The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
Of the accounts of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, only Mark includes the following words: “He was with the wild animals” (1:13). Growing up in a developed suburban neighborhood, and living now in a major city, I find it pretty easy to gloss over this phrase. Jesus is in the wilderness. Of course, there are wild animals. What’s the big deal? But I need to remember what it would have been like for an early Christian to hear the words, and consider that they were chosen carefully.
My first encounter with a “wild” animal was a camel who spit on me at the Boise zoo. I can’t blame him. He was probably terribly bored, and I’m sure my reaction provided him a little amusement. The Boise zoo is a hideously depressing place. The enclosures are small and barren, and animals whom God created to roam free ought to be ticked off to be there. Aside from an occasional whale sighting off the Oregon coast, the raccoon mom who made a springtime nursery in one of our backyard trees, and city foxes foraging for food, my knowledge and observation of wild animals have come through television. When I think about wild animals, then, it’s from a very distant perspective.
But that’s not how a first-century Christian would have considered these words. At that time, sprawl hadn’t overtaken so many wildlife habitats. Real-life encounters with wildlife weren’t mediated by stone walls and chain-link fences. Yet thanks to the legacy of sin, the animals of the earth feared humans and acted accordingly.
So Jesus really should have been either hiding from the wild animals, protecting himself from them, or showing them who was boss. But Mark says he didn’t do any of those things. Jesus simply was with the wild animals. Bauckham points out that the Greek term Mark uses is a positive phrase, often used to indicate friendship and closeness.(1) Jesus didn’t just avoid harming the wild animals, or avoid being harmed by them; he made creatures commonly believed to be enemies of humans into friends.(2) It calls to mind Isaiah’s prophetic kingdom vision of interspecies harmony, a reality that is both Edenic and to come. Bauckham writes:
[Jesus’ peaceable companionship with the animals in the wilderness] . . . gains a new power for modern Christians in a world of ecological destruction. . . . Mark’s image of Jesus with the animals provides a Christological warrant for and a biblical symbol of the human possibility of living fraternally with other living creatures, a possibility given by God in creation and given back in messianic redemption. Like all aspects of Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of God, its fullness will be realized only in the eschatological future, but it can be significantly anticipated in the present.(3)
Not only can this picture of peaceful possibility point Jesus-followers toward practices that promote fraternal coexistence with our fellow creatures—it also mandates such a response. If we take seriously our call to live into the kingdom now, if it truly is “time to take our humble and responsible place within God’s abundant life, in which pain and death will be no more,”(4) should we start by not eating other creatures?
On the cross, God began a reconciling work. Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls it a “centripetal process”:
There is a movement, not easily discernible, at the heart of things to reverse the awful centrifugal force of alienation, brokenness, division, hostility, and disharmony. God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, harmony, goodness, peace and justice, a process that removes barriers. Jesus says, “And when I am lifted up from the earth I shall draw everyone to myself” as he hangs on the cross with outflung arms. Thrown out to clasp all, everyone and everything, in a cosmic embrace, so that all, everyone, everything belongs. None is an outsider, all are insiders, all belong.(5)
This centripetal process starts from the inside out. Volf argues that “the Spirit of God breaks through the self-enclosed worlds we inhabit; the Spirit re-creates us and sets us on the road to becoming . . . a personal microcosm of the eschatological new creation.”(6) When we enter into life with Jesus, we die to ourselves, making room for the other. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Letting our old ways pass away isn’t a piece of cake. Often when we speak up against exclusion, we are mocked, or worse. “To refuse to sing and march, to protest the madness of the spectacle, appears irrational and irresponsible, naïve and cowardly, treacherous toward one’s own and dangerously sentimental toward the evil enemy.”(7) People have accused me of emotionalizing, of being soft on animals. As if love somehow made us weak, not strong. What does it say about our view of God, of our Savior, and of Christianity, if looking on someone with compassion, if choosing to restrain our strength, if choosing mercy over violence are seen as mistakes, as weakness, as dangerous? Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Paul said it a different way: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
Jesus’ power is foolish power. God in flesh delivered to die on a cross after living as a social outcast? Crazy. Eating meat, going to the zoo, and wearing leather shoes used to be all I knew. But there’s a better way, and the reality of our current use and abuse of animals prompts us to follow it.
Sarah Withrow King is the Deputy Director of the Sider Center, the co-director of CreatureKind, and the author of two books, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology (Wipf & Stock) and Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan, 2016), from which this article is excerpted, by kind permission of the publisher.
1. Richard Bauckham, Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Baylor University Press, 2011), 108-9.
2. Ibid., 117.
3. Ibid., 110.
4. Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (InterVarsity Press, 2012), 157. While Bahnson and Wirzba’s book is inspiring, I often felt while reading it that the authors had more care and concern for trees, microorganisms, and dirt than for flesh-and-blood animals. A frustrating and persistent inconsistency in much “creation care” literature.
5. Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (Image Doubleday, 1999).
6. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon, 1996), 51.
7. Ibid., 88.