"Is caring for animals a valid Christian concern?" was the first in our recently begun frequently asked questions series. Another question which seems to come up almost as quickly, especially when just beginning to wonder how caring for animals fits into the rest of our walk and community of faith, is something along the lines of, "But don't we have other priorities as Christians?"
Even as we come to understand and believe that animals are loved by their Creator, and that He cares about how we treat them, it still seems hard to know exactly where to place this issue on the scale of spiritual significance, and what lengths we should go to in responding to it.
I felt the same way less than four years ago, as I was beginning to find myself more and more drawn to animals, and affected by the glimpses I caught of their suffering. It made to sense that I was supposed to love and care for my own pets, and give myself freedom to invest in a cause like pet rescue and adoption. But I honestly struggled to know, especially sitting in seminary classes surrounded by fellow students preparing for some form of ministry, to what extent I could ask or expect other Christians to be concerned with animal causes.
I understood by and large why the Church focused on other issues, especially our relationship to God and to each other, and (albeit to a lesser extent) on human needs and injustices. That's certainly what the Bible seemed to focus on, especially the New Testament, which was all about the formation of God's community and kingdom. But over the course of that school year and on into the Summer, I began to realize that I, along with most of my brothers and sisters in Christ, had underestimated the significance of animal stewardship in God's desire and plans for the world, especially where His own people were concerned.
Here's a very basic answer (posted on our FAQ page) which slowly dawned on me as I thought about how caring for animals might fit into our community and practice of faith:
It's natural to wonder whether caring for animals will take away time and resources from evangelism and discipleship, and other pressing community and humanitarian needs. And while the Bible makes clear that the first priority of God's kingdom is to respond to these needs, we also must remember that the first responsibility which God gave humanity in Genesis was to care for His creation and creatures.
We can’t simply set this responsibility aside, especially when animals are often suffering exactly because of our own neglect and misuse. The apostle Paul tells us they are waiting for our redemption in fact, and our community's response to the gospel must in some way involve caring for God's creatures. But we can also celebrate knowing that different members of Christ's body bring different passions and callings to the table.
Our first question, and the great contributions that accompanied it, touched on more of our basic motivation for caring for animals, and you can read more about our calling of stewardship, the fallen world we live in, and creation's hope of redemption here on our blog, as well as on our motivation page. But before signing off I wanted to share a couple of quotes which are quite poignant when it comes to the dilemma of priority in particular, the first from Matthew Scully:
It is true that there will always be enough injustice and human suffering in the world to make wrongs done to animals seem small and secondary. The answer is that justice is not a finite commodity, nor are kindness and love. When we find wrongs done to animals, it is no excuse to say that more important wrongs are done to human beings, and let us concentrate on those. A wrong is a wrong, and often the little ones, when they are shrugged off as nothing, spread and do the gravest harm to ourselves and others. (Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (St. Martin's '02), pg. xii)
And from Robert Wennber, author of God, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe (Eerdmans '03):
The picture that comes to mind here is that of an enormously long line of needy individuals, with humans at the front of the line where they belong and animals at the rear of the line where they belong. And our task as Christians and humanitarians is to start at the front of the line and work systematically back toward the end of the line. The assumption is that … we will never get to animals, unless we do what we should not do, namely, skip over humans …
On this logic there will be no cup of water given in the name of Jesus, only gospel tracts and an invitation to accept the message found in those tracts. For those of us who take that message seriously, it may come as a shock to us when we first discover that Jesus and the biblical tradition of which he is the culmination never adopt “the logic of the line.” Rather, needs are met as they are encountered.
Wennberg goes on to suggest that certain people will definitely feel called to focus on certain ministries and causes because of our unique predispositions, gifts and the contexts in which we find ourselves. "But together, we believe, we constitute the Body of Christ, ministering in the world as Christ would minister." Still, even those of us who concentrate on certain causes will be confonted with other legitimate needs from time to time, and rightly so. Wennberg believes we need to get beyond the mentality of the line of priorities so that we can "develop the full range of compassions, sympathies, and concerns that ought to be characteristic of those being conformed to the image of Christ." (pg. 11-13)
Amen. What an amazing thought that we could collectively represent God's concerns as the global body of Christ, and also within our own local church communities, perhaps even communites of common cause? I think there's an important truth for those of us who invest a great deal of our time in animal care concerns as well, that we are free to do so in reponse to God's calling on our hearts, but we're also free, even called, not to be single-issue people of our own variety.
(photos courtesy Daryl DeVries, Russell Duparcq/123rf.com (©))