Animal Welfare, Animal Rights, or a Third Way?
by Sarah Withrow King
Animal suffering matters. But what is our duty as God’s image-bearers in response to their suffering?
A coalition of evangelicals have agreed on a few points, set out in an Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals, launched as part of a national campaign called Every Living Thing. The statement is accompanied by an explanatory essay that expounds on the rationale and scriptural context behind each of the statement’s assertions. The statement makes important claims, including that animals belong to God and have value to God independent of their use to humans. It is a decidedly pro-animal-welfare document, meaning that it states that animals are intended for human use, including for human consumption, but that it is our responsibility to treat them with mercy and refrain from cruelty.
Animal rights proponents might view the statement with some skepticism. Is it absurd to talk about mercifully eating a fellow creature of God? Is it really possible to avoid cruelty in the production of animal products?
Animal welfare advocates and animal rights advocates appear to agree on at least one thing: Animals aren’t ours. On its website, animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) states: “Supporters of animal rights believe that animals have an inherent worth—a value completely separate from their usefulness to humans.” Compare that to one of the evangelical statements: “We understand from Scripture that … God has given all animals the breath of life, that He sustains them, that they belong ultimately to Him, and that He has declared them ‘good,’ indicating they have value to Him independent of human use.”
Despite this common ground, there are significant differences between an “animal welfare” and “animal rights” mindset.
The PETA statement quoted above goes on to say, “We believe that every creature with a will to live has a right to live free from pain and suffering … Only prejudice allows us to deny others the rights that we expect to have for ourselves.” The praxis of animal rights is, in my view, righteous: Acknowledge the inherent worth of every living creature and make choices to reduce our contribution to their suffering. But here’s where the philosophy of animal rights diverges, I believe, from our call as followers of Christ.
I belong to a few groups on Facebook that provide an opportunity for me to interact with folks who share my various interests, including back-of-the-pack running, the TV show The West Wing, and Christian vegans and vegetarians. A woman who belongs to one of the latter groups posted a question about eating eggs. She knows that eating eggs from farms likely contributes to suffering; even if hens don’t live in battery cages or aren’t crammed into massive, filthy warehouses, they all end up on one slaughter line or another. Her question generated a firestorm of comments, too many of which were teeming with vitriol, judgment, and condemnation. “You can’t call yourself a VEGAN if you eat eggs,” internet-screamed some commenters. Others quipped, “Please stop promoting WELFARISM on this page for vegans.” “Either you’re vegan or not; either you’re Christian or not,” said another. The consensus among commenters was that consuming any animal products promotes and perpetuates not only a cruel industry but also the false idea that animals are here for us to consume. Only a few of the respondents pointed out that no person is able to live a life completely free from harm. It was a depressing display from a group that purports to promote compassion, and it reinforced the negative stereotypes of both vegans and Christians as hysterical and self-righteous.
Right there on Facebook was a modern reflection of the struggles over food purity laws that distracted and divided the early church, and what Christian ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues comes from our attachment to “rights.”
“For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:17-19).
Hauerwas says, “…for Christians, the moral life is to be seen as a journey through life sustained by fidelity to the cross of Christ, which brings a fulfillment no law can ever embody.” We Christians today are still distracted and divided by who is in and who is out, by labels other than “child of God,” and by whether our brother or sister is abiding by whatever set of rules we’ve decided make a “true” Christian. We haven’t learned much in 2,000 years, in part because we are still on the journey to the kingdom.
I like rules and order. My natural inclination is to the see the world in extremes. You are right or wrong, and there is nothing in between. Because of the grace that has been extended to me through Jesus on the cross and through Jesus in others, I have just barely begun to be able to allow gracious space for others to listen and respond to the Spirit.
A third way?
The philosophy of animal welfare tries to make the best of a bad situation, works to make life and death a little better for God’s animal creation. But as Christians, that seems to be an uninspired and myopic place from which to view the world and our place in it. The pursuit of animal welfare alone doesn’t do justice to the vision of peace that we anticipate when the kingdom of God is fully realized. Providing bigger or cleaner cages, pain management for routine mutilations like castration and de-beaking, and less painful deaths are three steps that are better than no steps, but they strike me as a detour off the path of true reconciliation.
For Christians, the language of “rights” must be problematized, complexified. You and I don’t have “rights” to our own bodies, nor to the bodies of others. Human bodies and animal bodies belong to God. As Christians, certainly we reject the notion that we have a “right” to live free from pain and harm. This is simply not biblical language. What we are called to, as Hauerwas says, is to live life “as a gift of time enough for love.” In other words, we don’t focus on a rigid list of do’s and don’ts. We love God, and we love our neighbor. The whole of the scripture is summed up in those two commands, and the specifics are left to us to discern in communion with the Holy Spirit and in community with other believers.
And animals? Their purpose is to worship and glorify God. The Bible doesn’t speak of their “right” to live lives free from harm either. They and we are fellow creatures waiting in anticipation for the full realization of a world “on earth, as it is in heaven” and in which violence and sorrow will be no more. Our purpose is to love one another, to care for and provide the gracious space for humans and animals to flourish in all their humanity and animality.
I think this gracious space is where we find a third way of relating to animals that doesn’t fall into the polarizing “animal rights” vs. “animal welfare” debate.
Practicing a third way
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17-18)
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Freedom to choose, freedom from the tyranny of evil systems and the freedom to shirk off participation in counter-kingdom fallacies that keep some “othered” and some with the damaging idea that they are better or more beloved. Most of us don’t have to eat animals, but many humans choose to out of habit. We’ve told ourselves for centuries that it’s normal to kill and eat other creatures beloved by God, and that somehow makes it okay.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:16-19)
Animal welfare and animal rights are human points of view. The third way, the kingdom-oriented way, the way of reconciliation, embraces the freedom we have in Christ to choose to love God and to love each other, including all creation. To choose to reconcile to God and to reconcile to one another, including all creation. To choose to serve God and to serve one another, including all creation. The third way doesn’t need a label or a set of instructions. The third way, the way of inclusion, embrace, and restoration, flows naturally out of grace-filled lives centered around the love of Jesus Christ, who subjected himself to us and gave himself up for us. Can we give up our habits, our preferences, our cravings, and do the same?