Contemporary Concern or Ongoing Issue?
(This address was given in April 2001 at Chattanooga State College and was
sponsored by EarthCare, a Christian Environmental organization. This was the first time
that an EarthCare conference focused on animal issues.)
The belief that the issue of animal rights is some kind of New Age concept is
ubiquitous. And maybe that's because its easier to dismiss the whole subject if we can
think of it as just another one of those causes spawned by the excesses of the sixties.
But it wasn't.
The question of how we should treat animals has always been a moral issuewe
just haven't paid much attention to it. For Christians, this issue is rooted in the
Genesis account of creation. Our Judeo-Christian tradition is unique in that it tells us
WHY God created the animals. Genesis very clearly states that they were created to be
companions for man. In fact, it was not Eve about whom the Bible says that God
created "a help meet for Adam". This was said about the animals. And
it was not until after the Fall that humans began to abuse the animalsand each
The extent of the misery and suffering unleashed in a fallen world is chronicled
in the Biblethe following reading is from the Amplified version and tells of
conditions before the Great Flood: The earth was depraved and the land was filled
with violence: outrage, assault and lust for power. And God looked upon the world and saw
how degenerate, debased and vicious it was. (Genesis 6:11-12)
Unfortunately, anyone watching the evening news can see how relevant that ancient
pronouncement is to our own culture. At any time of the day or night, we can see the kind
of misery produced by such a violent world. But no matter their religion or culture, there
have always been those who allow themselves to feel concern and compassion for the
suffering of otherswhether human or animal. And from the time of antiquity, there
have always been those who are willing to speak out against the injustice of laws and
customs which produce such suffering.
Although the men of ancient Greece and Romethose we call
Pagansdid not have the book of Genesis to inspire them, they did
question the morality of the way that humans treat animals. Phythagorus, Pliny and
Lucretiusamong many othersdebated the issue.
Phythagorus was convinced that we cannot separate the way we treat animals from
the way we treat each other. He said: As long as man continues to be the ruthless
destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men
massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and
pain cannot reap joy and love. A hundred years before the birth of Christ, Lucretius
wrote against the religious sacrifice of animals. He called those sacrifices murder and
writes about the grief of the mother cow whose calf was taken from her, to be killed. He
told how she will constantly and frantically, search everywhere, for her calf. The mother,
bereft of her offspring, wanders through the green meadows; she haunts every spot as if,
perchance she might gain sight of her lost young one... She payeth many a visit to the
cowstall, full of longing for her child...nothing can avail to give her joy or shake off
her load of care.
And then there's Ovid, who lived a generation after Lucretius. In the
Metamorphoses he wrote about the abuse of animals in both secular and
practices. To what wicked habits does he accustom himself....who cuts the throat of
a calf, turning a deaf ear to its piteous moans. Or who has the heart to pierce the throat
of a kid which utters cries like those of a child? Or kill the bird whom he has fed with
his own hand?
He went on to write: And is it not enough that such wickedness is committed
by men? They have involved all the gods in this abomination, and they believe that a Deity
in the heavens can rejoice in the slaughter.
A hundred years later, still another Roman, Marcus Aurelious was also disturbed by
man's abusive treatment of animals. In the Meditations he made no distinction
between our abuse of large and dangerous animals, and those who are small and harmless. He
wrote: One man is proud when he has caught a poor rabbit, and another when he has taken a
little fish in a net; another when he has taken wild boars and another when he has taken
bears....But are not all these robbers?
And in the second century of the Christian era, at the same time that Aurelius was
writing his Meditations, a Christian Bishop was also commenting on the relationship
between humans and animals. Theophilus, the Bishop of Antioch, wrote: When man
diverted from the path [of goodness] the animals followed him...if man now would rise to
his original nature and would not do evil any longer, then the animals, too, would return
to their original gentle nature."
Well....of course this goes far beyond what ancient Greeks or Romans had to say on
the subject. Theophilus is continuing the theme of the redemption of all creation that
Paul wrote about. In the book of Romans when he said: For the anxious longing of the
creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God....the creation itself will be
set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of
God. For we know that, together, the whole creation groans and suffers the pain of
childbirth until now. St. Paul's linking together of the suffering of animals and
the suffering of humans in a fallen and corrupt world, is a theme that is taken up by St.
Basil. In the fourth century, when he was Archbishop of Caesaria, he wrote a prayer that
was necessitated by what he called the "ruthless cruelty" with which we treat
God's other creatures. He wrote this prayer: Oh God, enlarge within us the sense of
fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth
as their home, 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.
This is a profound indictment of human behaviorand it's an indictment that
appears in many other writings from the time of antiquity to around the fifth century AD.
At the beginning of that century there were still discussions about the morality of the
way we treat God's other creatures, In 405 AD, St. John Chrysostom told us WHY we should
treat them well. He said: Surely we ought to show kindness and gentleness to animals
for many reasons, and chiefly because they are of the same SOURCE as ourselves."
In stating that they are the same SOURCE as us, he was referring to the biblical
witness which tells us that God created animals and breathed the breath of life into them
and they, like humans became "nefesh chaya" living souls. But at the same time
that John Chrysostoms was teaching this kind of biblical theology, another man was
developing his own kind of theology. St. Augustine claimed that men were not the same kind
of beings as animals, women or slaves; that God created superior and inferior beings.
And guess who Augustine thought was superior?
Having decided that males were superior, he then decided that gave them the right
to exercise power and control over the rest of God's creatures. Just how did he come
to that conclusion? Well, it certainly wasn't the Bible that told him so. As a
matter of fact, it was Aristotle who told him so. Augustine made no secret of his great
admiration for that philosopher and, perhaps to show his sincerity, he imported the notion
of an hierarchial system of inferior and superior beings from Greek Philosophy to
Christian Theology. And there it grew and festered, century after century, to the
detriment of animals, women and slaves.
In the centuries after Augustine, when his opinions came to be regarded as
Christian doctrine, the only positive attitudes towards animals we have with few
exceptionsare preserved in stories about the Saints. And whether or not the stories
are literally true, is not important. What they do is show a recurring theme in which
animals were helped and healed by men and women committed to living for God. And
because these saints treated them with love and compassion, the animals reciprocated.
There are stories of hermits whose only companions were wild animals. One tells of
a lion who had a thorn removed from his paw, and protected his benefactor from then on.
Another tells of a man named Pomen who healed a lion of an illness and, thereafter, on the
coldest nights, the animal would always come to sleep beside the hermit to keep him from
freezing to death.
St. Martin of tours is said to have gone about healing mentally ill animals as
well as disturbed people. And another Saint, Martin de Porres, was asked to leave his
monastery because he insisted on treating animals---as well as people---in the infirmary
where he worked.
And of course, there are the stories about St. Francis of Assisi and his love for
all creatures. He called them his brothers and sisters in Christ.
These stories of Christian saints all contain reflections of the kind of world
spoken of by the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah told of the Peaceable Kingdoma world in
which no creature would destroy or be destoryed. He foretold a world in which The
cow and the bear make friends, their young lie down together. The lion eats straw like the
ox...into the vipers lair,the young child puts his arm...On all [Gods] holy mountain
they do not hurt nor harm.
Then Isaiah tells us why this will be so: For the whole country is filled with the
knowledge of the Lord as the waters fill the sea. And Christians who repeat the Lord's
prayer are acknowleding that in order for this kind of peaceable kingdom to come about, we
must be willing to do God's will on earth, as it is done in heaven.
But even as so many of the Saints were doing God's will on earth and treating
animals in a way that prefigured the Peaceable Kingdom, another man was developing a body
of work that effectively warred against this vision. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225, just
one year before Saint Francis of Assisi died. And the legacy Aquinas left was
diametrically opposed to the kind of christianity that Francis lived and espoused. And
while it could be said that Saint Augustine had an inordinate regard for Aristotle, the
best way to explain Aquinas' attitude is to say that he was positively besotted by him.
In his SUMMA THEOLOGICA , Aquinas presents what he thinks are rational conclusions
about the nature and place of animals in the world. A lot of those conclusions are based
on Aristotle's "History of Animals." The information in this ancient treatise
has been so discredited that I'm surprised it's still so readily available. At one time in
my life I was a philosophy major and I can assure you that no one, ever, even mentioned
the existence of his Animal History. And when I later read through it, I knew why.
What Aristotle thought of as rational observations led him to conclude that there
are only two diseases to which elephants are prone and, not surprisingly, one of them is
nasal congestion. He also taught that mice will die if they drink liquids in the
summertime; that humans beings are the only animals who cannot be infected by a rabid dog.
He discovered that eels come into being by spontaneous generation, and that under certain
circumstances, male goats can be persuaded to give milk. All three volumes of the History
Of Animals, contain these kinds of rational conclusions.
All this would be a lot more amusing if Aristotle's observations had not also led
him to conclude that animals exist only for the sake of menthat their function in
life is to supply humans with whatever they want. And, unfortunately, what they want has
included a desire for their skin, their fur, their flesh, their teeth, their tails, their
feathers, and their powdered genitals. The list is endless, although with the introduction
of Viagra, powdered genitals are probably passe.
Through Augustine, and even more so, through Thomas Aquinas, the idea that animals
can be used in any way we choose, became an integral part of Christian doctrine and
Western culture. But the theological conclusions reached by St. Thomas are as arbitrary as
the conclusions Aristotle drew from his study of animals. And in this 21st century you can
access the text of the SUMMA THEOLOGICA on its very own website. And on another site you
can read the latest Christian doctrine, based on the errors of these long-dead men.
In the CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH--Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1994, under
the heading "Respect for the Integrity of Creation it is written:
"animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common
good of past, present, and future humanity." This is the modern, Christian equivalent
of the ancient Aristotelian pronouncement that all other animals exist for the sake of
man. (Pol.1256 b 16ff)
But the CATECHISM is not the only place where the follies of the great men of
antiquity are preserved. The CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, also available on-line, explains that
animals are to be regarded as things. Under the subject "Cruelty to Animals" the
reader is informed that "[T]he visible world with which man comes in contact is
divided into persons and non-persons. For the latter term the word
"things" is usually employed...animals, in contradistinction to persons, [are]
classed as things."
By arbitrarily relegating animals to the category of "things," they have
been effectively excluded from the moral and ethical consideration due them as sentient
beings. This is NOT just a Roman Catholic aberration. These attitudes about animals are
endemic to Protestants, as well as Catholics. Consequently, through the mediation of a
thirteenth century theologian, the errors of an ancient Greek have found a hallowed place
in contemporary Christian doctrine.
But there have always been other choices. There has been a steady stream of Jewish
and Christian writings that call for the reform of what has been called the
"sinfulness" of our treatment of animals. St Francis of Assisi did not just feed
the birds and talk to them. He taught : Not to hurt [the animals] is our first duty
to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission: to be of service to
them whenever they require it. He also said: If you have men who will exclude
any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will
deal likewise with their fellow man.
In the 13th century, the great Jewish Rabbi, Maimondes, wrote in the same way that
Lurcretius had written, a thousand years earlier. Referring to animals and their
offspring, Mainmonides said: There is no difference between the pain of humans and
the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young
are not produced by reasoning, but by feeling, and this faculty exists not only in humans,
but in most other living beings.
Later, Leonard Da Vinci wrote that: Truly man is the king of beasts, for his
brutality exceeds theirs... And in what our generation can clearly see as a
prophetic statement, he wrote about man's lust for domination: Nothing will be
left...Nothing in the air, nothing underneath the earth, nothing in the waters. All will
be hunted down...all will be exterminated.
There were many, many people who wrote about animals in a way that was
diametrically opposed to the kind of thinking espoused by Augustine and Aquinas. Cardinal
John Henry Newman wrote that Cruelty to animals is as if man did not love
God...there is something dreadful, and Satanic, in tormenting those who have never harmed
us, and who cannot defend themselves, who are utterly in our power.
And John Wesley, Methodist Founder said: I believe in my heart that faith in
Jesus Christ can and will lead us beyond an exclusive concern for the well-being of other
human beings to a broader concern for the well-being of the birds in our backyards, the
fish in our rivers, and every living creature on the face of the earth. Our great
national patriot Thomas Paine wrote:The moral duty of man consists of imitating the
moral goodness and beneficence of God manifested in the creation, toward all his
creatures.....everything of cruelty to animals, is a violation of moral duty.
Thomas Edison said Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are
still savages And I'd bet very few people paid much attention to what Rachel Carson
wrote about animals in the SILENT SPRING. She said We cannot have peace among men
whose hearts find delight in killing any living creature.
And last, but certainly not least, is the statement Carl Sagan issued shortly
before he died: If chimpanzees have consciousness.. if they are capable of
abstractions, do they not have what until now has been described as "human
rights"? How smart does a chimpanzee have to be before killing him constitutes
The plea to end the cruelty and the atrocities to which human beings subject
animal beings has been going on for millennia. Yet there are still multitudes of people
who think we have the right to treat animals in any way we choose. If our culture
says its lucky to have a rabbit's foot, hundreds of thousands of animals will have their
legs hacked off. Are coonskin caps the thing to have?there will be a wholesale
slaughter of raccoons until that fad is replaced by another.
When feather boas and plumed hats were the rage, egrets were killed almost to the
point of extinction. Are our taste buds jaded?we can try an ostrich or an emu.
Do we want to wear furs?we will kill other creatures in a variety of painful
ways in order to take from them the covering that God gave them for THEIR bodies.
If I lived at the beginning of the 18th century, instead of now, I would have no
hope that the attitude toward animals would ever change in any significant way. Because
back then, there seemed to be no hope that slavery would ever endbut after thousands
of years it did. And until it did end, people considered it to be part of the natural
order of things. Clergymen and church people quoted the Bible to prove it was
God-ordained. Yet in spite of them, it ended. And many of the people who spoke
out against the evils of slavery also were the ones who spoke out against the abuse of
In England, slavery ended through the efforts of Christian men like William
Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury. And it was these same men, and others like them, who
were instrumental in forming the first society for the prevention of cruelty to animals.
In our own country, the same man who founded the ASPCA also founded the society
for the prevention of cruelty to children. These people, and many other women and men,
knew that the cruelty to which we subject those humans who are in a less powerful position
than ourselves, is of the same nature as the cruelty to which we subject animals. They
cannot be separated. Cruelty to animals and cruelty to other persons are two sides of the
There is one other quote I would like to read to you. In 1982, Pope John Paul the
second, paid a visit to Assisi, in order to honor Saint Francis. While there he said:
[St Francis] looked upon creation with the eyes of one who could recognize in it the
marvelous work of the hand of God. His solicitous care, not only towards men,
but also towards animals is a faithful echo of the love with which God in the
beginning pronounced his fiat which brought them into existence. We too
are called to a similar attitude.
This is the same man that heads a church whose official doctrine still classifies
animals as "things." I think the Pope's statement clearly shows that we are
coming to a spiritual crossroad in regard to our treatment of other creatures.
It's time that all Christians reject the self-serving doctrines of men like
Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. It's time that the evil they did is interred with their
bones, and only the good that they did is allowed to remain foundational to Christianty
and to Western culture.
Animal rights is not a New Age issue. It is an ancient and ongoing moral and
spiritual issue. It is a biblical issue. From the book of Genesis through the book
of Revelation, the Bible depicts the spiritual journey of animals just as surely as it
describes the human journey. Together, animals and humans enjoyed the happiness of
Paradise. Together, we have suffered the pain of a fallen world. And together, all will
live in that Peaceble Kingdom of which God spoke, through the prophet.
And we must pray for the Grace and strength to do Gods will, so that as far
as possible, life here on earth will reflect the goodness and the love of the heavenly
Copyright 2001 by Humane Religion & J.R. Hyland