Ribs are getting harder to eat. I was gnawing on some nice tender bones in Memphis recently, but those bones were gnawing on me. Try as I might—and there are many days that I do indeed try to recapture the bliss of ignorance—I know too much about where that pork comes from to just devour it without a care in the world. I am not opposed to treating pigs like animals, but I know an animal should be treated as something more than just a lifeless cog in an industrial protein factory (and on my better days I act accordingly). How our food lives and dies has not been a regular topic of discussion in the evangelical subculture, but a recent effort by a number of prominent Christian social conservatives may open up a needed conversation.
Every Living Thing: An Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals is a new offering spearheaded by Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Michael Cromartie with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the Clapham Group’s Mark Rodgers, a former chief of staff to Senator Rick Santorum. Among those signing on are Bill Hybels (pastor of the influential Willow Creek Community Church), Al Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Stephanie Summers (CEO at the Center for Public Justice), Samuel Rodriguez (President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference), Russell Moore (head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission), and Moore’s ERLC predecessor Richard Land. While not the definitive “Who’s Who” of American evangelicalism (there are no Grahams or Warrens or Jakes present), the list is far from a “Who’s That?”
This is a tentative step back into a field that, in the absence of recent Christian leadership, has been mined by such fallacies as PETA’s assertion that “all animals are equal.” The cautious drafters bend over backwards to affirm that “we have no wish or desire to place this issue on a pedestal” and the statement closes by saying, “We need to work for the protection and preservation of all the kinds of animals God has created, while prioritizing human needs.”
The devil (and the path of discipleship) lies in the details of defining the truly needed human uses of our fellow creatures. The statement provides no list of what is sinful or acceptable within this realm. Indeed, it provides no specific guidance on any of the issues—from farming to medical research to trophy hunting—that are potentially impacted by its call “to exercise our responsible rule in part by confronting any and all cruelty against animals.” Cruelty remains very much in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, the statement does put a legitimate, if long neglected, issue back into the evangelical field of view. And, as the statement organizers note, today’s signers are stepping into territory that has already been explored by evangelical luminaries such as John Wesley, William Wilberforce, and C.S. Lewis.
Wesley, noted for showing kindness to the horses he rode for thousands of miles, preached on the care of animals, calling on his listeners to “imitate Him whose mercy is over all his works.” He and the early Methodists also spoke out against then widely acceptable practices like bull-baiting and cock-fighting, and Wesley himself long practiced a vegetarian diet that he recommended to others, though he did not teach that such was biblically required.
Wilberforce both helped to abolish the slave trade and establish what is now the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the oldest animal welfare organization in the world and the institution that inspired the creation of SPCAs around the globe. His work demonstrates that the dignity of people and the welfare of animals need not be competing interests. The care of one properly begets the care of the other.
C.S. Lewis’s fictional villains often displayed a disdain for animals while Lewis, known to share bread with the mice of his house, was noted for his compassion. Such extravagance towards animals has not always drawn applause from his evangelical fans. About a decade ago, I heard Wheaton College’s Jerry Root, a noted Lewis scholar, describe the Chronicles of Narnia author’s views on animals as a sentimental failing in his thought. Afterwards, I noted for him Paul’s description in Romans 8 of a groaning creation waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Root agreed that this merited further attention. Whether that conversation played a part or not, Root is today among the signers to Every Living Thing and has even chronicled Lewis on animals for the Humane Society of the United States with no hint of an eye-roll.
Many others, however, are likely rolling their eyes now at the news that the evangelical label is being taken into what may seem a decidedly liberal and secular area. This is one legacy of valid critiques of progressives like Princeton’s Peter Singer who advocate for animals while applauding abortion and infanticide. Such can unfortunately slide into an antipathy towards animals judged guilty by their human associations. Francis Schaeffer, who raised unborn life to a place of evangelical prominence and helped to load the cannons for the religious right, saw things differently. In his book Pollution and the Death of Man, a work where he simultaneously emphasized the preeminence of humanity and our links to the rest of a creation, he called on Christians to “honor the ant as God made it.” “When we meet the ant on the sidewalk,” Schaeffer wrote, “we step over him.” This Presbyterian fundamentalist also applauded Francis of Assisi for declaring man “brother to the birds”—a bigger and stronger brother with greater responsibilities and uniquely made in the image of God, but a brother in one sense nonetheless.
The church, for Schaeffer, was to be a “pilot plant” demonstrating the “substantial healing” of creation that is possible here and now, a task that included caring for animals appropriately. Evangelicals have largely fallen asleep on the job that Wilberforce, Wesley, Lewis, and Schaeffer embraced. Every Living Thing may be the wake-up call we need.
John Murdock is a natural resources attorney who writes from Texas and exists online at johnmurdock.org. He is one of the signers of the Every Living Thing statement.