Monday, October 22, 2012

Why are we talking about animals?


I thought it might be helpful to follow up last week's post on "eating mercifully" with a straightforward explanation of why I'm dedicating so much time on the blog and in the church right now to animals. After all, this isn't something that many Christians talk about--in fact, this probably isn't even on the radar for most of the serious, dedicated believers I know. Why, then, am I placing such an emphasis on the issue on the wardrobe and in the ministries at Grace UMC?
I've gone into these questions before, but this time I hope to be a little more direct and clearer than I have been up to now.

One of the best places to start thinking about all of this, in my mind, is with Isaiah, particularly his descriptions of the culmination of all God's saving work in the coming restoration of Israel (Isa 11) and the new heavens and new earth (Isa 65). According to the prophet, God's final victory doesn't just concern humanity but the animals as well. The point is illustrated clearly in 65:25, but 11:6-8 offers the most striking picture. In this coming kingdom:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.

I remember the first time I taught a Bible study on this passage with a group of Southern Baptist students at LSU:  everyone was more or less dumbfounded. When all you're told growing up is that human souls will go to heaven or hell after death, depending on how they responded to the gospel of Jesus in this life--and this is the fundamental message of the Christian faith--the sudden suggestion that God desires to redeem the animals too seems... well, strange. Yet this is the picture Isaiah paints so vividly. The animals have been reconciled to one another, with predator and prey living together in peace. And there is reconciliation between these creatures and their human neighbors--even the enmity between humanity and the serpent that has existed ever since the Fall (Gen 3:14-15) has been healed. God's plan is to end the fear and violence that drive creaturely co-existence in our world, to heal all of the broken relationships between all of his creatures. That's Isaiah's vision.

Moving to the New Testament, another important passage to consider in all of this is Colossians 1:15-20. At the close of this hymn on Christ, Paul declares, "through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross." God has acted to reconcile all things to himself, it says. Some Christians believe that this is talking about universalism--that this means God is going to save every man, woman, and child who ever lived. "All." I can't go that far, because that idea seems to contradict a lot of other things in the Bible, but the universalists are right about one thing: this has to mean something, and we need to take Paul's words seriously. In light of Isaiah, I think at very least we need to acknowledge that 'all things in heaven or on earth' surely includes the animals. Paul captures Isaiah's grand vision in a phrase; animals have a place in God's saving and reconciling plan. As the psalmist writes, "you save man and beast alike, O Lord" (Ps 36:6).
Paul's discussion of the groaning of creation in Romans 8:18-25 is another clear indicator of God's plan for his other creatures, but I'll leave that one for you to explore on your own. Even without looking at that (or the talk about God's other creatures in the Psalms, or the role of animals in the book of Jonah, or Jesus' teachings on animals--I could go on), it's clear from scripture that God has a plan for the animals--there is more to them than you might be tempted to think. Animals are important to God.

And they ought to be important to us too.

I don't just mean our pets or the critters at the local shelter we can try and help. I mean any and all animals: beasts of burden (Proverbs 12:10), the creatures living in your yard, the pets we take into our homes, the animals who die so you can have meat for dinner. Christians need to learn to living in the world with these animals in ways that reflect God's plan and God's love for them. Wherever animals are abused or cruelly treated, Christians must be ready to act, whether that's in our own living room or in the factory 'farms' that produce our steaks. The gospel calls us to faithfulness here, no less than in the areas we're used to hearing about, like helping our neighbors in need, honoring our parents, speaking the truth, or resisting violence.

It would be easier to just overlook the implications of all this for our eating habits. Taking the animals you eat into consideration, thinking about how they lived, how they were treated, requires a lot of research and intentionality. And it takes money--milk from happy cows costs a lot more than your average gallon of milk. Yet we cannot simply ignore the issue. As theologian Norman Wirzba writes:
If the scope of God's reconciling work extends to the whole creation, then it becomes evident that eating, understood as our most intimate joining with the bodies of creation, must be a primary site and means through which this reconciliation becomes visible. In our eating we are not simply to be reconciled to fellow human eaters. We must also be reconciled to what we eat. How we prepare to eat, as well as the character of the eating itself, demonstrates whether or not we appreciate the wide scope of God's reconciling ways with the world.

Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 175 (italics added)

Every action you take in life can either be an expression of your faith... or not. What you eat can say a lot about what you believe. So how are we going to live? What are we going to eat? Will our lives testify to the gospel of the God who is reconciling all things to himself? These are questions we must ask ourselves. Because our Lord is calling, and however surprising it might be, all of this is a part of that call to follow Christ. God cares about the animals, and we should too.

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For another nice piece on faithful treatment of the Earth's animals, check out Scott Higgins's "How We Treat Animals Matters."

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