On The Need For Eco-Salvation
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM Shea Watts, CreatureKind
June 2021

Over the course of history, hubristic humans have ascended, assumed, and aspired to a sort of god-status over the creation. This is rooted in a deep misunderstanding of dominion as domination or total control over the creation, rather than the deep care and responsibility inherent in the creation stories.

Hen and Chicks

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
– Psalm 24:1

… you save humans and animals alike, O Lord. – Psalm 36:6

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…
– Acts 2:17

that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself… – 2 Corinthians 5:19

Does God, the Parent Hen who gathers their chicklings under their wings, care about the wellbeing or suffering of animals? What does Jesus, Lamb of God and Good Shepherd, have to offer for the billions of animals who suffer and are slaughtered for an unsustainable food production system? Does it pain God that colonizing humans are destroying the good creation, a world that God loves and reconciles? I want to explore these questions by considering the notion of salvation beyond the category of the human to the earth to include all life within it. By salvation, I mean the work of removing barriers for creaturely flourishing and freedom.

The idea of extending our understanding and scope of salvation to other-than-human animals and the earth is not as large of a leap as it may first appear. In fact, sacred texts are rife with ancient examples that suggest we share more in common with our animal kin than we realize. While the earthling, haadam, is made in God’s image and likeness in Genesis, this does not establish humans at the pinnacle of God’s creation. Humans in these ancient creation stories are called not to practice power over the creation, but are commanded to tend to it, to offer care, and to use their means to preserve the wellbeing of other animals and the world.

Consider the words of the psalmist, who considers God’s salvific plan to include the other-than-human. Listen to Peter’s reiteration of Joel’s prophetic vision that the Spirit will be poured out on “all flesh,” that is, all life. Ponder the idea proposed in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth that God in Christ was reconciling the world (kosmos, i.e., the world). When we take into account the Scriptures’ expansive portrait of God’s salvation, we realize how limited we have made it when we deem only humans as worthy to be saved. And by doing so, we condemn other-than-human forms of life to death. The word “salvation” also signifies safety and the preservation of life. To perpetuate harm and even death, then, is theological malpractice. A critical lens into how our faith has shaped and shapes our relations to others reveals how what we think about God and ourselves affects how we act in the world.

Over the course of history, hubristic humans have ascended, assumed, and aspired to a sort of god-status over the creation. This is rooted in a deep misunderstanding of dominion as domination or total control over the creation, rather than the deep care and responsibility inherent in the creation stories. And there are scriptures that we can reference to make that argument as well. What I want to point out, however, is that our special arrogance compels us to commit acts that seem to be grandiose but are in truth not as generative as the Creator’s. To be sure, colonizing humans’ work largely has been marked by destruction, not creation: we have brought about death for countless species and pushed ecosystems to the brink of utter annihilation. For this reason, this geological age of evolution is called the Anthropocene, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant—and detrimental—influence on climate and the environment. Anthropocene is what happens when humans play god. If we are gods, certainly we are not good. As bell hooks writes, “When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully.” Conversely, the opposite is also true: if we destroy the earth, we destroy ourselves. Does God not want to preserve and “save” the goodness of the creation?

In order to combat our propensity to destroy, I believe we must first repent from our self-idolatry and reimagine our faith to include other-than-human animals and the earth itself.

Ivone Gebara writes: “Patriarchal theology, and especially creation theology, legitimized both oppression and domination of nature and the existence of hierarchal relationships among all beings.” For Gebara, anthropocentrism leads to androcentrism. Her work shows how oppression is multifaceted and interconnected. For example, human supremacy, fueled by rationalism and individualism, interprets the world and what matters most based solely on our human experiences and beliefs. By virtue of this way of constructing the world, the human is placed at the center of relations and the top of the hierarchy of being. The closer that someone is to the human, the more likely we are to offer our care and compassion. It is why we care for our pets. But this cuts in both directions. It is also why we animalize others when they do not live up to our human standards, constructs, or norms. Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc., are examples of how the category of the “human” wields power-over, power that undergirds our unjust and unsustainable practices as well as motivates unspeakable acts and atrocities we commit against one another.

But this is not what God intends. Human-worship, or self-idolatry, therefore, is “sin,” which simply means “to miss the mark.” (The mark, here, is God’s intrinsic value, love, and concern that God has for all of creation). In the Christian tradition, responding to sin requires repentance. Repentance connotes a change, a turning-away from one way of being and acting and a move in the opposite direction. For many Christians, this act of repentance is a prerequisite for salvation. But understandings of salvation are often as problematic as are notions about the human’s place in creation. Who is included or excluded from God’s salvific plan, and what it means to be “saved,” are historical debates responsible for schisms, fractures, and new movements within the tradition. Ultimately, these are questions about what is at stake and by what means God is involved in the history of our world.

To be honest, I am not interested in pie-in-the-sky narratives of salvation. I do not seek to be saved from the fires of hell to a heaven with streets of gold. Life is what I know, but what lies beyond death is a mystery. I am more interested in the goings-on of the world in the here and now, for example, the wildfires of California and elsewhere that threaten our lives and the lives of our animal kin. I am more concerned with the plight of peoples, especially those affected by industrial farming and agriculture, the suffering of other-than-human animals, and the ongoing destruction of our world’s habitats and ecosystems. It is clear in the Lord’s Prayer that the thrust of God’s kin-dom is downward. How can God’s kin-dom exist “on earth” if there is no earth or life left on it? The scriptures do tell us the rocks will cry out.

“But what about Jesus?” you ask. Good question. Episcopal priest and horse enthusiast Carter Heyward writes that we must “de-anthropocentrize” Jesus, that is “to show that humankind is not the center of God’s realm any more than the earth is the center of the universe… Christ is as much a pelican, an elephant, and a tree as she is our brother from Nazareth.” How should we treat animals when we realize that Christ is present in them? Heyward continues:

It is rather, for eco-liberation theologians, that the earth and all creatures are embedded deeply in God and that God—in her christic paradigm—reveals herself through all creatures great and small. Christ is the pelican, the sparrow, the tree, and the water, just as Christ is the subjugated human.

The point is not to deny that God, in Christ, was present in Jesus. Rather, she suggests that God’s presence is not limited to Jesus. Expanding our understanding of God’s presence with and in all creatures, especially those who suffer, shakes loose the shackles of individualism that sever our lives from others. The Christian church in the West has largely missed and downplayed the collective nature of sin by focusing on the purportedly autonomous human individual. Of course, then, the collective nature of salvation also is too narrow. What God has to say, and whether my understanding of theology can address the exigencies and vicissitudes of these urgent crises, is my ultimate concern. Any talk of salvation that does not take into account these things falls well short of the wholeness, safety, and flourishing that God desires for all of creation.

My work as a fellow with CreatureKind has taught me a valuable lesson, mainly, that any approach to the work of animal welfare and eco-theology should be done with humility. When we consider the harm we humans have inflicted upon the earth, it should bring us to a poignant reality: that we need to repent from our sinful ways and be converted to a new reality that sees all of God’s creation as worthy of salvation. This is what the kin-dom of God is like. The psalmist writes: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” Such beautiful, broad language invites us to consider that the breadth of God’s salvation is all-encompassing and more far-reaching than we may realize.

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Shea Watts (he/him/his) is a PhD candidate in Theology and Cultural Criticism at Chicago Theological Seminary. Shea, his spouse, and their three cats live in Charlotte, NC, where Shea works at Christ Episcopal Church as the Associate Director of Contemporary Worship and Liturgy. His project with CreatureKind reflects his belief that faith and food are inextricably entwined, and Christian practices should be informed and shaped by faith. He will be focusing on education at his local parish, raising awareness of the harms of factory farming in NC and constructing a theology of connectedness, creatureliness, and responsibility for the earth.

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