There is someone who attends my youth group casually who is very passionate about protecting animals and the environment. These are two areas where I think Christians by and large have failed to live up to the standards of the Bible (particularly the environment). I was asking for this student to provide a reason why animals (and by extension the environment, though not the subject of our discussion) should be treated fairly and equitably. It was hard to provide any reason beyond the fact that they deserve to be treated fairly/they feel pain. Though I agree that pain is a driving factor in why animals should be treated equitably, I believe there are more systematic reasons why. So to be fair to my student who I pestered for a number of comments, here is why I believe animals and in turn the environment, ought to be treated fairly and justly.
As a devout Christian, I believe the Bible is the record God left of his interactions with humans. I believe that, though it was physically written by the hands of men (and some women!), the thoughts and principles contained within it were inspired by God’s Spirit. Thus, I think that when the Bible sees fit to discuss a topic, it is important we listen. One challenge that is present when dealing with the Bible is interpretations of what it actually means! The Bible is written in 3 different languages, with the oldest sections being written likely over 3500 years ago and the newest being written about 2000 years ago! That’s a lot of time to pass between then and now, and it’s a lot of time to pass between the beginning phases of writing and the final phases! That being said, one of the oldest sections of the Bible we have is what is called the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.
Though there is much disagreement in the scholarly community about the dates/authorship of the Pentateuch, I believe it was primarily written by Moses in the period of time when the Israelites were leaving Egypt through Moses’ death. The first book of the Pentateuch, and the Bible, is the book of Genesis. Genesis begins at the very beginning- with God creating. In that beginning God gave form to everything- he gave it a purpose and a job. The light-bearers (created on day 4) were supposed to contain and harness the light (created on day 1) the land to hold animals, etc. The final day, day 6, God created both animals and humans. The charge God gave to humans? Multiply and “have dominion” over both the land (environment) and animals.
The problem is- for the longest time Christians read “have dominion” as- “do with it whatever I so please” rather than the more accurate understanding of the word which is to “steward.” To steward means to care for and protect- like the Steward of Gondor was responsible for carrying on the business of the kingdom of Gondor as well as protect it while the King was away. This is precisely the sort of work that we humans were supposed to be doing in the Garden of Eden: taking care of it for God, because it is His temple.
So Christians misunderstood what the term “steward/have dominion over” meant- but there is also another problem. Christians throughout the world believe that Jesus will absolutely come back again to this earth. The book of Revelation speaks of Jesus returning riding a white horse and a sword coming from his mouth. There are also some passages in Revelation that speak of 1/3 of the earth being consumed in fire, as well as 1/3 of the stars falling from the heavens, etc. Many Christians have thought that when Christ comes again, he will just transport us into heaven- where we live on fluffy white clouds playing harps all day. Unfortunately, this is a misinterpretation (in my opinion) of the passage of scripture that speaks to the “rapture” mixed in with a healthy amount of Hollywood’s version of heaven rather than the Bible’s. So, you have people who not only think the earth was made just for us to use it to our absolute benefit without looking at the cost, but they also think the earth will just be replaced when Jesus comes again. So they engage in what is known as a “scorched earth” mentality, where they believe that since the whole earth will be destroyed, then you might as well live it up and use up all the oil you possibly can!!! Beat all the animals! etc.
So, why do I think that it’s important to be good stewards of the environment as well as animals? Because God made us to protect and guard the animals and environment. He made this earth to be His temple- it’s our job to take care of it and prepare it for Him. When the Fall happened, we were broken and ashamed… but so was nature. We deal with a broken world as well, until Christ comes to renew the world (rather than throwing it away and starting over!). We need to be treating it with respect and love rather than with contempt (no matter your view on Global warming!). We need to treat animals with love and dignity because they were created by God, and part of our calling in life is to treat them with equity and fairness. Animal abuse is more than just a shameful activity- it actually subverts human nature, because we were made to protect animals. When we batter the environment for a little American comfort, we aren’t just being irresponsible- we are being irreverent and we defile God’s very temple.
So back to my student: why do I believe we should treat animals and the earth well? Because it’s what we were made to do!
I will leave this with one of my favorite quotes from G.K. Chesterton!
“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.” –Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton