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Compassion for Animals: An Interview with Laura Hobgood-Oster
I also love the story about St. Giles, who was a hermit, and the hind. The little hind had saved the saint's life when he was ill and had no other food, so she offered him her milk. One day royal hunters entered the woods close to St. Giles cave and when they saw the small hind, they were determined to kill her (so this is a hunt for sport). She ran to the cave and just as an arrow came flying in, St. Giles threw his body in front of hers to shield her from the arrow. So they had each saved the life of the other. There are so many more stories as well.
Beyond the stories of the saints, what does the Bible tell us about Jesus' relationship to animals? How might that instruct us in our responsibility toward animals today?
There are actually several direct references where Jesus calls for compassion. On a Sabbath, Jesus was in a synagogue teaching and he healed a man with dropsy. The people gathered criticized him because you aren't supposed to do any work on the Sabbath. Jesus responded with the example of animals that were in danger: "which of you, having a son or an ox who has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath?" In another gospel account, he gives the example of a sheep in a well (Mt. 12; Lk. 14). He also references animals frequently in parables and emphasizes that God takes care of them all.
Actually there are very compelling accounts in the apocryphal gospels as well. These are texts that were very important for early Christians but, for a variety of reasons, they don't end up being selected for the New Testament. Still, they have fabulous stories about Jesus and animals. In one, Jesus gives safe passage to a lioness and her cubs, instructing everyone not to hurt them. In another he resurrects a dead fish. It's actually in one of these apocryphal gospels that the ox and the ass from the Nativity are mentioned, not in the four canonical gospels. So you see that they have quite widespread influence.
I was intrigued by this particular question you raise in the Preface: "By placing animals in the history of Christianity, might we not begin to reconfigure humans in the tradition as well?" Can you say a little more about what you mean by that?
I think that idea is one that is most challenging or even scary for some people. It seems that we like to imagine ourselves as the center of everything. That's one of the reasons why, when humans found out that the earth wasn't the center of the universe, it was so threatening. In a similar way, if we take into account all of the animals and stop placing humans at the center of our religious traditions, it could seem that we are decreasing our own significance. In a way, we are at least shifting our significance or realizing that other animals are also significant. Since so many of the assumptions we hold about human exceptionalism and superiority have led us down destructive roads, for example, we used up resources and occupied space in such a way that we have driven thousands of other species to extinction; it is urgent for us to reconsider our position. In other words, we better become humble pretty quickly!
I'm regularly amazed at the sheer joy my dog brings me just by being in his presence. One of the greatest gifts he offers me is the invitation to "play." What other spiritual lessons can we learn from animals? Is there something unique about the animal-human bond, and do you think God intended this?
Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team in 2009, after more than ten years of managing programs for the Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of music/theatre programs for children, and a music minister.