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Animals and a Theology of Creation Care

Dr. Allen Yeh considers how theology informs Creation Care and The HSUS film, "Eating Mercifully"

Reprinted from The Scriptorium Daily

Editor's Note: The following essay appeared on The Scriptorium Daily Mar. 30, 2010, after Allen Yeh screened "Eating Mercifully" and facilitated a faculty discussion at Biola University in Pasadena, Calif.

by Allen Yeh

I am a huge fan of William Wilberforce, the MP who abolished the British slave trade in the 19th century. However, up until recently I had no idea that he also was the co-founder of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Actually, if you think about it, that completely makes sense! Anybody who has a heart for the "least of these" (slaves are about as low as you can go as a human) would naturally have an inclination toward caring for animals who have been mistreated. It is a natural extension of the call to justice and mercy for all.

Jim Wallis, the head of the Sojourners group (who is also a fan of Wilberforce), said, "At heart, I am a 19th-century evangelical; I was just born in the wrong century. The evangelical Christians of the 19th century combined revivalism with social reform and helped lead campaigns for women's suffrage and child labor laws, and to abolish slavery. One of the most famous revivalists, Charles Finney, developed the idea of the 'altar call' in order to make sure he signed up all of his converts for the abolition movement. Today, poverty is the new slavery - imprisoning bodies, minds, and souls, destroying hope and ending the future for a generation."

Wallis' attempt to hearken back to the roots of evangelicalism (David Bebbington classically defined evangelicalism as having these four characteristics: Biblicism; conversionism; crucicentrism; and activism; though we seem to have lost the last one!) is called Radical Evangelicalism which you can see in both the Lausanne Covenant (see especially paragraph 5), written in 1974, and the Evangelical Manifesto, written in 2008. These are not crazy leftists Christians—these are people like John Stott, Billy Graham, Os Guinness, and Dallas Willard who drafted these documents! I wrote a blog here about the difference between 20th-century conservative evangelicalism and 19th/21st-century radical evangelicalism, just to give you some history and context. Radical Evangelicals care about the poor, are "activist" in both evangelism and social justice, and that includes Creation Care. Ron Sider, the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, is another proponent of social justice and Creation Care as responsibilities of evangelical Christians.

Another spiritual hero of mine is St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century Catholic friar who was responsible for the founding of the Franciscan order. His association with animals is more well known, as he not only became a mendicant in order to help the poor, but he would even go so far as to preach to the birds! For him, all of nature and creation was God's kingdom. He penned the famous hymn, "All Creatures of Our God and King" which ends with this mighty refrain:

Let all things their Creator bless,
And worship Him in humbleness,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
And praise the Spirit, Three in One!

Interestingly, the Franciscan friars were the ones who established the 21 California missions (see my blog here, along with my profiles of all 21 missions). In this sense, St. Francis (after whom San Francisco was named) is the patron saint of California, and caring for the destitute and nature should be part of our state's DNA.

My personal stance has always been to be a mild caretaker of nature. I am fully aware that one of God's first commands to mankind is to care for creation as responsible lords and stewards (Gen. 2:15,19-20). I'm an animal lover—but far from what you might term a "tree hugger." I am conscientious about how I approach the environment. Yes I drive a Prius, and I use those permanent cloth bags whenever I shop at the supermarket, and I always recycle. But that was about the extent of it.

Recently, I met with Christine Gutleben, the Faith Outreach director of the Humane Society of the United States (based in Washington, DC). She pointed out to me that when people think about Creation Care, they often leave animals out of the equation. We think about trees, oceans, polar ice caps, global warming—but why are animals left out of the discussion? Animals are very much a part of nature! And I realized that I too had sometimes discounted them, ironically.

I did my doctoral research at Oxford University on Latin American theology, part of which included liberation theology. I'm not a liberation theologian myself, but I am sympathetic to some parts of their theology which can be good correctives to Western individualistic transcendent theology. When Jesus came down to earth, he incarnated himself, made himself immanent, with us, earthy, fleshy, and tangible. One of the Gnostic heresies that still creeps into our society is the tendency to separate the physical and the spiritual. But that is not how it is meant to be.

I don't have time to get into full explanations in this blog, but here are some more resources if you want to delve more fully into this topic of how our faith informs Creation Care. Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff wrote a book entitled, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. Francis Schaeffer (not a liberation theologian), well known for establishing the L'Abri community, wrote Pollution and the Death of Man which tackles the same topic from a slightly different perspective. Ms. Gutleben suggested the book Dominion which I recently read. That deals specifically with the issue of animals. The author, Matthew Scully (former senior speechwriter for President George W. Bush), wrote:

"Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind's capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don't; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us. Animals are so easily overlooked, their interests so easily brushed aside. Whenever we humans enter their world, from our farms to the local animal shelter to the African savanna, we enter as lords of the earth bearing strange powers of terror and mercy alike."

She also gave me a 25-minute short film produced by the Humane Society entitled "Eating Mercifully." I watched it and was struck by the horrors of factory farming. Often we eat our meat and don't think about where it comes from, we just take it for granted that it appears on the supermarket shelf. But in order to feed the meat consumption industry, chickens, pigs, and cows are subjected to the most oppressive conditions. It really was heartbreaking to watch the suffering that they go through in order that we can eat more meat.

Just to clarify, the position of the Humane Society is not to get everyone to go vegan. They don't have an official position, but instead focus on the three R's: reduce (eat less meat), refine (eat meat that has not been subjected to inhumane conditions), and replace (eat more vegetables instead of meat). Anyone can do at least one of these three.

When Jesus came to earth, the thing he preached most about was the Kingdom of God. It was not Law, nor love, nor worship, nor anything else that you might think might be his greatest priority: it was Kingdom. And in Jesus' economy, everything is upside-down. The first shall be last. The humble will be exalted. The meek shall inherit the earth. Those who mourn will be comforted. Those who want to be great must be the servant of all. And the cross is the way to power.

As such, I think the controlling paradigm of the Gospels is the issue of power. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the beginning of his magnum opus poem, The Four Quartets (which earned him the Nobel Prize in literature), quoting Greek philosopher Herakleitos, "Hodos ano kato mia kai oute" ("The way up is the way down"). And Christ showed this in the way he lived, died, and was raised again. The Apostle Paul, in his great Christological passage of Philippians 2, wrote:

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
But made himself nothing,
Taking the very nature of a servant,
Being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
And gave him the name that is above every name.
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father."

Latin American theologian Justo Gonzalez wrote, "[M]ost of us find ourselves in multiple roles. We may be the powerful by race if we are white, yet among the powerless if we are women. We may be part of a powerless group if we are in an ethnic minority, yet if we are well educated and employed, we join the powerful in that category. Even within the family structure, the child is often the last victim of those who have no one else over whom to rule and yet are oppressed themselves. Our tendency is to claim only one part of our identity, to think of ourselves always as part of an oppressed group or to think of ourselves always as the powerful. A much more creative dynamic is possible when we claim both parts of our identity, and the liberation given by the gospel can nurture a constant interior dialogue within our own lives."

If we are called to care for the least of these, we often think of the poor, slaves, widows, and orphans. But surely animals are the most vulnerable creatures of all!

(Interesting that the root word of the word "humane" is "human"!) Do we not realize that how we treat others is how God will treat us? I wrote a blog here about the dangers of judging. Matt. 7:1-2 says, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Love of God and love of neighbor (the two greatest commandments) are inextricably linked. And if we are lords of animals, wouldn't we want to treat them the same way we would want our Lord to treat us?

James 1:27 says (and this is probably my favorite verse in the Bible): "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." It is both social justice and personal holiness that our God calls us to. It is both an inward and an outward living of life that is acceptable to our Lord. William Wilberforce took this seriously, as he famously said: "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [moral values]."

A lot of people have acknowledged the truth behind the dictum "With great power comes great responsibility" taken from the first Spiderman movie. Though it is a comic book, I think this phrase rings true. Recently I taught a class on Ovid's Metamorphoses, the basis for much of our Greco-Roman mythology. It is a terrible tale of lust and violence. Ovid, for his part, realizes that humans are vulnerable to the whims of the gods, but he can't help but take jabs at the gods, mocking them for their vices and fickleness. Though the gods can mess with humans, Ovid still had the power to criticize the gods. Thank goodness we Christians don't live in such a world, where gods can just mess with humans at their whim!

But I think Ovid recognized a principle of life, that there is an adage of power: it is "acceptable" for the oppressed to criticize their oppressors, but it doesn't work the other way around because the oppressors already have done much harm to the oppressed. Now, sometimes the vitriol from the oppressed can cross the line, but to a certain extent the criticism is within the rights of the oppressed to do. For example, is the Bible anti-Semitic? You may be surprised to hear me say yes, but it needs to be kept in context. That context is the first century, when the Christians were the oppressed minorities and the Jews and the Romans were oppressing them. However, now that Christians are the dominant force in America and in the world, suddenly using the same Scriptures (out of context) that the oppressed first-century Christians used is inappropriate to criticize Jews. You remember the context: after the Jewish mob shouts for the death of Jesus (choosing to have the criminal Barabbas released instead), Pilate washes his hands in front of the crowd, saying "I am innocent of this man's blood." Here Matthew puts into the mouths of the crowd words that were to condemn later generations of Jews: "And the people answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matthew 27:25). This is why Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" was perceived to be anti-Semitic.

Those who have great power (government leaders, teachers, celebrities, the wealthy, the educated) must wield their power carefully. And one of the things that God calls us to do is to speak up for those who have no voice. Otherwise we are condemning ourselves. Not to mention, we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we don't care for the very world that God gave to sustain us.

I hope that we will take seriously God's call to steward the earth, both plants and animals, and to love neighbor and God. At this point, we will be holistic Christians, looking at all of life through God's loving eyes, as his Kingdom. "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." 

Allen Yeh is a missiologist who specializes in Latin America and China. He also has other academic interests in history, classical music, homiletics, social justice, and Jonathan Edwards. He earned his B.A. from Yale, M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell, M.Th. from Edinburgh, and D.Phil. from Oxford. Despite this alphabet soup, he believes that experience is the greatest teacher of all (besides the Bible). As such, Allen has been to nearly 50 countries in every continent (except Australia), to study, do missions work, and experience the culture.

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