Remember how, after Jonah’s grudging evangelistic crusade, the whole city of Nineveh repented and Jonah angrily pouted? He couldn’t abide the mercy of Israel’s God for that pagan city. Fed up with Jonah’s attitude, God says, “Should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people . . . and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11, TNIV).
God’s redeeming love, while centered on men and women who bear his image, embraces all of creation. And, like us, God has a special place in his heart for the animals. Page through the psalms and notice how often animals are pictured as the objects of God’s care and delight (see Ps. 104). Notice how the birds and animals chirp, bleat, and roar their praises to the Creator.
Since animals are important to God, they must also be important to us. In the beginning, humanity was given one great task—dominion. “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (Ps. 8:6-8, NRSV).
In this Easter season we celebrate that our risen Lord Jesus Christ is declared Lord of all. Lordship and dominion are the same word, same idea. Part of Jesus’ redeeming work is to restore us to our rightful human lordship, our proper dominion over creation. We are commissioned again, in union with Christ, to care for God’s creatures.
A few years ago I came across a book titled Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully. Scully is not your typical environmentalist. He was a special assistant to President George Bush and contributed to the conservative National Review magazine. Scully grounds the humane care of animals precisely in the biblical idea of dominion. He reminds us that dominion means lordship, authority exercised with love and care. It means caring especially for those creatures that are dependent on our care and mercy, as we are dependent on God’s care and mercy.
Farms or Factories?
State universities used to be known for their programs of “animal husbandry.” What a wonderful term. To husband the animals is to care for them, to provide for their welfare, as well as to use them for human benefit. In the past few decades, most such programs have become departments of animal science, which makes it possible to look on animals as laboratory specimens we can manipulate.
Today, the largest proportion of animals raised for human consumption (especially hogs and chickens) are grown on “factory farms,” many owned and operated by huge multinational corporations.
Here’s how Bernard Rollin, distinguished professor of philosophy and animal sciences at Colorado State University, describes one corporate-run hog factory:
The animals never see the light of day until they are shipped to slaughter. Sows are breeding machines. From insemination to birthing, these 600-pound animals are kept in “gestation crates,” with slotted concrete floors to drain away excrement, the largest only 7 by 2 1/2 by 3 feet. The stench is so horrible that in some farms the workers must wear respirators. There is no room for turning or satisfying her natural instinct to groom herself or root for nesting materials. The pigs often go mad, exhibiting the repetitive, destructive behavior typical of derangement. And as soon as the piglets are born, they are taken from the other end through a door and placed in separate pens. And the process starts all over (“Farm Factories,” Christian Century, Dec. 19-26, 2001; “Hog Heaven,” June 19-26, 2002).
This is called factory farming because animals are made into machines of production in which the goal is the shortest time from breeding to bacon or filets, in the smallest possible space, with the cheapest possible feed to satisfy the increasing demand for meat.
Of course, it’s not only the animals that are harmed. There have been a number of scares over disease-causing bacteria that can thrive in the factory-farming and butchering system. Add to that the growing concern about the effects of antibiotics and growth hormones used by these farms.
Christians have a long tradition of looking at the beasts as fellow creatures to be cared for under God’s mandate. Here’s a prayer from Saint Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in A.D. 375, who couldn’t even dream of a factory farm:
O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song, has been a groan of travail.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, once preached a long, remarkable sermon against animal cruelty. More recently, C.S. Lewis devoted a whole chapter in his book The Problem of Pain, to the senselessness and degradation of cruelty to animals.
Each believed that we need to accept the gift of food with gratitude to God, and to provide humane care for the animals whose lives are an offering on our behalf.
Rollin, a devout Christian, travels the country preaching the good news of caring for animals. He tells a story that sums it up for me. He gave the keynote address to a meeting of swine producers in Ontario. While he had spoken to more than 300 audiences on the subject of animal ethics, he had never spoken to swine producers. How would his message go over?
When he finished speaking, there was silence. Uh, oh, he thought, I bombed. Suddenly one man stood on the table and shouted, “This was it! This was the straw that broke the camel’s back! I have been feeling lousy for 15 years about how I raise these animals. And so, in front of my peers, so I can’t back out later, I am pledging to tear down my confinement barn and build a barn I don’t have to be ashamed of! I am a good enough husbandman that I can do it right, make a living, and look myself in the mirror!” The man was Dave Linton, a leading hog farmer in the area.
A year-and-a-half later Linton invited Rollin to visit the farm. With eyes dancing, Dave and his wife took him to their new barn. There was sunshine! The roof was hydraulic and could be retracted to allow the animals to live, in essence, outdoors. There were huge pens, lavishly piled with straw. Farrowing sows lay around on these beds of straw, chewing and rooting their nests. Rollin stuttered, “They look, they look,” he struggled for words, “happy. That’s it, happy!” And the air was sweet, sweet as a barn filled with straw.
Beaming, Linton shook hands all around and said, “God has already paid me back for doing the right thing.”
“How so,” Rollin asked?
“It’s my boy,” Linton said. “When we had the old barn my son dropped out of school and did nothing but play video games. I couldn’t interest him in the business or even get him to set foot in the barn. Since I built this one, I can’t get him out!” And, not insignificantly, the economic bottom line of the operation actually improved. (“Hog Heaven”).
Since I’m a deep-down Calvinist, I believe that our work in the light of Christ’s Lordship extends to every part of God’s creation. And it certainly includes caring for the earth and its creatures. For me, that means finding out where my meat, fish, and eggs come from, and how those creatures are cared for and slaughtered—sometimes even paying more for them.
Matthew Scully says that in every act of kindness, even to the cattle, we hold in our own hands the mercy of our Maker. God’s purposes are life and not death. God’s love does not stop at us, but bestows dignity on every creature that lives and suffers and perishes. God rejoices in the one hundred and twenty thousand people of Nineveh . . . and also the many animals.
- Share with the group an experience you’ve had with a pet or a farm animal.
- Do you agree that “God has a special place in his heart for the animals”? Why or why not?
- What do you think the word “dominion” means in the Bible? Do you agree with Matthew Scully’s definition of “lordship, authority exercised with love and care”?
- What is your view of factory farming? What was your response to the depiction of the factory farm mentioned in the article?
- Discuss the example of the farmer who tore down his confinement barn and built a new one. What insight did you gain?
- Has this article changed your thinking about the meat you buy? In what way?
- What can you do to show God’s care and mercy to animals?
About the Author
Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.