Friday, October 5, 2018

Why Caring About Animals Is Central To What It Means To Follow Christ

Recently, I was invited to speak at the adult forum at Christ Episcopal Church in Rockville, MD.  I was, of course, delighted to accept.  I very much enjoyed the hour, and hope that the congregation did, as well.  I'm sharing below a copy of my remarks.  
Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, MD
Dominion In The Image Of God –
Why Caring About Animals Is Central To What It Means To Follow Christ
Remarks at Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, MD
September 30, 2018

Good morning.  Thank you for inviting me here to talk with you, and thank you for the work the St. Francis Flock is doing in raising the issue of animal welfare as a Christian concern, and thank you for your support of this important work, Rev. Simpson.  There is a lot that I could talk about today, but given our limited time, I thought I would try to lay out what I think are the foundational concepts for a theology of animal welfare, and then answer any questions the group may have. 
I want to start with what might strike you as a fairly startling proposition:  that caring for animals is not just an appropriate Christian concern, I believe it is fundamental to what it means to be human, what it means to be created in God’s image, and what it means to carry out God’s will on earth.  To support that idea, I want to focus on the creation stories, which form the foundation of our understanding of our place as humans in God’s creation.  Specifically, I want to focus on the idea that we are created in God’s image and given dominion over the animals. That’s an idea that traditionally has been used to excuse exploitation of animals, but I think it is telling something very different indeed – and something that goes beyond what many mean when they use the word “stewardship” in place of dominion.

So let’s look at Genesis 1:26:  Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (NRSV)
To start out, I want to point out that how we view what it means to be created in the image of God almost defines how our dominion is to be exercised, because these two ideas are so closely linked in scripture.  In fact, the NIV says that we are created in God’s image so that we can rule over the animals.
So, what does it mean to be created in God’s image? Because Scripture says that only humans are created in the image of God, and because it is phrase so rarely used in scripture, from the early church onwards, most philosophers and theologians considering this idea have tried to identify something makes humans different from other animals.  The answers have been varied, but generally have focused on the ability to reason and the free will to make decisions. These theories have also posited that because humans alone are created in God’s image, humans are special and more valuable than the rest of creation, and that the rest of creation, animals included, exist for purpose of serving human needs.  And that means, that our dominion – our power – over the animals can be exercised virtually without restriction, as long as it is to human benefit.
The problem is that these are philosophical perspectives, not biblical ones.  The early church fathers who helped to develop these ideas were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, which was dominant in the culture at the time.  This idea of greater and lesser creatures, with the lesser existing to serve the needs of the greater is from Aristotle, not scripture.
In the creation stories, God creates all the creatures and pronounces each of them good before humans are created, so their value to God cannot depend solely on their relationship to humans.  Not only that, but all the creatures are created with the same “nephesh chayah” as humans.  This phrase basically refers to a kind of animating spirit, or living soul.  Our bibles translate this as living creature when it is used in connection with the animals and living being for humans, but in the Hebrew it is the same thing.  The creation stories also tell us that both humans and animals were only given plants to eat.
Looking beyond the creation stories, scripture also tells us that God covenants with the animals (Gen. 9:9-17 and Hosea 2:18), that the animals praise God (Psalms, e.g., 33, 50, 104, 150), and that God loves and cares for them (Psalms, Job, Numbers 22:28-33, Jonah 4:11, Matthew 10:29).  The laws of Israel require care for animals (e.g., Deut. 22:6-7 prohibits taking a mother bird from her young; Deut. 22:10 prohibits yoking an ox and a donkey together, Deut. 25:4 prohibits muzzling an ox while it is treading out the grain).  Even the Ten Commandments require that animals be given rest on the Sabbath (Ex. 23:12 includes animals in the Sabbath “so that your ox and your donkey may have relief”).  In Romans, Paul tells us that the whole creation, including the animals, “groans” with anticipation for the new creation (Romans 8:19-23), and in that new creation, Isaiah and Hosea tell us that animals and humans will once again live in harmony (Isaiah 11:26, Hosea 2:18), just as they did in Eden, which means, once again we will not be eating each other. That is a very different vision of creation than Aristotle’s pyramid, isn’t it?
This scriptural view of animals in creation is more in keeping with what science is teaching us now about who the animals are.  Study after study has demonstrate that we have egregiously underestimated the animals.  Animals are now known to reason and make decisions, to plan for the future, to have strong personal relationships with friends and family, to make personal sacrifices for the good of other creatures, and to have unique personalities.  They can be optimistic or pessimistic, and that can depend on their surroundings.  In short, animals do all kinds of things we used to think were uniquely human.  As Jonathan Balcomb puts it, they are not just alive, they have lives.[1]  Identification of some unique characteristic to set us apart remains elusive. 
So, where does that leave us as creatures uniquely created in God’s image?
In recent decades, OT scholars have begun to reexamine what it means to be created in God’s image in the context of the scriptures and in the context of the ancient cultures in which they were written.  It is now nearly unanimously agreed by them that to be created in God’s likeness and image was intended to convey the idea that we are created with the power and purpose to reflect God’s image, God’s character, into the world.  This is similar to the practice of ancient rulers, who would often place statues in areas of their realm they couldn’t get to personally.  Those images were intended to remind people who their ruler was. 
So, being created in God’s image does not convey status, it imposes responsibility.  
And this changes everything in our understanding of dominion, doesn’t it?  Suddenly, the other creatures are not created to meet our needs; instead, we are charged with reflecting the mercy and love of God to them.  We are to “attest to and enact” God’s character (Brueggeman) for the animals.[2] 
And this makes sense, doesn’t it?  This is consistent with the whole of scripture:  wherever God gives power He gives responsibility.  Think of all the prophets warning the kings of Israel that they were incurring wrath because they were neglecting the widow and the orphan.  To look at dominion as unrestricted power is to disregard this fundamental teaching of scripture.
I argue that our value comes from the fact that we are loved by God – just like all the other creatures.  Our importance (not status) comes from the responsibilities we have been given, which means we had better be serious about fulfilling them. 
But let’s pause a moment to notice that our exercise of dominion goes expressly to the animals, not species, not natural resources, not the earth, not the environment.  To the animals – whom God knows as individuals, just as He does you and me – not one sparrow falls without the Father.  Of course, we have obligations to care for the environment that scripture speaks to eloquently, but we are created in God’s image so that we can have dominion over the animals – it is a particular responsibility, because unlike species and resources and environments, animals are not just live, they have lives.  They can suffer and they can rejoice.  We are not just stewards protecting a resource, we are representatives, reflecting love and compassion and mercy.
So, how do we exercise our dominion so as to we reflect God’s image?  We can get a hint by looking at the perfect image of God, Jesus Christ, who, Paul tells us, “did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … and … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:3-8).  I want to be clear here that I am not saying we need to die for the animals.  But in light of that teaching, it rings a little hollow, doesn’t it, to say that we can disregard the animals because humans alone are created in God’s image?
When we seek to reflect God’s image, we cannot stand on value or status or importance.  In fact, as Christians, we know that those who would be first must be the servants of all.  So, if we wish to stand on our unique place as creatures in the image of God, we need to recognize that as a call to serve those we might otherwise view as “less than,” and that means making choices with their benefit in mind rather than our own.  
I also want to be clear here that I am not saying we should disregard human problems to care for the animals.  We are commanded to love our human neighbors. But I don’t think it’s a contest.  In fact, I think that when we care for animals we are usually also caring for humans.  Consider some examples:
·       when we nurture compassion and humanity, we can prevent violence against both humans and animals, because studies show those are linked;
·       when we change our diets so as not to support factory farming, we stop underwriting cruelty to animals, massive sources of pollution, overuse of antibiotics which threatens public health, and terrible working conditions for humans that often result in PTSD. 
·       When we care for the planet we care not just for the animals’ habitat, but for our own;
Of course there are times when our needs will conflict the animals’ needs, or when an individual animal’s needs will conflict with the species’ needs, or one species’ needs will conflict with the needs of another.  But if we can just start with areas of mutual benefit, the world would be a much better place for animals.  Then, when we come to areas of conflicting needs, we will be better able to take all relevant interests into account to make the most ethical choices.
In addition, apart from these areas of overlapping interests, there a so many daily choices we can make to help animals that take no resources whatsoever away from efforts to help humans, either in time or money, as we will see. 
So, what can we do for the animals? The good news is that there is something everyone can do and every step in the right direction is a step to be celebrated. 
The first step is to become educated about who the animals are how we mistreat them.  We are constantly learning new things about the sentience of all manner of animals and the ways we make them suffer.  They do think and reason, they experience a wide range of emotions, they form important relationships, they grieve the loss of those companions, and they feel pain – even fish, and crabs, and lobsters, and even some insects, have been shown to feel and remember and seek to avoid pain.  They suffer. 
So, read.  Learn about the creatures with whom we share God’s goodness.  Then, learn about the ways we exploit the animals so you will know how to modify your own behavior.  Learn about fur farms and puppy mills and circuses and animal testing and trophy hunting and – most importantly – factory farming, which causes more suffering to by far the largest number of animals every year, by many billions in fact. 
Then decide what to do.  Support your local shelter; have a towel drive at the church; include pet food in food deliveries to the poor or shut-ins; adopt your next pet and make a commitment to that animal for life; buy cruelty-free cosmetics and cleaning products; don’t buy products with fur – even fur trim; give up leather; most of all, change your diet. Think about meatless Mondays, or vegan until six, a vegan Lent or Advent; or other ways to reduce animal products in your diet.  There are lots of resources to help with this. 
Maybe even consider giving up animal products altogether.  It is really easier than you think; it is healthier than you think; and it makes every meal an opportunity to praise God, to help His kingdom come, to help His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and to live more fully into that image in which we are created. 

[1] Balcombe, Jonathan. Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 53. 
[2] Brueggemann, Walter.  Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: West Minster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 106.


Kathy Dunn said...

Excellent Lois! So many great take-a-ways I don't know which part to copy and quote when I share it! :)

lenalena said...

Absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much- so very much.

Lois Wye said...

Thank you, Kathy!

Lois Wye said...

Thank you for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

lilbit said...

Beautiful! I have always told people that animals were very important to God. After all, He created them first. Then created us to take care of them. We are failing miserably at our task. Thank you for this. I will share, if you dont mind.