March 9, 2014
The First Sunday in Lent
My text is from our reading from Genesis 2:15-17, and I will use the translation of the Common English Bible: “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.”
So here we have one of the oldest images from one of the oldest stories ever told. It’s an image of creation as paradise. Creator God takes the human species and settles us in the garden. In another passage from Genesis, we find, “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food,” strongly suggesting that animals were not ours for food. Humans are given their sources of sustenance, and we are told to take care of the garden, and all the denizens; indeed, humankind is given dominion over the animals. This was the vision of the peaceable kingdom.
But of course this is not how the story turned out. One chapter later, the humans have been expelled from paradise, God’s creation is no longer as God intended it, and the whole troubled history of our world has begun. And one of the central stories in that history is the story of how we human beings rejected our role as gardeners and caretakers, and instead enslaved other living creatures, humans and non-humans alike, to serve our selfish ends.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I am passionate about animals, and determined to try to end what I see as the unjust way they are treated by humans. I don’t believe animals are ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation. I believe that they suffer equally with humans, that the quality and depth of their pain is no different from ours, and thus they deserve the same compassion and just treatment that humans do.
Now you may be thinking that the rest of my sermon is going to talk about animal welfare, or animal rights, and present you with the facts and figures that might convince you to share my point of view. But mostly, that’s not my subject today. First, I want to take a step back and tell you more about my own tensions and difficulties as a person who sees injustice, and does not always know how to talk about. I think every person in this sanctuary has been in my shoes: You learn about something that humans have done which simply appalls you, which makes you tremble with indignation and outrage at the injustice . . . but not everyone sees what you see, and even those who do may not agree with you. How do you live in that tension?
As you heard, Katie and I are about to teach a course in the SCL called Animals and Us: The Story So Far. My thoughts this morning are very much sparked by my preparation for that course. The more I studied and prepared, the more I was aware of just how badly I want other members of Seekers who may take the course to be persuaded of my own beliefs. Passion, caring, commitment lead almost inevitably into the desire to be right, to convince others, to have your point of view carry the day. This is particularly true if you’re good at argument, and have a philosophical bent. One of the great contemporary philosophers, Robert Nozick, talked about the ultimate “powerful argument” which would be so magically powerful that, if someone heard it and yet didn’t accept it, they died. He was kidding, but also making a crucial point. We who believe we are right about something can actually feel that aggressive toward those who disagree with us – and that certain that there is some argument, some words, if only we could find them, that would persuade those disagree-ers to change their minds.
Now this is no way to teach a course. So I’m smacked right up against my own spiritual limits. What I truly want is a six-week journey of exploration, not persuasion, where we can all learn more about both animals and ourselves, and perhaps help each other see ways we can change and grow. Laying a guilt trip on people, week after week, is not likely to facilitate this. A few years ago Katie and I recorded a song about the beef industry whose refrain was, “I don’t mean to rant and rave / I just want you to feel / A lot guiltier than you do now.” We were having a bit of a joke – but not completely. I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that, yes, of course I feel that people who use animals for their own comfort and convenience, and willfully turn a deaf ear to the resulting suffering, ought to feel a lot guiltier. But my own position here was not formed by guilt; it grew out of a Christian compassion I could no longer ignore. So let me talk a little about that.
I’ve always loved the company of animals, and abhorred cruelty to them. And like most everyone else, until my mid-30s I found this perfectly consistent with eating them, wearing them, and supporting companies that experimented on them. If you had pressed me on this, I think I would have acknowledged that, say, the meat industry, which worldwide slaughters 150 billion animals every year – yes, that’s billion with a B – was a regrettable necessity. But I did not feel personally compromised.
There’s a British proverb, “All cats are grey in the dark,” meaning that without light, it’s hard to see differences. Martin Newell has a pro-animal song called “All Cats Are Grey” whose refrain tweaks that idea a little: “All cats are grey,” he sings, “or shall we say: If you stay in the dark anyway.” And later in the song he shows us a careless motorist who runs down a dog, and says sarcastically: “You’re not like him, you are never cruel or to blame.” Well, that was me. I stayed in the dark, so the entire animal-subjugation industry was one shade of gray, and it was a shade I could do nothing about. And after all, I myself was a kind person. I was never cruel or to blame.
What changed my views, and my life? Two things. First, I think God opened my heart and refused to let me stay in the dark about the suffering of animals. It just seemed as if, day by day, I kept thinking about an innocent animal tortured and slaughtered, for me, and I stopped being able to accept it. It hurt too much. And second, as I tried to grow into a follower of Christ, I began to care about the idea of mercy. I really need mercy for myself, and I pray that God will give it to me. If all I get is justice, I’m in trouble. So I have to take seriously what Jesus said, that only the merciful have any reason to expect mercy. I began to see that there was simply no good reason to care about mercy to other humans, and yet not extend it to animals.
I am not a believer in animal rights. I’m agnostic on the subject, and indeed on the subject of “rights” in general. Thomas Jefferson, in writing the Declaration of Independence, said that we are “endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Fine words, but as we know, by “we” Jefferson meant white males who owned a certain specified amount of property. And part of that property might include another enslaved human being, and this was just fine with Jefferson, who owned slaves himself. Another founding father, Patrick Henry, was more honest. He said that he would be in favor of abolishing slavery were it not for “the general inconvenience of living without them.”
So I am skeptical of invoking “rights” to justify how we treat other beings. It seems arbitrary and too often self-serving. In any case, I have looked in vain for anything in the Bible that suggests our creator did “endow us with rights,” as Jefferson believed. I would also point out that too often “rights” leads to “rights and wrongs,” which in turn leads to that kind of self-confident guilt-tripping I mentioned earlier. What about “mercy” instead? Suppose that anonymous cow, one of billions being slaughtered for our pleasure, has no rights whatsoever? Does that mean she has no call on our mercy, as Christians?
A few weeks ago, Deborah preached a wonderful sermon about mercy, in which she showed us how the roots of the word also evoke “kindness,” “lovingkindness,” “compassion,” and “unfailing love.” And she pointed out that, when used to describe a relation between two humans, “mercy” has a whiff of the hierarchical, of an unequal balance between the one who needs mercy and the one who gives it. “Kindness, it seems to me,” she said, “is a much gentler, more democratic word than mercy.”
I think that is exactly right, and that is why “mercy” is the word we must invoke for animals. The power relationship we have with them is unequal. Even in our original creation story, Paradise found human beings charged with the task of caring for animals, not the reverse. We have the power to help them or hurt them, or kill them. They are literally at our mercy.
So imagine for a moment that we decide to take seriously Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” And we look around and realize that animal suffering, in our name, is a daily fact of life. Beef, chicken, leather, fur, circuses, vivisection – there is literally no way to measure the suffering of the uncounted animals we subjugate. Is some of it “necessary”? Well, but is all of it?
Can we show more mercy, today, than we did yesterday?
I think we can, if you and I don’t worry about who is righter, who has the better argument, and instead simply look with our hearts at the world around us. In small ways, today, I can just say no to the results of animal slavery. I can admit that most, if not all, of my uses of animals are based on convenience and pleasure, not necessity. I can stop eating meat. I can stop wearing leather. I can teach children that circus animals are not actually having any fun. And so on.
Mercy doesn’t require me to change the world. It only asks that I do what I can, today, to show kindness to defenseless creatures. What do they deserve? What are their rights? I have no idea. But God apparently still expects me to be merciful. Could a subsistence farmer in Uzbekistan show the same mercy, and survive? I have no idea. This is about what I can do; it is not a universal rule.
I’ve been writing a novel, and there’s this church in it, which is not totally unlike Seekers Church. But their call statement, which is not totally unlike ours, also contains the phrase “to care for God’s creation, including our fellow creatures, and recognize Christ’s call on us to deliver them from bondage.” The great thing about fiction-writing is that you can make up stories that help you explore your own deepest desires. I realized, when I invented this church, that I envision a day when Seekers might include some such phrase in our call statement. I felt how deeply I long to be part of a church that would do that.
But for now, I’m on the brink of a rich six-week experience with Katie and many of you in the School of Christian Living. In fact, you can hear this sermon as a recruitment talk: I want you! Please join us, the more the merrier. Together I hope we can find out what each of us knows and feels about animals, and whether there are places in our lives where convenience is coming out on top of compassion. My own exploration will focus on the fact that, despite everything I’ve told you, I continue to consume dairy products. I know the suffering that the dairy industry causes, yet I continue to support it. Why? I want to find out; my superficial answers no longer satisfy me. But I hope this shows that I am hardly in a position to object to anyone else’s limits; I merely want us to share them and look at them together.
One more thing, and then I’ll close: This Sunday marks the beginning of Lent, and traditionally Lent is a time to give something up. There are many other ways to observe the Lenten season, but here’s a simple question: Is there something in your life which is there strictly for convenience — just because it makes your life easier – that is also harming animals? Could you give it up for six weeks? These are small, small steps, but I’m a great believer that “from little things, big things grow.” I know we will never re-enter paradise, but maybe we Christians can lead the way for all human beings to at least catch a glimpse of that peaceable kingdom, where we exercise our dominion over the animals by showing them God’s mercy.