Service for Animal Welfare

Sermon by Revd Mandy Young, Curate, All saint's Snodland Kent


Animal Welfare Service..

5pm All Saints,

Sunday 1st May

Texts: Schweitzer and Isaiah

 

So how should we regard animals? What is their place in God’s created order? Does the Bible tell us? Does it give us an answer which we might say is unequivocal? Yes I believe it does.

But first,

It is the fate of every truth to be the object of ridicule when it is first acclaimed.

 

So says Albert Schweitzer in the extract we have just heard.It is the fate of every truth to be the object of ridicule when it is first acclaimed. Paraphrased ever so slightly; every brilliant idea was once considered a daft idea.

So, to get you warmed up to that theme, let me give you a few examples,

There was Galileo, who supported the – at the time - astonishing theory of Copernicus, that the earth orbited the sun, not the sun, the earth. The church authorities were perturbed by this idea, yes, of course they were. But his science colleagues also thought it all wrong.

And John Baird, when he came to show the first television camera to the Royal Society, they laughed at him and though that he was conning them.

William Harvey’s discovery of blood circulation caused the scientists of his day to doubt him too.

 

Indeed, lots of things we now take for granted were once considered a little mad. Sometimes more than just a little. That alone should make us cautious in our judgements regarding anything really. Humility is probably the first lesson the past teaches us. It is indeed ‘the fate of every truth to be the object of ridicule when it is first acclaimed’.

 

On the other hand, of course, sometimes people have thought they had the full unequivocal truth, and the passage of time alone had proved them wrong. It is always incredibly hard to see ourselves as others see us. It is almost impossible to step outside our own cultural conditioning, though a few people do; it is equally almost impossible to step outside of our time in history and see how others who come later might regard us. Aristotle was a genius, but even he, according to Marx, was a man of his time – he took slavery for granted.  And many, many years later, William Wilberforce still had, shall we say, to put it mildly, his critics. Today, there are pockets in the world where slavery, the ownership of one human being by another, is not the anathema we think it is.

 

And so we come to animals. Lots of people actually, and I don’t know if I include myself to be honest, are a bit vague or at least inconsistent in our concern for animals. We wouldn’t mistreat them, of course not, and we probably see ourselves as animal lovers. But is that love agape? Do we love them with the same sacrificial, selfless love of God for his creation? Or indeed should we? Isn’t that just a little silly? Yes, we should be interested in their welfare, but surely they exist for our benefit? Or do they?

 

It is the fate of every truth to be the object of ridicule when it is first acclaimed.

 

So I should, when I come to think about my position on animal welfare, as on any topic, exercise not only caution, but humility. The future might well say I am wrong. I am not God. I can be wrong.

 

And every good idea was once considered by many to be a bad idea; every new thought, every radical vision, was once scoffed for its lack of realism and pragmatism; or dismissed as idealistic and unworkable, or simply judged insane and possibly demonic. They scoffed at Jesus’ idealism, didn’t they, when he too said the impossible was possible and the absurd was true?  ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!" Many in this world still scoff.

 

If we think of animals and how human beings have regarded them, we see too that it is the case that at different points in history great thinkers - but thinkers of their time - have often had very little regard for animal welfare; and others, who tried to swim against the tide, were mocked. Every truth has been ridiculed.

 

Thomas Aquinas thought it was right and proper to use animals because they could not, he said, reason. For him, and many of his time, the really authentic argument against the  mistreatment of animals would be simply that they belonged to someone else – the sin is not against the animal, merely ‘property’,but against its owner, a bit like the ‘code’ of slavery. Aquinas, again, like many others, felt the only other danger to mistreating animals was that it might somehow desensitized human beings and make them more inclined to mistreat their fellow humans.  In defense of this kind of view that gives animals no intrinsic value, Aquinas, like many before and since, quoted the Bible, Genesis – specifically chapter 9, verse 3. "Everything that moves and lives shall be food to you." For him the Godly principle of dominion slipped easily into the human idea of domination. And humans remained at the very centre of God’s creation, and his reasoning.

 

Then, in the seventeenth century, the French philosopher Descartes also argued that animals could not reason, and had no soul; for him, they might be living things but yet still they were more like machines than people. Descartes held that only humans have consciousness, only people can learn and have language and therefore only humans are deserving of true compassion. 

 

Aquinas and Descartes – both seriously great thinkers, both Christians, and yet their views on animals place the latter very much at the disposal and mercy of human beings.

 

There have been some incredible exceptions of course. Once St Francis was considered a madman for his humble regard for and affinity with all of God’s creation.  Nowadays most I think would regard him as someone who was far ahead of his time. But generally, as we look back through the history of animal welfare, human beings have placed themselves as categorically at the centre of the moral universe as astronomers, before Copernicus, placed the earth at the centre of the physical universe. In short, we treat animals as though we were God; as though we rightly had the power of life and death over creation. And all was for our benefit.

 

In part that is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the key Genesis principles of stewardship and dominion; stewardship is not ownership – rather it means to care for something or someone on behalf of someone else and to be accountable for the quality of that care; we have often forgotten the element of accountability to God. And dominion does not mean throwing our weight around, which is the idea behind domination. Rather it means the right use of power within the context of responsibility.

 

Sometimes, as I have said, we human beings have acted as though we are God – as though we see so clearly, understand so completely, we could not possibly be wrong; I would say that is never more so than in our relation to the created order, including animals. Andrew Linzey powerfully argues this point in his text, Animal Gospel. He puts it this way - in order to see animals differently, in order to better comprehend our obligations of stewardship and dominion, we need to see the Gospel more clearly and see ourselves differently. He puts it this way:‘Sometimes I think the most important contribution the Gospel can make to our thinking about the world is the simple fact that we are not God’

We are servants of God, stewards of His creation, we are not here to exploit or, as Linzey puts it, to usurp God’s role as Lord of creation, thereby giving ourselves the power of life and death over all. We have to shed the idea that it is our creation, that we can do what we wish with it, that it is entirely for our benefit. We are stewards only and we are answerable to God.

 

Now I said the Bible tells us clearly how we should honour and care for animals. Yes it does. And again Linzey points us to the place to look. We should look to Christ. Jesus is God revealed to the world. And Christ came to speak and to embody God’s love for the poor, the dispossessed, those who cannot, for whatever reason, defend themselves. Any indifference to animal suffering is an indication that we have not, as Linzey puts it, allowed the Gospel of Christ to speak to us as we should. He says, ‘we have failed to see the face of the Crucified in the faces of suffering animals. We have not allowed the Gospel of Christ to interpret the world of innocent suffering and so have helped to create the very climate in which the Gospel is dismissed as irrelevant to the messy and tragic world of suffering, both human and non-human’. Put another way – if we fail to see the face of Jesus in the suffering of all creation, both humans and animals, then we Christians; we, not secular society, make Christ and the Cross irrelevant.

 

We turn to the Isaiah passage and I suspect that wolves will probably never live peaceably down with lambs, not in this world. But it embodies an ideal to aspire to; to pray for - peace and harmony in in the created order.  Heaven on earth. It embodies the potential of all creation to reflect God’s grace and goodness. It is an ideal. It is perhaps also idealistic to think we could inhabit a world where it is considered sane not extreme to think of animals as our responsibility not as our possession, whose unspoken needs might take priority over our own; it is idealistic to imagine the true principles of Biblical dominion exercised – God given power exercised responsibly and compassionately with a view to the good of those we have dominion over. But that again is what the Gospel, the Incarnation itself, teaches us.

Integrity requires that if we are presented with an ideal, we don’t just shrug it off but we do everything in our power to live up to it if we can. We may fail, we may make mistakes, but the crucial point is that we own the ideal and we try. And the Gospel demands that if we are presented with a vision of love, self-sacrifice and compassion for God’s world, we should aspire to it. Not simply pay it lip service.

Linzey argues that this is what it means to follow Christ, to be fully committed to the true principles of Christian service and sacrifice as Jesus was; to be obedient to God the Creator and recognize His Lordship over us, as Jesus did; and to speak, as Jesus did, for the many parts of God’s creation that cannot speak for themselves. That is why and how the Bible is categorical on animal welfare.

 

What does this mean for us – well, I suspect most of us here have a quite high regard for animals. We treat our pets incredibly well, and we might indeed put their needs before our own. We would never I know be unkind. We thank God for all they mean, and all the joy they bring. We perhapsthink Aquinas was wrong; Descartes was wrong. Of course animals can communicate; animals have souls. Thank goodness we’re more enlightened now. But if we take the Bible seriously, then the question is this. When we look at suffering humanity do we choose to care most only for those people who remind us of ourselves? Or do we care equally about the wellbeing of those who are nothing like us – the dispossessed, the refugees? Likewise, do wehonourall animals as belonging to God, not just the ones we have adopted? Do we care equally about the wellbeing of all those creatures in the wild, including those that are less appealing to our human sensibilities? Do we think as much about the comfort of battery hens as we do about dogs and cats?  Do we consider the animals we farm as well as the animals we choose to share our homes with? What about those people and those species that are out of sight and out of mind? Do we see the face of Christ Crucified in every oppressed and marginalized, every enslaved creature of God, human or not? We are called to be stewards of all of God’s creation. That is what we need to do; and when we do, Isaiah’s prophecy will begin to resonate and the ideal God has set before us of stewardship and dominion will change us and our world.


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