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A Three-Point Framework for an Evangelical Theology of Animal Care
Recently, there has been a heightened sense of justice within the evangelical community for the welfare of various “others”. Yet one group within creation has often received little attention:
Admittedly, though I adore my spunky Terrier-Boxer-Pug dog Zoe, I haven’t much considered how caring for animals connects to my faith. But Christian activist Sarah Withrow King has caused me to rethink how animals fit into God’s broader creation plan and re-creation initiative through Christ.
King’s new book is called Vegangelical “because caring for animals has helped me appreciate the Good News in deeper and wider ways, and though the work is often heartbreaking, I have hope in a resurrected Christ, who is calling his whole creation home.” (16)
She opens her book by carefully outlining an evangelical theology of animal care. Her framework pivots around three themes: image of God; dominion and stewardship; and other-love. She chose these three, “because they are foundational in the development of a whole-life ethic.” (25)
Below we’ve briefly engaged them to help you better understand a biblical approach to the human-animal relationship.
The Image of God
How ought our being made in God’s image inform our treatment of animals? One way King answers this question is by homing in on the way we’ve typically defined that image:
We humans have a troubling historical habit of insisting on identifying ourselves as “the climax, the most significant, of all of God’s creative work” without any examination of how that interpretation has damaged humanity’s relationship with God, with one another, and with God’s creation. (40)
Though we are representational of the Creator, she explains we are also his representative. Here, she directs us to J. Richard Middleton’s work, who reminds us that we are “priests of creation, actively mediating divine blessing to the nonhuman world” (The Liberating Image, 88). She submits that “Every violent abuse of power, every bullying act, is a mutilation of God’s image and a violation of the stewardship…” (40) Creation suffers at all levels when we get this representation wrong.
What does this mean for animal care? “To be made in the image of God is not a license to conquer and kill; it is a charge to keep and till…It is a Trinitarian charge.” (41)
Dominion and Stewardship
In what way is our stewardship and dominion of creation compatible?
Though some scholars have translated the Hebrew r-d-h as “dominion over” or “mastery among,” King argues “Genesis 1:26 reminds us that our mastery among creation is conditional on our creation in the image of God.” (56) Which means we are “to pursue a life of righteousness, mutual submission, and generative love.” (56)
Building on the previous rung in her framework, King directs our attention to the Trinitarian nature of our dominion and stewardship responsibilities. “The role of humanity in creation is a Trinitarian one,” in which the mutuality of the perichoresis is to guide our relationship with animals. (57)
King echoes Bauckham’s work, who traced the historical interpretation of “dominion” and found the human-creation hierarchy is conditioned by mutuality. She argues, “since all of creation exists to serve and glorify the Creator, ‘do unto others’ applies in the context of all human relationships: human to human, human to animal, human to tree, and human to air.” (57)
Loving the "Other"
How are we called to extend mercy to “the least of these,” including the animals?
Part of King’s answer flows from the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, which illustrates how often we distance ourselves from the so-called “other.” “In many ways we have conditioned ourselves to mark our special territory in the world, to show ourselves and others that we are set apart, different, special, better.” (72)
King suggests some Christians follow this exclusion by rejecting modern animal rights which insists there isn’t a meaningful difference between us and animals. Yet she suggests animals are less “other” than we admit: “We now know that animals and humans alike possess the ability to feel pain, to use tools and language, to develop social systems and structures, to seek and grant justice, to empathize, play, love, and mourn.” (72)
And we forget that “God came to us in the form of a human who embraced those who were rejected and ‘otherized’…God served the other, sacrificed for the other, loved the other, without ever not being God.” Given this biblical truth, King argues, “by showing compassion [to animals], we are being the best version of humans that we can be.” (73)
“[Christians] have little, if any, theological framework to govern our treatment of animals,” which has left us “without a biblical approach to issues like factory farming, animal experimentation, and so on.” (18)
Vegangelical bridges this gap, offering Christians a theological and practical framework for considering their relationship to fellow creatures. Read it, engage it, and discuss it to understand how caring for animals can shape your faith.
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