I recently read an excellent book by Professor Laura Hobgood-Oster called The Friends We Keep, in which she challenges believers to examine our relationship with animals through a deliberately Christian lens. By addressing such issues as their role as food, pets, endangered species, and in sport, she reminds us of the many varied ways that animals are tied into our human experience. However, more than simply recalling our interconnected relationship she provides ample support for a Christian ethic of compassion and care for all God’s creatures. This call to compassion delves into scripture, Christian tradition, and contemporary issues to support Hobgood-Oster’s claim that Christianity is not only good news for humans, but for animals too.
I was particularly impacted by her discussion of Christian hospitality and it’s possible implications for human-animal interactions. Remarking that Christianity is essentially a “religion of hospitality,” Hobgood-Oster approaches the topic by first addressing the issue of ownership.
I suspect most of us will immediately think of ourselves as the hosts rather than the guests; the host is the one in control of the situation. Yet the earth does not belong to human beings. It is not a home that we own. Even the most traditional of Christian interpretations of life acknowledges that the creation belongs to the Creator, not to humans. It is God who offers hospitality, even to humans. (114-115)
This humbling reminder of God’s ownership compels us to reconsider our role in the host/guest relationship. Since the earth actually belongs to God (Psalm 24:1), since He created the animals and called them good (Gen 1:20-25), and since we are actually the guests here (1 Peter 1:17), we have no choice but to honor the Owner by mirroring his hospitality toward all other guests—be they human or otherwise.
Biblical hospitality, unlike our modern (or rather, “western”) conception of the term, focuses on providing for the needs “of the least of these.” As Hobgood-Oster notes, while hospitality was always central to ancient Mediterranean society, Jesus radically expanded the traditional notion of hospitality by eliminating the expectation of reciprocity (119). Biblical hospitality is selfless, generous, proactive, and does not expect anything in return.
While the main thrust of Christian hospitality ought, quite naturally, be directed toward humans, there is good Biblical support for the case that hospitality can, and perhaps should, be directed toward animals as well (see Gen 24:15-20, Psalm 104 and Matt. 6:26). If the practice of Christian virtue is spiritually beneficial and inherently God-honoring, then why shouldn’t we practice hospitality in every way possible, including toward animals?
The Friends We Keep is filled with examples of such hospitality. From adopting abandoned pets, to informing ourselves about what and how we eat, to standing up for endangered wildlife, there are many ways that we can begin acting out our faith by showing hospitality toward God’s creatures.
In his class work, Pollution and Death of Man, Francis Schaeffer notes that while we are different from animals in that we alone were created in the image of God, we are also the same as animals in that we were likewise created. Showing hospitality toward animals reflects God’s image in us because (despite being FAR above us) He first demonstrated hospitality through his love toward us. We have the opportunity to mirror this love (on a much smaller scale, to be sure) by demonstrating compassion toward our fellow created beings.
Brian serves as the Director of Communications for Blessed Earth and is passionate about helping people connect their faith with God’s call to care for his creation. He lives with his wife, Becky, and daughters, Acadia (“Cadie”) and Galilee (“Lilee”), in western New York where he also serves as the Director of Intercultural Student Programs at Houghton College.