My dad has been reading some of my evangelical animal liberation theology book chapters and giving me feedback. I really appreciate his comments and thoughts because he thinks very differently about this issue than I do, and I need someone to push back on my ideas, hard, to make me refine them, to force me to think about the foundations and implications of this theology that I want to articulate well.
A few mornings ago, he emailed me this question, that I’m sure my animal rights activist friends will recognize: “Would you kill your son to keep your dog alive if faced with a circumstance where you must chose between them? or Would you kill your dog to keep your son alive in those same circumstances?” He wanted to know “whether or not there is, in God’s creational economy, a difference between humans and other kinds of animals in terms of how they are valued by Him; and, secondarily, of how they are to be valued by humans who rightly understand that divine economy.”
My dad’s intentions are not to belittle my work, at all. In fact, he stopped eating chickens long before I did! But I had to giggle a little when I read the question, because I think most everyone who has self-identified as an “animal rights person” at some point in life has had someone ask them an iteration of this question, from “If you were trapped on a desert island and had to kill an animal to survive, would you?” to “If you were in a life raft, and you had to pick either your dog or a human to throw out, which would you choose?” to “If your house was on fire and you only had time to save your kid or your cat, which would you pick?”
It reminds me of this hysterical scene from the West Wing.
Given the visceral rage I felt at the 10-month-old girl who shoved four-month-old Isaiah over during his first week of pre-school, I think it’s safe to say that I would go to, quite literally, any length to try to protect my son from harm. I’d toss my crippled mother over the side of life-raft if it meant saving my son’s life (I think she’d be okay with this, she’s remarkably self-sacrificing).
Jesus actually asked his own versions of the desertisland-liferaft-housefire question:
- “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Matthew 6:26
- “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:29-31
- “He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and life it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.'” Matthew 12:11-12
Why did Jesus use these analogies? Was it to make a point about how silly it was to care about animals? Not at all. Nekeisha Alexis-Baker adeptly addresses these passages in her essay, “Doesn’t the Bible Say that Humans Are More Important than Animals?” in A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals. Alexis-Baker argues that, “In these instances, Jesus’s message is that the Father’s care extends even to the nonhuman creation that humans devalue…Jesus invites his followers to look to creation to better understand how God works in the world.”
What we value, what I value, probably doesn’t perfectly reflect what God values. And that’s a good thing. A really good thing. But these passages don’t tell us that God doesn’t value sparrows or sheep. And they certainly don’t tell us that it’s okay to use sparrows and sheep in whatever way happens to please us. For that matter, let’s think about how Jesus asks his followers to respond to those who are routinely undervalued and abused by their surrounding societies. Oh, yeah…we include, embrace, and protect them!
Maybe islands, rafts, and emergencies are where our ethical rubber meets the road. But maybe they’re just places where, in a fallen world, we are forced to make heart-breaking and unfair choices. Maybe God’s heart is as broken by those moments as ours would be. In the meantime, in the day-to-day economy of the created world, we are given the freedom to choose compassion, reject cruelty, and practice kindness. I think those choices we make every day at the grocery store, in our kitchen, at a restaurant, at the drug store, choosing what clothes to buy, where to shop, how to spend our money…I think those choices are far more meaningful.