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

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.

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.

Desmond Tutu FTW

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Photo credit: Wa-J)

“It is a kind of theological folly to suppose that God has made the entire world just for human beings, or to suppose that God is interested in only one of the millions of species that inhabit God’s good earth.”

Demond Tutu has written the foreword for a new book by Oxford theologian Andrew Linzey, who has spent decades developing theologies that honor all of God’s creations.

Here’s the whole HuffPo article, which also includes:

“I have seen firsthand how injustice gets overlooked when the victims are powerless or vulnerable, when they have no one to speak up for them and no means of representing themselves to a higher authority. Animals are in precisely that position. Unless we are mindful of their interests and speak out loudly on their behalf, abuse and cruelty go unchallenged.”

I’m so excited.