As I go about my trapping, customers usually ask, if I had to go to school to learn my job. I smile and tell them that I learned the hard way, by experience. I then proceed to tell them, much to their surprise, that I have a Masters degree in Hebrew Bible. In fact, the Rev. Billy Graham’s signature resides on my diploma because he was chairman of the board when I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1989. Sometimes, my customer will ask me how I, as a minister, could kill God’s creatures. This article is a more detailed answer to that very question.
One area in the debate over the treatment of animals that is sorely neglected is the manner in which one’s religious faith impacts one’s perspective on the ways humans and animals should interact. Too often people account for various views by appealing to the person’s place in society, sociological background, income and education and even his/her gender. While each of those aspects do impact our view of animal related subjects, they overlook the fact that we are not just physical beings, but we are spiritual beings as well. We want to relate to something greater than ourselves. I would like to suggest to you that much of the reason for society’s change in attitude toward animals stems directly to a change in the way society views God and religion. Ever since Christianity began to lose its hold in American Society, animal rights philosophy/religion has begun to grow in strength. But that topic is for another article.
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As a Christian, I believe that humans can hunt, trap, fish and otherwise use animals for their purpose because God has given humanity rulership over the world. Take for example, the often maligned verse of Genesis 1:28. Quoting from the Revised Standard Version, “ And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of sea, and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” The key words here, for the purposes of our discussion are ‘subdue’ and ‘dominion’. ‘Subdue’ translates the Hebrew verb kabash and it means essentially, forced servitude (Theological Word Book of the Old Testament vol. 1 p. 951). (On a side note, the reader should understand that the Hebrew transliteration does not exactly follow scholarly form. It is written in a close approximation as possible given the font constraints of my program). The next word, ‘dominion’ translates the Hebrew verb rada. It means to have control over as in one nation ruling another (Theological Word Book of the Old Testament vol. 2 p. 833). I won’t recoil from the fact that God gave humanity the authority to bring creation under subjection and control. To my mind, that means that God has allowed humans to make decisions about their use of the environment. It also suggests that as Dr. Oswalt has said that nature will not do man’s bidding easily (Theological Word Book of the Old Testament vol. 1 p. 951). In short, man will have to work at making the world a better place in which to live.
But before you begin thinking that Christianity believes that mankind is authorized to do with the world whatever it wants, note that God also commanded Adam, the first man, to till and to keep the garden (Gen. 2:15). The word translated “till” is the Hebrew verb ‘ebed. It is translated in various ways but in agricultural situations it means ‘to work or tend’ (Theological Word Book of the Old Testament vol. 2 p.639). The second word, ‘keep’, translates the Hebrew verb shamar. It means ‘to guard or protect.’ It is used elsewhere in the Old Testament of a shepherd guarding the flock (Theological Word Book of the Old Testament vol. 2 p.939, Gen 30:31). Thus the garden of Eden wasn’t just some spot where Adam could lounge around biting off grapes. Rather it was a place where he was the manager in charge. I say manager because Adam didn’t own the garden, God did. So in Christian Theology, the garden is a microcosm of the earth. Just as Adam had to till (translate work) and keep (translate protect) the garden, so we must do the same for the World’s true owner, God himself.
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By now you should perceive that the Christian position on environmental responsibility lies between the extreme positions of the preservationists (non-use school) and the laissez-faire industrialist schools (no barriers to use school). Contrary to much popular understanding, the Scripture does not teach that mankind can do as he wishes with the world. I would agree that historically, many Christians have neglected to see their role as keeper of the planet along with their tending responsibilities. However, I should point out that it is only relatively recently that the world has been as populated or exploited as it is now. I would argue that in the medieval ages it was beneficial for humanity both spiritually and environmentally to cut down paganism’s sacred oak groves. Christianity allowed people to see a tree as a piece of creation that God meant to be used not worshipped. I would also argue that part of that use of a tree is not cutting it down so that we can control erosion and pollution. Although an environmental extremist might disagree, the role of creation is to serve the needs of humanity as humanity serves its Creator.
Turn your attention to Psalm 8, which in poetic language reinforces the teachings of Genesis 1-2. Here we have King David telling his listeners that God has positioned Mankind a little lower than the angels but higher than the animals. Note the last few verses where he covers pretty much all the animal classes from domesticated to the wild. When reading these passages of Scripture, I hope you will understand how historic Christianity perceives the role of humanity and nature together.
Another reason why Christians can’t be animal rightists is because we can never preach that eating animals is wrong. The Apostle Paul clearly states that anyone who forbids another from eating certain foods (like meat) is preaching a doctrine of demons (1 Tim 4:1-3). While at college, I met with woman who hosted a booth explaining the horrors of factory farming. I took a few moments to speak with her that I too was bothered by cows being held in stalls so small that they couldn’t move around. But I wanted to find out what her philosophy towards animals was so I asked her if it was okay if I ate meat from a cow that was cared for by a farmer who let them roam the open fields. In short, could I morally eat meat from a cow that was well cared for? She said, No. I then responded, “then the issue isn’t how the animal is treated. The real issue is that the animal is killed at all.” Regrettably, it is this non-use attitude that undergirds much of the animal rights movement. They cry about abuse but it is only a smoke screen for their real concern, that the animal is killed at all. As a Christian, I may agree with some of their animal welfare concerns but not that animals cannot be eaten. For me to say that I can’t eat an animal is tantamount to saying that what God gave for us to use is defective. This is not to mention the fact that if eating animals is wrong, translate sin, then my Savior, Jesus Christ sinned because he ate fish (Jn 21:1-14 ). I haven’t even mentioned how Jesus actually helped the apostles catch more fish (Jn 21:1-14).
Christianity teaches that humanity has a stewardship role on the earth. Unlike the preservationists, we believe that it is our job to manage the animal kingdom with the natural predators that God has provided to keep populations in balance. We disagree that letting nature take its course is the correct action. For we are part of that nature. It always strikes me as strange how animal rights people think its okay for diseases to reduce a burdensome animal population, but they don’t think it’s okay for a human to preemptively reduce that population and even make money doing it.
If Biblical grounds aren’t enough for you to accept my understanding of man and creation, perhaps you might want to look at the contradictions inherent in the animal rightists school of thought. The fact is many animal rightist believe that people are little more than highly evolved animals. They contend that since we are more highly evolved it is unfair of us to exploit our lower companions (Singer p. 9; note how he calls an infant just another animal). For if the Antis truly believed that we are nothing more than animals, then why can’t we act like the animals we are? If you evaluate these evolutionary animal rightist like Peter Singer you will notice that the animal rights philosophy cheats. By claiming that we should be concerned about the suffering of another animal it borrows from morals that lie outside the animal evolutionary realm. After all, if the evolutionary principle of natural selection is true, then why can’t we, the more powerful animals exploit other less powerful animals to fulfill our purposes? Does a coyote care about the suffering of a fawn? Besides even if evolution inserted compassion into the human animal why do all of us have to follow that feeling? Does evolution say we will go to hell if we don’t obey evolution’s orders? It is only when one inserts the idea of rights and responsibilities, which I understand can’t come from natural selection, does one hope to have grounds for treating other creatures in a considerate manner. In short, Peter Singer borrows from Christ’s teachings about compassion and care but rejects Christ’s life of eating fish and the teachings of his apostles.
In Christian terms, since animals are not humans they do not command the same moral rights as humans do. Just as plants are not on the same vital plane as animals. I’m confident that many biologists are shaking their heads saying, but we are animals. To that I can only say, Scripture and experience both tell us that humans, while sharing many animal like characteristics, have something in them that is fundamentally different than what animals possess. Some call this different thing, soul, others spirit, still others reason. Whatever, you want to call it, the fact remains that we are as different to animals as a car is to a horse and buggy. Peter Singers criticism of this doctrine relies on little more than its a declining doctrine (Animal p. 19 foot note). Since when does a belief become less true just because fewer people may believe it? His second argument against the soul doctrine is also vacuous. He claims that on a logical basis the soul doctrine cannot stand because Christianity has not provided a reasoned explanation of why only humans can have souls (Animal p. 19). To that I would say, what kind of an argument would be needed to convince Singer? It seems to me that the Bible clearly teaches that humanity is created in God’s image (Gen.1:26) . Scripture never asserts that animals are created in God’s image. The image of God consists of our ability to self-aware, to control our surroundings and to create. I have yet to see an animal build a space craft and go to the moon.
In conclusion, a Christian minister can trap because he is simply fulfilling his responsibility to be a manager and caretaker of the earth that God has entrusted to his care. Trapping is just one aspect of asserting my God given right to express dominion and care over the world that God bestowed to me. Just because I may not need the raccoons meat for food, or that I enjoy the experience of catching animals, doesn’t mean that I am not playing an important role in the balance of nature. What I must always consider is whether I am properly caring for God’s property. I believe the successes of modern animal management demonstrate that my lawful trapping activities is a proper expression of my care for God’s property.
I look forward to your response. If I can answer any particular questions please don’t hesitate to write or send e-mail.
Stephen M. Vantassel holds degrees in theological studies and is an expert in wildlife damage management, and used to work as a professional wildlife damage controller. His latest book is Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Wipf and Stock, 2009).
Harris, R. Laird et al. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Vol. 1-2. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.
Lindsell, Harold. Harper Study Bible. Revised Standard Version. Grand Rapids Mich.: Zondervan Bible Pub. 1971.
Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: A new ethics for our treatment of animals. New York, New York: Avon Books, 1975.
Article was previously published in the Probe. The Newsletter for the National Animal Damage Control Association.