When I mention that my firm, The Clapham Group, works on faith and animal welfare, I often get a quizzical look, followed by a line of questioning. Why does a conservative evangelical care about animals? Why should any of us worry about animals?
For starters, prominent evangelicals have long cared for animals. John Wesley, William Wilberforce, C. S. Lewis, Hannah More, and Billy Graham all thought animal welfare was worth worrying about. In fact, William Wilberforce, the great nineteenth-century British abolitionist, founded the first organized animal welfare movement in England in 1824, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The RSPCA still exists today and is the oldest and largest animal welfare organization in the world.
In her most recent work, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior of Liberty University introduces readers to Hannah More, another member of Wilberforce’s community who cared for animal welfare. In the chapter “Burdened for the Beasts,” Prior highlights a holistic commitment to animal suffering motivated by evangelical faith:
As More’s Christian convictions grew, so, too, did her conviction that benevolence toward animals was part of a holistic Christian worldview, and her writings came to reflect these evolving views. She and her fellow reformers considered reading in particular as central to moral reform because of the ability of reading to cultivate empathy deeper than what the senses can communicate, whether the issue was slavery or animal welfare . . .
Although animal welfare was never a central focus of her work, More shared Wilberforce’s conviction against cruelty to animals, most dramatically in her Cheap Repository Tracts. The tracts explicitly correlated kindness toward animals with Christian piety and virtue.
Although the individual reasons for evangelicals’ involvement may vary, it seems that respecting animal welfare is a universal moral law. Hunters recognize this through “fair chase,” as do farmers through “husbandry.” Animals are not commodities, and our pets remind us of this daily.
Because of this, and the fact that there is no unified evangelical creed on animal welfare, we have developed The Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals. But why have we devoted time and effort to develop a biblical statement on animal ethics?
A biblical framework for animal ethics
First, we grow as disciples of Christ when our daily choices are founded in a biblical framework. To that end, we felt a guide on animal stewardship would help our own spiritual maturity. The Bible gives us principles for living, and we daily prescribe them in our lives. As theologian Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” This, of course, includes the animals we interact with daily in our homes, our meals, and our environment.
Gathering statements from various faith communities exposed a need for a more thoughtful, comprehensive, and collective summary of biblical principles regarding the biblical admonishment to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
Second, a large part of the Christian witness to the world is how we treat the world. “You will recognize them by their fruits,” Jesus warns us in Matthew 7:16. What kind of witness is it if we abuse our livestock or neglect our pets? And what kind of witness is it if, instead of expressing understanding toward others who have made eating choices different from ours, we dismiss them as “earth worshippers.” A well-formed biblical framework will allow us to live respectfully with creation and with others.
Third, we live in an interconnected world, and the way we view and treat animals is connected to other issues that affect us all. For example, overfishing leads to a decline in the population of productive fish, thus lowering the number of fish available to eat. Similarly, administering antibiotics to animals to keep them disease-free leads to dangerous strains of resistant bacteria that humans then consume.
Abuse of creation signals a larger problem
One of the ways the treatment of animals is connected to society is reflected in the growing coarsening of the culture. If we knowingly allow for the abuse of animals in factory farms and are implicated in it, we create permission for one more area of the society to become desensitized to suffering at large — possibly even human suffering.
This is akin to the broken-windows theory that suggests allowing for small violations in the law eventually leads to a permissive society and an overall atmosphere of lawlessness. The Roman circus included not only wild and exotic animals tearing each other apart, but humans as well.
Finally, disregarding animal welfare and tolerating animal cruelty, whether through animal fighting or abusive factory farming practices, affects our souls. Wilberforce wrote that these practices foster, “every bad and base principle of human nature.”
Hopefully reading through this statement at www.everylivingthing.com will help Christian pastors and congregations apply the right to rule creation to their daily choices. I was blessed and deeply affected by helping to draft its message.
Image courtesy of a katz / Shutterstock.com.