Church silence promotes violence to humans, to animals, to our
environment, to our economy, to our education, to our finances, and to our health.
By: Mary T. and Frank L. Hoffman
For many years, we have encountered people who have received severe emotional pain and stress from their fellow church members and clergy who have been indifferent and lacked compassion in addressing bereavement for a companion animal.
Jim Mason, a lawyer and writer, tells the story about just such an incident. As a child, his only real friend was his dog, and the two were very close. When Jim was thirteen his dog died, which left him heart-broken. Jim's family has a long Methodist tradition, and Jim had what he considered to be a strong belief in God. Jim knew that animals had souls and spirits just as we do. He knew it because he observed these beings on their terms, and because of his relationship with his dog. Reaching into his faith, Jim reconciled his sorrow with the fact that he would once again see his friend in heaven. When he went to his pastor and asked for confirmation of his conclusion, his pastor looked sad, but told him that animals don't go to heaven. Immediately, Jim's faith was shattered. It would have been better for this pastor to have tied a millstone around his neck and drowned himself than do such injustice to this sensitive child. And this pastor is not alone in his actions, and Jim has never been back to church; in fact, he lost his faith.
Author of Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates, Gary Kurz, whose ministry is helping correct the problems addressed in this article, writes about his encounter with the pastor's wife following the death of his beloved companion dog, Samantha:
I suppose my inner mood reflected in my outward countenance. Usually very light-hearted and outgoing, my inner pain understandably caused me to be quiet and less than social. Perceiving something to be wrong, the Pastorís wife asked me "Why Gary, is something wrong?" Of course I responded with "Yes, yesterday my dog passed away and I am feeling pretty bad about it". Indeed, I was feeling much more than "bad". I was crushed inside. My "Samantha" had been my shadow for 15 years and it was hard to accept that she was gone.
I was not looking for, nor did I expect sympathy. This was a private thing and if I hadnít been asked, I would never have said anything. What I did get however, shocked and hurt me deeply. Without hesitation, and without any concern for my obvious emotional low, she came right back at me with "Oh, and I suppose you think she is in doggy heaven too, donít you?"
I was speechless and could not respond, but that is not to say there were not things going on inside. In that one brief moment, this woman removed every ounce of respect I held for her and temporarily killed something inside of me.
Loving and bonding to another living being has been going on for as long as recorded history, and obviously for many years before. This loving and bonding exists among humans and non-humans, and between species.
When this loving relationship is between a man and a woman who have been happily married for many years, we say that they are "soul-mates". Geese and other animals form lifetime "marriages" too, but we rarely refer to such relationships as being between "soul-mates". In fact, we rarely refer to animals as having souls and spirits, even though in the Bible, the Hebrew text refers to both humans and other animals as being "living souls" (eh-fesh khah-yaw).
These same kinds of loving relationships exist between humans and their companion animals, and the death of such a loved one is as devastating to the one as to the other. The emotional effects of the loss of a companion animal can be quite similar to those experienced when a child or spouse dies. The Church needs to recognize these facts and minister accordingly.
We know from passages such as Revelation 5:11 that there are animals (zo-a, plural; zo-on, singular) in heaven. In the original Greek, zo-on only means animal, no matter how some people may want to translate the Bible. (Words such as "zoo" and "zoology" are derived from the Greek word for "animal".) Is our human pride so great that we can't at least acknowledge the fact that there are animals in heaven, and give these people some hope and comfort? A passage such as this would make what Jim Mason was told by his pastor, a lie. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that animals don't go to heaven.
I broached this problem at a United Methodist clergy meeting a couple of years ago, and the answer I received from one outspoken pastor was, "There's no place in Methodism for the immortal souls of animals." What a terribly, terribly sad position to have, and everyone else seemed to agree with his response. No wonder we get so many letters from brokenhearted people, many of whom are leaving the church.
Koko, a gorilla, fell in love with a little kitten, just as we would, and when this cat died after being hit by a car, she mourned her loss just as we would in a similar situation. Our cat Travelin almost died of grief when her best friend Nathan died of kidney failure. These emotions are real! And, aren't these emotions also characteristics of soul and spirit? If animals feel this way about each other, why is it so difficult for so many people to understand the love of a human for an animal? To us this seems to be a hardness of heart problem.
The Bible teaches us to love one another. Furthermore, Jesus teaches us that it's the second greatest commandment. Even if some of us don't understand this deep-seated love between a human and an animal, at least we should be softhearted and loving enough to understand that someone else can deeply love an animal and feel real emotional pain and sorrow when that animal dies. And, if we are capable of understanding these things, then we should seek to truly comfort such a person, for it's the only way we can show our love for them.
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