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.

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