by Sarah Withrow King
In an excellent book called A Faith Embracing All Creatures, edited by Tripp York and Andy Alexis-Baker, CreatureKind’s David Clough takes up the question “What’s the Point of Animals?” I think the question we are wrestling with today: “Didn’t God give us animals to use?” is a similar one. Both questions force us to deal with the “why” of animals and then the “why” of our own actions towards them.
Why, for instance, do I care for my cats? I’m allergic to cats. One of them hacks up hairballs that I step on in the middle of the night; the other takes every offered pet as a chance to swipe at my hand. Katie, the fluffy one, yowls at me until I pick her up, then jumps off my lap and starts all over again. They require food and litter and veterinary care and give pretty much nothing valuable in return. Well, maybe they teach me patience. And just maybe I’ve learned a little about what it means to let a cat be cat in all her catness [redactedHunger Games joke], despite my inability to relate in any way to her mode of being.
If asked what the purposes of cats or dogs or goldfish are, those of us who have pets would likely say that we enjoy their companionship, they provide a sense of comfort, they bring us joy.
Christians generally agree that animals belong to God, are sustained by God, and that their purpose is to reveal the character of and offer praise to their Creator. See, for instance, the evangelical statement on animals “Every Living Thing” which cites a number of scriptural passages in support of this stance, including Deuteronomy 10:14; Job 12:7-10; Psalms 24:1; 36:6; 104:11-14, 21, 24-25, 27-30; 145:16, 21; 148:7, 10; 150:6; Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:24; and Romans 1:20.
At CreatureKind, we believe that humans and other animals are all creatures of God, created to flourish and glorify their creator (Psalms 145.9–16; 148.7, 10), until we are redeemed and liberated from our bondage with all creation to live in God’s peaceable kingdom (Ps. 36.6; Isa. 11.6–9; Rom. 8. 18–23).
We also acknowledge and embrace the fact that humans are called to be images of God in relation to the rest of creation (Gen. 1.26–7). Some have taken this identity as a license to run roughshod over God’s creatures, both other human creatures and animal creatures. CreatureKind joins a longstanding Christian tradition to claim that being made in the image of God means that we are called to till and keep the earth in obedience to God and for the benefit of all creatures (Gen. 2.15), not the smallest of which falls apart from God, as we see in Matthew 10:31 and Luke 12:6-7. And while some have and continue to approach the use of animals thoughtfully, with an intentional and faithful spirit of stewardship, fellowship, and kindness to the best of their ability, the vast vast majority of animals used for food are now raised and killed in objectively horrific, God-dishonoring ways.
This scale of use and abuse thrives because everyday people who consume animal products fail to investigate the lives and deaths of the animals they eat, and in this regard, Christians are often barely discernible from their secular neighbors. Despite the hope and promise of the entire scriptural arc (the very good and peaceful creation marred by the introduction of sin, the healing and restoration promised by Jesus, and the ultimate reconciliation of all creation back to the Creator), those of us who want to justify our current actions tend to focus our theological justifications for modern practices on Genesis 9, where God acknowledges that the human-animal relationship has become so broken that animals look on humans with fear and dread, and humans eat animals. But Genesis 9 doesn’t reverse either earlier or subsequent claims that animals exist to glorify God, quite apart from their relationship with humans.
Now replace my commitment to provide for the flourishing of Katie the cat with a commitment to providing for the flourishing of Simon the rooster or Esther the pig. In the United States, I quickly become a bit odd. No one blinks an eye if I refuse to eat Katie, but if I leave chickens off my plate, I run the risk of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ assuming I worship creation, instead of the Creator. But why?
When I ate animals, my response to the question “why not eat cats?” would have been that some animals are here for us to love and others are here for us to eat. I might also have understood that part of the reason Katie didn’t look like food to me was that I had been culturally conditioned to view Katie as a companion and Simon as food. But I think my real hesitation, my real hang-up was something different. I think I didn’t want to consider how similar Katie and Simon were, and how odd it was that I made distinctions between them, because it would have meant some pretty significant changes in my behavior.
David Clough offers this, “If Christians were to take the theological point of other animals seriously, the consequences for Christian practice would be revolutionary. If we paused to reflect on the theological insight that there is a God-given purpose to the life of every creature, a very great deal of what passes for acceptable Christian behavior would be revealed to be the most flagrant and disobedient disregard for the workings of God in our world. If chickens, cows, sheep, fish, and pigs are intended by their Creator to live lives that glorify God and fit them for inclusion in the trinitarian life, then Christians should be the first to recognize that cruelly constraining, reshaping, and curtailing their lives for our convenience frustrates their Creator’s intention for the ways they should be creatures before God…These seem like radical transformations of what Christians have understood as their responsibility towards other animals before God, but they arise clearly and obviously from the basic recognition that the point of their lives is not exhausted in their relationship to us.” (123)
Here’s the bottom line: we live in an age where most of the ways that billions of animals are treated by humans fail to allow them to flourish, to glorify God, or to exist in their animal-ness. Pigs, for instance, have a snout made for rooting in the soil. Factory farms (and that is now nearly all Western farms) confine them to tiny gestation crates on slatted wood or concrete floors. Chickens use their beaks to find food and to keep themselves clean. Factory farms cut their beaks off because when we cram them into cages in warehouses with tens of thousands of other chickens, those beaks become weapons. The reality for billions upon billions of animals today is that humans have made them merely a means to human ends without respecting them as fellow creatures. This is sin, perpetuating brokenness.
Not all uses of animals are broken. My dogs love their job of alerting me to the arrival of the mail, or to a squirrel intruder. Goats love to eat and can landscape better than any John Deere. When we observe animals, when we work with their God-given desires and gifts, they can enrich our lives, and we can protect theirs. Did God give us animals to use? Many of us today have access to more-than-sufficient means to say “no.” We are able to nourish and clothe our families without adding to the suffering of other creatures. We take advantage of the opportunity to provide a home for an animal in need, and we enrich their lives as much as they enrich ours. I think the questions Christians must ask ourselves, and especially Christians who live in countries where factory farming and its requisite subversion of creaturely flourishing is now the norm, are “Why am I using animals?” and “Does my use of animals both respect their fellow creatureliness and help alleviate their suffering?”
Sarah Withrow King is the Deputy Director of the Sider Center and co-director of CreatureKind, a project to engage the church on farmed animal welfare issues. This post originally appeared at BeCreatureKind.org.