My War on “Christ”mas

by Sarah Withrow King

Dec 26 trash
The spoils of a lost war.

A few years ago, on the morning of December 26, my dad got in his van to drive to the post office. As he exited his apartment complex, he snapped this photo. Carnage from the aftermath of a day of consumption celebrated in the name of a baby born into poverty and who would one day tell a distraught young man that to inherit eternal life he must sell all he had and give it to the poor.

Bring on the war on Christmas, I say.

I’ve hated Christmas for as long as I can remember. I hold my breath from Thanksgiving until January, when the last of the halls have been undecked. When I was young, I hated Christmas because it felt like a yearly reminder of what I lacked. The living rooms of my friends’ houses would be overtaken with piles of presents under and around massive, magazine-worthy trees. My mom and I would often wait until the last minute and adopt an orphan tree left in a parking lot after the tree people had packed up for the season. A few modest gifts would appear in our stockings and under the tree on Christmas Eve. Over the next few days, I’d wait in dread for friends to ask me what I got for Christmas as they’d show off new trinket after new toy after new clothes while I tried to remain optimistic about the gifts I’d received, because I didn’t want to appear ungrateful…or be pitied.

I now know that I grew up in relative affluence and abundance; the simple fact that I didn’t go to bed hungry or cold or afraid marks my life as one of privilege and prosperity. And I’m really grateful to my parents for ensuring that I don’t approach Christmas with anxiety about present-buying, party-throwing, or family-gathering.

As an adult and a parent, my disdain for the holiday season has turned to despair as I fight a lonely battle to prevent my son from equating Christmas with presents, stuff, getting, greed, accumulating, consuming, more and more and more. I want to shield him from the disappointment I felt as a child, but I also want something deeper and better for him than the tissue-paper-thin cheer on offer from contemporary culture.

Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School notes that people used to know “consumption” as a wasting disease. Only the symptoms have changed.

So you can imagine the eye-rolling and cursing that went on in my office when I read about the “controversial” red-cup-of-doom and saw a tsunami wave of internet tantrum met with a wall of rage at such misplaced anger. Or when, year after year, the same old tired arguments about “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” make the rounds.

Sigh.

Of course there’s a war on Christmas. It’s waged in boardrooms and in dining rooms and in checkout lines across the country as the twinkle of icicle lights distracts us from the homeless veteran suffering from PTSD and sleeping in a corner of a bus shelter; the little girl who wears her parent’s poverty as she tries to make it through another day at her elementary school, where 8-year-olds instinctively recoil from her evident lack; and the state-sanctioned systems of oppression that deny basic dignity to men, women, and children because of the color of their skin, the size of their bank account, their expression or lack of faith, their geographic location of origin, or one of the many litmus tests for worthiness we’ve constructed to keep some of us on top and others very far down.

It’s a war, and Christians, followers of Jesus, appear by some accounts not only to be losing the war but also to be deserting their leader.

keep christ in christmas memeThe Old English word for “mass” connoted the idea of a sending, a dismissal, a mission. What if we considered Christ-mas as an annual reminder of the mission the infant Savior came to share? When Jesus sent out the 12 disciples, he instructed them to proclaim good news, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, refuse payment, accept hospitality, and be on the lookout for those who wanted to protect instead of disrupt the status quo. The Prince of Peace told this small group of followers that he came to bring a sword, one that would divide those who sought Christ from those who didn’t.

There was a war on Christmas in Jesus’ time, too, a war on the mission of God. Battle lines were drawn between the religious elite and not; between the pious and not; between the haves and the have nots. Jesus used his sword to blur those lines, and he was killed for it.

I can let the melancholy I feel at Christmas be just that, a blue that fades to cold grey as the days get shorter and my despair gets longer. Finding relief in the temporal, maybe a little self-righteous joy in how sorrowful and disconnected I am from it all.

Or I can leave cynicism, anger over a cup or a greeting, judgment at others’ consumptive habits, and worry about what it all means at the base of the manger. I can give a cup of cool water to a little one, stop to listen and share the pain of the person who is unseen and unheard. I can let the longing I feel for something deeper, richer, and lasting lead me to Christ and then through and connected to him, in mission.

Here’s a Christmas blessing for the battle-weary:

For Longing

by John O’Donohue

Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

May the forms of your belonging -in love, creativity, and friendship-
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

May the one you long for long for you.

May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

May your mind inhabit your life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the world.

May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.

May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.

May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

This post originally appeared at EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org

Missio Anima

man and dog
“His Entire World” photo by Bev Lussier | FreeImages.com

When I was in the tenth or eleventh grade, my beloved little dog, Coconut, got terribly sick and had to stay at the veterinarian’s office overnight for treatment. It was expensive, and she was doing better the next day, so we brought her home. Her health took another turn, so we took her back to the vet, and the next night, despite the staff’s best efforts to save her, she died. I cried for days, and months later I still woke up thinking she was asleep next to me in my bed. I could feel the spot where her little body had pressed against my leg for all those years. I locked up my grief and took it with me everywhere I went, but it burst out at church, where I felt most at home, most safe. Even there I hid, sobbing quietly in a bathroom stall, and when my best friend came looking for me, I had to pass her a note explaining that I felt self-conscious being so sad when, after all, Coco was “just a dog.” She assured me that my sorrow was understandable.

Many of us know the loss we feel when we lose one animal. Consider, for just a moment, the painful job of an animal control worker. Start by reading this letter from a shelter director. Week after week of abuse cases. Holding hundreds of quivering dogs and cats as they are euthanized because the shelter is out of space, but people continue to buy, breed, and dump animals like trash. When these war-weary men and women seek refuge in the church, among Christians, do they find succor? Has their church demonstrated that they have compassion and mercy for all God’s creatures and for those who care deeply for the furry, feathered, and finned?

A decade after Coco died, I watched raw footage of an undercover investigation of a fur farm, recoiling in horror at what I saw. A few weeks later, at a Christmas Eve service at church, those images flooded my brain as I sat surrounded by women wearing fur coats, collars, and cuffs. But I thought if I expressed my anger, frustration, or trauma, I’d be labeled as the animal-rights freak, the girl who couldn’t just leave well enough alone, whose priorities were out of whack. One Sunday morning, my husband discovered a squirrel on the church sidewalk, obviously suffering from a broken back. He called a local group who provided wildlife euthanasia and rehab services, and he waited by the squirrel until help arrived. A couple of guys who were good friends laughed at him for caring about a squirrel’s suffering.

Church started to feel like a minefield. Oh, there’s going to be a petting zoo next week, and the vendor has a long list of welfare violations? I’ll need to bring my own veggie burgers to the annual church picnic because you’re only providing meat options? The pastor’s telling a story about that time he killed a goat, and he’s laughing? I spied glue traps in the foyer this morning. My kid is learning a song including the lyrics, “Yummy yummy yummy, I’ve got turkey in my tummy.” OK…I’ll just be over here in a fetal position, trying to keep myself from exploding.

Jesus has called some of his flock to tend to the sheep-sheep. Not the human sheep, but the actual sheep. How does the church respond to that call? Do we affirm, support, and nurture those who serve God’s creation?

Jesus has called some of his flock to tend to the sheep-sheep. Not the human sheep, but the actual sheep. How does the church respond to that call? Do we affirm, support, and nurture those who serve God’s creation?

There is a growing and passionate community of people online who live in two worlds: They are Christian and they are vegan or vegetarian. Ask any of the members of this community and they’ll probably tell you that they are the only veg Christian they know, that their only veg Christian friends are on Facebook. Most will add that they feel some measure of rejection wherever they go: the only “animal person” at church, the only Christian in pro-animal circles.

Among these gathered virtual friends, outsiders often appear, looking for a home. And most often, they are vegans or vegetarians who are not Christian, but curious. They may be “spiritual but not religious” or agnostic or atheist. Many are young men and women who grew up in Christian families, going to youth group, worshipping on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. At some point, after they became aware of animal suffering in the meat and dairy industries, the standout feature of fellowship events, so often held around a shared table, became the pile of dead bodies on grills and tables, or the pig, skewered and roasting over a pit. They started to talk about the videos they saw or the information they read, but they found church folk to be unreceptive, even hostile. People they had once considered friends began mocking their choices, noting the lack of meat on a plate and responding with derision. Not everybody. But some people. Enough to hurt. Former friends may have felt that the new vegan was judgmental, extreme, and legalist (though perception isn’t always reality). Relationships start to break down.

And so, these young men and women gradually pull away from the church. They have a hard time listening to pastors and friends talk about compassion and mercy one moment and gnaw on flesh the next. The lack of plant-based options at potlucks and church dinners makes fellowshipping over food a source of stress, instead of joy. They wonder if they’ll still be accepted if they speak up about the dog chained outside 24 hours a day at the Bible study host’s house. And there aren’t many people who can have a meaningful, non-defensive conversation about how our Christian ethics and values ought to impact our relationships with and use of animals.

On Thanksgiving day, one woman posted in a Christian vegan Facebook group, “…seeing Christians who care as much as you all is refreshing…especially after seeing the turkey my religious family is preparing. I have tears in my eyes right now…thank you.”

Jesus is still calling to these men and women who have been wounded by the church, and part of our evangelical duty is to respond so that they know they have a home in the body of Christ. Do you know that animal rights has been identified as one of the leading social causes that concern millennials? If we’re serious about engaging young people in the life and work of the church, we might start by showing them we care about issues that matter to them. And caring for creation is as biblically-rooted as any mission. God’s first command to humans, after all, was to fill the earth and care for it!

For several years, my writing and reading and thinking about the place of animals in Christian thought and practice has been to form an evangelical theology of animals. But theology, or understanding of belief, doesn’t mean much without implementation, practice. I don’t think it’s enough to say, “It’s wrong to be cruel to animals,” without also looking at our personal and corporate lives to ask what we might need to do differently.

This isn’t an argument about salvation, but discipleship. God’s grace to us is freely given, freely received. Jesus is our salvation, not our own actions. A fundamental issue of Christian discipleship is that faith impacts practice. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith, but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).

As I looked at and thought about the ethics and practice of kindness to animals, I began to see and understand my work not as a calling simply to learn, or even to articulate through writing, but as a mission to serve all creatures of God, human and animal alike.

It’s a two-fold mission: to serve God by caring and advocating for God’s animal creation and to share the Good News of Jesus—that God is reconciling all creation, that Jesus conquered death and inaugurated the kingdom on earth, and that a day is coming when mourning and crying shall be no more.

I’m concerned with the pig on the spit, and the distraught vegan, and the meat-eating church deacon who spends her spare time volunteering at a dog rescue, and the pastor who is trying to unite and shepherd them all. All are creatures of God. Missio Anima: may God bless us and may we bless each other, every one.

This post was originally published at EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org.

Shaped by the Kingdom

Young-Girl-Holding-A-Chicken-000065485389_Large
iStockPhoto.com | MichelleMorrisonPhoto

For most of my life, I’ve been trying to follow Jesus. Some days are better than others. Some years are better than others. Though I never owned a silicone bracelet emblazoned with “WWJD?”, I was privileged to be raised by parents and surrounded by a community that wanted me to be Christomorphic, to “become reshaped by living out the implications of the narrative of Jesus.” (1) My desire to follow Jesus and to pursue God’s calling on my life led me to full-time animal advocacy and to seminary.

Though I had read the Bible cover to cover more than once, the excellent professors at Palmer Seminary opened my eyes to a richness and continuity in the text that I had never seen before. I began to see the biblical story not as just loosely-related history books and spiritual guidance for a decent life but as a window onto the long arc towards reconciliation. The kingdom of God became not just a future hope, but a present reality into which Jesus has shown us the way. Over and over again in the Gospels, we hear that the kingdom has come, it is at hand, it is here. Over and over in the prophetic writings, we see what that kingdom will look like: reconciliation to God, to one another, and to creation.

Humans aren’t God, but “humans are invited to participate in a grace-filled life that is in concert with the loving and nonviolent ways that God has been acting in the world” since its dawn. (2)

So I have begun to ask myself what it looks like to be eschatomorphic, to become reshaped by living out the implications of the eschaton, when every knee will bow and every tongue will give praise to the God who created and redeems the world. What does it look like to live into that reality now? How do the decisions I make from day to day change when I consider whether or not they reflect the work of reconciliation to God, to one another, and to creation?

Many of my friends and colleagues are pursuing this eschatomorphic life. They are working to end violence, to decrease poverty, to feed and shelter the vulnerable, to bring peace to fractured communities, and to help each person see that they are a precious child of God. One of the most immediately possible and tangibly reconciliatory actions we can take in an already-but-not-yet-entirely redeemed world is to leave animals off of our plate, to reject the social norms that justify killing a living, breathing being for a snack or a sandwich. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the holy meal, communion, is bread and wine, wheat and fruit. The meal that we take together to remind us of God’s kingdom come is simple, it is communal, it is sacrificial, and it is vegan.

I wanted to eat vegan for a long time before I actually adopted a completely plant-based diet. I would go through fits and spurts of vegan eating, get a craving, eat a hamburger or a slice of Hawaiian pizza, and then resolve to have more self-control. What I can see now is that my tentative steps towards reconciliation with animals weren’t failures. They were part of the journey, part of learning how to live into a world “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

If you want your meals to be shaped by the kingdom, there are some really good resources to help you take steps towards a plant-based diet. Here are a few of my favorites:

And remember, being eschatomorphic isn’t about getting everything right. It’s not about being perfect but about allowing ourselves to move with the flow of God’s abundant grace and mercy. Thomas Merton can help us lose ourselves in the stream:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.

This post was originally published at EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org.

(1) Paul Alexander, “Violence and Nonviolence in Conceptualizations of Godly Love,” in The Science and Theology of Godly Love, ed. Matthew T. Lee and Amos Yong (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012), 79.
(2) Ibid., 88.

the end of exclusion

The following article is excerpted from the forthcoming book Becoming a Jesus Person for Animals (Zondervan, 2016).

“‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Luke 10:36-37

Do you notice in the parable of the Good Samaritan that the lawyer can’t bring himself to say “The Samaritan is the neighbor.” He instead refers to the merciful man as “the one.” That one. The one over there who is not like me. How we want to distance ourselves from the Other!  Today, cranky from delaying lunch for too long and driving from my office to my home, I found myself thinking “I’m the only decent driver in my neighborhood.” I really meant it at the time!

There are lots of ways we have conditioned ourselves to mark our special territory in the world, to show ourselves and others that we are set apart, different, special, better. And it’s not a long leap from my cranky, unfocused outburst to giving a neighbor the cold shoulder to a lynch mob. Given time, separation by degrees is as divisive as separation by yards.

man with dog begging
Photograph by Cylonphoto / iStock images

Jesus’ lawyer friend had a hard time acknowledging the goodness of the Samaritan because he had been conditioned by his society to see Samaritans as other, as less-than. Motivated by the same inclusive love that catalyzed Jesus’ followers to cross cultures in order to befriend and bring the good news to Gentile and Jew alike, Jesus makes the Samaritan underdog the hero of his tale.

On the heels of the devastating war in former Yugoslavia, Volf published Exclusion and Embrace to explore what it meant to be a Christian and to reconcile with the Other. In it Volf writes that “God’s reception of hostile humanity into divine communion is a model for how human beings should relate to the other.”[1]

Some Christians have rejected the notion of “animal rights” because secular advocates have argued for increases in animal protection and liberty on the premise that there are no meaningful differences between humans and animals. We now know that animals and humans alike possess the ability to feel pain, to use tools and language, to develop social systems and structures, to seek and grant justice, to empathize, play, love, and mourn. We do not know if animals have souls, though the Bible tells us that animals worship their creator and that the whole creation is part of the covenant community. We do know that God came to us in the form of a human who embraced those who were rejected and “otherized” so far out of the bounds of society that they weren’t considered human. God served the Other, sacrificed for the Other, loved the Other, without ever not being God. We don’t have to reject our humanity to show compassion to animals. Rather, by showing compassion, we are being the best version of humans that we can be.

Volf points out the danger of engaging in black-hole-humanity, in assimilating everything and everyone into our selves: “Vilify all boundaries, pronounce every discrete identity oppressive, put the tag “exclusion” on every stable difference—and you will have aimless drifting instead of clear-sighted agency, haphazard activity instead of moral engagement and accountability and, in the long run, a torpor of death instead of a dance of freedom.”[2] By embracing our identity as human and animal’s identity as animal, and our common identity as creatures of God, we better situate ourselves to act as servants to one another and to God, recognizing and acting on the image of God, the author and protector of creation, in ourselves.

[1] Volf, 100.

[2] Volf, 65.

animal protection and being completely pro-life

elephant family
Photograph by Masud Pathan / iStock images

This article is excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming Animals Are Not Ours (No, Really They’re Not), Cascade Books 2015.

Advocates who argue for limitations or bans on abortion from a religious perspective usually make the following points:

  1. It is wrong to take an innocent life.
  2. At several points throughout the Bible, it is clear that God sees and knows humans from the womb. It is also clear, from Genesis to Revelation, that children are blessings.
  3. The Christian God is a God of love, justice, and mercy. This point is made particularly known in the person of Jesus Christ, who paid special attention to those who were marginalized and vulnerable.
  4. Ultimately, life reigns over death. Abortion stops life and is therefore not a part of the eschatological hope of our new life in Christ.
  5. Humans are special, set apart. They are made in the image of God. Therefore, all human life is sacred.

Evangelicals who identify as pro-life or anti-abortion would likely agree with each of these statements as they applied to unborn babies. George Carlin aptly pointed out, however, that this narrow vision of the sanctity of life translates to “if you’re pre-born, you’re fine; if you’re pre-school, you’re &@#%.” As I have discovered the connections between my evangelical faith and my ethical views of animals, I have begun to see and identify with the term “completely pro-life,” but I was (and am) disappointed that the term is still narrowly defined. Each of the five religious arguments above can extend beyond pre-born human babies to encompass both post-born humans and nonhuman animals. Let’s look at each one:

It is wrong to take an innocent life.

I used to be an avid supporter of the death penalty. To me, as one committed to justice, it seemed fitting that persons who took the lives of other persons should pay with their own. My support for capital punishment began to wane when I heard these words from Gandhi (okay, actually, it was Sir Ben Kingsley in the biopic of Gandhi): “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.” Gandhi wasn’t a Christian, but he captured a decidedly Jesus-based principle and forced me to reconsider the place of grace, forgiveness, and love both in my own life and in the lives of others. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he cried out for his murderers’ forgiveness. In physical agony, knowing death would come slowly, Jesus could have called for retribution, but he chose mercy. In their book Kingdom Ethics, Glen Stassen and David Gushee argue that Jesus consistently avoided furthering the violent or vengeful teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures and, instead, sought to expose and heal the roots of violence. So, with the help of good teachers, I began to see all the ways in which the Bible was teaching me that mercy and justice weren’t mutually exclusive pursuits. And then I began to apply those lessons to what I knew about factory farms. “If you find yourself unable to consistently apply a principle, then perhaps you need to ask yourself honestly whether you actually believe it is true,” Catholic theologian Charles Camosy states in For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action. I believe it’s wrong to take an innocent life. And yet, humans are breeding billions upon billions of nonhuman animals for the express purpose of killing and eating them. It just doesn’t jive. We’re not killing cows and chickens and pigs to protect ourselves. And we certainly don’t need their flesh to survive. So, we’re taking life for our own pleasure. And this is most definitely not what Jesus would do.

At several points throughout the Bible, it is clear that God sees and knows humans from the womb. It is also clear, from Genesis to Revelation, that children are blessings.

The scriptures also contain repeated reminders that God sees and cares for the whole of creation, not only us humans. The whole earth is full of the glory of God, says Isaiah. God’s sanctuary is the earth, the psalmist praises. God reminds Job that the Creator sees the mountain goat give birth and gives the hawk wings to soar. The creation waits and groans, assures Paul. A consistent ethic of life should insist that we acknowledge that, like Job, we humans are “of small account.”

The Christian God is a God of love, justice, and mercy. This point is made particularly known in the person of Jesus Christ, who paid special attention to those who were marginalized and vulnerable.

If we believe that, as Jesus followers, we are to orient our lives around the eschatological hope of Christ, then we ought to fervently ask Jesus to help our words and deeds be “characterized by salvation, justice, peace, joy, and God’s presence.” (Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 60) Watch any video or read any account of a farm, slaughterhouse, laboratory, or other human use of nonhuman animals, and then ask yourself if the actions taken by the people who pay for and perpetuate cruel acts are for or against salvation, justice, peace, joy, and God’s presence.

Ultimately, life reigns over death. Abortion stops life and is therefore not a part of the eschatological hope of our new life in Christ.

Do you think there will be slaughterhouses in the new Jerusalem? If not, why not start to make choices now that will reduce the demand for flesh and thus reduce suffering?

Humans are special, set apart. They are made in the image of God. Therefore, all human life is sacred.

Over and over, we have to ask ourselves what it means to be made in the image of God. If it’s true that we are set apart, what exactly are we set apart for, and how can we live into that privilege? Even more fundamentally: what is a human? What is a person? This is the argument on which all  others hinge. Some Christians use their idea of personhood as a defense for the exploitation of other creatures. I see it as an opportunity to exercise compassion, restraint, and, most importantly, humility.

Animal Welfare, Animal Rights, or a Third Way

Animal suffering matters. But what is our duty as God’s image-bearers in response to their suffering?

Animal welfare

A coalition of evangelicals have agreed on a few points, set out in an Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals, launched as part of a national campaign called Every Living Thing. The statement is accompanied by an explanatory essay that expounds on the rationale and scriptural context behind each of the statement’s assertions. The statement makes important claims, including that animals belong to God and have value to God independent of their use to humans. It is a decidedly pro-animal-welfare document, meaning that it states that animals are intended for human use, including for human consumption, but that it is our responsibility to treat them with mercy and refrain from cruelty.

Animal rights proponents might view the statement with some skepticism. Is it absurd to talk about mercifully eating a fellow creature of God? Is it really possible to avoid cruelty in the production of animal products?

Animal welfare advocates and animal rights advocates appear to agree on at least one thing: Animals aren’t ours. On its website, animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) states: “Supporters of animal rights believe that animals have an inherent worth—a value completely separate from their usefulness to humans.” Compare that to one of the evangelical statements: “We understand from Scripture that … God has given all animals the breath of life, that He sustains them, that they belong ultimately to Him, and that He has declared them ‘good,’ indicating they have value to Him independent of human use.”

Despite this common ground, there are significant differences between an “animal welfare” and “animal rights” mindset.

Animal rights

The PETA statement quoted above goes on to say, “We believe that every creature with a will to live has a right to live free from pain and suffering … Only prejudice allows us to deny others the rights that we expect to have for ourselves.” The praxis of animal rights is, in my view, righteous: Acknowledge the inherent worth of every living creature and make choices to reduce our contribution to their suffering. But here’s where the philosophy of animal rights diverges, I believe, from our call as followers of Christ.

I belong to a few groups on Facebook that provide an opportunity for me to interact with folks who share my various interests, including back-of-the-pack running, the TV show The West Wing, and Christian vegans and vegetarians. A woman who belongs to one of the latter groups posted a question about eating eggs. She knows that eating eggs from farms likely contributes to suffering; even if hens don’t live in battery cages or aren’t crammed into massive, filthy warehouses, they all end up on one slaughter line or another. Her question generated a firestorm of comments, too many of which were teeming with vitriol, judgment, and condemnation. “You can’t call yourself a VEGAN if you eat eggs,” internet-screamed some commenters. Others quipped, “Please stop promoting WELFARISM on this page for vegans.” “Either you’re vegan or not; either you’re Christian or not,” said another. The consensus among commenters was that consuming any animal products promotes and perpetuates not only a cruel industry but also the false idea that animals are here for us to consume. Only a few of the respondents pointed out that no person is able to live a life completely free from harm. It was a depressing display from a group that purports to promote compassion, and it reinforced the negative stereotypes of both vegans and Christians as hysterical and self-righteous.

Right there on Facebook was a modern reflection of the struggles over food purity laws that distracted and divided the early church, and what Christian ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues comes from our attachment to “rights.”

“For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:17-19).

Hauerwas says, “…for Christians, the moral life is to be seen as a journey through life sustained by fidelity to the cross of Christ, which brings a fulfillment no law can ever embody.” We Christians today are still distracted and divided by who is in and who is out, by labels other than “child of God,” and by whether our brother or sister is abiding by whatever set of rules we’ve decided make a “true” Christian. We haven’t learned much in 2,000 years, in part because we are still on the journey to the kingdom.

I like rules and order. My natural inclination is to the see the world in extremes. You are right or wrong, and there is nothing in between. Because of the grace that has been extended to me through Jesus on the cross and through Jesus in others, I have just barely begun to be able to allow gracious space for others to listen and respond to the Spirit.

A third way?

The philosophy of animal welfare tries to make the best of a bad situation, works to make life and death a little better for God’s animal creation. But as Christians, that seems to be an uninspired and myopic place from which to view the world and our place in it. The pursuit of animal welfare alone doesn’t do justice to the vision of peace that we anticipate when the kingdom of God is fully realized. Providing bigger or cleaner cages, pain management for routine mutilations like castration and de-beaking, and less painful deaths are three steps that are better than no steps, but they strike me as a detour off the path of true reconciliation.

For Christians, the language of “rights” must be problematized, complexified. You and I don’t have “rights” to our own bodies, nor to the bodies of others. Human bodies and animal bodies belong to God. As Christians, certainly we reject the notion that we have a “right” to live free from pain and harm. This is simply not biblical language. What we are called to, as Hauerwas says, is to live life “as a gift of time enough for love.” In other words, we don’t focus on a rigid list of do’s and don’ts. We love God, and we love our neighbor. The whole of the scripture is summed up in those two commands, and the specifics are left to us to discern in communion with the Holy Spirit and in community with other believers.

And animals? Their purpose is to worship and glorify God. The Bible doesn’t speak of their “right” to live lives free from harm either. They and we are fellow creatures waiting in anticipation for the full realization of a world “on earth, as it is in heaven” and in which violence and sorrow will be no more. Our purpose is to love one another, to care for and provide the gracious space for humans and animals to flourish in all their humanity and animality.

I think this gracious space is where we find a third way of relating to animals that doesn’t fall into the polarizing “animal rights” vs. “animal welfare” debate.

Practicing a third way

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17-18)

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Freedom to choose, freedom from the tyranny of evil systems and the freedom to shirk off participation in counter-kingdom fallacies that keep some “othered” and some with the damaging idea that they are better or more beloved. Most of us don’t have to eat animals, but many humans choose to out of habit. We’ve told ourselves for centuries that it’s normal to kill and eat other creatures beloved by God, and that somehow makes it okay.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:16-19)

Animal welfare and animal rights are human points of view. The third way, the kingdom-oriented way, the way of reconciliation, embraces the freedom we have in Christ to choose to love God and to love each other, including all creation. To choose to reconcile to God and to reconcile to one another, including all creation. To choose to serve God and to serve one another, including all creation. The third way doesn’t need a label or a set of instructions. The third way, the way of inclusion, embrace, and restoration, flows naturally out of grace-filled lives centered around the love of Jesus Christ, who subjected himself to us and gave himself up for us. Can we give up our habits, our preferences, our cravings, and do the same?

This article originally appeared at EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org.

Book Review: The End of Captivity?

PrintTripp York really messed me up, man.

Based almost entirely on years of indoctrination by animal rights discourse and my own childhood experiences at the dismal Boise zoo, my most prominent memory of which is looking down into the barren concrete pits that housed two lethargic bears and knowing that something was terribly wrong, I have a well-honed skepticism about zoos, the people who work at zoos, and the people who pay to go to zoos. My 7-year-old has never been to a zoo. I boycotted my church’s fall picnic the year it was held at the zoo. City zoos and SeaWorld and roadside hellholes were all along the same spectrum of bad-for-animals in my book.

Enter York and his nuanced, carefully-researched, and practical-without-sacrificing-good-ethics take on the complex relationship between humans and animals in captivity.

In The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflection on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics (Wipf & Stock, 2015), York explores the uniquely human phenomenon of keeping other animals captive, not only in zoos and sanctuaries, but in labs, farms, and our homes. Since it is quite impossible for animals to live completely free of humans, how do we Christians talk about and into the peaceable kingdom promised in the Scriptures? How does captivity of animals in its various forms serve their end, the chief purpose of which is to glorify God? And if we agree that creation is good, how do we best embody that claim?

York began his inquiry in a way that, in our digital age, too few do: He forwent “hearsay, rumor, speculation, and untrustworthy internet memes” and began to visit and volunteer at his local zoo. He became a shoveler of elephant poop. And he spoke with many people who have devoted their lives to working with animals in captivity in zoos and sanctuaries.

“It seems that the people who most want animals to roam freely in the world, as if the world in all her nature and splendor is some sort of benevolent entity just waiting with open arms to care for her long lost children, are those people who have never experienced the terror and anxiety involved in having to constantly battle hunger, fatigue, and other animals just to survive from one day to the next.” (pg. 47)

Should wild animals be in the wild? Yes. But there is increasingly little “wild” in which animals can live and those of us in highly industrialized societies have a bad tendency to romanticize life outside the concrete jungle. Elephants in the wild, for instance, face the danger of poaching, planned culls, and the destruction of their natural habitat. Does that mean that we should round up all the elephants and put them into cages? York points out that there are no easy or blanket answers, that what is right for one animal may not be right for another.

Zoos and sanctuaries have the potential to be tools for education and conservation. They have the potential to inspire individuals and communities to live and advocate on behalf of a species not their own. Some are living into this potential, and some are not. We have a long way to go. York has convinced me that until and unless humans make extraordinary strides to preserve and expand natural habitats, zoos and other facilities that work to protect (not just display) certain species just may be their best chance at survival.

“Like all other animals on this planet, our only purpose, as well as theirs, is to serve the One that gives us life. Any other speculation about the purpose of other animals must be carefully weighed and measured against their primary purpose.” (pg. 75)

In the latter chapters of The End of Captivity?, York takes up the broader issues of animals in Christian life, examining what the Bible can tell us about human-animal relations and our roles and responsibilities in animal lives. Focusing on the animals we use for food, York examines the mass consumption of animals through an eschatological lens and wonders how our hearts and actions might change if we name animals well, that is, if “instead of calling animals food, cosmetics, medicine, clothing, and entertainment, we…refer to them as manifestations of God’s creative wisdom who are our covenant partners participating in God’s redemptive history.” (pg. 113) There are animals who are visible in our day-to-day lives: our pets, the neighborhood strays, urban wildlife, and (for those who have an affinity or passion) the animals who live in our local zoos. York points out that there are billions more animals whose lives and deaths are largely hidden from view but who are every bit as made and loved by God as our beloved dogs, or the majestic elephant, adorable lemur, or impressive boa constrictor living in the zoo across town.

York’s writing is thoughtful and funny, humble and well-informed. Committed to advocating well for all animals, York builds a big tent and encourages everyone who wants to do a little better by our animal brethren to come on in and have a chat. It’s a must-read for any Christian serious about protecting the planet and its many inhabitants.

My son’s school was scheduled to take a field trip to the zoo this afternoon and I was prepared, as I’ve done every year, to pick him up and spend the afternoon doing something else. The field trip was cancelled because of some bad weather, and when they reschedule…well, I may go along and see for myself what kind of job our local city zoo is doing at promoting conservation, caring for the animals they house, and educating the community about the life-or-death issues at stake. But I’m not as brave as York…I probably won’t be shoveling any poop.

This review was originally posted at EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org.