In her heartrending account of life in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in the Ukraine, Chernobyl Prayer Svetlana Alexievitch records the testimony of ordinary people in the region. Among them are the men who were brought in to shoot local animals and prevent them from spreading the radiation:
It’s better to kill from a distance. So your eyes don’t meet… The horses – they were being taken to the slaughter. They were crying… And I’ll add this. Every living creature has a soul.
The few who refused to be evacuated from their homes and secretly returned, despite the risks, to the places they had loved all their lives, greeted the surviving dogs, cats, deer and even birds they encountered like brothers and sisters: ‘Live with me and we’ll be less alone’. Their attitude to life changed instantly and instinctively; a deep kinship with all living being filled their lonely spirits.
Most of us do our utmost to avoid deliberately hurting other people, and animals too. I can’t understand people who are wilfully cruel, other than by thinking that they themselves must be deeply injured somewhere in their souls. Few Biblical verses are more powerful than those with which Isaiah concludes his vision of harmony on earth: ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,’ which means that the world will truly be holy only when we stop hurting and destroying.
Yet we do hurt and destroy. We don’t do it with deliberate callousness. Yet we don’t do it in absolute ignorance either. We are aware, or capable of becoming aware, that the suffering of others is a frequent by-product of the way we live, – how we consume, how we want things for ourselves which aren’t equally available equally to others, how we hurt through carelessness, anger or by not noticing the sensitivities of others.
My absolute ideal would be to lead a life in which I would not by my actions bring pain to any person or creature. It’s impossible. Which of us is free of heedlessness or anger? Which of us knows the full consequences of what we do? My more reasonable aspiration is to give less hurt and increase the amount of loving kindness in the world.
In The New Monasticism, a remarkable book which speaks to those of all faiths seeking to lead a morally committed, spiritually guided and disciplined life, Rory McEntree and Adam Bucko suggest nine vows people should consider. The second is ‘to live in solidarity with…all living beings.’ The third is ‘to live in deep nonviolence’. I would like to strive to be worthy of making those vows my ideal.
I have a vision of how God judges us. It has little to do with a deity in heaven reading out our sentence from on high. Rather, we are made to pass before all the people and every creature with whom our life has brought us into contact and they, without a word but by the way they look at us, convey directly to our hearts what kind of human we have been. I used to think this would happen at the end of our lives, but now I see it also as continuous, and profoundly chastening, assessment.
The Talmud teaches that we are not asked first by God how religious we have been, but whether ‘we behaved in all our dealings in good faith’. This is often understood to refer to integrity in business. But the words go deeper: have we acted in good faith towards life itself? Have we, to the best of our ability, neither hurt nor destroyed in God’s holy mountain? How we answer that question is where our faith, our ethics and our daily life must meet.