Closing out our FAQ series on animal rights is a helpful perspective from Dean Ohlman of RBC Ministries and The Wonder of Creation, and one which not one sparrow very much identifies with, "Animal Rights or Human Responsibility?" ...
The angel of the LORD moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her with his staff. Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now." The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” ”No,” he said. Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. (Numbers 22:26-31, NIV)
It seems to me that when we consider the proper treatment of animals we should speak of man’s responsibilities as steward rather than to speak of the rights of animals. It’s far easier for me to ignore the rights of others than it is to ignore my personal conviction that I have God-given responsibilities toward others. Since the Bible does not really mention rights in regard to animals, I feel it’s much more important for us to consider what the Bible means when it says we are to tend the Garden. The animals, like the remainder of the Creation, belong to God; and it is a major responsibility for me to do with them what is right in God’s eyes.
Many non-Christian animal-rights activists react strongly against the biblical idea that man has a superior position in respect to the animals—thinking that such a belief leads to human arrogance and to our frequent ill treatment of the other creatures who share this earth with us. (See the Wikipedia article on PETA.) But like so many other truths, it is not the belief that’s the problem; it’s what we do with that belief. While Christianity does not condone groundless sentimentality and the granting of personhood to animals, it does speak consistently of man’s responsibilities regarding them. Animals are creatures of God under the care of God’s stewards—mankind. For us to treat them as nothing or to treat them cruelly is clearly wrong.
In reality, humanity’s position of superiority should humble us; because for all our superiority, we are the ones who have sinned and continue to sin—not the animals. It is human sin that has created the havoc in the world that the animals must occupy (Romans 8:18-21). Thus superiority has, in sin, shown its potential to be a curse. Only in humble confession and submission before a holy God can we truly carry out the task of stewardship—the primary responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with our endowment of authority in the created order. As in all other relationships, prideful superiority has no place in man’s relationship to the world of animals.
I like what Francis Schaeffer said about this matter in his book Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology:
We should treat each thing with integrity because this is the way God made it. ... The value of the things is not in themselves autonomously, but that God made them, and thus they deserve to be treated with high respect. ... God treats His creation with integrity: each thing in its own order, each thing the way He made it. If God treats His creation in that way, should we not treat our fellow-creature with similar integrity? If God treats a tree like a tree, a machine like a machine, the man like a man, shouldn’t I, as a fellow-creature do the same—treating each thing in integrity in its own order? And for the highest reason: because I love God. I love the One who has made it! Loving the Lover who has made it, I have respect for the thing He has made. (pp. 54-57)
Think about Balaam in the Bible (Numbers 22). That rebel prophet was considering disobeying God in order to obtain wealth, and on his way to hear the lucrative offer, the donkey he was riding saw an angel standing in the way with a sword in hand. The prophet, who was thinking so much about financial profit, failed to see the messenger of God. His mount refused to move, and when Balaam beat it, the beast spoke up and complained about its treatment (“What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” vs. 28). The comical part of this story is that instead of falling off the donkey in surprise at the miracle of an animal that speaks, Balaam started to carry on a conversation with it! This amazing circumstance finally shocked the prophet into hearing God and seeing the angel. Then the angel spoke: “I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.”
Considering how so many of God’s non-human creatures often fare at the hands of people bent primarily on monetary gain, I feel that if animals could speak today, they would ask the same thing Balaam’s donkey asked, “What have I done to you [that you should treat us like this]?” Perhaps we need some similar shock for us to see that much of our reckless treatment of animals may eventually lead to God’s opposition to us—which, as Balaam discovered, is not an enviable position.
(many thanks to Dean Ohlman, a regular and valued contributor, for sharing "Animal Rights or Human Responsibility?", originally posted on his excellent blog The Wonder of Creation; photo courtesy my father Daryl DeVries, artwork from Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us (1897) via Wikimedia Commons)