Animals and the Church?

Some churches recently marked the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4) by integrating animals into their worship. Though many Christians find the practice strange at best, if not inappropriate, there are reasons why some communities of faith answer the question 'Who is my neighbor?' in such an all-encompassing way.

Who brings rain to a land "where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life"? (Job 38:25-26). God poses the question to a beleaguered Job and it is a striking one. Why indeed does God send rain to places where no humans live? How does that help us? Could it be that it is not all about us as so often assumed?

Animals are everywhere in the Christian Bible and yet the erasure of the nonhuman from theological contemplation has been commonplace from the earliest days of the church. We see this in the New Testament itself. Just look at 1 Peter 3:20 and 2 Peter 2:5 where the takeaway from the story of Noah's ark is that only eight humans survived the flood. These verses notwithstanding, there remains a number of ways the Bible celebrates animal life and challenges our anthropocentrism. Consider these stories:

  1. ... the first creation story where God declares animals good even before humans walk the earth (Genesis 1:24-25). A merely instrumental view of animals overlooks the fact that God values them quite apart from anything they provide us.

  • ... the deep longing in Scripture for an alternative to the pervasive violence that mars the world of our experience. The origin stories of Genesis (1:29-31; 2:18-20) and depictions of eschatological restoration (e.g., Job 5:22-23; Isaiah 11:6-9) envision creation at peace with itself. Jesus coexisting with "wild animals" (Mark 1:12-13) reflects this longing for the kingdom of God in its fullness. If "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is the Christian's prayer, nonviolence toward animals is both an aspiration to return to Edenic innocence and to manifest the Isaianic peaceful kingdom in the present.
  • ... explicit statements about God's concern for animals, as in the question put to Jonah: "should I not be concerned about Nineveh ... in which there are [many] persons ... and also many animals?" (4:11). Even sparrows that humans value little (two "sold for a penny") matter to God (Matthew 10:29).
  • ... ancient Israel's animal protection legislation (e.g., Exodus 23:4-5; Deuteronomy 22:6-7, 10). In Deuteronomy 24:1-25:4 a list of vulnerable members of the community includes both people (divorced women, the poor, aliens in the land, orphans, widows) and animals (25:4). All deserve the protection and generosity of those in a position to offer it. And despite the claims of some, St. Paul does not negate this mandate for Christians (1 Corinthians 9:9-10). His concern is the inclusion of hungry evangelists in that broad category of the needy, not the exclusion of oxen.
  • ... the frequency of all-encompassing language in the Bible that obviously includes animals. Read Colossians 1:15-20, for instance, and observe how often the term "all things" appears. Does our theologizing and faith-motivated praxis take cues from such comprehensive visions of creation, or like Job do we forget God sends rain to places where no humans live?
  • To be sure, there is ambiguity in the Bible on this topic but enough is clear to warrant a conversation. Is the church justified when silent in the face of senseless cruelties, or indifferent toward the plight of the nonhuman? Think of species loss due to environmental degradation or factory farming where all manner of deprivations and mutilations occur as part of the meat and dairy industry. What about cruel entertainments like bull fighting, greyhound racing, and rodeos, or wasteful and horrific harvesting practices for unnecessary food delicacies (shark-finning for soup; force-feeding geese for foie gras; confining calves for veal)?

    Caring for animals does not mean the neglect of needy people, as though God's grace and the church's capacity for compassion are in short supply. What we need is a willingness to extend generosity and hospitality to all living things, just as God's concern includes but is not limited to the human residents of Nineveh. In the end, it seems, it's not just about us.