June 28, 2016
Creatures great and small
A new evangelical statement calls on people to treat animals better
Barrett Duke did not grow up with pets. Maybe that’s why, the evangelical leader says, it took him a long time to recognize the importance of animals. Even after he married, had children and adopted a cocker spaniel, Duke says he still didn’t see animals as much more than "animate creatures that were simply there for human consumption." Then, along came a golden retriever named Rusty, the second dog his family adopted. In many ways, Rusty was a typical dog—he liked to spend time in Duke’s lap, to walk with him and to play tug of war with him. But to Duke, he was more. A deep connection formed between the man and his dog, and Duke’s eyes were opened.
Seeing animals in a new light, Duke was happy to join several other theologians to draft the first evangelical statement on how humans should treat them. He was well equipped for the task, being vice president for public policy and research and director of the Research Institute of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Duke and the other writers circulated the text among a broader circle of evangelical leaders. Afterward, with only minor changes, more than 60 major faith leaders initially signed on to An Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals. Within days, that number increased to more than 1,000. The document was released last fall.
Although some animal welfare advocates might not agree with all of its content, Christine Gutleben, HSUS senior director of faith outreach, believes the statement will lead to progress for animals and play a major role in reminding Christians of what the Old and New Testaments say about their care. "The statement is the result of wise and thoughtful reflection on the part of dozens of faith leaders and has the potential to create enormous good."
Duke is clear about where he looked for guidance as he helped draft the statement: the Bible. It was scripture he and other drafters consulted time and time again. However, Duke might have never taken up the task, turning his mind and heart to the question, if it had not been for a certain golden retriever. In this edited interview with senior writer Karen E. Lange, Duke talks about the statement and the dog who inspired him.
Where did the ideas in the statement come from?
We worked as hard as we could to make sure that every claim was supported by scripture. We really didn’t want to be influenced by other interpretations of scripture; we wanted to simply go to the Bible without any preconceptions and ask ourselves, “What can we see that talks to us about animals?” When scripture was silent, the statement is silent. Where scripture spoke clearly, the statement speaks clearly.
Can you describe what the role of The HSUS was and what it was not?
The HSUS was very interested in this project and encouraged us in the development of the statement, but we wrote it separately from The HSUS. We wanted it to be a statement that was developed by evangelicals for evangelicals and wasn’t connected to any animal interest group.
What does the statement say about the relationship of humans to animals?
The statement makes it clear that animals are the creation of God, and deserve respect by that very fact. We also make it clear that humans are different in kind from animals. We’re not simply a higher form of animal, we are a completely different thing in creation, separate from the animal world by virtue of the fact that God created humans in his image. We were given the responsibility to care for and exercise authority over all the rest of creation as God’s caretakers. We’re more important, but that doesn’t mean everything else doesn’t have any importance.
What does the statement say about people eating meat?
The statement says that God gave humans permission to eat animals—animals are provided as food to humans—but that doesn’t mean we can treat them any way we want to.
What has been the reception?
Some people have raised concerns with us about not so much what the statement says, but they’re concerned that some might use it in some way that would be inappropriate. I have had a few people call me and express concerns. I take them back to the statement and I say, "Look, the statement just does not allow someone to make the argument, for example, that you can’t eat meat, or that you can’t farm animals, or anything like that." They end up having to acknowledge that the statement does not say the things that they’re afraid that some people might use the statement for.
Why is it important for Christians to understand what the Bible says about their relationship to animals?
The reason why we should care is because God created animals. Scripture tells us that God actually has a relationship of some sort with animals, that he actually interacts with animals of his own choosing, and that God enjoys the presence of animals. God intended for us to help care for creation, which means we’re also here to care for the animal world if we’re going to fulfill our God-given purpose. We diminish all of creation when we don’t treat every aspect of creation with the honor that it deserves. In some ways, we diminish ourselves.
How did Rusty change you?
Prior to us bringing Rusty into our house, I never really saw animals as creatures with will and personality—creatures with whom you could have a relationship. Rusty had his own personality. I saw him at times be willful, and I saw him at other times resist his own willfulness in order to please me. And in that I saw a creature who could make choices—he wasn’t simply an animated automaton. I was forced to think carefully about what animals actually were. They’re not simply a set of chemical reactions. Rusty made a convert out of me.
Do you wish it had happened sooner?
I regret my lack of appreciation for animals before. We should respect even the animals that are raised for our food—they have personalities. I mean, I’ve had friends who’ve talked to me about growing up with a pet pig, or the relationship they have with their horse. There’s a personality there. While I can’t say that I fully understand it, I accept it in a way that I never would have before. I think that Rusty was God’s gift to me. Rusty died years ago at 8 of cancer. I and my wife and all three of my children still grieve. I think of Rusty every single day.