July 5, 2011
Her Eye Is on the Sparrow
Southwestern University professor reflects on animals and Christian tradition
Laura Hobgood-Oster remembers the day Eight Belles was euthanized after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Within an hour of the young filly’s death, the Texas professor and ordained minister began writing the second chapter of The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals.
Considering that Eight Belle’s front legs had snapped like twigs—likely from running too fast and being given performance-enhancing supplements—it seemed appropriate to discuss the sport’s contradiction with Christian values. “We have bred for speed and nothing more—and ask them to run at such a young age, before their bones are fully matured,” Hobgood-Oster wrote, noting the similar death of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro just two years earlier. “How does this loss of life, this cost of life, for the purpose of entertaining . . . fit in Christianity?”
It’s a question she has asked herself about many legally sanctioned cruelties, such as factory farming and puppy mills. If God’s eye is on every sparrow who falls, then what about animals killed merely for sport and those used in painful experiments?
Research led the Southwestern University professor of religion and environmental studies to conclude that God’s gift of dominion—often interpreted as giving humans the right to treat animals as they see fit—must instead be considered within the context of responsible stewardship. Otherwise, even the most egregious cruelties can be justified.
Since 2006, Hobgood-Oster has worked closely with The HSUS’s Faith Outreach Campaign to engage religious communities in animal advocacy. In 2008, she participated in Eating Mercifully, an HSUS documentary examining industrial animal agriculture from a Christian perspective. More than 10,000 copies have been distributed worldwide, and it has been shown in more than a dozen seminaries and major religious cathedrals. Hobgood-Oster’s first book, Holy Dogs & Asses, published in 2008, takes an academic look at animals in the history of Christianity.
A dog rescuer who became vegetarian after learning about factory farms, Hobgood-Oster recently spoke with All Animals staff writer Ruthanne Johnson for this excerpted interview on animals and the Christian tradition.
You grew up in a Christian home and have always been around animals. How have these two forces impacted your life?
My father is a minister in the Christian church, and he and my mom were very committed to animal issues. Our church would camp on outings at Assateague Island where the wild horses are. So being around nature and animals was never disconnected from church activities.
When did you first wonder about animal voices in the Bible?
I had this wonderful rescue dog named Beauregard. He lived 17 years, and going through the process of saying goodbye to him, I started to realize that it was a very important relationship, sacred really. It was with him in particular that I started to look through Scripture to find animals as companions. I found this story about a man with a wonderful little ewe lamb who was precious to him even as his own family. And there are wonderful examples in the book of Job where God talks of putting a leash on Leviathan and walking around.
When did your research become more serious?
In the year 2000, I went to Assisi for a conference, and it was that trip when I started looking very specifically for animals in the biblical texts and the stories of saints and the artwork in the churches and in the worship services. I started to find them everywhere. The archway that goes over the church where Francis would have grown up is covered with animals.
Why did you decide to investigate animals in these contexts?
It was combining what my passion is in the world with the history of the tradition that I practice and study. It also was because I saw that as a huge gap, that there were many Christians looking for that information. Why was there was this hole in Christianity?
It’s surprising that Christians are looking for this information when your research uncovered an abundance of stories.
With the rise of humanism in the 17th and 18th centuries, you have Christianity’s new focus on the Word and preaching as being central. By the time you have the Puritan church in New England, you have no images on the walls anymore. You have preaching as the central part of the worship services. It is a major change in Christianity that happens, and animals are nowhere in the picture. At the same time, the hierarchical interpretations of dominion became really elevated. Our opinions of self skyrocketed above all the other animals.
How has this affected the Christian perspective of animals?
When you explicitly stop mentioning them, the practices you have in place, the way you believe, changes too. It’s kind of like, “out of sight, out of mind.” If they are not occasionally front and center, then you won’t make the connections between your faith and the way you act with animals.
What does stewardship mean in the biblical context?
Stewardship has to do with remembering that humans aren’t the center of everything but that God’s creation is at the center. We happen to be a very powerful being in the middle of that, and so stewardship is checking our power. The lifestyle stories told in the Bible always include taking good care of the animals that you are responsible for. There are stories about watering your camels first before you take a drink and letting your animals and fields rest on the Sabbath. You are not allowed to take a mother bird’s eggs. You rotate crops and let the fields lie dormant on the seventh year and let all the animals take [time] off. So the edict seems clear even with the most hierarchal understanding of dominion.
Does factory farming fit into Christianity?
There is no way one can support factory farming from biblical text or from the history of tradition. Throughout the Bible there are passages, like when God says look at how wonderful the ox is, him grazing in the field and the mother hen with her chicks. There are these images of how wonderful these animals are, living as God intended them. But the mother hens in factory farms don’t even get to see their chicks. Their eggs are taken away and incubated elsewhere. When the chicks hatch, you have these huge conveyor belts with hundreds of little chicks, and they are picked off these conveyor belts and their beaks are seared off so they don’t injure each other in these tiny spaces they will live in.
What about puppy mills?
To me, anyone who has loved or ever been loved by a dog would certainly think that minimum standards for the mother of their beloved dogs—it’s not too much to ask. I can’t imagine anyone arguing against that, especially from a Christian perspective.
Do Christians have a moral obligation to address animal welfare issues?
Certainly Christians need to take their blinders off in terms of letting animal abuse happen without challenging it. With blinders on, you actually participate in the system. We have an obligation to stop participating in those systems, which means we have to start uncovering those systems and making sure people are aware of what’s going on.
How can churches promote animal welfare?
There are health fairs where churches have a dentist and doctor and they also have a vet, because people also have pets and may not be able to afford vets. And then churches are usually sitting on a big parking lot on a major thoroughfare, and those are some great places for rescue groups to have adoption days. In 25 percent of domestic abuse cases, the person has not left the situation because they don’t have anywhere to go with their pets. There are all sorts of human welfare issues that are directly tied to these animal welfare issues, and churches need to respond to those.
How can including animals in religious traditions enrich Christians’ lives?
I think the Christian tradition has been greatly impoverished by forgetting about animals. We have narrowed Christianity so much, only to be about humans, that we’ve lost sight of all the other animals who are part of the Creation stories. To bring back these parts that we’ve lost will make it a much richer tradition.
An abbreviated version of this Q&A originally appeared in All Animals magazine.