Friday, January 26, 2007

animal liberation theology, part 3

1991 marked the publication (in England) of Using the Bible Today, a collection of essays by distinguished clergy, theologians, and Christian writers on the relevance of the Bible to contemporary issues such as ecology, human suffering, animal rights, the inner city, war and psychology. An essay by the Reverend Andrew Linzey, “The Bible and Killing for Food” makes the following observations:

“...we have first of all to appreciate that those who made up the community whose spokesperson wrote Genesis 1 were not themselves vegetarian. Few appreciate that Genesis 1 and 2 are themselves the products of much later reflection by the biblical writers themselves. How is it then that the very people who were not themselves vegetarian imagined a beginning of time when all who lived were vegetarian by divine command?

“To appreciate this perspective we need to recall the major elements of the first creation saga. God creates a world of great diversity and fertility. Every living creature is given life and space (Genesis 1:9-10, 24-25). Earth to live on and blessing to enable life itself (1:22). Living creatures are pronounced good (1:25). Humans are made in God’s image (1:27) given dominion (1:26-29), and then prescribed a vegetarian diet (1:29-30). God then pronounces that everything was ‘very good’ (1:31). Together the whole creation rests on the Sabbath with God (2:2-3).

“When examined in this way, we should see immediately that Genesis 1 describes a state of paradisal existence. There is no hint of violence between or among different species. Dominion, so often interpreted as justifying killing, actually precedes the command to be vegetarian. Herb-eating dominion is hardly a license for tyranny. The answer seems to be that even though the early Hebrews were neither pacifists nor vegetarians, they were deeply convinced of the view that violence between humans and animals, and indeed between animal species themselves, was not God’s original will for creation.

“But if this is true, how are we to reconcile Genesis 1 with Genesis 9, the vision of original peacefulness with the apparent legitimacy of killing for food? The answer seems to be that as the Hebrews began to construct the story of early human beginnings, they were struck by the prevalence and enormity of human wickedness.

“The stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his descendants are all testimonies to the inability of humankind to fulfill the providential purposes of God in creation. The issue is made explicit in the story of Noah: Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘ I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them.’” (Genesis 6:11-14)

“The radical message of the Noah story (so often overlooked by commentators) is that God would rather not have us be at all if we must be violent. It is violence itself within every part of creation that is the pre-eminent mark of corruption and sinfulness. It is not for nothing that God concludes: ‘I am sorry that I have made them.’ (Genesis 6:7)

“It is in this context—subsequent to the Fall and the Flood—that we need to understand the permission to kill for food in Genesis 9. It reflects entirely the situation of the biblical writers at the time they were writing. Killing—of both humans as well as animals—was simply inevitable given the world as it is and human nature as it is. Corruption and wickedness had made a mess of God’s highest hopes for creation. There just had to be some accommodation to human sinfulness...

“For many students of the Bible this seems to have settled the matter of whether humans can be justified in killing animals for food. In the end, it has been thought, God allows it. And there can be no doubt that throughout the centuries this view has prevailed. Meat eating has become the norm. Vegetarians, especially Christian vegetarians, have survived from century to century to find themselves a rather beleaguered minority.”

Reverend Linzey explains, however, that the permission to kill for food given in Genesis 9 is far from unconditional or absolute—it carries with it the prohibition against consuming the blood of a slain creature.

“At first sight these qualificatory lines might be seen as obliterating the permission itself. After all, who can take animal life without the shedding of blood? Who can kill without the taking of blood, that is the life itself? In asking these questions we move to the heart of the problem. For the early Hebrews life was symbolized by, and even constituted by, blood itself. To kill was to take blood. And yet it is precisely this permission which is denied.

“...Rereading these verses in the light of their original context should go rather like this: The world in which you live has been corrupted. And yet God has not given up on you. God has signified a new relationship—a covenant with you—despite all your violence and unworthiness...What was previously forbidden can now—in the present circumstances—be allowed. You may kill for food. But you may kill only on the understanding that you remember that the life you kill is not your own—it belongs to God. You must not misappropriate what is not your own. As you kill what is not your own—either animal or human life—so you need to remember that for every life you kill you are personally accountable to God.”

Linzey studies the messianic prophecies concerning the future Kingdom of Peace: “It seems...while the early Hebrews were neither vegetarians nor pacifists, the ideal of the peaceable kingdom was never lost sight of. In the end, it was believed, the world would one day be restored according to God’s original will for all creation...we have no biblical warrant for claiming killing as God’s will. God’s will is for peace.

“We need to remember that even though Genesis 9 gives permission to kill for food it does so only on the basis that we do not misappropriate God-given life. Genesis 9 posits divine reckoning for the life of every beast taken under this new dispensation (9:5).”

Linzey concludes his essay by examining the current trends in vegetarianism and animal rights in contemporary society: “ often comes as a surprise for Christians to realize that the modern vegetarian movement was strongly biblical in origin. Inspired by the original command in Genesis 1, an Anglican priest...founded the Bible Christian Church in 1809 and made vegetarianism compulsory among its members. The founding of this Church in the United Kingdom and its sister Church in the United States by William Metcalfe, effectively heralded the beginning of the modern vegetarian movement.”

Reverend Linzey further elaborates upon themes discussed in Christianity and the Rights of Animals in his 1991 paper “The Moral Priority of the Weak: The Theological Basis of Animal Liberation.”

Linzey agrees with Australian philosopher Peter Singer that there are no morally relevant differences between humans and animals, and asks: “What is the theological insight that makes Christians claim humans as superior or as possessing special status? In what does this specific value of humans consist?

“...any decent theological insight must be grounded in God and in particular God’s attitude towards creation. And that insight can properly be summed up in one word: generosity. The special value of humankind consists wholly and exclusively in the generosity of God, Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer. This idea is of course a perennial theme throughout the Old and New Testaments, is found consistently in the work of the Fathers, and reaches its richest expression in the theology of Karl Barth.”

Linzey observes that “here is a God supreme above all who in Christ humbles himself to identify with and suffer for the weakly and frail creature...if it is true that this paradigm of generous costly service is at the heart of the Christian proclamation then it must also be the paradigm for the exercise of human dominion over the animal world. We do well to remind ourselves of that ethical imperative arising from early Christian reflection upon the work and person of Jesus:

“Take to heart among yourselves what you find in
Christ Jesus: He was in the form of God; yet he
laid no claim to equality with God, but made
himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave.

“Bearing the human likeness, sharing the human
lot, he humbled himself, and was obedient even
to the point of death, death on a cross.”

---Philippians 2:5-9

“If we ‘take to heart’ this paradigm of generosity we can perceive moral meaning in our relationship of power over the nonhuman creation...The obligation is always and everywhere on the ‘higher’ to sacrifice for the ‘lower’; for the strong, powerful and rich to give to those who are vulnerable, poor or powerless. This is not some by-theme of the moral example of Jesus, it is rather central to the demands of the kingdom, indeed those who minister to the needs of the vulnerable and the weak minister to Christ himself:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I
was thirsty and you gave me drink, I
was naked and you clothed me, I was
sick and you visited me. I was in
prison and you came to me.”

---Matthew 25:35-37

“In this respect, it is the sheer vulnerability and powerlessness of animals, and correspondingly our absolute power over them which strengthens and compels the response of moral generosity. I suggest that we are to be present to creation as Christ is present to us. When we speak of human superiority, we speak of such a thing properly only and insofar as we speak of not only Christlike lordship but also Christlike service. There can be no lordship without service and no service without lordship. Our special value in creation consists in being of special value to others.”

“We do not know how to celebrate, rejoice, and give thanks for the beautiful world God has made,” wrote the Reverend Dr. Andrew Linzey in 1992. “If we treat it as trash it is because so many of us still imagine the world as just that. For too long Christian churches have colluded in a doctrine that the earth is half-evil, or unworthy, or—most ludicrous of all—‘unspiritual.’

“The Church needs to teach reverence for life as a major aspect of Christian ethics...So much of Christian ethics is pathetically narrow and absurdly individualistic... One of the major problems with St. that the Church has not taken any practical notice of him. St. Francis preached a doctrine of self-renunciation, whereas the Church today remains concerned with its own respectability. St. Francis lived a life of poverty, whereas the modern Church is as ever concerned about money. St. Francis, like Jesus, associated with the outcasts and the lepers, whereas the Church today consists predominately of the middle class.”

Linzey cites Paul’s epistle to the Romans, which describes the creation itself in a state of childbirth. “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” According to the Christian scheme of things, Linzey explains, “the world is going somewhere. It is not destined for eternal, endless suffering and pain. It has a destiny. Like us, it is not born to die eternally.

“The fundamental thing to grasp,” Linzey declares, “is that we have responsibility to cooperate with God in the creation of a new world.” Linzey quotes St. Isaac the Syrian’s response to the question, “What is a charitable heart?”

“It is a heart which is burning with love
for the whole creation, for men, for the
birds, for the animals...for all creatures.

“He who has such a heart cannot see, or call
to mind, a creature without his eyes being
filled with tears by reason of the immense
compassion which seizes his heart; a heart
which is softened and can no longer bear
to see or learn from others of any suffering,
even the smallest pain, being inflicted upon
any creature.

“That is why such a man never ceases to pray
also for the animals...He will pray even for
the reptiles, moved by an infinite pity which
reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming
united with God.”

“I believe then that the Church must wake up to a new kind of ministry,” Linzey concludes, “not just to Christians or to human beings, but to the whole world of suffering creatures. It must be our human, Christian task to heal the suffering in the world.”

Linzey notes that “humans are made in the image of God, given dominion, and then told to follow a vegetarian diet (Genesis 1:29). Herb-eating dominion is not despotism.” However, Linzey acknowledges the need for a new theology, an animal liberation theology, which would revolutionize our understanding of humanity’s place in creation and relationship to other species, just as the Copernican picture of a sun-centered universe replaced the earth-centered picture.

“We need a concept of ourselves in the universe not as the master species but as the servant species—as the one given responsibility for the whole and the good of the whole. We must move from the idea that animals were given to us and made for us, to the idea that we were made for creation, to serve it and ensure its continuance. This actually is little more than the theology of Genesis chapter two. The Garden is made beautiful and abounds with life: humans are created specifically to ‘take care of it.’ (Genesis 2:15)

“A great wickedness of the Christian tradition,” observes Reverend Linzey, “is that, at this very point, where it could have been a source of great blessing and life; it has turned out to be a source of cursing and death. I refer here to the way Christian theology has allowed itself to promulgate notions that animals have no rights; that they are put here for our use; that animals have no more moral status than sticks and stones.

“Animal rights in this sense is a religious problem. It is about how the Christian tradition in particular has failed to realize the God-given rights of God-given life. Animal rights remains an urgent question of theology.

“Every year,” says Dr. Linzey, “I receive hundreds of anguished letters from Christians who are so distressed by the insensitivity to animals shown by mainstream churches that they have left them or on the verge of doing so. Of course, I understand why they have left the churches and in this matter, as in all else, conscience can be the only guide. But if all the Christians committed to animal rights leave the church, where will that leave the churches?

“The time is long overdue to take the issue of animal rights to the churches with renewed vigor. I don’t pretend it’s easy but I do think it’s essential—not, I add, because the churches are some of the best institutions in society but rather because they are some of the worst. The more the churches are allowed to be left to one side in the struggle for animal rights, the more they will remain forever on the other side.

“I derive hope from the Gospel preaching,” Linzey concludes, “that the same God who draws us to such affinity and intimacy with suffering creatures declared that reality on a Cross in Calvary. Unless all Christian preaching has been utterly mistaken, the God who becomes incarnate and crucified is the one who has taken the side of the oppressed and the suffering of the world—however the churches may actually behave.”

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