The Lesson of Cecil the Lion: Reject the Logic of Domination

The Lesson of Cecil the Lion: Reject the Logic of Domination July 31, 2015

While the authorities are now hunting Walter Palmer, a lot of people are asking, “What’s with all the hang-wringing about a dead lion?”

"Lions on Rock" by William Warby
“Lions on Rock” by William Warby

Aren’t there more pressing issues facing humanity today?

Sure, it’s sad to see the pictures of the regal “Cecil,” father of a brood of lion pups, knowing that his life has been mercilessly taken by a tourist–a dentist from Minnesota, no less. But isn’t this all a bit overblown? Aren’t there bigger problems to tackle–especially in Cecil’s own homeland, Zimbabwe?

That exact sentiment soared through the media in the words of a local who was interviewed:

It’s so cruel, but I don’t understand the whole fuss, there are so many pressing issues in Zimbabwe — we have water shortages, no electricity and no jobs — yet people are making noise about a lion?” said Eunice Vhunise, a Harare resident. “I saw Cecil once when I visited the game park. I will probably miss him. But honestly the attention is just too much.

One can certainly appreciate this perspective, especially hearing it from someone who experiences those problems first-hand.

But to leave it at that–to call it an overblown, emotional reaction to the awful death of a single, beloved, celebrity animal–and move quickly on to more “important matters” would be a terrible mistake. This is particularly so for those of who do not live daily with crises of lack of resources. We need to learn a deeper lesson from Cecil’s death.

We need to change our entire mindset about how we understand ourselves in relation to “nature,” or our ecological environment.

It is simply not the case that everything out there, in “nature,” exists in distinction from the human species, and is all there for us to use, or enjoy, or manipulate, or abuse, to our satisfaction and for our benefit. This instrumental view of creation, in distinction from humanity, is an unfortunate consequence of a really bad theology; a theology that takes human beings to be the masters, or over-lords of nature, and that therefore draws a distinction between “nature” and humanity.

The truth is, humans are part of nature. We are abstract, reflecting beings who build tall building and football stadiums, sip lattes and scroll through Facebook. We easily forget, while building, surfing, and sipping, that we connected to a vast and integrated ecological system.  This forgetfulness contributes to, among countless other things, a continued denial of the problems facing so much of that ecological system; including the reality of global climate change and, for so many of us, a persistent denial that we are its primary cause.

In a later section of his book, The Future of Ethics, Willis Jenkins engages with Native American theology and African-American liberation theology, to argue that the mindset of the colonizer, continues to drive so much of American policy and practice in how we treat the earth and its resources. This mindset must change for us to have a fighting chance to ward off the looming ecological crises that confronts us.

Jenkins argues that we need to start understanding that the “resources” of the earth are not simply there for the taking or for our amusement, but must be seen as part of a “sacred trust,” in which we begin to view the preservation of “Mother earth” as absolutely essential to the continuation of human life and to justice for humanity.

He cites a statement from a 2010 Bolivian conference on climate change, which stated that,  “To guarantee human rights it is necessary to recognize and defend the rights of Mother Earth” (213).

They go together. Human rights and ecological justice, or care for our planet and all its inhabitants, simply cannot be separated. This is becoming increasingly clear, to anyone who has ears to hear.

Humanity depends on “Mother earth,” as the “womb of our existence,” and the “womb of all life.” He writes,

Justice for Mother Earth means sustaining conditions for humans capable of affirming the sacredness of Mother Earth. The human is the interpretive center of this cosmos, but because she is enfleshed in a wider membership in which she must recognize her contingency, on which she is dependent, and from which she understands her self and her purpose, the human is not the moral center. The health of the womb of earth is interpreted by the health of the human persons it births, whose flourishing lies in knowing and respecting earth as a sacred membership. (214)

So, while we interpret our planet’s health through reference to human well-being as the primary indicator, we dare not forget that our well-being is tied to the well-being of our entire ecosystem, including the other species of life which inhabit it.

By recognizing and attending to the “legal rights for other species,” and for the integrity of earth’s systems, processes, forests, etc., we will be able to discover other (better and more sustainable) ways of living on this earth. Other ways than viewing earth as “a storehouse of resources.”

We are embodied creatures–embodied within an ecological community that is increasingly fragile–in large part due to our own actions and cosmic footprint. We need to begin recognizing our vulnerability, as members of that fragile ecology. Jenkins argues that perhaps by acknowledging the vulnerability of other species, we can begin to reckon our own vulnerability.

But this will only happen if and when we can reject the “logical of domination that depends on strong, hierarchical boundaries between subject and other by interpreting human subjectivity in terms of multiple ecological intimacies.”

The whole earth is God’s creation–including Cecil the lion. And that dentist, too.

This is why we should not attempt to distinguish the fate of Cecil from the fate of humanity.

But especially for those of us who wield power in the world and who so extensively effect the global ecological environment, we must begin to understand that the fate of Cecil the lion and the fate of Walter Palmer (indeed, of all of us), go hand in hand.


Image Source (slightly cropped)

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