Ever since the publication of Andrew Linzey’s Animal Rights: A Christian Perspective published in 1976, an increasing number of self-identified Christians have adopted vegetarianism as an essential element of their Christian faith. These Christians contend that just as Christ humbled himself to serve and reconcile humanity to himself, in like manner humans should humble themselves and work to end the violence between themselves and the animal kingdom. Therefore, Christians, it is argued, should oppose eating meat, hunting, and wearing fur as part of their call to follow Christ. Readers should not dismiss this theology as simply the problem of mainline denominations as it is now entering Evangelical Christianity as well. The topic of the proper use of animals is too broad and complex for a thorough discussion here. However, I wanted to provide a few principles for you to consider before being swayed by this dangerous theology.
As webmaster for the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management http://www.icwdm.org, I educate people about identifying, preventing, and responsibly resolving damage caused by wildlife. For instance, if raccoons are raiding your garden or squirrels have entered the attic, I will provide informational resources to help you stop those problems. People are generally intrigued by my line of work, but become unsettled upon learning that I am also a minister with a Ph.D. in theology. They seem puzzled that a minister would be teaching the public about techniques that involve shooting, trapping, and killing wildlife. After all, aren’t they God’s creatures? Shouldn’t ministers be about peace and love and harmony?
Unfortunately, what they fail to understand is that there is no fundamental contradiction between responsibly killing animals and following Christ. In fact, the contradiction lies with those who reject our right to kill animals on the grounds that such actions are non-Christian. To put a sharper point on the matter, I argue that for Christians to accept the ideals of animal rights is the logical equivalent of saying that one can be a Christian-atheist.
Before providing evidence for this bold assertion, I need to clarify some terms. “Animal rights” is the view which denies that humans have any moral authority or right to eat, ranch, hunt, trap, fish, or otherwise interfere with animals living out their lives. In other words, humans should grant animals the same kinds of rights afforded our fellow humans. Animal rights activists are not suggesting that animals have the right to vote but they do believe that the right to life and non-interference is fundamental and humans must respect that in order to be properly moral. Just as you can’t walk into your neighbor’s house without permission, so you would not be allowed (from an ethical perspective) to sport hunt or fish or eat a burger. To an animal rights activist, eating animal flesh is morally analogous to cannibalism; it is an extreme expression of a lack of respect for the animal’s life. Just to be clear, animal rights activists believe that self-defense does provide justification for killing an animal. If a mountain lion attacks you, animal rights activists believe you are justified in using lethal force to protect yourself.
Animal Protectionism takes a slightly more modest position as adherents argue that humans may kill animals only if there were overriding reasons for doing so. In other words, animal protectionists deny that humans have a prima facie right to kill or harm animals. For example, an animal protectionist would say that killing birds that threaten the safety of passenger liners around an airport could be ethical if other, less lethal methods failed to work. In contrast, an animal rights activist would say that perhaps the airport should be shut down or the birds should be humanely moved to a new location of similar worth and value from the perspective of the birds. As can be expected, animal protectionists’ views fall in a spectrum. Some are so extreme that distinguishing them from animal rights activists would be difficult indeed. I just want readers to ponder how life would be different if every time you wanted to kill an animal you had to provide overriding evidence of need.
As noted above, animal rights activists along with extreme elements of the animal protectionist movement deny that humans have the right of dominion over animals. I also stated that Christians cannot affirm that position. Let provide just a few reasons for this. First, Scripture clearly says that God gave dominion to humanity (Gen 1:26-8). Dominion does not mean despotism. Humans were to govern the world in service to God as managers run an apartment block for the interests of the owner. Genesis 2 explicitly relates God’s command to work the garden and to protect it. The evidence suggests that God wanted humans to protect species from extinction. Individual animals did not receive that protection. If you have any doubts, ask how our lives would be different if Adam and Eve decided to express dominion over the Serpent rather than listening to it. Adam and Eve failed to protect the garden because they failed to eject, or dare I say kill the Serpent, for its blasphemy. In short, they failed to express dominion over the serpent. The Old Testament provides additional support for humanity’s authority over creation in Psalm 8, which interestingly enough is treated as a Messianic Psalm in the New Testament (Heb 2:7). Christ also affirmed humanity’s authority over creation (and the animal kingdom) through his words and his actions. Contrary to the limits in diet proffered by animal rights activists, Christ gave humanity permission to eat all animals. By declaring all foods ceremonially clean, Christians were no longer bound to follow the restrictions of Kosher Laws (Mk 7:19) and could enjoy the flavors of pigs and lobster with divine blessing. Christ’s actions towards animals are even more telling. He allowed demons to drown pigs without ever bothering to run into the Sea of Galilee to save them (Lk 8:33). He even helped the disciples kill more fish through the miracle of the fishes (Jn 21:6). If we listen to the claims of the Christian animal rights activists, then we have to wonder whether Christ sinned by his treatment of animals. Of course, if Christ was not perfect, then we are still lost in our sin and we know that is not true.
If you want to read a more extended discussion of these points, I suggest getting a copy of my book, Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009). Stephen M. Vantassel is project coordinator for wildlife damage management with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as well as an instructor of theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity School in Kent, UK.