Thinking theologically about animals

There is an interesting debate going on, both within the Church and in society at large, about the ethical treatment of animals. This is not a debate I have followed closely, and so I have asked a member of our diocese, Lois Wye for the following contribution:

Martha C. Nussbaum, in her article “The Moral Status of Animals” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has said, “The fact that humans act in ways that deny other animals a dignified existence appears to be an issue of justice, and an urgent one.” Likewise, Mathew Scully, in “Fear Factories – The Case For Compassionate Conservatism – For Animals,” published in The American Conservative, has written that he has “come to view the abuses of industrial farming as a serious moral problem, a truly rotten business for good reason passed over in polite conversation.”

How is it that we humans have so abdicated our responsibilities to our fellow creatures that the matter has become an “urgent” issue of “justice” and a “serious moral problem”? Why is it so easy for us to overlook, ignore, or discount, the suffering of non-humans?

There are several possibilities. The Scriptures, of course, tell us that God gave us “dominion” over animals, and it has been convenient to interpret that to mean “the right to do as we please.” Little consideration has been given historically to other lessons Scripture may have to tell us about obligations that may come with that “dominion,” and whether “dominion” might be the same as “stewardship.” We are, simply, used to thinking of animals as property.

In addition, it is easy to discount the suffering of those who are “other” – and what could be more “other” than something that is not even human? To recognize the God-given dignity in animals would impose upon us obligations and require us to make sacrifices that perhaps we don’t want to make.

Domesticated animals have provided countless services to us – in work, at play, and in war – with little regard on our part for their safety. Non-domesticated animals have been a threat, or a nuisance, or have lived in places we want to live, and we have done our best to eradicate them and to make their habitat our own. Farm animals have provided an inexpensive and ready food source – and factory farms make the food even more inexpensive and ready – if only we will close our eyes to the conditions the animals confined in them must endure and the methods used to bring them to our tables.

For some people, it is difficult to take seriously the suffering of animals when there is so much human suffering in the world. This, however, presents a false dichotomy. As Matthew Scully explains: “[J]ustice is not a finite commodity, nor are kindness and love. Where we find wrongs done to animals, it is no excuse to say that more important wrongs are done to human beings, and let us concentrate on those. A wrong is a wrong, and often the little ones, when they are shrugged off as nothing, spread and do the gravest harm to ourselves and others.”

Still others are put off by the language of “animal rights,” and the views of some that animals are “equal” in creation to humans. We do not need to resolve this issue, however, to recognize our obligations. If animals are our equals in creation, then we owe them that respect; if not, then we own them mercy in the face of their powerlessness.

But perhaps the greatest reason that many people have a hard time thinking theologically about animals is that the opportunity has never been presented to them. The issue is rarely raised as one needing serious attention. Happily, the Episcopal Church has recognized officially the inherent dignity of animals and our obligations towards them. Our General Convention in 2003 passed a resolution recognizing “that responsible care of animals falls within the stewardship of creation” and encouraging “members to ensure that husbandry methods for captive and domestic animals would prohibit suffering in such conditions as puppy mills, and factory-farms.” In addition, the Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare, is working to raise awareness of the importance of animals to our own spiritual growth and our need to treat all animals responsibly. With continued efforts like these, perhaps we can become a strong voice for “the least of these,” a strong witness of the love of God for His creation, and an effective instrument of justice. These seem like appropriate goals for a church.

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