy sauces and substitute tahini for melted cheese in many recipes), meringues and seafood. Hardly a hardship, especially gotten used to over a period of many years as in my case.

When I went vegan a decade ago, veganism was about where vegetarianism had been in the 1970s – very much a minority lifestyle, seen as a bit unusual, not generally well understood, and you’d have to go to a vegetarian restaurant if you wanted a good meal out, though you could find something to eat in most places, especially if you looked them up beforehand and explained what you did and didn’t eat. There was great icecream and chocolate and yogurt and cream cheese available out there, in specialist shops mostly, but other ‘cheese’ substitutes resembled vanilla-and-Wotsit/Cheeto-flavoured plasticine!

Over the past decade, veganism has grown by over 350% in the UK, and the revolution has been really noticeable the past couple of years. Today veganism is about where vegetarianism was when my sister went veggie as a kid around 20 years ago; you could find something to eat almost anywhere, it was normal for a restaurant to have vegetarian options marked on the menu, sometimes including desserts, and there were a few lazy options like ready meals available if you searched, most people knew a vegetarian, and people generally knew what being vegetarian meant.

We’ve discovered that coconut cream whips like double cream, that the water from a can of chickpeas froths up just like egg white and makes a mean meringue (admit it, egg white is just as gross in its original form…), and even cheeze is becoming edible as some sort of cheese, even if it rarely resembles the particular variety of dairy cheese it claims to mimic. I now have a few brands I buy regularly, after almost a decade cheese-free! And oh how I am having to re-learn the art of self-control now that new vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants are opening up all over town, and café after bakery after tearoom, that I have to walk past every day, now serve irresistible vegan cakes..! Waistline expanding.

My favourite foods today are thai curries and stir fries, chocolate ganache pies, and pretty much anything involving roast aubergines! And pizza. Especially with veggie pepperoni. 😉

As now a relative old-school vegan I’m having to up my game with baking and cooking, and re-learn what I thought were my limits. But over the years I’ve also discovered more and more reasons I’m convinced that veganism is a step in the right direction; it’s no longer just about the environment, though that remains my passion; it’s about loving my global neighbours, about walking kindly alongside other species, about health, about my worship and that of the rest of creation, about understanding others with special diets, and about a love of food and creativity.

Let’s see where things head over the next ten years; I hope we can really begin to shape the world into something a little better.