The two words “animal rights” bring with them the weight of misconceived motives, extremist assumptions and utter ethical dilemmas. What does it mean for animals to have “rights”, and in what relation to human rights? Uncovering the topic, we find it really comes down more to morality than “rights” in the legal sense. How should animals be treated? What constitutes humane living? What does God say is our responsibility to them? And when do we go too far or not far enough in our place? Some people may accept the medical testing of animals to cure human diseases as just, but what about using animals to test for allergic reactions in a celebrity’s latest signature perfume? Does a cow deserve a life of fresh air and long walks if the beef will cost the budget-conscious consumer more, or does cheaper, more readily available food make the penned-up, antibiotic pumped life of factory farm animals necessary? How far should our God given dominion go? Vegetarian arguments aside (see “Insights From a Christian Vegetarian”, Spring 2009), we’ll look into the Christian perspectives of animal welfare, what it means to be humane, and where animals are in relation to a Christ-guided life. How is our care for animals reflecting who God is to the world, and do our own actions show care for his creation?
A MATTER OF PRIORITY: HUMAN LIFE VS. ANIMAL LIFE
Is animal life as valuable as human life? There’s an assumption that many advocates of animal rights value animal life and the quality of their existence as equal to or greater than human life. Some Christians consider Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 (NIV) “Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” as evidence of this equality, but most Christians reject this stance because this Scripture is often taken out of context as Ecclesiastes is difficult to translate and comes from the perspective of someone who seems to have no hope beyond this life. In their depression, the author of Ecclesiastes sees no difference between humans and animals. Some Christians cite Genesis 1:25-27 instead as evidence of a difference between humans and animals.
“God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Animals, though created by God, are not created in His image, setting humankind apart from the animal world. Because of this, the advocacy for humane treatment of animals and the animal rights issue looks more like it stems from ideals of morality rather than equality. To other Christians, it isn’t a matter of morality. While they agree that the mistreatment of animals for unnecessary means is wrong, animal rights come down to a matter of priority which dictates how they spend their time on earth. Animal rights and welfare take a backseat to the rights of humans and their well being. It is this matter of priority that governs their commitment to a specific cause, spending their limited resources of time or money on human interests instead of animal interests.
A SOUL WORTH SAVING: ETERNAL SIGNIFICANCE & ANIMALS IN HEAVEN
There is a constant debate whether animals have souls or not. If they do have souls, we can assume their soul is still very different than the human soul, because humans were created in God’s image and animals were not. The argument that animals do not have souls lowers the importance of animal rights for many, saying that without souls, animals are not worth saving or at least less pertinent. Ecclesiastes 3:21, referenced earlier as an argument for equality, is also sometimes seen as a reference point for the possibility of animals having souls or at least spirits. Ecclesiastes 3:21 (NIV) says, “Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” Part of this somewhat pessimistic question by the author implies that animals have spirits, and some accept the theory that from this passage, man’s spirit rises to Heaven while the animal’s spirit is lost in the earth. But it can’t actually be seen nor are there many additional references, so how can it be known for sure? Based on this verse alone, it’s difficult to make a solid argument for or against the souls of animals. You can also check out Eternal Life for Animals by Niki Behrikis Shanahan for one perspective on the Biblical evidence for animals having souls.
For other Christians, it comes down to the eternal significance of human and animal life and the difference in humans having free will and animals acting on instinct. Humans don’t have eternal life without knowing God but whether animals can have eternal life remains unclear. It is ultimately God’s choice. Some Scriptures suggest a heaven with animals involved, while other Scriptures question it. Isaiah 65:17-25 seems to give a picture of what heaven and earth will look like redeemed, and it includes animals:
“Behold, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
he who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere youth;
he who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the works of their hands.
They will not toil in vain
or bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
but dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.
It’s apparent here that animals do not need to have eternal life to be in heaven. We do not know whether animals are eternal or not, just that they are in heaven. What is clear is that Christians are at least given a great commandment to love God, and love each other and a great commission to share the Gospel and make disciples throughout the world. Whether animals are in heaven is not entirely the issue for many Christians, it’s whether animals rely on people sharing the Gospel to get there. Many think it’s this urgency that should dictate the decision of where to spend time or what cause to fight for. In Mark 16:15 however it says, “And He said to them, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” The reference to “creation” in this Scripture is a general term, so it’s hard to say what exactly was meant by it. Saint Francis of Assisi must have interpreted this scripture to include animals in “creation”, for he was known fondly for preaching to the natural world and for his advocacy of kindness and compassion towards animals. Could God have meant preaching to insects and trees? It’s not likely. Another Scripture, Psalm 104:21 says, “The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God,” making some assume that animals must have a sort of spiritual aspect be able to seek God, but this may be a stretch, seeing as the Psalmists’ words are more often interpreted as conveying the fact that God provides for animals, that He is their provider and protector much more than we are, and that their relationship with God is more likely not spiritual in the same way ours is. Johne Cook, a technical writer from Wisconsin says, “I’m all for the humane treatment of animals and conservation of our planet and its resources, but not as an exalted priority over [our Great Commission and Commandment]. I see treatment of animals and [the] environment as horizontal issues, being responsible for elements that are in our world around us for the moment, and spiritual concerns as vertical issues, being responsible for elements that will persist after our time on this world is over. Whether all dogs go to heaven isn’t my concern. Whether my neighbor does or not is.”
CREATURE OVER CREATOR: PETA AND EXTREMISM
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and their tactics have, for some people, given the whole idea of animal rights a bitter taste in their mouth. The motives behind the actions may be completely agreeable, but their specific brand of eco-terrorism is often not. Many Christians have a hard time advocating the animal rights cause because of the extremist behavior that’s often tied to it, going way too far in demonstrations or to make a point or making a god of their cause. PETA has a negative stigma, but there are other organizations that support a similar cause and aren’t always as extreme. Investigating different groups and their types of activities, campaigns and outreaches might give a better sense of who animal activists really look like. Some of these organizations are Animal Legal Defense Fund, StopAnimalTests.com, Fur Is Dead, SAFE (Save Animals From Exploitation) of New Zealand, RSPCA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) of Britain, Mercy for Animals, ASPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and The Humane Society of the United States.
Some Christians have a hard time fully accepting the animal rights cause because they do not want to be lumped into a group with animal activists—and the negative stereotypes accompanying them. One opinion is that the Christian duty is to care for animals, but not to exalt them. At the same time, many Christians view animal activists’ priorities, where unborn eagles can have more rights than unborn babies, as skewed. Instead of simply reexamining stereotypes, either that of Christians or animal activists, we need to take a closer look at how we treat all of God’s creation.
“The problem with some of us Christians is as a knee-jerk reaction, we throw the baby out with the bath water,” says Tamera Lynn Kraft, a children’s pastor from Akron, Ohio. “We become extremist and look like nuts as well. We should care for the environment but balance it with our care for society. We should treat our animals well as stewards of the Earth. Those who abuse animals are usually violent people who also abuse human beings. But people are more important than animals. People are made in the image of God and have a soul that chooses to serve God or not. Animals don’t have that same free will. They act on instinct.”
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITY: STEWARDSHIP & CARE OF ALL CREATION
Some Christians consider animal mistreatment as a direct disrespect of God’s creation, citing stewardship as a call to take the cause against animal cruelty to heart. Genesis 1:28 says, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” This relationship requires both respect and responsibility. Ultimately, God is the owner and controller of his creation, but we’re given use of it and are trusted to use it responsibly and act wisely. Many agree that we can be stewards of the earth while completing the Great Commission. The two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive.
Job 12:7-10 says,
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish of the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every creature
and the breath of all mankind. (NIV)
Some Christians take issue with the term “animal rights” because it creates confusion with what it means for animals to have “rights” in the first place. Are animals’ rights comparable to humans’ rights, like the freedom of speech, or the right to vote? This also implies that to have rights, you must also be responsible for those rights and not misuse them. Some argue that animals have no moral compass of their own; they live to survive, thus having ‘rights’ of their own is irrelevant. Perhaps it is the human ‘right’ of dominion of God’s plants and animals established in Genesis 1:28, that needs to be examined.
Some aren’t sure whether any biblical text really presents a true framework for what is today called animal rights, and it’s even debatable to what extent of inherent human rights are defined. Some argue that the Bible gives mandates and responsibilities but not necessarily rights in the way we understand them today. It’s more likely that rights are based on society’s interpretation of mandates and responsibilities from the Bible and other sources, rather than clearly stated rights outlined in Scripture.
It is through the assumption that our responsibilities, commandments, and mandates as they exist in the Bible correspond directly to inherent rights that has led to the construction of what people claim as “God-given” rights. A similar argument can be made for animals. While nearly all agree animals should not be mistreated, there is a wide spectrum of opinions on the lengths to which society should go to protect animals.
COMPASSION AND CHRIST GOING HAND IN HAND
“A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” – Proverbs 12:10
Compassion is something Christ had for all creation. It follows that as Christians, becoming Christ-like would also include becoming compassionate. With this perspective, the humane treatment of animals is part of our calling to become more like Christ. In Jonah 4:10-11, God has mercy and compassion for the Ninevites as well as their cattle and tells Jonah, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (ESV)
In Deuteronomy 25:4, God also orders against animal cruelty and not over-working or harming the animals under our care saying, “You shall not muzzle the ox when he treads out the grain.” (AB) In addition, Deuteronomy 5:14 outlines the Sabbath and includes the rest of animals as well:
“No working on the Sabbath; keep it holy just as God, your God, commanded you. Work six days, doing everything you have to do, but the seventh day is a Sabbath, a Rest Day—no work: not you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your ox, your donkey (or any of your animals), and not even the foreigner visiting your town. That way your servants and maids will get the same rest as you. Don’t ever forget that you were slaves in Egypt and God, your God, got you out of there in a powerful show of strength. That’s why God, your God, commands you to observe the day of Sabbath rest.” (The Message).
These biblical examples all advocate careful use of animals, rather than abuse or mistreatment, making the animal rights cause from this perspective–a worthy one.