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 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.

a list compiled in retrospect: 24 things to ask before you book on airbnb

  1. Apartment or house? How many units in the building?
  2. If apartment, is there a secure entrance?
  3. If apartment, what floor is the unit on? Is there an elevator? Does the elevator smell of urine?
  4. Does the entrance to the building/house smell of urine?
  5. Is the entrance to the building/house conducive to hiding individuals with nefarious purposes? Are there little alcoves right in front of the door serving as excellent hiding/sleeping spots?
  6. Carpet or hardwood?
  7. If carpet, installed which decade? Describe origin of visible stains.
  8. Are sheets and towels provided? Toilet paper? A garbage can?
  9. Where is the nearest Target?
  10. Water: drinkable or diarrhea-inducing?
  11. Central heating and cooling? If no, are the windows painted shut?
  12. Is smoking allowed in the building?
  13. If there’s no central air and smoking is not allowed in the building, is the bed situated in front of a window under which the neighborhood teenagers gather to smoke pot every day from 6:00-8:30 pm?
  14. When you lie down in bed at night, are you faced with the bottom half of gold-plaited male mannequin? Is it oddly slender?
  15. When I look at the bed and sofa, what is the likelihood I will suspect they contain bed bugs?
  16. Is there a shower?  Or are guests limited to baths?
  17. If shower: would you describe the shower pressure as firehose-like, normal, or the equivalent of tiny fairies splashing you with morning dew?
  18. Is there a spider nest hidden in the bathroom window?
  19. Is your toilet “fussy”?
  20. Is there wireless? Does it work regularly? Does one of your neighbors have a wireless network called “Penis Penis Penis”?
  21. Is there food in the refrigerator? When’s the last time you looked in there?
  22. Is there a coffee maker? Do you only buy decaf coffee and herbal tea?
  23. Will one find silverware in a drawer, or will one search frantically for flatware for fifteen minutes before realizing it’s all stuffed into a glass near the coffee maker?
  24. Do the coffee shops in your neighborhood open before 6 am? Before 7? Come on…before 8?!
  25. Please select the number of hours your neighbors practice musical instruments, sing, or watch their theater-sized TV with full surround sound daily: 1-5; 6-10; more than 10.

Intention Isn’t the Point or the Problem

Let’s keep calling them like we see them!

More Than Serving Tea

“I’m sorry if…”

“I didn’t mean to offend…”

“I didn’t intent to hurt anyone…”

“I’m sorry, but…”

“I’m not racist. My best friend is (fill in the blank)…and I love eating (fill in the blank)…”

It’s not your intention. It’s how messages are received and interpreted in the present and later as history. If intention was the problem, sins of the father and mother like slavery and genocide wouldn’t be an issue because I’m told folks back in the day really, honestly, truly believed with no malice that White was right. And some slave owners were doing what was required of them to make a living, right? They didn’t intend to create an unjust, unequal system that generations later remains broken. Lots of harm, but no foul because they didn’t intend harm, right?

No. NO! Wrong! WRONG!

Yet the defense of  ignorant – if not racist, racially-insensitive, questionable, unwise, or…

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War Zone

I was sitting in a small hermitage in the middle of the woods outside of Philadelphia this weekend, on one of the short writing retreats that I am taking to help find time to write this book. Sipping a glass of wine and reading a book, I was enjoying the sound of crickets and the leaves rustle when the still night air was punctured with an explosion. That was followed by three more quick pops in a row, and thunderous booms.

Fireworks.

It took me a few minutes to see them through the trees, but there they were, interrupting my Zen-Lord-help-me-be-in-this-moment reverie. The windows of my cabin shook, my heart started to race. I could feel the explosions in the floor and walls. Then, just as suddenly as they had begun, stillness.

I fucking hate fireworks.

After a few seconds of confusion, I knew what was happening in the still woods around me. I had a word for it and knew that it would eventually come to an end.

You know who doesn’t have a word for the chaos? Wildlife. Terrified birds who literally drop dead out of the sky every year due to fucking fireworks. Deer trying to protect their babies from this unseen, booming assailant. The dogs and cats in houses who cower in closets, shaking, long after the onslaught stops.

If you like explosions, move to a warzone and take your damn fireworks with you.