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Sermon by Dr. Greg Knox Jones
The first presidential primary is more than six months away, but debates among the candidates have already begun. Accompanying the debates has been a flurry of opinion polls asking Americans what they believe to be the critical issues facing us today. Within the past eight weeks polls have been taken by NBC News/Wall Street Journal, CBS News/New York Times, CNN/Opinion Research Corporation and the Gallup polling organization. The results of these polls are nearly identical. The number one concern, and it outdistances the number two concern by a huge margin, is the war in Iraq. No surprise there. The number two concern is generally health care, and then three or four other concerns are bunched together in the third tier: terrorism, immigration reform, the economy and gas prices. Then, somewhere down around seventh or eighth on the list of concerns is the environment.
In some ways it is helpful to separate these issues into different categories. It allows us to focus on specific concerns: How can we end the war in Iraq? How can we make our health care system fair? How can we deal justly with immigrants? What needs to be done about global warming?
However, separating these concerns also has a downside. It leads many to think of each problem independently which may produce a false sense of security. The false sense derives from imagining that these are unrelated issues. But, in fact, the problems have an impact on each other and when taken together, they add up to a greater concern. To me, the chief issue of our day is the survival of life on this planet; not simply the quality of life, but the very survival of life.
Life on earth is threatened by war, especially with the possibility of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists. Life on earth is threatened by diseases such as AIDS, TB and other viruses that could quickly spread around the globe. Life on earth is threatened by religious beliefs that promote the killing of those who hold different convictions. Life on earth is threatened by overpopulation. Life on earth is threatened by global warming, pollution and destruction of the environment.
We are living in precarious times because there are multiple threats to life on this planet. The Creator of heaven and earth wants all people to experience rich and rewarding lives, but God's vision of people living together in harmony seems like a fantasy with the immense problems we are facing.
Many of our problems grow out of the sins of greed, envy, selfishness, arrogance and neglect. We do not love others as ourselves and we lack a deep respect for all of God's creation. Christians often talk about the difficulties of human relationships and the need to be just, compassionate, forgiving and hospitable. However, this morning I want to talk, not about people's relationships with one another, but about our relationships with the non-human creatures of the earth. Many people think that our treatment of the other living things is a minor issue in the grand scheme, but I believe that our treatment of God's other creatures is a strong indicator of how we care for the entire creation.
The Bible begins with the language of poetry that seeks to make sense of the origin of this amazing world. One of the primal questions that emerges within human beings is: How did all of this come about? The vast oceans, the majestic mountains, the rich soil of the earth that constantly ushers forth the tremendous varieties of plants, the enormous number of living creatures, the sun and the moon and the stars. What is the origin of all of these wonders? The magnificent poem communicates a profound answer: "In the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep." The first insight we have regarding the God of the Bible is that God is the Creator. And coupled with this insight is this: in the eyes of God, the entire cosmos is precious. The poem speaks of the stages of creation as if they were days of the week and, at the end of each day, God calls the creation good. And on the sixth day, the same day that God fashioned human beings, God brought forth the other living creatures. And God said that humans are to be in charge of all the living species. We are to take care of one another, we are to take care of the other living creatures and we are to take care of the earth itself.
We share our planet with a remarkable assortment of other life - plants, animals, birds, fish, insects, and many other life forms. If these things disappeared from the earth, so would human beings. It is not possible for us to survive without these living companions. We are given the admonition to keep and tend the earth so that all living things might thrive. However, we have not always acted as good stewards of what God has entrusted to our care. We have crowded out and destroyed the habitat of many species of animals. We have driven some animals to extinction and with each species that is lost, the earth is impoverished, and its way of functioning is altered. (1)
In the 300 years from 1600 to 1900, 75 animals and birds became extinct. However, it took only the first 80 years of the 20th century for another 75 to be lost. Human beings have the power to destroy the living creatures of this planet as never before. Yet we also possess the intelligence and we have the moral responsibility to save those creatures whose lives are threatened.
We have already proven that if we make it a priority, we can take steps to turn things around. In the early 1800s, there were more than 30 million bison in this country - a staggering figure. But by 1889, there were only 200 remaining. The alarm was sounded and extinction was averted. Both laws and attitudes changed. Ranchers and Native Americans began cooperative efforts to restore the Bison, and now they flourish once again in several states out west. A more remarkable story can be told of the pronghorn antelope, a beautiful animal of the western plains. Their population was down to 13,000 in 1920. People became concerned and things began to happen. Efforts were made to regulate hunting, to improve range conditions, and to increase their habitat. A dramatic turnaround took place. By 1965, the pronghorn population was up to 150,000. By 1980 it had swelled to an amazing 500,000. (2)
God has given us the freedom to choose how we will relate to the living creatures of our world. We can cause various species to become extinct or we can help them to flourish.
Harvard biologist Edward Wilson says: "right-wing talk show hosts are fond of presenting an in-your-face anti-environmentalist attitude to assure their listeners that all will be well if we just dispel the hot air of global warming-worriers, chase away the tree-huggers and keep bureaucracies and the government out of the way. But `out of the way' really means out of the way of creative responses. By the end of this century, half of the species of plants and animals on earth will be gone or scheduled to die." Wilson pleads with Christians to make concern for God's creation a top priority because "if religion and science can be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the politicians and leaders of industry will have to forge policies that deal with the problems of vanishing species." (3)
Last November a team of scientists from 12 academic institutions in five different countries produced a global study that predicts that the world's fishing stocks "will collapse by the middle of this century if over fishing and other human impacts continue at their current pace." Catches of several fish are already down to 10% of their historic highs. These are not obscure and exotic fish. They are bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, Alaskan king crab and Pacific salmon. "The scarcity of a highly nutritious food supply for the world's growing population" is a looming catastrophe. (4) Fish is the primary source of protein for more than one billion people on earth. (5)
Anyone who has grown up in the church knows the story of Noah's Ark. God became angry with the sin in the world and decided to wipe the slate clean and start over. God selected Noah and his family as the only humans who would survive the great flood. And God asked Noah to bring into the ark two of every living creature. Noah was not told to select only his favorites or the ones he deemed useful. He could not choose only the fun animals: the giraffes, zebras, cats and dogs. He also had to bring along the snakes, spiders and scorpions.
Of course, we do not take the story literally - that Noah was somehow able to gather more than a million animals and cram them all onto one boat. However, the story communicates to us a profound spiritual truth: Humans are responsible for the well-being and future existence of the creatures of the earth. We do not always understand the reason for the existence of each creature, but we know that every living thing that becomes extinct can never be brought back. (6)
How we treat the creatures of God's creation says something important about where we are on our spiritual journey. If we are devoted to God, it will show in our love of God's handiwork. Disregarding the value of what God has created says we do not think too much of the Creator. We breed expensive dogs while hundreds of thousands of unwanted pets and strays are euthanized. Holding animals in low esteem can also lead to the devaluing of people.
Albert Schweitzer said, "Anyone who regards the life of any living creature as worthless is in danger of arriving at the idea of worthless human lives." And prior to Schweitzer, the philosopher Immanuel Kant said, "He who is cruel to animals also becomes hard in his dealings with [human beings]. We can judge the heart of a person by his treatment of animals."
Indeed, research in psychology and criminology shows that people who commit acts of cruelty toward animals don't stop there; many of them move on to their fellow humans. (7) There are several organizations trying to make the mistreatment of animals a serious crime because studies of prison inmates reveal that over 70% of violent offenders have early records of animal cruelty. "Some of the most striking evidence for a link between animal cruelty and human violence lies in the case histories of many of the 20th century's infamous criminals.
Serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy witnessed his father's violence toward animals, and then tortured animals himself. Mass-murderer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer killed neighbors' pets and impaled a dog's head on a stick. David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer shot his neighbor's Labrador Retriever. Albert DeSalvo, the "Boston Strangler," shot arrows into boxes of trapped cats and dogs. (8)
In 1776, as the founders of our nation were declaring certain inalienable rights for human beings, the Reverend Humphrey Primatt published hisdissertation, in which he wrote: Pain is pain, whether it is inflicted on a human or a beast.We may pretend to what religion we please, but cruelty is atheism." (9)
Those who have no faith in God as Creator and who only care about themselves, have no reason to protect the earth or its creatures. But people of faith know that it is belligerent defiance of God to destroy God's gifts.
As followers of Christ, our core values are justice and compassion. Nearly 100% of the time, our declarations about these virtues are focused on human beings. We need to broaden our realm of concern. Not only are we called to extend compassion to our neighbor, but also to God's other living creatures.
David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland wrote, "One thing is for sure: Those who care about animals know that in giving life, we receive it; that by showing love, we nurture it in ourselves; and that by being a blessing to others, we, too, are finally blessed." (10)
"Bless the beasts and the children. For in this world they have no voice. In this world they have no choice. Bless the beasts and the children." (11)
For a sample copy of The Ark and all membership details,
except CCA-USA, and for questions, comments and submissions, please contact:
Deborah Jones at Catholic Concern for Animals
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