Freedom, Compassion, and Hard Choices

A review of The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflection on Zoos, Conservation, and Christian Ethics (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2015) by Tripp York

After a meeting, I looked at my phone to see that I had several missed calls and a voicemail from the head of the after-school program my young son attended. Without listening to the message, I immediately dialed the teacher, my heart racing. Turns out that my son had been worried sick about the field trip they were scheduled to take that day: he had not remembered it was happening and had not discussed it with me. It would be his first trip to the zoo, and he was concerned I would be mad at him for going. I told the teacher it was fine and to please let my son know she had spoken to me. When he got home that night, we talked about what he saw, how he felt, and whether I was upset (I was not).

Tripp York’s The End of Captivity? had a lot to do with my measured reaction to my son participating in the zoo field trip, something I swore up and down I would never allow. York’s book made me realize that much of my blanket condemnation of zoos came from miserable experiences I had as a child visiting the Boise Zoo. Even at a very young age, something seemed terribly wrong with keeping bears in barren concrete pits, confining monkeys to narrow cages with only a few vines and branches for exercise, and keeping piles of snakes together in small aquariums. No wonder the resident giraffe spit on everyone he could: I would have been mad, too. But my thirty-year-old experience at the Boise Zoo probably should not inform my whole opinion of all zoos. Indeed, one of York’s basic points is that we cannot simply paint all zoos with a broad brush.

York presents the reader with six movements and six interludes. First, he gives the reader an overview of the circumstances and questions that led to a Christian animal advocate volunteering for his local zoo. Second, York explores how humans experience zoos and what that might mean for the purpose and place of zoos in modern society: “I love and loathe zoos. I lament that they need to exist, but I am often grateful that they do exist. I am more excited, however, about what they can become. Their potential…” (York, 25). Third, we examine the tension between “freedom” and “conservation” with a particular focus on the crisis of the Baghdad Zoo during the U.S. invasion. These first three chapters serve mainly to provide a nuanced, balanced, and realistic overview of the situation that humans have created for animals, and to highlight a few of the ways that people are responding to that crisis in (hopefully) helpful ways.

After establishing an overview of current realities, York turns begins to unpack how a Christian worldview or faith ought to inform the human-animal relationship, with a particular focus on captive animals. York first explores the purpose of animals from a Christian perspective and examines how that purpose relates to what the Bible says about how humans are to practice dominion. In a book about captive animals, we’d be remiss to ignore the billions of animals kept in captivity for human consumption. York’s fifth movement explores the philosophical origins of his vegetarianism since, “the number of chickens killed per hour exceeds the total number of animals in all accredited zoos and aquariums in North America” (York, 87). In the final movement, York “disrupts the poverty of our imaginations” (York, 111) to combat the idea that because there is violence in the world now, we can be excused from pursuing eschatologically-informed behavior, and revisits an earlier discussion of naming: “Christians name other animals well when they are named eschatologically” (York, 112).

Book reviews are supposed, I think, to find something to nitpick, some point to make to let the author know they did not do everything exactly right. I’ll do that, but reluctantly. York has written a compelling, deeply personal, and nuanced book that helped me think more holistically about animals in captivity. If he ever does a re-write, I would ask for further exploration of two points: first, there is an underlying assumption throughout the book that extinction is bad and conservation of species is good. I found myself wishing he would acknowledge and explore that assumption. And second, I would like to hear more about why we call a small subset of captive animals “exotic,” explore how that might relate to colonialism, including a colonized faith, and examine the ways in which a decolonized theology might offer hope to animals in captivity.

In a fallen world, the “right thing to do” is not always clear. In addition to presenting a compelling theological case for animal protection, The End of Captivity? offers readers an introduction to some men, women, and organizations who are balancing this tension as they attempt to make a comfortable life for animals in their care. I may not agree with some of their tactics, but York has helped to humanize a group of people I had unfairly written off as greedy and self-serving. His work has made me more compassionate and more informed, and for that, I am exceedingly grateful.


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.


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

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.

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

the biblical case for vegan living (abridged)

The Bible is not a handbook for vegan living, but I think it points Christ-following people, particularly Christ-following people from privileged contexts, in that direction.

What is vegan living?

Vegan means much more than diet, what we eat and drink. Vegan products aren’t tested on animals or contain ingredients or components that are derived from animals. My wardrobe is vegan, because it is free from wool, leather, fur, down, and silk. I steer clear of eating products with animal ingredients, including milk, meat, and eggs. Our family’s dogs and cats are rescued from shelters because we don’t view animals as products or commodities to be bought and sold. And we won’t support businesses that profit from captive, abused animals, so we avoid SeaWorld, rodeos, Ringling Brothers’ Circus, and the like.
Many vegans will say that the essence of vegan living is making choices that reduce suffering whenever possible.

What about human problems?

When we reduce animal suffering, we reduce human suffering. When we refuse to pay for someone to abuse or kill an animal, we are sparing both the animal and the human. One old adage says, “When you teach a child to be kind to a mouse, you do as much for the child as you do for the mouse.” We are not separate from creation. We are part of God’s design, blessed to be made in the image of God, and charged with protecting creation and reflecting the glory of God throughout the whole earth.

I live in a major city. Evidence of brokenness is everywhere, from the women who walk screaming down my street at 3 am after a night of being prostituted, to the children whose parents hit them in the drugstore lobby, to the wealthy developer with an addiction to pain pills and pornography, to the maimed feral cats roaming alleys, to the mountains of garbage piled in vacant lots and on abandoned porches. The anger, pain, and frustration are palpable. Extravagance and elegance on one side of the river, gritty poverty on the other, struggle on both.

It’s tempting for some of us, maybe even easy, when we live surrounded by death and decay, to start to view the world and its inhabitants as “out there,” different from us. We need to protect ourselves, because the pain and suffering would overwhelm any compassionate soul. Jesus saw systemic inequality, state-sanctioned brutality, and a complicit and corrupt religious establishment. But Jesus never failed to see and respond to individuals. Time and time again, Jesus demonstrated the transformative power of seeing a member of the community of creation as a brother, not an other. And I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus used animals to tell these stories. A single lost sheep is pursued and rescued, not written off as the cost of doing business. People put a pittance of a price tag on sparrows, but Jesus said God knows when even one falls to the ground. Jesus looked across one of his own cities and cried out that he longed to gather its inhabitants as a hen gathers her beloved chicks.

Loving an “other” is risky business and it can be habit forming. Learning about how animals are raised and killed for food opened my eyes to the dangers faced by the humans who work on farms and in slaughterhouses: astonishing rates of on-the-job injury, increased risk of chronic disease, horrific working conditions, low pay, and more. I also learned that animal agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, and that my eating and consumption habits impacted people half a world away who would feel the consequences of climate change long before and in more profound and life-altering ways than I ever will. Listening to a disgraced football player describe his violent and stressful childhood helped me understand the spiritual sickness that might lead one to maim, torture, and kill another living being and clarified for me that the remedy to this deep suffering won’t be found in any act that further separates humans from God, creation, or one another. Instead, we release our created-for-community selves to the leading of the Holy Spirit, which is moving towards reconciliation, wholeness, and healing. We remember that we humans are a part of the whole creation groaning, and we act in that awareness, knowing that we are even now participating in Christ’s work to build the new city “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

The biblical case for vegan living

Vegan is a word coined in the mid 1940s, so you won’t find it in the Bible, and though some scholars argue the case vehemently, I am thoroughly unconvinced that Jesus followed a strictly plant-based diet during his time on earth.

This is an abridged case for vegan living based on the biblical narrative:

  • Genesis 1 describes the world as it is supposed to work. No sin, no suffering. Humans are caretakers of creation, and God tells us and animals to eat plants. Only plants. Not each other.
  • Sin: Sin destroys this symbiotic harmony, this well-functioning and perfectly balanced eco-system. Humans and animals fear one another. Fear always leads to violence, when those who fear do not turn to God. Killing enters in.
  • Humans perfect the art of “othering.” Instead of practicing dominion, they simply dominate. They enslave one another and abuse other created animals. They hoard land and property. They learn to protect “me, myself, and mine” instead of the whole community of creation.
  • Prophets give us hope that there’s a better way, a kingdom of God, not a human one. They point to a time where there won’t be any more hurting or killing, when each will have what they need to prosper, and when power isn’t abused.
  • Jesus, God-enfleshed, shows us how to do life together. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, retrieve the lost sheep, heal the sick, give hope to the hopeless. Love everybody. Take only what you need and share the rest. Trust God to provide and FEAR NOT. Put down your swords. Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, promised by the prophets. Jesus born on earth brings the kingdom here, to this place and this time. His life is a demonstration of how to live in peace, how to connect person-to-person, body-to-body. His body and blood mark a new covenant between God and God’s creation, a promise that while the kingdom is not yet fully realized, it is here.
  • The in-between time. The already-but-not-yet. The Holy Spirit guides us, and we are a part of the whole creation in bondage to decay groaning for freedom. When that freedom is fully realized, when the kingdom comes to fullness, we know we’ll see the end of war, poverty, violence, death, suffering, racism, cynicism, individualism. We know we’ll gather together with the whole of creation to worship our Creator, Sustainer, Provider. Will we then sit down to a meal of fried chicken and roast beef? Will the feast in the new city be life-affirming or life-taking? The prophets are clear: The lion and the lamb will lie down together, and a little child shall lead them. God’s covenant is with the whole creation.
  • So shouldn’t we who are able, we who are Christ’s hands and feet on earth, we who are the community of God…shouldn’t we start to make choices now that reflect that coming reality? Why wouldn’t we begin to look at animals as partners in creation, as brothers and sisters, as creatures God has called us to protect, rather than as dinner and a show?

But what about…?

Here are some common reactions from folks who balk at the words “Christian” and “vegan” appearing in the same sentence: God’s words to Noah in Genesis 9; God’s demand for animal sacrifice in the Hebrew scriptures; Jesus probably ate fish and lamb; Jesus declared all foods clean; Jesus sent demons into pigs and said people were more valuable than sparrows. In the coming weeks, we’ll address those objections and I hope you’ll engage with us as we explore these issues together. Add your thoughts to the comments section here and on those future articles. And go in peace.

holistic vision of the human’s role in creation

adam and eve resized
Photograph by Jorisvo / iStock images

by Sarah Withrow King

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

Animals were not created for human ends, but for God’s. All of creation, from the tallest tree to the smallest insect, belongs to the Creator. In Shalom and the Community of Creation, Native American Christian theologian urges us to consider that, “Coming in last place [in the creation story] should give us all pause for creaturely humility. We should realize that everything created was not made primarily for human happiness. Obviously, creation was enjoyed prior to our arrival.” For centuries, we humans have placed ourselves at the center of the creation story. We remove ourselves from the symbiotic harmony of God’s creation. For many years, I intentionally alienated myself from the truth about where animal foods came from in order to avoid feeling guilty about eating them.

When we embrace God’s commands in Genesis, and if we keep these commands in mind as we consider the whole biblical narrative, we can begin to develop an alternate vision for the human’s role in creation that does not rely on hierarchy but still recognizes the imago Dei. Humans are not little gods on earth. We are created, as German theologian Jurgen Moltmann says, “to be his image,” a reality only fully realized in and through the person of Christ, our best understanding of being made in the image of God. And when we look at Jesus, we see mercy on a radical level. We see love and sacrifice. We see service.

Our dominion in creation is not one of paternalistic overseers (uncomfortably reminiscent of justifications for slavery), or even of siblings, but of servants. Christ calls us to love and to serve, and it is only through Christ that we are able to love and serve. But we do not love only our family, our friends. We do not love only our neighbors. We do not love only those who look like us, who share our political views, or who love us in return. Christ calls us to love our enemies. Christ calls us to love those we do not understand and do not appreciate. Christ calls us to love the leper. In our time, that must include the furry, the finned, and the feathered. Kristen Largen, Andrew Linzey, and a host of other theologians both in our day and in centuries past have pointed out that in loving and serving others throughout the whole of the created community, we love and serve Christ. What do you think? How can we best image God?

peace begins on our plates

At least three times a day, we have the opportunity to choose nonviolence. We don’t have to face down an enemy carrying a gun, brave counter-protestors, or venture into danger to do so. We can simply pick plants over animals.

At least three times a day, we have the opportunity to choose mercy over suffering. While we’re praying and striving for peace, pursuing reconciliation, confessing our many shortcomings, and drowning in the midst of a million things that we can’t control, we can choose chick peas instead of chicken.

At least three times a day, we can exercise holy dominion, instead of human dominion. Human dominion is power over, for selfish gain. God’s dominion is reconciliation with, for wholeness and peace. We can choose tofu instead of turkey.

At least three times a day, we can use our whole bodies to promote peace. Because how much sense does it make to speak and work for the Prince of Peace in one breath and gnaw on the corpse of a tortured, mutilated animal in the other? We can choose peanut butter instead of pigs.

At least three times a day, we can live out our love of neighbor. Because why should our idea of neighbor end at our block, our city, our nation, our faith, our species? We can choose barley over bacon.

At least three times a day, we can choose empathy, compassion, and justice, qualities that are set aside when we nonhuman animals dehumanize one another to justify war, violence, and oppression. Evangelicals point to William Wilberforce as a peacemaking hero, one who worked doggedly to end the slave trade in England as a direct outpouring of his love for God and his faith. We rarely mention that Wilberforce was also deeply concerned with the humane treatment of nonhuman animals and was a founding member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty
to Animals. When we choose wheat instead of meat, we fully embody the qualities that allow us to stand in solidarity with and care for those who are weak and persecuted.

The violence endured by nonhuman animals is systemic, sustained, and on a scale that is nearly impossible to comprehend. In the US alone, 27 billion nonhuman animals are killed each year for food. They are bred, born, and raised in conditions that deny every God-given natural instinct. Chickens and turkeys have their beaks seared off when they are days old. Cows and pigs have their teeth cut out, their tails cut off, and are castrated without pain relief. Cows’ horns are gouged out of their heads. After living cramped in mud, feces, and filth, they are thrown
into crates or prodded onto trucks for a long and terrifying trip to a slaughterhouse, where they are hung upside down and their throats are slit. Many are still alive and able to feel pain when slaughterhouse workers begin to rip the skin or feathers from their bodies. Every minute of their miserable lives is marked by violence.

At least three times a day, we can remind ourselves that the kingdom of God has been here, is here now manifested in the Holy Spirit, and will be here again. We live in the tension of the already and the not yet. While evangelicals are increasingly abandoning the idea that “this world is not my home” and instead working in any small capacity to make this home more accurately reflect that kingdom ideal, let’s remember that our image of what the world should and, more importantly, can look like is found in Genesis 1 and 2. It is peaceful. It is nonviolent. It is the whole of creation fully reconciled to God and one another. It is a world without death, including the death of nonhuman animals. It is a vegetarian world.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of PRISM Magazine.

7 reasons i’m a christian vegan

“Why are you vegan?”

It’s one of the first questions people ask when they discover that I don’t eat or wear animal products, buy products that are tested on animals, or pay to see animals used in entertainment. And while there are more and more Christian vegans (look for the guy at the church potluck with a plate of raw vegetables, hovering over the dish he brought that has a little vegan-friendly protein), we’re still a bit of an anomaly in the church.

Because we church folk like to eat, the question often comes up around a meal. And, honestly, I feel a little awkward telling you about how that chicken leg you’re eating belonged to a bird who was raised in filth, had her beak hacked off when she was a baby, was probably crippled before her six-week-birthday, and then died a terrifying and gruesome death.

So, here’s “why vegan” in a nutshell. If you’re like me and have already adopted a more compassionate lifestyle, but aren’t sure how to talk about it to your church friends, this list can help you, too.

  1. Eating meat and dairy products supports cruelty to animals, and I don’t want to do that.
  2. Expanding on that—when it comes to using animals to satisfy human desires or to feed human greed, animal welfare will always lose to profit.
  3. The Bible tells us that Eden was vegan and paints a portrait of a new Jerusalem where death and crying and mourning will be no more. If we were vegan then and will be vegan again, why not begin to live into that Kingdom promise now?
  4. The movement of God is towards reconciliation—reconciliation of humans to God, to one another, and to the rest of creation. I want to move with the Spirit of God.
  5. Jesus’ life demonstrated again and again that we were to reach beyond what was comfortable and love the ones who were least like us. Given the systemic way we use and abuse animals today, I think that charge of neighborly love should apply to the furry, finned, and feathered as much as it applied to the leper, prostitute, and Gentile then.
  6. Eating meat and dairy is bad for the environment. This is especially damaging to our brothers and sisters in rural communities and in the global south, where the brunt of the effects of climate change (of which animal agriculture is a main contributing factor) are felt.
  7. Eating meat and dairy is a terrible waste of resources. We use far more than our fair share of grain, water, air, and land when we consume diets that include animal products.

There are a number of excellent resources for Christians who want to learn more about how their use of animals impacts the whole world. You can start by checking out ESA’s articles on animal protection.

This article originally appeared on

the greatest of these

An itty bitty preview of the opening of a chapter on loving the Other, from my forthcoming book with Zondervan.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Luke 6:27-28

I have never got along all that well with children. As a child, I chose books over other kids more often than not. I never had a huge group of friends, always preferring the steady company of a few intimates. As a high schooler, I got jobs in food service instead of spending my evenings and weekends babysitting for car insurance and spending money. So when I was pregnant with my son, I was grateful to read that some mothers don’t instantly bond with their newborns, and that it might take a while for him to grow on me, even after he’d grown in me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, at his birth, I felt a powerful, visceral, overwhelming, aching love for this little purple-red creature. A love that has only increased as the years have gone on. A love that is courage-giving and terrifying, powerful and vulnerable and utterly confounding. Confounding in part because he’s not always very nice to me. There is a lot of whining. A lot of ingratitude. Some screaming and tantrum throwing and “I hate you’s.” He can be demanding, spoiled, selfish…just really obnoxious. There are times when I just want to roll my eyes, tell him to shut up, run away, show him how much worse he could have it.

But I love him with my whole heart. And when the day is over and he’s finally asleep, I look at his face that is a mirror of my own, and I listen to him breathe, and I curl his tiny fingers around mine and thank God for entrusting me with this miracle of life, this funny, sweet, smart, often-caring, fast-growing little boy.

As my son was born of me, we are born of God. The loving gaze with which I watch my son is tepid, the aching love a shadow compared to the fire of love God carries for us.

And so it should come as no surprise that the God whose love catalyzed a universe asks us to love not only those who are easy to love, and not only those to whom we are biologically pre-conditioned to love, but those who are least like us and who like us least.

Grace is costly, and love is hard.

Jesus’ life was an ode to the love of Other. He gathered rejects, bridged social and traditional divides, and turned the notions of hospitality, mercy, and justice on their heads. Piety is out, compassion is in. When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, we learn that neighbors are those who love “the least of these.” In this chapter, we explore the limits of love. How are we called to extend mercy to “the least of these”? Who is our neighbor? And we will ask especially what it might mean to view animals as our creaturely neighbors and to extend neighborly love to them.

that moment

That moment when you realize that the…

  • aches and pains
  • bone-crushing exhaustion
  • total inertia
  • mood swings
  • hiding from people
  • flaking out on responsibilities

Might not be PMS or jet lag.

And you’re already getting pharmaceutical help.

So, there’s some shit you really actually need to deal with, like for real.

Pushing it down with food isn’t working.

Ignoring it isn’t making it go away.

And you don’t really know where to start.

Well, you do.

Well, I do.

But prayers turn to sawdust on my tongue. Tangle in my brain.

If I’m tired of my own voice, surely God is, too.

Tired of the same questions, the same doubts, the same struggle.

So tired.