Every day, each of us makes a choice as to whether we will support cruelty to God’s creatures or take a stand against it — by what we eat, wear, purchase, or by the activities we engage in. Most of us Christians do not seem to realize how these decisions may have a negative impact on our witness.
Outsiders to our faith are always observing to see if we reflect Christian virtues like love, mercy, gentleness, compassion, justice, humility, and selflessness. If we choose to support cruelty, not out of necessity, but to maintain our pleasure, convenience, and tradition, we look selfish and hypocritical. Some church members have even left because of the inconsistency.
In my experience, fellow Christians are quick to dismiss any notion that Christian virtues should apply to animals. Yet, restricting their application simply because the recipient happens to be an animal is not an option if we are to “imitate God” as Ephesians 5 instructs — a God whose “tender mercies are over all He has created,” according to the Psalmist. Honesty, too, requires a recognition that animals today are harmed in ways and numbers that did not exist 2000 years ago.
The central question is: which pleases God more, self-serving behavior or serving others? I have no doubt the Bible teaches the latter. My own philosophical transformation began to take place as I became more informed about the many ways animals routinely suffer and what the Bible communicates. Since then, my Christian witness has also included love, appreciation, and empathy for fellow creatures — creatures St. Francis would refer to as brothers and sisters. This does not make me perfect, of course, but I do feel more honest and caring and much more spiritually and morally satisfied.
Whatever the need for animals may have been in former times, contemporary Christians in this country have a wide array of nonviolent choices. These include a host of plant-based foods closely resembling meat, but without the associated cruelty and suffering. Alternatives for clothing, entertainment, household products, and many other things have eliminated the need to use animals.
Clearly, the manner in which we Christians defend animal abuse has something in common with dark periods of our history. Slave owners quoting St.Paul, segregationists, and those seeking to marginalize Native Peoples and women all selected certain scriptures, as we tend to do, to make their cases — cases we now reject. The misapplication of Scripture is not helpful for Christian witness.
Admitting that just maybe, there is more to be learned by us regarding the issue of animal treatment and biblical implications, is unusually difficult. Proverbs and other books of the Bible, though, encourage an open mind and a willingness to weigh new ideas. Our justifications for animal use are often simplistic and self-serving and show a lack of scholarship. With Jesus, it became more about the heart and motives and less about rule-following.
In thinking about the treatment of those we consider beneath us, let us not overlook the example of Jesus — the higher ministering to the lower.
Larry Brown is a retired Bradford teacher, former candidate for state representative, musician, and a vegetarian/vegan since 1976.