taking the words of Jesus seriously

Editor’s Note: On this feast day, we are reprinting an important reminder of what St. Francis can teach us about love for all of God’s creation.

I am a huge animal lover, human and non human alike. I have a good role model for this love of animals in St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in the 12th century. Many know St. Francis as an advocate for those Jesus called “the least of these, ” but not everyone knows that he deeply loved all of God’s creation, human and non human alike (some of whom he may very well have seen as being included in “the least of these”). In fact St. Francis was named the Patron Saint of Animals and the Environment, and his Feast Day is October 4.  Some churches celebrate this day by having a “blessing of the animals” service. Our yellow lab Amelie, along with my sister-in-law and I, attended one of these services a few years ago, where cats, rabbits, and dogs all gathered in the courtyard of a local church to be corporately and individually blessed.

Some people think it’s strange to have a service where animals are blessed, but I wonder why more churches don’t have these kinds of services, especially because of what the Bible says about non human animals. In Genesis 1:20-26 God calls the creation of both human and non human animals “good” and in Revelation 5:13 we read that “every creature in heaven and on earth…” will praise God.  That Revelation verse is consistent with a beautiful Psalm 148, that reads,

7 Praise the LORD from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
8 lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do his bidding,
9 you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
10 wild animals and all cattle,
small creatures and flying birds,

13 Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.

Even animals—all creatures great and small—are to praise God, which in and of itself gives animals great worth!

But still, many people, even followers of Jesus, have disconnects when it comes to love for God and treatment or value of animals.

The reality is that we have been called by God to value and to be caretakers of God’s creation—stewards—and that includes non-human animals.

I have learned so much about valuing animals from two people who were way before their time. No surprise, St. Francis is one of them. There are numerous stories about Francis’ close relationships with a variety of nonhuman animals.

In our book, The God of Intimacy and Action (Jossey-Bass, 2008), Tony Campolo and I tell numerous stories of Francis’ encounters with God’s creatures (see pages 38-39). Francis was particularly fond of birds, and it was said that on many occasions he preached to flocks of birds, who politely listened. One story in particular that we highlight is about the pact Francis arranged between the people of the Umbrian hill town of Gubbio and the wolf that had been terrorizing them. Francis, who was always a peacemaker, went out to the forest to meet with the wolf, which had been killing both livestock and humans. Francis talked with the wolf, and then they both returned to Gubbio where Francis made an agreement with the townspeople. They agreed not to harm or hunt the wolf, and the wolf could live in the city for the rest of his life and beg for his food if he never killed again. Both the townspeople and the wolf kept their agreement. The legend goes that when the wolf died, he was mourned by the townspeople and was given a Christian burial in the consecrated cemetery.

Centuries later, another man emerged, who like St. Francis believed that animals were to be treated with love and care. Many know John Wesley, 18th century evangelist and social activist, as someone who worked for the abolition of slavery, child labor laws, prison reform, and educational reform but they don’t know that he was also for animal rights. He despised any cruelty to horses, dogs, and other creatures. Wesley firmly believed a quote that has been attributed to Ghandi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” For Wesley, those animals included non-domesticated creatures, a thought most people in his time would have thought was ridiculous.

In an age where domesticated animals were regularly abused, Wesley preached about his concern for wild animals too. In particular, his Sermon 60, called The General Deliverance, was based on the Romans 8 verse that says “all of creation waits for redemption.” In this sermon Wesley said that God “directs us to be tender of even the meaner creatures, to show mercy to these also.” He was also quoted in God’s Covenant with Animals (Lantern Books, 2000, p. xii) as saying, “I believe in my heart that faith in Jesus Christ can and will lead us beyond an exclusive concern for the well-being of other human beings to the broader concern for the well-being of the birds in our backyards, the fish in our rivers, and every living creature on the face of the earth.”

As Tony writes in our book, “It is no wonder that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCS), founded in 1824, is said to have been inspired by the teachings of Christians such as Wesley, abolitionist reformer William Wilberforce, and popular theologian C. S. Lewis, all of whom spoke out against cruelty to animals. C. S. Lewis even suggested that those animals will be with us in eternity” (pp. 55-56).

Tony goes on to say that “John Wesley did more than suggest that animals will be with us in ‘the new heaven and the new earth.’ Using Romans 8:19–22, where the Apostle Paul said that all of creation waits for redemption, as well as the creation accounts in Genesis, Wesley preached that animals will be with us in eternity. Isn’t that great news for those of us who have lost beloved pets? Wesley believed that since God’s creation was originally in harmony and unity, and since God will one day restore all of creation to that original state, then animals will be part of that new heaven and new earth promised in Revelation. But Wesley did not believe that we just wait for that day to value all of God’s creation. He believed that God is bringing all of creation ‘nearer and nearer’ to the day it will be set free, so we too, in our lives now, should ‘imitate him whose mercy is over all his works.’ We do this by treating all that God created in more compassionately just ways because they are valuable, in and of themselves, as God’s creation. When we Christians sing the doxology, we must remember that the second line calls ‘all creatures here below’ to worship God. Saint Francis, Wesley, and C. S. Lewis would all say, “Amen” to that and, in agreement with Psalm 148, declare that all creatures, as well as all of nature, were created to glorify God, so that even if humans did not exist, God’s creation would still have meaning in and of itself. As a matter of fact, we need to be careful of interfering with animals’ ability to worship God. Is it any wonder, in light of all of this, that lovers of God such as Francis and Wesley had a deep sensitivity to animals?” (p. 56).

Non human animals are part of God’s created world, and as we read in Psalm 148, they, too, were created to worship God. May this October 4 Feast Day of St. Francis be a reminder to us that we are to love and care for all animals created by God—both human and non human—and thereby glorify the Creator of all living things.

Mary Albert Darling is professor of communication and spiritual formation at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. She is co-author with Dr. Tony Campolo of The God of Intimacy and Action (Jossey-Bass 2007) and Connecting Like Jesus(Jossey-Bass 2010).

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