A Deeply Christian Concern for Animals

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Many thanks to Jason for the invitation to post another miniseries on the relationship between our faith and animals.  Last Summer Karen Swallow Prior and Stephen Webb joined me for an initial go-round, with perpsectives on the emerging church’s surprisingly limited attention to animal welfare, becoming more aware of animal cruelty, and God’s domesticated intentions for all animals.  This week I’ll be posting some resources related to eating humanely and my own work with Not One Sparrow, and Nancy Janisch will be adding a compelling look at what the imago dei means to our relationship to animals.

But I thought I’d get this fringe-issue-party started (right?!) by asking what a deep church approach to animal welfare and advocacy might look like?  I have to admit, as with many working from the evangelical tradition, I’m not very familiar with the early church.  But from what I’ve read in animal theology tomes (e.g. Webb’s Good Eating), it didn’t have all that much to say about animals which would point us towards a more intentionally redemptive ethic.  

Still, I identify in many respects with the deep church ethos which Jason and others have been part of introducing, and I think it relates significantly to formulating a most meaningful and gospel-oriented perspective on animals and our relationship to them.  Here are two correlations which stand out to me:

Most foundationally, a deep church ethos calls us to place focal emphasis on the narrative trajectory which God has established throughout Scripture and flowing from it (see e.g. “A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future”).  And this trajectory is distinctively redemptive, not just for the “frozen chosen,” as those heading the call to social justice have faithfully reminded us, but for all humanity; and not just for humanity, as the creation care community has expanded our horizons of late, but for all creation and its creatures.  But sadly, this last category of God’s creative and redemptive work continues to be the most neglected.

In the Testaments we see a clear depiction of what are sometimes called the “biblical bookends of innocence,” pointing to God’s original and ultimate ideal for his creation, in which all of his creatures are cared for and safeguarded by his image bearers, even related to just as God knows and delights in every sparrow.  I don’t mean to discount the reality of the fall and its thoroughgoing consequences in between those bookends; in fact, it forms the basis for God’s permissions to utilize animal existence for our benefit even to the point of death.  But far too often we acquiesce not only to this tragic grace, but to its most degrading, and explicitly unbiblical, perversions: rolling our eyes at the fuss about homeless pets, dog fighting and shameful hunting practices, and most prominently accepting the farming systems which generate the vast majority of our animal products (Stateside at least, but Europe is far from blameless) and which embody the antithesis of the animal husbandry depicted, and expected, in the Bible.   As others have said before me - we can, and must, do better. 

A deep church ecclesiology also calls us to come together as one Church, from all its rooms as Lewis would say, to ground our stewardship of animals in the biblical narrative and trajectory.  We may differ on how our concern for animals specifically works itself out, and that’s ok.  But the gospel calls us to one body, not bodies. And as Paul so poignantly writes in Romans 8, creation’s animals are aching to join with this one body of “God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay” (vs. 21, NLT), and to reach their full created potential expressly because of our redemption.  

May it be so, Lord.

(For more on the biblical narrative as it relates to animals and our relationship to them, please see my “Not One Sparrow is Forgotten: A Biblical-Theological Foundation for Animal Welfare” or a condensed version at Not One Sparrow’s motivation page. Image courtesy The Animals Voice.)