this is pt. one of a personal reflection which I've been wanting to write for some time, and part of our creation care series ...
It was just under four years ago that a number of influences brought me to the cause of God's creatures. Just as I had been as a child, I found myself once again spellbound by the multifaceted wonder and dignity of animals, from the cats in my home to the wildlife I saw on river trail walks and in my backyard, the good, good pig I read about in a memoir or any number of enchanting creatures on tv. But it was their unmistakable individuality which gripped me most of all. Whether I could immediately make out a difference in their appearance or personality or not, I couldn’t escape the fact that these were individual creatures, beings which must each hold a unique value and relationship to their Creator.
This awareness, along with the distressing reports of animal cruelty and suffering which continued to filter in, motivated me to respond to the growing calling on my heart and do what I could to be a voice for animals in my home community of faith, where I knew firsthand how little consideration they received. I needed some sort of constructive outlet for the images which flashed before my mind’s eye of pets no less lovable than my own languishing without hope in shelter cages, of livestock with the light gone out of their eyes because they hardly have the space to move their limbs let alone be an animal, or the beautiful doe who bounced off my windshield one winter’s night and lay crippled and terrified by the side of the road. In these and so many other instances, from unspeakable brutalities committed behind closed doors to the everyday frailty and mortality of creaturely existence, I keenly felt the discrepancy between the enduring innocence God intended for animals and our relationship with them, and the reality they currently face.
And so I changed track in my final months at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with the gracious, if somewhat puzzled, help of my advising professor, and took up a capstone project on a biblical-theological foundation for animal welfare which also laid the groundwork for not one sparrow. I understood that the vast majority of my brothers and sisters in Christ, including my fellow students preparing for ministry, would have very different callings and passions. I also understood that most of them would, at a minimum, probably not know quite what to make of my own. But just as I had been largely oblivious only months previous to the suffering of God’s creatures and the seriousness with which He regards it, I trusted that He patiently longed for His people as a whole to grow in our awareness and responsibility for it.
As I read and took notes toward my paper, I was struck by how much quality material was available specifically on the subject of animal welfare and advocacy from a range of Christian perspectives. But I also remember being struck by an unexpected lack of input from a set of voices I had expected to be the next line of support, or at least genuinely interested. Environmental stewardship was gradually making inroads into the collective consciousness of the church, my own included, through the mainstream publicity garnered by folks like Al Gore and the ‘green’ movement, but also closer to home through the efforts of a small group of dedicated trailblazers and champions for what was coming to be known as ‘creation care.’ Surely these true visionaries who had such a remarkable grasp of stewardship and who cared so personally about God’s natural world would have a vested interest in the vulnerability and well-being of all His creatures.
And while their literature which I was able to consult naturally referred to animals collectively as falling under our mandate to care for creation, this usually seemed to be worked out in reference to wildlife and species or ecosystem preservation. I was disappointed by the general lack of attention to individual animals and their welfare, especially those most immediately and thoroughly under human control, for instance the tens of millions animals farmed in the U.S. alone each year. There were one or two notable exceptions to this paradigm that I happily found at the time, and more and more have surfaced in the few years since, which have been very meaningful to see. But I still fight the impression that conservationism is still the prevailing rule of thumb by and large when it comes to animals, or at least the leading priority among creation care advocates, similar to their colleagues in the broader environmental movement. Though it should be noted that creation care proponents are invested in conservation for the sake of human appreciation and use and for creation’s wholeness in and of itself, both on behalf of the One who sustains and takes pleasure in it.
But as a pragmatic guideline, conservationism seems to be an essential foundation for considering animals, but at the same time an insufficient framework for responding to both the scope and particularity of their suffering and needs, including that which we’re most directly responsible for through our lifestyle and consumption habits.
However, before looking at the largest domain of that responsibility run amuck in just a moment, and the profound implications which it bears for so many other human and environmental concerns, it would be acutely remiss not to acknowledge that the preservation and flourishing of species and the ecosystems to which they belong is no inconsequential starting point or minor commission in and of itself. Those who diligently labor and speak out on behalf of this undertaking, on both the most global and local scale, deserve the greatest respect and commendation, not to mention support from all of us in the animal advocacy community who may be focused on different causes. I’ll be the first to admit that wildlife care isn’t my field of expertise, even on an individual scale of rescue. It’s debatable whether any others are, as I struggle to stay even rudimentarily on top of a near-infinite range of concerns facing God’s creatures and our stewardship of them. But even more so than the worlds of farmed or companion animal welfare, I acutely feel the need to draw on the knowledge and caretaking of others when it comes to animals in the wild.
From never-ending urban sprawl throughout the globe and deforestation especially in the tropics, to canned and other inhumane hunting tactics in the affluent West and the poaching and trafficking of exotic and endangered species in developing countries; from worldwide over-fishing on an epic scale and the many repercussions of global warming and pollution for both domestic and international animals, to the countless, relatively smaller tragedies which befall wildlife on our roads and in our neighborhoods every day - an ever-mounting array of ominous hazards are working against them in our increasingly modern, industrialized and all too often careless global society. Mass endangerment and extinction are present realities to a terrible degree, not simply alarmist threats. To pass along just a few of the more disheartening lines in Anna Clark’s recent and otherwise hope-filled Green, American Style (Baker ’10, pg 43-44):
What scientists are seeing is not your typical cyclical occurrence in nature. There are now 405 identified dead ocean zones worldwide, up from 49 in the 1960s. (The Gulf of Mexico has a dead zone the size of New Jersey.) … Over half of Europe’s amphibians could be gone by 2050. At the current rate of extinction, half of all living bird and mammal species will be gone within 200 or 300 years [ScienceDaily].
... Nearly one-third of the world’s wildlife has been lost since 1970, according to a report released by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the World Wildlife Fund, and the Global Footprint Network. “You’d have to go back to the extinction of the dinosaurs to see a decline as rapid as this,” says Jonathan Loh, ZSL scientist and editor of the report. “In terms of human times-scales we may be seeing things change relatively slowly, but a decline of 30 percent in the space of a single generation is unprecedented in human history.” Indeed, the scientific data in study after study demonstrate that we are losing species at a rate of 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate.
These creatures who praise God in some way by their very existence and relationship to their Creator (cf. Psalm 148) must also be crying out to Him for relief and protection. And this is a cry which our same Lord long-sufferingly but resolutely in turn directs at those He called to be their representatives and stewards, if Hosea and the apostle Paul are to be taken seriously:
Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: "There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying.” (Hosea 4:1-3, all passages NIV)
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:19-22)
to be continued ...
(photos courtesy & copyright Daryl DeVries, Steve Pointer and Kelly Boreson/123rf.com)