to humans, to animals, to our environment, to our economy, to our education, to our finances, and to our health
The Church's role and God's animals
From BEST FRIENDS MAGAZINE March/April 2007
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Why donít churches preach compassion for animals?
From the earliest days of the Puritans, the animal welfare movement in America, like so many other movements of liberation and social reform, was driven by people of faith. But in our own time, mainstream religion has tended to ignore our fellow creatures. In our continuing series about animals in religion, Best Friends executive director Paul Berry, who grew up in the evangelical Christian tradition, argues that itís time for the church to recapture the initiative and treat kindness to animals as one of the moral imperatives of our time.
By Paul Berry
hen I was four years old, I saw someone do the unthinkable - something so wrong that I blocked it from my memory until my brother reminded me about it years later.
We were at our house in New Orleans, playing under the carport with some puppies our dog had just had. She was a street dog, a sweet stray weíd named Skipper.
A man and a woman were arguing nearby.
Visibly angry, the man got in his car and sped down
the driveway. My brother and I screamed, "Donít go yet! Donít go yet!"
But the man was upset and mad, and he went anyway. He knowingly ran over
three of the puppies.
That man was my father.
He was a troubled individual, and Iíve long since forgiven him. But such displays of rage and violence are scattered throughout my childhood memories.
Thanks to my mother, I donít look back on my youth
with any grief or sadness. She did a good job of making us kids feel
safe and loved. A devout Christian woman, she introduced us to faith and
prayer as a refuge for our struggling family. She upheld the life of
Jesus as the ideal role model: courageous, kind and merciful.
Mercy and nonviolence came naturally to us kids. My brother, sisters and I were always bringing home some lost pet or other. Seems we always had a house full of animals, and everyone was considered part of the family.
We were raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, and Sunday was reserved for church and family. If we missed going to church, Mom would make us all watch a church service on TV. Her favorite preachers were Oral Roberts and Robert Schuler. I liked Oral Roberts because he always began his service by saying, "Something good is going to happen to you." We all needed to hear that. But Robert Schuler was my favorite. With his booming voice and theatrical flair, heíd say audacious things like "Every problem is a possibility in disguise" and "Every person is a gold mine of hidden possibilities!" He was fun to watch, but he also had an empowering message of hope and personal transformation. And being my fatherís son, I needed to believe I could find goodness in myself.
With all the spiritual influences around me, I came to
believe that you could create that goodness in yourself by doing good in
the world - caring for all that God has given us: the animals, the
Earth, and each other.
But I canít say church leaders helped shape my reverence and respect for animals and nature. That was personal.
Today, with kids of my own, Iím convinced that weíre all born with an innate sense of reverence and responsibility for animals and the earth; kids just need reassurance from their parents and role models.
Itís also clear that the concept of caring for all of nature is becoming more and more a concern for people all over the country, regardless of their faith or philosophy.
Last summer, when Best Friends commissioned a nationwide poll, we discovered that 89 percent of Americans agree that "we have a moral obligation to protect the animals in our care."
Thatís an astounding consensus. But how does it relate to people of faith?
In an informal survey of Best Friends members following the national poll, we asked them what their churches, temples and synagogues are talking about with respect to animals and morality, and how their religious leaders are teaching their congregations to act on those.
The answer: Beyond the human species - ourselves - Godís creation is barely talked about at all.
So if this moral obligation toward our fellow creatures is such a core moral value for people, why isnít it upheld by our churches?
The evangelical movement prides itself on taking
strong positions on moral issues. And congregations look to their
churches for leadership. But the churches arenít setting much of an
example on the subject of kindness to animals.
So is it any surprise that weíre not seeing much follow-through from
For myself, I long ago gave up even expecting to hear anything meaningful from the pulpit about the importance of protecting animals. And many people I used to go to church with and still meet up with occasionally tell me the same thing. We want our children to grow up in the church, but we want it to address all aspects of moral responsibility.
And if most of us are indeed born with an innate, God-given sense of moral responsibility, then surely it is the churchís business to foster this responsibility and remind us of it into our adulthood. Instead, it all gets lost along the way.
Worse, many of our members told us, their churches have become so politically organized, so focused on narrow wedge issues, that they have pretty much lost sight of the big picture stuff - universal kindness, compassion, mercy and nonviolence.
So it should come as no surprise that when the churches start leaving their congregations, the congregations start leaving the churches. The Washington Post reported last summer that since 2000, more than 20 million Americans have left traditional churches to explore alternative venues of worship, including home churches, workplace ministries and online faith communities. And in early October, the New York Times reported that evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves.
The founders of Christianity had a bold vision for a
universal church built on the Golden Rule as spelled out in the
Beatitudes. But with so much of its focus on issues that have more to do
with Caesar than with God, much of the church that I grew up in has lost
its sense of divine mission.
That mission should be to care for all creation: the animals, the Earth and each other. And if more Christians demanded that level of moral scope of their leaders, the church would be out in front on causes that relate to the animals and nature, ranging from environmental protection to animal welfare.
Just for starters, we should be demanding no-kill policies for homeless animals in our communities. And we should be fighting against the fur trade, factory farming and sport hunting, too. Those are profoundly immoral and sinful enterprises - meaning that they are about inflicting suffering and death upon Godís creatures in pursuit of nothing more than human vanity, profit and entertainment.
But thereís not nearly enough discussion in church on these issues, and certainly not enough encouragement to go out into society and campaign against such injustices.
In the last few years, many advances for animals have been made in the political arena. And much of that progress has been driven by the animal rights movement. As a result, Congress and local politicians are increasingly sensitive to the concerns of people who care about animals.
But meanwhile, the churches continue to treat concern
for animals as a non-issue. Worse yet, the world of animal "rights" is
often shunned by the evangelical movement as being "liberal" - even
It may be true that some of the early adopters of the modern animal rights movement were non-religious - in some cases, even anti-religious. But much of that has to be seen in the light of the shocking lack of interest from the churches.
The truth is that the modern animal rights movement takes its inspiration from a great tradition of social reform that encompasses the history of this nation, from the Puritans to Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1641, for example, section 92 of the Body of Liberties adopted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony stated, "No man shall exercise any Tyrranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for manís use."
And in 1776, when the founding fathers of our country were engaged in declaring that "all men are " endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,- the Anglican minister Rev. Humphrey Primatt published his Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals, in which he wrote:
"Pain is pain, whether it is inflicted on man or on beast; and the creature that suffers it, whether man or beast, being sensible of the misery of it whilst it lasts, suffers Evil ...
"We may pretend to what religion we please, but
cruelty is atheism.
"We may boast of Christianity, but cruelty is infidelity.
"We may trust our orthodoxy, but cruelty is the worst of heresies."
Certainly, in our own time, there are voices in a comparative wilderness, speaking out for kindness to animals from a faith-based perspective. One who captured the public attention in 2002 was Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who left the White House to write Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. A practicing Catholic, Scully says that "It is usually best in any moral inquiry to start with the original motivation, which in the case of animals we may without embarrassment call love."
More than ever, itís time for people of faith to take
ownership of the animal cause - if not necessarily as an issue of
"rights," then certainly as one of core spiritual values: kindness,
compassion, mercy, nonviolence and love.
For many of us, it is easier to promote rational arguments for animal justice. But, in the final analysis, our motivation is about something entirely irrational: love. We love them as our family, and they love us back unconditionally.
Is there any cause more noble for the Christian than to honor the blessing of love in this life?
You can join the continuing discussion at
Next time: A Jewish perspective on caring for animals and nature.
* Bring the issue to your pastor, your Sunday school class, or your Bible study group, and start the conversation about how wide the circle of compassion should be.
* Ask questions like these: Who are the keepers of compassion and justice and morality? What examples should we be giving in our own lives with respect to animals and the natural world? And where should we be guiding the rest of society?
Questions lead to answers. Answers lead to actions. Imagine a group of local pastors showing up at a city council meeting to demand a no-kill plan for their city shelter. Now imagine a whole convention of thousands of pastors and church leaders from all over the country working together to protest the treatment of animals at factory farms, vivisection laboratories, puppy mills and sporting events.
* If youíre a pastor, talk to your congregation about your concern for animals. You are not alone. Best Friends can put you in touch with other ministers who share your beliefs, and with resources, including sermons, that have been preached here at home and in other countries. If youíve preached on the subject yourself, please send us a copy of your sermon to share with others.
* Raise the subject of your congregation coming together to demand environmental justice from polluters. Or youth groups cleaning up lakes and streams and restoring wildlife habitats as part of their youth outreach.
How would these efforts affect church attendance on Sunday? If local churches were to create real opportunities for Christians to do meaningful work for animals, it could inspire a revival of "biblical" proportions.
Let us know how you feel and add your name to the list of those of us who want their church to take a leading role in the discussion of animal welfare. Join us at network.best friends.org/religion to continue the discussion. Weíll share your thoughts with church leaders and report on the results in an upcoming issue of Best Friends magazine.
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For additional information, visit: Stop Cruelty in Churches
The intent of this series is to wake up and encourage the Church to greater works of love and compassion (John 14:12). It is not to condemn the Church, in general, or any individual, any more than Jesus condemned the woman caught in adultery. Jesus said to her, "...go your way. From now on sin no more." (John 8:11) And this is our message to the Church: Recognize our sins of the past and go forth seeking to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), correcting the sins of the past, for that is the only way we can truly show the world that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, might, and mind, including the whole of creation, which includes our neighbors whom we are to love as ourselves.
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