Reflections On COVID-19: Suffering From Exile
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

FROM Ashley Lewis, Creature Kind
April 2020

If we were to take seriously the types of community modeled in the biblical narrative, we would find ourselves connected with animals in our day-to-day realities more than most of us currently are.... Societal distance from animals has become the norm in the global West and in many other nations that take part in industrialized treatment of animals.

exile  Animals

Throughout scripture, human and non-human animals are bound up in each other’s lives. In the Garden of Eden, animals and humans shared the experiences of creation and vocation. Aside from immediate family, Noah’s only companions on the ark were animal-kind. From Abraham to Joseph, sheep and goats are a constant. Wherever the family traveled, so went the livestock. When Moses led a revolution against Pharaoh, the Israelites and their animals caravanned out of Egypt together by God’s saving action. When Moses translated the law from God to Israel, the law did not only hold humans accountable, but non-humans as well. When God spared Nineveh, much to the prophet Jonah’s dismay, it was out of concern for an entire city of 120,000 people, and “also many animals.” When the Old Testament Prophets called for justice and deliverance, their message extended to all living members of the community and often to the occupants of the nearby wilderness as well. The Wisdom books, the Psalms, and even the New Testament are filled with lessons about the shared lives of humans and non-humans. All of this, plus my own instinctual sense of wonder and attraction to the other-than-human world, tells me that God’s expectation for humans and animals is to be in community together.

If we were to take seriously the types of community modeled in the biblical narrative, we would find ourselves connected with animals in our day-to-day realities more than most of us currently are.

The average U.S. citizen is several steps removed from all other kinds of animals, aside from pets and companion animals. We will muse at them when they are domesticated by a zoo, or are displayed for entertainment at theme parks, or are part of a cultural excursion, regardless of whether or not the habitat is natural for them. We may come close to encountering creatures considered “wild” outside our homes, on hikes, or in parks, but when these animals cross the line into our neighborhoods, they’re considered pests or threats to society and must be kept at bay through trapping, baiting, or shooting. Animals outside our homes are barely tolerable.

The vast majority of land animals on our planet are livestock, and these are animals we almost never see, unless we seek them out. Each year around the world, 70 billion land animals are killed for food. Aquatic animal lives used for food cannot even be counted, though the weight is around 160 billion pounds per year. (1) Animals that are used for food far out-number any other group of animals in the world, even humans, and yet the industrial operations responsible for these animals remain entirely out of sight. The average consumer need never consider what sort of life these creatures lived, and in fact, the success of the food industry requires exactly that – a lack of consideration, a veil of isolation.

Societal distance from animals has become the norm in the global West and in many other nations that take part in industrialized treatment of animals. The more I think about it, the more this separation feels like exile – a forced outing of one group by a more powerful entity, which often involves relocating the less powerful group under harsh conditions without consideration for that population’s preferred ways of being. In biblical terms, exile could mean leaving a place once thought of as home, being separated from family and friends, living in lands that are harsh and unfruitful, suffering loss of relationships – or all of these. Walter Brueggemann says, “Exile is understood as a consequence of imperial policy designed to establish new political and economic order in a subjugated realm.” (2) Animal-kind has been continually relocated against their will because of imperial policy. Our contemporary ways of life require that animals be exiled from our human communities, almost always out of the public’s view.

Exile is common in the biblical narrative for both humans and non-humans; but the key difference between the exile of scripture and the exile experienced today is that people and animals are exiled together in the Bible. As they wait expectantly for reconciliation with God and with their homeland, all creature-kind experience the hardship of exile as one community – undergoing transitions and adapting to a new life while bearing the burdens, stresses, and sorrow that come from isolation and separation. They do what they can to live fruitful lives during ambiguous times, relying on one another to survive.

Exile is something over which God laments. Living in a state of perpetual discomfort and fear of the unknown prevents creatures from worshipping their Creator in the way they were meant to. Until reconciliation occurs and a restoration of abundant communal life can take place, God provides; but a feeling of longing is to be expected for those in exile. We know that humans are not unique in this. Animals who are lonely, separated from loved ones, or who must be relocated to a new environment demonstrate that they feel stress and depression. They also show joy when they’re reunited with what they’ve missed.

As I remain home for the twelfth day of isolation, exile seems accurate to describe how I feel. In exile, we suffer from loss of community, grieve experiences we will never have, and we may be forced to ride out the wave of uncertainty in a place we do not call home. Rather than attending seminary classes on campus with friends, classmates, and professors, I must complete all schoolwork alone, from a computer. Rather than physically stepping into shared spaces of work, leisure, worship, and community, I try to connect with others through video-conferencing and social media. Rather than having predictable income, my husband and I realize that eventually our money will run out. I’m grateful that I have a level of comfort and cushion during this time – including more-than-adequate shelter, food, entertainment, health, and companionship. I recognize many do not have access to these privileges. God’s people and creatures throughout history, and even still today, have been violently and traumatically thrown into chaos in a way that I have never known. My social isolation is merely an entry point through which I can imagine how oppressive communal displacement may feel.

The irony of this exile is that it may have been caused by society’s desire to exile animals by sending them to hidden and unnatural places. COVID-19, like many other bacteria and viruses that sicken people around the world every day, most likely developed in an environment of mass animal confinement. The virus is thought to have evolved in an exotic animal market where animals of all kinds are kept in crowded, stressful, and unsanitary conditions by handlers and hunters who experience their own financial exile in an imperialistic world and must engage in this trade to provide for their families. (3) The human desire to keep animals in places where they do not belong – whether in plain sight in a market or zoo, or hidden far away from the public in a factory farm or testing laboratory – has not only placed the burden of exile on the animals, but has brought on the exile of social distancing and isolation in which we find ourselves today.

In a way, our human systems have exiled us into this; and while isolation may be necessary for a time, exile only generates more exile. In this ambiguous time, I find a challenge: to practice the kind of hope that the biblical Prophets had when they too faced unending exile. I return to the words of Walter Brueggemann:

The remarkable act of hope that permeates the Old Testament lies in the fact that the promises Israel heard and remembered link together the character and intent of YHWH, the creator of heaven and earth, with the concrete material reality of the world. YHWH’s promises characteristically do not concern escape from the world but transformation within it…. [The prophetic promises] are not predictions but are rather acts of faithful imagination that dare to anticipate new futures on the bases of what YHWH has done in the past. (4)

I dare to imagine healthy, holistic communities, where no person or animal is sent away because of speciesism, classism, racism, or any other category of belonging. This creature-kind community means every creature engages in the fullness of relationship to God and their neighbors, while contributing to the project of ushering in the New Creation. The example of Jesus – who lived and died as an earthly creature so that we earthlings could be forever united with the Triune God – allows me to commit an irresponsible act of faithful imagination, to dream of a time when exile will no longer impoverish the lives of our fellow earthly creatures and when illness will not take the lives of the ones we love.

During this time of isolation, I invite you to join me in hoping for an end to exile – for all creaturekind – so that our lives may be bound up beautifully in each other, in a community redeemed by the grace of God and emboldened by Christ’s love.


  1. Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo, “The biomass distribution on Earth,” PNAS June 19, 2018 115 (25) 6506-6511. Edited by Paul G. Falkowski, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ, first published May 21, 2018.  Cows, pigs, goats, and sheep used for food make up 60% of all mammal biomass on the planet. Poultry birds like chickens and turkeys equal 70% of the planet’s bird biomass.
  2. Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 70.
  3.  Holly Secon, Aylin Woodward, and Dave Mosher, “A comprehensive timeline of the new coronavirus pandemic from China’s first COVID-19 case to the present.” in Business Insider Updated March 24, 2020.
  4. Brueggemann, 101.

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