Spotlighting Student Work #16: Silence, Speech, Prophecy, and Veganism

Today’s essay comes from student Niki Menzies, here’s a bit of background about Niki and her piece:

I’m studying toward a conjoint Commerce/Arts degree, majoring in Art History, Chinese and International Business (that’s the plan anyway). During high school in Wellington, I took an ‘English with Philosophy’ class that partially focussed on Christianity – I remember finding Christianity and the Bible very interesting, so when I saw that I could take THEOREL101 as part of my Art History major I was very excited. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the THEOREL 101 course this semester. It opened my eyes to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the Bible has influenced the world around me. It also made me realise that the Bible is a much more important text than I thought it was – I guess from a secular standpoint, I never thought about the role the Bible plays in politics or gender discourses. The freedom of the course is also great, I loved being able to apply course material to some of my personal interests.  I am interested in animal rights and the criticism activists face for their views, and wanted to explore the actions of one activist in relation to the Biblical prophets.

Here’s the essay, enjoy the read!

A Voice for the Voiceless:  James Aspey’s Prophetic Mission Against Animal Cruelty

Niki Menzies

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Animal rights activist James Aspey dedicates his life to being a voice for the voiceless. His mission is to end injustices against our earth’s “voiceless victims” (Aspey, 2015a). Aspey (2015a) aims to stop the human oppression and exploitation of animals, and move the world toward a vegan lifestyle. He believes veganism – refraining from “consuming, wearing or using” animals (Aspey, 2016) – is a lifestyle that is aligned with universal values of compassion and justice (Aspey, 2016b).  Aspey’s activism includes group demonstrations, powerful orations and disruptive protests that seek to open peoples’ eyes to the indifference they have toward the current treatment of animals (perceived by Aspey to be social injustices). Aspey’s actions share many of the markers of biblical prophets as described by Marcus Borg (2001). Using Borg’s definition of the biblical prophet, I will analyse Aspey’s activism to argue that he functions as a contemporary prophetic figure in today’s society.

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The man himself–chick included

Marcus Borg (2001) identifies several shared markers of biblical prophets. Firstly, he writes that biblical prophecy grows from situations of oppression; usually the oppression of the poor and vulnerable by elites (Borg, 2001). Prophets therefore are concerned with social justice issues, for which they share a passion (Borg, 2001). They condemn injustice and social oppression, naming offenders and pronouncing ominous warnings about their fate (Houston, 2018). Prophets Micah and Isaiah were concerned with injustice caused by the rich and powerful exploiting the poor or vulnerable (Micah 3:10; Isaiah 58:3, The New Revised Standard Version). Micah objected to the ways in which powerful rulers benefited from the suffering of others, building their cities upon foundations of exploitation and inequality (Micah 3:10). In a similar way, Aspey opposes what he sees to be horrendous crimes of injustice in the world. However, his focus is directed at our treatment of animals, rather than fellow humans. He argues that humans are oppressors who commit violent injustices against animals by breeding them for consumption (Aspey, 2016b). Animals are “innocent and vulnerable beings” (Aspey, 2016b) that humans exploit from a position of power. Aspey (2018) names the oppressor of animals to be “the consumer,” who creates the demand for animal products. Furthermore, while Aspey’s direct focus is on animal cruelty, he also argues that the consumption of animal products contributes to a situation that might be more readily accepted as a social inequality; he argues that by producing animals to be consumed, suffering humans are being deprived of food, as plants and water are being inefficiently assigned to animal agriculture instead of starving children (Aspey, 2015). These children are victims of a consumer culture that values the consumption of animals even though it is an inefficient use of resources. Aspey’s passion for social justice mirrors that of biblical prophets; like Micah, Aspey has identified situations of oppression in which  stronger parties oppresses weaker ones, and is passionately condemning them.

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Aspey participated in a year of silence from 2014 to 2015

Borg (2001) also observes that the biblical prophets interrupt dominant ideologies by speaking ‘truths’ about practices that are normalised in society. An example of this is the prophet Amos’ condemning of religious worship as a redeemer of unjust behaviour (Borg, 2001). Amos believed that justice was inherently connected to God, and therefore worshipping God meant nothing if one continued to turn a blind eye to injustice: “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them . . . But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:22-24). In a similar way, Aspey objects to the normalised practice of factory-farming animals for human consumption. Many of his demonstrations seek to educate people about farming practices, such as displaying images of slaughterhouses on the streets (Aspey, 2017). Aspey also uses inflammatory and emotive language such as “holocaust” and “torture” to describe the slaughter of animals (Aspey, 2018) in an attempt to destabilise acceptance of the practice. Furthermore, he criticises the increasingly popular practice of buying ‘free-range’ or ‘cruelty-free’ products, arguing that this makes no difference to the overall suffering of animals (Aspey, 2016c). Aspey believes there is no such thing as ‘humane slaughter’, therefore one cannot claim to have compassion or to support animal rights if they continue to consume any animal products (regardless of whether it is free-range) (LIVEKINDLY, 2017).  Like Amos, Aspey refuses to accept the belief that certain actions can redeem other injustices; just as worshipping God means nothing if one continues to turn a blind eye to oppression, buying free range is not enough when free-range animals will end their lives in the same slaughterhouse as factory-farmed ones (Aspey, 2016c).

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I can feel the oration from here.

Another important characteristic shared by biblical prophets and Aspey is that they are powerful orators. Borg (2001) writes of the electrifying nature of the prophets’ addresses, specifically the sophistication of Amos’ oration techniques. Amos used evocative language to paint powerful images in the minds of his audience; for example, his description of the rich and powerful who “lie on beds of ivory. . .  who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp” (Amos 6:4-5). Aspey’s oration technique can be considered similar to Micah’s when the prophet condemns the rulers of Israel in this fiery speech: “You . . . who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones” (Micah 3:2-3). Using similarly violent and emotive language, Aspey (2018) paints pictures of animals having their throats slit or being killed in “gas chambers” as part in “longest standing holocaust” of all time. Like Amos and Micah, Aspey seeks to use his orations to evoke strong imagery in the minds of his audience, specifically disturbing and violent imagery that will change perceptions of injustices (animal rearing and consumption).

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I mean I’d listen to anyone with that face. Although I might get distracted by the background dude’s amazing beard.

Biblical prophets complete dramatic acts to draw attention to their cause and to rouse followers (Borg, 2001). These acts often contain an element of endurance; Isaiah walked barefoot and naked for three years in protest against injustices committed against the Assyrians (Isaiah 20:3). Another biblical prophet, Ezekiel, was instructed by God to lie on his side – first his left, then his right – for the number of days that Israel and Jerusalem were to be exiled (respectively) (Ezekiel 4:1-8). The intent of these symbolic actions was to draw attention and add drama to the prophets’ messages (Borg, 2001). Intentionally dramatic acts of protest are common in animal rights activism; an activist Morgan Redfern-Hardisty is currently walking the length of New Zealand barefoot to protest being pressured to serve cow’s milk in his café (Newshub, 2018). Aspey has carried out similar acts of endurance, such as undergoing twenty-four hours of tattooing (Aspey, 2016a). In 2014, Aspey undertook a dramatic act similar to Isaiah, swearing a 365-day vow of silence to raise awareness of animal exploitation. In his Sunrise News interview on national Australian television, Aspey ended his silence by explaining his intention had been to “raise awareness for the voiceless victims of this planet” (Aspey, 2015a). In the same way that Isaiah used prophetic action is used to dramatize his message (Borg, 2001), Aspey completed an act of endurance to draw attention to the plight of animals. His prophetic act succeeded in growing his audience by giving him the opportunity to speak on national television, and contained a dramatic element which drew attention to his mission.

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An image from the Voiceless campaign

Finally, biblical prophets share a vision for the future that provides hope to sustain the power of their messages (Borg, 2001).  Borg (2001) writes that the prophets skilfully construct images of a better future, in a way that ensures that their prophetic action retains its vitality; they create hope that provides their oppressed audience with energy to continue. Borg (2001) writes that biblical prophets such as Isaiah conveyed to their audiences messages of hope that their communities would survive or be rejuvenated (Borg, 2001). For example, Isaiah had a vision that the exiled Jewish would return to their homeland (Isaiah 40:1-5). Jeremiah prophesised that a war would come upon Jerusalem, but provided reassurance by saying that his audience would survive and that their God was always with them (Jeremiah 31:31-33). Aspey’s own vision for the future fulfils this element of Borg’s definition. He imagines a “vegan world” (Aspey, 2018) without injustice toward animals. Aspey also conveys a hopefulness to his supporters of the growing vegan movement. He frequently reiterates the strength of his message and the pace at which veganism is spreading in the world, calling it the “fastest growing social justice movement of our time” (Aspey, 2016b). Although he cannot reassure the ‘victims’ of oppression (animals) of the possibility of a better future, Aspey uses his vision to encourage supporters and other vegans to continue their activism. In the same way as biblical prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Aspey’s vision instils a sense of hope and strength in his community.

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A young advocate

In this essay I have argued that James Aspey shares the characteristics of biblical prophets as described by Marcus Borg (2001). Like the biblical prophets, Aspey’s mission is to fight a perceived situation of social injustice where the weak are exploited by the powerful.  He also shares with biblical prophets strong oration skills and a willingness to carry out dramatic acts in order to energise and draw attention to his message. Finally, Aspey has a vision for the future that gives hope to his supporters, just as prophets promised survival and rejuvenation to the communities they addressed. It is safe to say that Aspey’s behaviour mirrors that of the biblical prophets, and therefore he can be seen to fulfil the criteria of a prophetic figure in today’s society.

 

Bibliography

Aspey, J. (2016). Blog from Voiceless365 campaign. Retrieved from http://www.jamesaspey.com.au/blog/

Aspey, J. (2016a). Think24. Retrieved from http://www.jamesaspey.com.au/think24/

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2015, Feb 9) (4/9) Vegan Tattoos: World Hunger

[Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvzYhOA1Q1c

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2015a, Jan 13). Breaking my 365 Day Vow of Silence [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgR_zz8Kmbs

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2016b, Apr 5). This Speech is your WAKE UP CALL! [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHOcox2lvQo

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2016c, Mar 2). What About Plants/Free-Range/Humane/Vegetarian? etc…. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omVwanc0bEA

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2017, Nov 27). Conditioned Mind Starts to Crack [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YM_C97Pf-BU&t=707s

Aspey, J. [James & Carly]. (2018, Jul 20) IN THE FACE OF A HOLOCAUST [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxDncfFbEkw

Borg, M.J. (2001). Reading the Prophets Again. In Reading the Bible Again for the First Time; Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally (1st Ed, pp. 111-144). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Giles, T. (2018). Prophets as performers. Retrieved from https://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/related-articles/prophets-as-performers

Houston, W. J. (2018). Social justice and the prophets. Retrieved from http://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/related-articles/social-justice-and-the-prophets

LIVEKINDLY. (2017, Jul 30). Why Should You Go Vegan? | Exclusive Interview | James Aspey [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5l8lQeW3b4

Newshub. (2018). Vegan to walk the length of NZ barefoot in protest of landlord’s decision on cow’s milk. Retrieved from https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2018/09/vegan-to-walk-the-length-of-nz-barefoot-in-protest-of-landlord-s-decision-on-cow-s-milk.html