All Creatures of Our God and King: The Image of God

All Creatures of Our God and King: The Image of God May 8, 2018

On our first home assignment I was bound and determined to slip right back into American culture. I wasn’t going to be one of those weird missionaries that comes home jaded and critical of their own society after a short season away. As much as I could help it, I was going to remain current and relatable despite my very un-mainstream life.

Within our first couple weeks back I hung out with a friend in her very nice home in a suburb of the Dallas area. At some point our conversation drifted towards pets and she shared about how her much-loved nine-year old cat had recently died. I remember jumping at the opportunity to connect. Dead pet! Sweet. A point of connection.

“I’m so sorry,” I remember saying with very real empathy. “Our dog in North Africa recently died too. I know just how you feel.”

She went on to narrate the story of getting the phone call about her sick cat while she was on a family vacation. She rushed home early in order to get the cat a few cancer treatments. Several thousand dollars and a few miserable months later and the cat was buried in the back corner of the yard under a discreet headstone.

I listened with slow-growing anxiety as her story unfolded, dreading the question that I knew was coming any minute. So how did your pet die?

I stammered out some variation of the truth. Which was that we could never quite nurture the wildness out of our North African mutt despite the fact that we fed him embarrassingly well given the poverty of our neighbors, that we carried vaccines in a cooler on our laps on bush planes to give to him ourselves (our village didn’t have a vet), that we let him come in the house to nap.

But he started attacking goats from our neighbors’ herds, (which in this economy was kinda like our dog started robbing banks) and once he got the taste for that particular currency, there was not a fence in the country that could keep him in. So we had to have him put down, courtesy of the local police, (again, no vet). To be quite blunt, the police were going to shoot him. It was the most humane option available. Only, as it turned out, the police couldn’t fire a gun for just any ol’ reason in a community wedged between several volatile militias already on pins and needles. So they did the honors another way, which was fast and as merciful as any death in the context.

After narrating some version of these events to my friend with increasing regret about ever entertaining this topic to begin with, her face was a picture of horror and confusion. Her first question was, “But…wait, why did you feel guilty about feeding him again?”

In nine years of life in North Africa peppered with a handful of trips back to the States I have given up on not being that weird missionary. Living between absurdly disparate extremes often creates the sensation of one’s mind shredding right down the middle. That story, for instance, makes me feel horrible whether I am telling it to North Americans or North Africans but for different – almost opposite – reasons. One group can’t believe I would ever let soldiers kill my dog. Another group can’t believe I would feed a dog in a place where people were struggling to feed their kids.

I sometimes get the impression that many average Americans have no idea that their life is an anomaly. That they might be shocked to realize just how far of an outlier on the arc of human history we really are. There are tons of reasons why that is the case – some good, some bad, some neutral. Most an uncomfortable mix of all three.

And one of them is in the way we treat animals.

Apparently Americans spent $69 billion dollars on pets last year. Billion. Statistics like these feel numbingly incongruous with other realities of the world. So does the phrase “Fur Babies” or the act of buying a rib-eye for a dog on his birthday or a gift basket for a cat at Christmas. (Apparently just a couple of months ago Americans spent $751 million on gifts for their pets for Valentine’s Day.) It’s the fact that pet hotels and spas are an actual thing.

And it’s not just extreme stuff that many of us would never go for (like a FitBark for Bandit). To most of the world, it’s simply being able to keep well fed, provide basic medical services, and otherwise embrace as a member of the family an animal that makes no contribution towards the running of the household. The fact that that is possible is shocking to more people than you would imagine.

Most of us are so insulated from the daily crush of human suffering in the world that it is hard for us to understand that having an animal as a member of the family is not normal.

Maybe not bad. Maybe not good. But in the scope of the world, not normal.

And if nothing else, that just seems like a fact worth being respectfully aware of.

Now, this is not a blog post about bashing crazy cat people or heaping loads of guilt on dog lovers. I am the biggest animal hypocrite there is. I screech at my kids to keep the stray kitten we picked up last week out of the kitchen, and then when they are all in bed at night, I sit on the couch and baby-talk to the purring fuzzball. Warm fuzzies alone are a pretty important contribution to a household after all.

Because animals are some of the most profound ways that we experience the glory of God’s creativity and compassion and unconditional love, aren’t they? Some of the most emotive metaphors in scripture about the love of God and the peace of the new heaven and the earth use animals as a powerful part of the imagery. Animals were created to be cared for and enjoyed and respected.

But they were not created in the image of God.

People were.

So really this isn’t as much about animals as it is about people. And in a world where it is increasingly easy to demonize each other and humanize animals, it seems of particular importance to take a moment now and again and look into the big eyes of your favorite animal and see the beauty of God’s creation. And then to look into the eyes of the person you hate the most and see the face of God.

The bigoted neighbor across the street. That transgender barista at your favorite coffee shop. That Muslim student in your kid’s class. That sexist boss. That pro-choice co-worker who won’t shut up about it. That jerk on your newsfeed. That person you may never be able to forgive. Or just the obnoxious uncle at the family reunion or loud talker at your church. All, created in the image of God.

And your most loyal, loving fur baby was not.

If you have an animal that you love like a family member, I’m not necessarily suggesting you should feel weird about that. Savor the gratitude that comes with knowing that it is neither to your credit nor to your blame that you have more than you need and can share that with someone with four legs.

But, as you do, be mindful of the fact that those choices are born out of uncommon resources and mindset. And in a world desperately short on compassion, what we can afford to show to animals should represent only a fraction of what we show to each other.

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