Tuesday, June 07, 2016

gorillas, zoos, and the kingdom of God

Last week the world couldn't stop talking about the death of Harambe the gorilla.

As you probably know, Harambe was a 17-year old western lowland gorilla (a critically endangered species) living in the Cincinnati Zoo, until a week and a half ago when a young boy fell into the gorilla enclosure, was seized and dragged around by Harambe, and the gorilla was shot to rescue the boy.
It seemed like the news coverage would never end. Maybe there wasn't much else happening last week; maybe it's because the story touched on both people's deep love of animals and deep concern for children; or maybe it just provided a convenient fault line for more partisan bickering (one side disgusted, saying, 'how could this have happened?', the other disgusted, saying, 'why are you so upset about this?'). Whatever the reason, the news just wouldn't quit.

Now, I love animals. I love zoos. But I especially love primates. On those rare occasions that I get to see a gorilla or a chimp or an orangutan, my heart soars. I'm lost in wonder like a small child. The fact that the western lowland gorilla's scientific name is Gorilla gorilla gorilla lights up my world. I just freaking love them.
And so when the news first broke that a gorilla in Cincinnati was shot, I didn't even want to know what it was about. My wife didn't mention it to me when she heard, because she knows how I feel about monkeys (I know, I know - a gorilla is an ape, not a monkey).

That being said, I'm also someone who tends to listen to the experts (especially in fields about which I know next to nothing). So when Jack Hanna came out and said that he agreed with the decision to shoot Harambe "1,000%", that about settled it for me. Jack Hanna loves animals too, and Jack Hanna knows his stuff, so I believe him. I know some people will disagree, and of course it's all hypothetical, but I'm going to accept that it was necessary to ensure the boy's safety.

I hate it, though. It breaks my heart.

All of this makes me think my Old Testament professor, Stephen Chapman, was right when we were reading about Behemoth and Leviathan in Job (see especially 41:1-9), and he said that "They're not for you... and that may be what's wrong with a zoo." Maybe some wild animals weren't made for our pleasure but for God's and for their own (like in Ps 104:25-26).

But there's another Old Testament passage that I haven't been able to get out of my head since I heard the news from Cincinnati. It's from Isaiah chapter 11:
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.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (11:6-9)

This is a picture of the hope in store for God's people and all of our fellow-creatures too. According to Isaiah (also see 65:17-25), the salvation that God is bringing to the world is going to touch humans and animals alike. It's going to bring peace to the whole world: peace between the animals (wolves and lambs don't usually live together), and peace between humans and animals. And the prophet specifically describes the harmony between animals and children. "A little child shall lead them..." (11:6) In this vision, children are safe playing over an asp's hole, sticking their hands in adders' dens, safe around the wolves, the leopards, the lions, the bears.

And, presumably, the apes.

That's why I told the congregation this past Sunday, while preaching on the pictures of eternity in Revelation 21 and Isaiah 65, that in the new heavens and new earth, no one's ever gonna have to shoot a gorilla to protect a child. All of God's creatures will have a place, and there will be peace.

I love Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom paintings based on this passage. (There's a snippet of another one in the banner at the top of the blog.) For me it helps to see Isaiah's prophecy, to see the children there with the beasts.


The kid's petting that jaguar.
Here, in this world, that's not possible.
In this world we need enclosures, with tranquilizers and guns at the ready, just in case.

That's because we live in a broken world.

But in the world to come, God's going to set things right.
There, there's going to be peace.
There, in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:1, Isa 65:17), this picture will come to life.

In the meantime, we're called to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33), and we pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth..." As Christians, working to see glimpses of God's kingdom here on earth is our mission, and visions of the kingdom like that in Isaiah 11 should inform that mission.
In The Bible and Ecology, during a discussion of the animals in Isaiah 11, Richard Bauckham (if you ask me, one of finest biblical scholars alive today) points out that "Biblical prophecy is not merely predictive but calls its readers to appropriate action now in light of the future it outlines."* In other words, because we pray "thy kingdom come," when we hear a description of that kingdom, we need to get to work to see that picture come to life, "on earth." After we read Isaiah 11, we have to ask ourselves, "what can I do today that will help bring some of this peace to God's world?"

Maybe that means volunteering with your local humane society. Maybe it means getting some of your groceries from a dairy where you know animals are treated well and have a high quality of life - check at your local farmers' market. Or maybe it means supporting gorilla conservation efforts (you can read about some of that work and how to give here).

We're probably not used to thinking about it this way, but when you do that, you're seeking the kingdom of God.

Even if you're not an 'animal person', or primates don't rock your world, we should all mourn the loss of Harambe, because his death reminds us that we're still stuck living in the middle of the mess, still waiting for redemption and freedom (see Rom 8:18-25).

But in the meantime... in the meantime, let's seek the kingdom. Let's seek the peace and hope that God desires for the world - for us, and for our fellow-creatures.

-
* Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation, 125

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