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.

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.
breath-chickens
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 EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org

desert islands, life rafts, and house fires

My dad has been reading some of my evangelical animal liberation theology book chapters and giving me feedback. I really appreciate his comments and thoughts because he thinks very differently about this issue than I do, and I need someone to push back on my ideas, hard, to make me refine them, to force me to think about the foundations and implications of this theology that I want to articulate well.

A few mornings ago, he emailed me this question, that I’m sure my animal rights activist friends will recognize: “Would you kill your son to keep your dog alive if faced with a circumstance where you must chose between them? or Would you kill your dog to keep your son alive in those same circumstances?” He wanted to know “whether or not there is, in God’s creational economy, a difference between humans and other kinds of animals in terms of how they are valued by Him; and, secondarily, of how they are to be valued by humans who rightly understand that divine economy.”

My dad’s intentions are not to belittle my work, at all. In fact, he stopped eating chickens long before I did! But I had to giggle a little when I read the question, because I think most everyone who has self-identified as an “animal rights person” at some point in life has had someone ask them an iteration of this question, from “If you were trapped on a desert island and had to kill an animal to survive, would you?” to “If you were in a life raft, and you had to pick either your dog or a human to throw out, which would you choose?” to “If your house was on fire and you only had time to save your kid or your cat, which would you pick?”

It reminds me of this hysterical scene from the West Wing.

Given the visceral rage I felt at the 10-month-old girl who shoved four-month-old Isaiah over during his first week of pre-school, I think it’s safe to say that I would go to, quite literally, any length to try to protect my son from harm. I’d toss my crippled mother over the side of life-raft if it meant saving my son’s life (I think she’d be okay with this, she’s remarkably self-sacrificing).

Jesus actually asked his own versions of the desertisland-liferaft-housefire question:

  • “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Matthew 6:26
  • “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:29-31
  • “He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and life it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.'” Matthew 12:11-12

Why did Jesus use these analogies? Was it to make a point about how silly it was to care about animals? Not at all. Nekeisha Alexis-Baker adeptly addresses these passages in her essay, “Doesn’t the Bible Say that Humans Are More Important than Animals?” in A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for AnimalsAlexis-Baker argues that, “In these instances, Jesus’s message is that the Father’s care extends even to the nonhuman creation that humans devalue…Jesus invites his followers to look to creation to better understand how God works in the world.”

What we value, what value, probably doesn’t perfectly reflect what God values. And that’s a good thing. A really good thing. But these passages don’t tell us that God doesn’t value sparrows or sheep. And they certainly don’t tell us that it’s okay to use sparrows and sheep in whatever way happens to please us. For that matter, let’s think about how Jesus asks his followers to respond to those who are routinely undervalued and abused by their surrounding societies. Oh, yeah…we include, embrace, and protect them!

Maybe islands, rafts, and emergencies are where our ethical rubber meets the road. But maybe they’re just places where, in a fallen world, we are forced to make heart-breaking and unfair choices. Maybe God’s heart is as broken by those moments as ours would be. In the meantime, in the day-to-day economy of the created world, we are given the freedom to choose compassion, reject cruelty, and practice kindness. I think those choices we make every day at the grocery store, in our kitchen, at a restaurant, at the drug store, choosing what clothes to buy, where to shop, how to spend our money…I think those choices are far more meaningful.