I was a Christian long before I started advocating for animals. And though I’ve scoured the Bible looking for something like “Blessed are the vegans, for they shall inherit the tofu,” I’ve not found a direct blessing of my plant-based life from Jesus. For a long time, I actually thought the Bible was bad news for animals — between God clothing Adam and Eve in animal skins and Jesus sending demons into a herd of pigs.
Digging beneath the surface in the course of my seminary studies revealed God’s deep and profound love of all creation, a loud and clear call on humans to shepherd the earth well, and a promise that relationships now broken will one day be restored. The Bible, I have learned, makes a compelling case for creation care to include all creatures. (And, yes, for many of us to leave them off of our plates.)
But why should Red Letter Christians in particular care about animals?
God Loves the Whole World
For God so loved the world. Not just the human parts and not just the trees or the water, but the whole world. God provides for animals (Psalm 104). God sees mother animals in labor and watches their babies grow. God frees animals to enjoy the home God has created for them (Job 39).
Sometimes our attention is drawn to the plight of endangered species, but even though God loves the whole world, too many of us (including me for the majority of my life!) ignore the billions of animals raised and killed for food each year, 99 percent of whom live and die in conditions that fail to meet even a minimum Christian standard of compassion, care, or welfare.
The first chapter of Genesis tells us that God has given custody of animals to humans as part of our charge to ensure that we are caring for the world in such a way to provide for the flourishing of all its inhabitants. But many of us have grossly distorted this charge, ignoring the intent behind the responsibility of dominion. Instead of living in harmony, as fellow creatures of God, we treat animals like unfeeling machines. We put profits before principle, and the results are devastating to the whole of God’s creation — from the smallest creature to the widest ocean.
Humans are Made in the Image of God
“The very nature of God, therefore, is to seek out the deepest possible communion and friendship with every last creature on this earth.” Catherine LaCugna
If we are made in the image of God, who was incarnated into human form and suffered death on a cross for us, doesn’t that mean we’re made in the image of a God who cares deeply, feels deeply, loves deeply, and sacrifices deeply?
One gift of humans being made in the image of God is this: We don’t have to reject our humanity to show compassion to animals. Rather, by showing compassion, we are being the best version of humans that we can be.
Jesus suggests this image to us when he points out that God sees every sparrow, and when he compares God’s love for us to the love of a mother hen for her chicks. We now know that animals and humans alike possess the ability to feel pain, to use tools and language, to develop social systems and structures, to seek and grant justice, to empathize, play, love, and mourn. Animals are included in God’s love; they ought to be included in ours, as well. And not just the cute ones we’ve been culturally conditioned to care for. Our love must include the animals we’ve been taught to view as food, clothing, entertainment, test subjects, and more.
Human Suffering, Animal Suffering, and the Groaning of Creation
“…the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…” Romans 8:19, 22
We don’t have to look far to hear the groans of creation waiting for the children of God to hear. Watch video footage of a dairy cow being dragged off a truck at the slaughterhouse because her body is too broken to move of its own accord. Her body will be pushed to the ground before it’s hoisted again and her throat is slit. Or watch this investigation, this one, or this one. Listen to angora rabbits as their wool is yanked out of their skin. Watch the sad eyes of beagles being poisoned to death in laboratories, desperate for a kind touch. The screams are audible. The pain is palpable. The suffering is undeniable.
Animals aren’t the only part of creation that suffers when we abuse them.
The system of factory farming is a leading cause of environmental degradation, from air and water pollution to topsoil erosion to greenhouse gas emissions to the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Raising animals for food is resource intensive: producing a little bit of meat or dairy requires an enormous amount of land, water, and grain.
The system of factory farming hurts humans. Workers at some chicken slaughterhouses wear diapers, because they aren’t allowed bathroom breaks. Farm workers are knowingly exposed to conditions that sicken them, weaken their immune systems, and can kill them. The men and women who work in slaughterhouses endure the reality that their livelihood depends on killing. What do you think it does to a person to stand in the middle of blood and gore and screams for hours upon hours, day after day?
A former kill floor manager once said: “The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll…Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them — beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.” This learned callousness doesn’t stay on farms and in slaughterhouses. It comes home with the workers, and manifests itself in violent behaviors toward other humans. A study of nearly 600 rural counties found that slaughterhouse employment increases total arrest rates, including arrests for violent crimes, rape, and other sex offenses in comparison with other industries.
Thy Kingdom Come…
Thankfully, a world of suffering and cruelty is not the Creator’s last word.
We Jesus followers know that the wolf and the lamb will eat together. A child will lead the calf and the lion and the fatling together.
We who pray the Lord’s prayer believe that a day will come when, “…they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
We look at the broken world around us and we know that even though we are “prophets of a future not our own,” we are a part of the reconciliation through Christ of the whole world to the Creator. “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
The project I co-lead, CreatureKind, has developed a six-week small group course to help compassionate and curious Christians explore how we can be instruments of the promised reconciliation to the whole of God’s creation. For some, like me, that might mean a switch to a plant-based diet. For others, it will mean cutting back on their meat and dairy consumption and buying from farmers who they know treat animals as fellow creatures of God.
We don’t know where God will lead, but we know we must seek God’s kingdom “on earth, as it is in heaven.” We can begin now to shape our lives around that coming reality. To make choices that heal, instead of hurt; that foster flourishing instead of fear. And the church can lead the way, one glass of soy milk at a time.