Let's Talk About Animal Abuse
by Tyler M. John
In September 2014, the Humane Society reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation Director had signed off on making animal cruelty offenses into their own category of Group A felonies. Other crimes listed in this way include top-tier felonies such as homicide, arson, and assault. The decision followed several studies showing that young people who torture and kill animals are prone to violence against humans later in life if left unchecked. Classifying animal abuse in this way will help animal abusers get more serious sentences and, hopefully, get help before they cause any further harm.
These findings probably do not come as a surprise to Christians, who have long believed that sin has a special power to distort the soul, warping the image of God in us. Dominican Friar Walter Farrell writes that "sin corrupts or wounds human nature. This is true both of Original Sin and of personal, actual sin." Proverbs 11 makes much of the compounding effects of virtue and of vice, arguing that "the righteousness of the blameless keeps their ways straight, but the wicked fall by their own wickedness." And the most telling words of all are in the first chapters of Genesis, in a story about how sin broke the whole world. Vice ensnares us and deforms our personalities, and it comes as no surprise that senseless cruelty begets further senseless cruelty.
But if animal abuse is sinful, cruel, and senseless, this raises a lot of serious questions that Christians do not often ask. It raises questions about how Christians should treat animals. Animals are unlike rocks and plants in that they can be the subject of great cruelty and abuse. We can make them suffer, and we naturally feel empathy when see animals in great pain. Many animals have emotion, sensitivity, and relationships, just like us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church invites us to recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Philip Neri treated animals, and states that "animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory." Jesus seems to agree. While humans do not care much about sparrows, he says, "not one of them is forgotten in God's sight."
But when we look to the Bible, a complicated picture of humanity's relationship with animals emerges. First, humans are created as high holy stewards of creation and told to eat only vegetables. In the Genesis 2 creation account God forms animals out of the ground and brings them to Adam, searching for a suitable partner for him. This shows us that God created animals to be our companions. But just two chapters later, humans begin to sacrifice animals, and God finds this pleasing! After the flood narrative, we are told that animals were spared so that they "may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth." But hardly a breath later, God tells humans that they are permitted to eat animals. We would be fooling ourselves to think the Bible gives easy answers here. What do we make of all of this?
In a longer piece, we could take a look at every reference to human-animal relationships in scripture and see what picture emerges. But for now, I think we can simply take a look at Jesus. The author of 1 Corinthians argues that Jesus is the second Adam, and Colossians states that he is "the image of the invisible God." Jesus is the image of God restored in a human being, and our supreme moral example. Jesus perfectly embodies the high holy dominion that Adam was first created for. So what does Jesus' dominion over creation look like?
Christian ethicist Charlie Camosy says that "Jesus' dominion is one of self-sacrificial love for vulnerable populations on the margins… and animals are a vulnerable population on the margins." Animals are unable to rally and organize themselves – they are the most voiceless population of all, and depend on us for their protection. Jesus' dominion seeks out the neglected, the downtrodden, and the despised. Jesus' dominion gives life to a Samaritan woman and to a gentile (who Matthew calls a Canaanite!), members of the most overlooked and despised classes of people in Jewish society. The one who calls himself the Good Shepherd, and seeks out the one sheep that wanders from the fold, is no cruel master. He is the one whose self-sacrifice protects those whom society refuses to protect.
Jesus aimed to re-orient our focus toward those on the margins, so it's surprising that our churches rarely talk about our responsibilities toward animals. Perhaps this is because we are afraid; if we think too hard about this, we might have to become vegetarians! If this is our fear, it seems legitimate. After all, virtually all of the meat we ordinarily consume comes from industrialized factory farms, places intensely oppressive toward God's creatures and neglectful of their interests. But we need to face these fears. No one ever said taking up your cross would be easy. Or perhaps the reason we don't talk about animal abuse is because our culture tells us not to. Mass consumer culture teaches us not to ask questions. We can have what we want when we want it, at little cost to us. But Jesus teaches us a different lesson, inviting us to ask about the cost we pass on to the poor and powerless.
Let's talk about animal abuse. Let's have a conversation about how God's high holy stewards ought to care for the trillions of animals who share our world. How should we care for the 24 billion animals on our farms? How about the 100 million in our research labs, or the many millions who are our pets? Should those of us who no longer need to eat meat become vegetarians? Should we be omnivores, but carefully avoid contributing to mass industrial agriculture? Should we advocate for animal cruelty laws? There are many questions we must explore within our churches and faith communities. But the dominion of Jesus cries out to us, telling us that we cannot remain silent on issues of animal cruelty. Let's start talking about our relationship with animals, and show the rest of the world what it means to be kings and queens of creation.
Tyler John is a bioethics research fellow, the founder of Giving What We Can: DC, and an activist for our furrier neighbors. He writes on applied ethics, philosophy, and the place of non-human animals in Christian theology. He offers special thanks to Charlie Camosy for his helpful comments on this article.