So earlier this week, Oliver Thomas wrote an editorial for USA Today What’s the godly way to treat animals? . It is an interesting topic. I liken it to the question of the environment which tends to polarize people into tree-hugging or “I gots me doe-myn-yun over the earth and I will pollute it as I please” camps. There is an appropriate and Scripturally valid position on the environment as well as caring for animals. I just don’t think Mr. Thomas presents an even vaguely Scriptural argument and even worse misses the bigger question that this issue raises.
(Full disclosure. We have a number of pets in our home. I come from a pet family where we treated our pets as members of the family. We still laugh about the quirky cat Ramona that we had when I was a kid who would only eat raw hamburger and only from one particular store. Having said that I have zero use for animal rights zealots. I find those who cannot distinguish between the value of a human life and the value of an animal life to be insufferable. If we can save the life of one child by conducting experiments on 1000 dogs, I say go for it.)
Here is where the argument goes astray, when Mr. Thomas tries to get cutesy with the text and in doing so discounts his entire essay. Exhibit A:
One can't help but wonder what Jesus would think of all this. Certainly, he was not a vegetarian. Jesus appears to have eaten fish routinely and once spoke of killing a fatted calf. But Jesus was not cruel. He came from a religious tradition that still has rituals and practices associated with animal slaughter that reflect a pervasive respect for all God's creatures. Jesus described himself as the "good shepherd" — one who lays down his life for the sheep. Does that sound like a factory farmer to you?
Really. The only cruelty we should be talking about in that paragraph is cruel and unusual punishment of the text. There are few abuses of text worse than trying to make a completely unrelated point, one that is unsupported anywhere in Scripture, by plucking a sentence or phrase from the text and using it to justify your position. I am surprised he didn’t quote Jesus telling Peter “Feed my sheep” as a justification for buying quality pet food.
If you really want to ask the question about what Jesus thinks on this topic, you better be prepared for a hard answer. Americans own something on the order of 150,000,000+ dogs and cats by some estimates and who knows how many fish, hamsters, birds, bunnies, ferrets, spiders, snakes, hedgehogs, etc. All of those animals cost a boatload of money to own and feed. We own 4 cats and a myriad of fish and they are expensive just to maintain. When I think about how much we as a family spend on pets and then think about actual people in need, it bothers me. A lot. When the cats are out of food, I will make a special trip to the store to buy a bag of cat food but what about the people in my own community who are hungry? Even in our town, with a Porsche dealership and where the sight of a Ferrari tooling down the road in front of my office is not that unusual, there are people who are in need. When it comes to animals, I think Jesus would be far more concerned with how much we spend on them than with how they are treated. We spend so much of our money and time on things that strictly give us pleasure, whether that is cable TV or horses or vacations, instead of on those things we should focus on like spreading the Gospel, caring for widows and orphans, feeding the poor. So before we start wringing our hands over the plight of animals we need to be taking better care of people.
God gave mankind dominion over the earth and everything on it, including the animals. He gave those animals to be used. Not abused necessarily but used. Everyone remembers that Noah took two of each animal into the ark. It makes for a cute picture for kids of mommy and daddy animals climbing aboard the ark, beckoned in by a smiling and congenial Noah. But Noah wasn’t commanded to take just a pair of each. Some animals he took more of:
Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth. (Gen 7: 1-3)
So why did Noah take more of those beasts? Not because they were his favorites. They had a purpose.
So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him. Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by families from the ark. Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. (Gen 8: 18-20)
He took extra clean animals so he could sacrifice them on an altar. That wasn’t the end of it. The temple was a slaughterhouse of sacrifices: birds, goats, calves, sheep. We think of the temple as some beautiful edifice but it was frequently full of the sound of beasts being slaughtered. If you have ever been in a slaughter house while animals are being killed, the noise and the smell are…memorable. I can’t imagine the clamor in the temple when animals were being brought in for the sacrifices. What was important in the temple was that the animals were killed and disposed of in the prescribed way, not that they were treated humanely. I think far too many people have never seen an animal slaughtered and it makes it easier to not think too hard about what went on in the temple. The bigger issue we should address is not cruelty to animals but callous indifference to people. I would argue that we actually care too much about animals, not too little.
At the proverbial end of the day, there is no justification for wanton cruelty to animals. I am not a big fan of chaining dogs outside. I do not permit my kids to treat our pets cruelly. I am also fully aware of where my meat comes from and what had to happen to get it from a steer in a feedlot to a burger on my plate. I am likewise painfully aware that our priority is not on spaying pets but on preaching Christ and Him crucified. How easy it is to get caught up in ancillary topics that distract us from the mission we are called to carry out. I am quite certain that if first century Christians saw the way we fawn over animals, treating them like de facto members of our family, taking them in for expensive vet care when people go without medical treatment, building enormous stores full of stuff for pets, they would be both confused and disturbed. Mr. Thomas falls into the common trap of taking contemporary mores and trying to justify them from Scripture.
More globally this gets at a recurring question. Should Christians even have pets with all of their attendant expenses? We are responsible for every penny we spend and good stewardship goes far beyond saving for retirement and putting a check in the plate on Sunday. I can see where this can become tend legalism but I also think that we are way overdue a serious reevaluation of our spending habits and how we view money. The love of money is a toxin in the Body of Christ and it poisons so much of our witness. I think everyone knows it but we are unwilling to tackle the issue because for Americans our money is such a private matter. Our attitude is that it is my money and if I want to spend it on a purebred dog and tens of thousands of dollars in food, doggie toys and vet bills that is my right. Pets are just one more area where our affections and our expenditures are grossly out of whack with where our priorities should be. That is the conversation we should be having instead of worrying about animal welfare.