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.

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