Holy Week and the Groaning of Creation

by David Clough

st kevin and the blackbirdI find Holy Week a difficult time. Following the story of Jesus’ final days and death draws me close to past grief, especially for my mother nine years ago. The first Holy Week after she died it took all my strength to be in church at all between Palm Sunday and Easter Day. This year I am conscious of other deaths, too: of drowned migrants trying to reach Europe’s shores, of the victims of aerial bombing in Syria, of the deaths of African Americans at the hands of US police highlighted in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, of the deaths resulting from cutting benefits to vulnerable people in Britain, of the four people each week who commit suicide in UK prisons. I’m in the middle of drafting a book on the ethics of the way we treat other animals, so the vast numbers of deaths we inflict on these fellow creatures as we process them into food products are also strongly present in my mind. It’s demanding stuff. Couldn’t we just skip to Easter?

I’ve been reflecting on Paul’s vision of a groaning creation with a Lenten group at church in the past weeks (Romans 8.18–25). I hadn’t thought of it before in connection with Holy Week, but this year the link seems inescapable. The groans of fellow human and non-human creatures have never sounded louder to me. Paul doesn’t make any attempt to deny or diminish them. I don’t know what he knew about labour pains, and I don’t fully know what they’re like either, but I have never witnessed more intense pain than Lucy’s, when I held her hand through the births of our three children. In using that image, Paul’s vision takes seriously both the maternal work of delivering a child and the severity of the experience of being a creature in these days of groaning.

What struck our church group in conversation is that picturing the groaning of creation as labour pains is a way of maintaining hope in what is to come without affirming that things are getting better. During a woman’s labour, things don’t get better, they get worse and worse. That’s a good match for Holy Week: the happy scenes of Jesus’ triumphal entry give way to betrayal, and desertion, and unfaithfulness, and isolation, and severe pain. And yet. And yet after the searing moment at which the baby’s head crowns, the pain recedes and the new life of this child is shockingly present with us. And yet after the searing moment at which Jesus cries out, the sun goes dark, the earth shakes, the rocks split, and the Temple curtain is torn in two, we know that we can await with confidence the rolling away of the stone, the quiet dawn, and the resurrection of our saviour. Maybe I can do Holy Week this year after all.

Another death has been on my mind. The theologian Steve Webb took his life earlier this month, after suffering from depression for a long time, and writing about it memorably in First Things in February. I didn’t know Steve well, but I very much appreciated his theological work on animals (On God and Dogs & Good Eating), and we had met and conversed at conferences. He had a strong sense of the place of animals in the purposes of God, and his words about their place in redemption is particularly poignant to me today:

Animals share not only in God’s grace but also in the sufferings of the world. That animals are morally innocent does not mean they do not need redemption, if redemption means deliverance from suffering. Only if the afterlife is imagined solely as a place of judgment does moral capability play such a determining role. What if heaven is not about reward and punishment, but rather redemption and consolation? What if heaven allows for the completion of what is left incomplete in this life? This would connect the afterlife to the notion of justice, not the psychology of the fear of death and the desire for more living and infinite pleasure. Keith Ward has spoken eloquently about animal afterlife. “If there is any sentient being which suffers pain, that being — whatever it is and however it is manifested — must find that pain transfigured by a greater joy.” Indeed, that justice demands an afterlife for those unable to make the best of their situation in this life is the best reason to believe in an afterlife for humans as well. (On God and Dogs, 175)

In his sermon ‘The General Deliverance’, John Wesley famously preached that Romans 8 puts the place of animals in the new creation beyond doubt. He lamented the suffering that human beings inflict on animals and looked forward with Paul to the day when they would be released from this oppression. Steve shared that vision, and believed Christians should take seriously the biblical ideal of vegetarianism as ‘dietary pacifism’ in which we cease to inflict violence on other creatures by killing them unnecessarily for food (Good Eating, 227).

So this Holy Week I’ll be sustained by Paul’s vision of the labour pains of God’s creatures transformed by the liberation of creation from its bondage, by hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the first fruits of all creation, and by the promise of a redemption that will allow for the completion of creaturely lives here cut short. I’ll hope, too, to find ways to share Steve’s challenge to fellow Christians to avoid worsening the groaning of creation through our consumption of animals, which would mean thinking about a Christian diet for Easter Sunday and beyond.

David is Professor of Theological Ethics in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester and is the founder and co-director of CreatureKind, a project to engage the Church on farmed animal welfare issues. He is currently serving as the President of the UK Society for the Study of Christian Ethics, convenes the Theological Ethics seminar at the Society for the Study of Theology, and Co-Chairs the Animals and Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion. David lives nextdoor to Chester Zoo, in North-West England, with his family of five humans, one cat, and three gerbils. He can be followed on Facebook or Twitter @DLClough.

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