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The Friends We Keep: A Book Excerpt

What issues are the most pressing? Through recent books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, we learn about important issues related to animals in the food production system, and we will consider these huge impacts. In addition to animals in the food production system (an issue we will explore later), issues surrounding animals as companions and pets, animals used in sport or for entertainment, and animals as coinhabitants of this planet or as neighbors in the creation need to be considered. Throughout Christian history each of these issues has been pondered and addressed in numerous ways, albeit sometimes in ways that are hidden or at least not obvious unless one is deliberately paying attention. Drawing on these plentiful resources, however, provides a foundation for contemporary Christian action and theological development.

And the time today is ripe for such discussion. Consider, as one example of this debate in Christianity, the dialogue between a writer at Christianity Today and Kay Warren, the wife of well-known pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. In her blog, posted on her.meneutics, Kay Warren wrote that she was "emotionally duped, then angered, by a heart-tugging television ad about suffering animals." Why? She believed that animals are not worthy of such compassion. As she wrote, "Jesus didn't die for animals; he gave his all for human beings."5 I beg to differ. And so did the author of an opinion piece published in Christianity Today who suggested that it is not only appropriate but central to Christianity to acknowledge that "animals have worth and dignity."6 Based on the early Christian memory of the words of Jesus, I wonder whether Warren's claim is, at the least, a bit too broad and, more likely, quite presumptuous. But I also wonder how many other Christians initially agree with her sentiment, thoughtlessly really, only to rethink their assessment when greeted by their dog after a long day at work or when pondering the world without polar bears or butterflies.

According to Christian tradition and history as it developed over the last two thousand years, Jesus died to save humanity, though some might consider it more important that he lived for humanity. But does that exclude the possibility of his and, by extension, Christianity's compassion for all of the other animals as well? There are numerous stories of Jesus' connections with animals. Animals surround Jesus at his birth, he spends forty days in the wilderness with the wild beasts, he tells parables articulating God's care for the birds of the air, he instructs his followers to break the rules of the Sabbath in order to pull a sheep from a pit. Yes, Jesus also sends demons into a group of swine and drives them off the edge of a cliff. But the stories are full of indications that Jesus paid serious attention to animals other than humans. There is some ambiguity, but it would be a misinterpretation to suggest that wanton cruelty to animals would have been an acceptable behavior in his eyes or that total lack of care for them was a default or even acceptable position.

Along with the ambiguity of some of its sacred texts, the history of Christianity reveals both a vision of compassion for other animals and a justification for the abuse of or at least the disregard for them. Some of the topics might seem, at first glance, to have little to do with Christianity, so throughout, historical connections provide a foundation for a lens through which the contemporary situation is examined. Certainly, for example, animals symbolize particular ideas in the tradition. But I contend that they are also real animals, and it is from that point that this work begins—considering real animals as part of the circle of Christian concern. Thinking about animals as only and always mere symbols is a way of escaping our responsibility to real animals. It serves to reinforce human superiority and dominance over compassion and connection.7 We all exist in webs of relationships that cannot be denied; to do so would be a delusion at best and hubris at worst. Religious traditions rely on animals to help establish patterns of existence, sets of rituals, and complexes of relationships with others, both divine others and fully earthly others.

Yet in the last several hundred years Christianity has been hesitant, at times, to include animals in either its ethical or its theological systems. Without addressing the issue of "the animal," Christianity not only lives in a potentially dangerous bubble, but it risks becoming increasingly narcissistic and marginal to the world as we know it, and as we are making it. Thus, this book is both a religious-environmental history and a contemporary theology. It is grounded in the idea that humans must recognize the risks of anthropocentrism, of thinking that and acting as if humans are the center of all that is. When anthropocentrism is wedded to religious ideas, it becomes a major factor in both environmental destruction and the rapid march toward massive species extinction that humans instigated in the last several centuries. But this book is also written in the firm belief that all religions, in this case Christianity, can provide powerful resources that will counter destructive anthropocentrism and, hopefully, call humans into a new relationship with our fellow Earth inhabitants.

6/15/2011 4:00:00 AM