Instruments of Peace for All Creatures

by Tim Mascara

 Pixabay.com

Pixabay.com

On December 4, 1959, Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich presented a bronze statue to the United Nations, titled Let Us Beat Our Swords into Plowshares. The sculpture is an image of a man beating a sword into a plowshare, meant to symbolize humankind’s desire to end war—the desire to take the tools of violence and war and turn them into tools for peace, tools to benefit humankind rather than harm it. The statue still stands, now green from tarnish, in the northern gardens of the UN headquarters.

This transformational image of turning swords into plowshares is a recurrent theme in Scripture.

“He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning forks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” -Isaiah 2:4

“He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” -Micah 4:3

“You will laugh at violence and famine, and need not fear the wild animals. For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field, and the wild animals will be at peace with you. -Job 5:22-23

These are prophecies of something to come. A peace that is distant, far off, not yet realized. It is a peace for which this “weary world rejoices.” In light of Isaiah’s prophecy, we are called to confess how we have not been peaceful in various aspects of our lives. We take the time to confess because we need to acknowledge violence was never a part of God’s ideal for the world, and yet it plagues us.

…we are called to confess how we have not been peaceful in various aspects of our lives. We take the time to confess because we need to acknowledge violence was never a part of God’s ideal for the world, and yet it plagues us.

Isaiah uses other metaphors to illustrate just how foreign violence and death should be to our world. In Isaiah 11, he prophesies of the wolf living with the lamb, lions with calves, leopards with goats, and lions eating straw like the ox. Even the tools that animals used for violence, claws and sharp fangs, seem to be no longer used in this way. Isaiah prophesies of a child leading these predatory animals, feeding bears and playing near cobra dens. Of course, right now, trying this might not be the best idea. But what a thought! Not only will peace reign in human affairs, but across the entirety of creation and including all God’s creatures.

I cannot help but wonder what the relationship between humanity and the animal kingdom will look like. If there are no more swords, no more violence, no more death, could there be no more killing between species, too?

Some may argue peace won’t reign in the animal kingdom, that predators will always be predators. I understand how faithful Christians differ on these issues, yet I struggle to see how there could have been predation before the Fall if Genesis 1:30 really means what I think it means.

“Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.” -Genesis 1:29-30

The reign of peace and flourishing across all creation—what Hebrews call “shalom”—seems to have been God’s original intention for the created order. And Christ entered into this world to begin bringing that heavenly kingdom to bear on our broken, violent, sword-wielding and war-torn world. I believe this peace will affect humans and animals alike.

I see this in other places in Scripture that point to a future peace as well. Over and over again, Scripture underscores how deeply God cares for creation:

“In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” -Hosea 2:18

“And should I not have great concern for the city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” -Jonah 4:11

We know that Christ has ushered in the new kingdom now, but not yet fully. This is the tension in which we now live. We celebrate Christ’s first coming, yet we hope for Christ’s second coming to bring the fullness of joy, love, and peace.

So where am I going with this? Even though we live in this tension, I believe we can still put into practice some of the aspects of the Kingdom of God. Even as we pray the Lord’s prayer, we can remember that even now, we can begin living and acting in ways that cause small breakthroughs of peace into our world.

To pray, “…Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” is to pray that God’s peaceable Kingdom will now begin to be partially realized in our world. I believe it is beginning to not only ask that Christ’s peace will one day reign, but that we may become agents of Christ’s peace today. If we are praying these words regularly, we must begin pondering how we are to see this in our own lives.

I think a valuable way of assessing this question is looking to Isaiah, and to symbolic ways we can live in peace rather than in violence. One suggestion might be eating a greener, more plant-based diet as a small, specific way we can practice peace today. Even as I ponder how we have not been instruments of peace, I wonder if this small act could begin, at least in part, beating our swords into plowshares.

I find it hard to believe that the images we see in Isaiah, at creation, and in the covenant God makes between man and animal are merely analogies. Could they not be glimpses of reality as it once was, and what it will one day be again? Could my choice to eat less meat be a small act of the coming peaceable kingdom?

Have you pondered how small actions and small practices can influence much larger events? Christ encourages this way of thinking by declaring that someone who can be trusted with little can also be trusted with much. This principle can be applied in many ways, one of which I believe is that small acts have the power to influence much greater acts. Perhaps choosing something different on your plate could be a small and subtle way to influence your interaction with someone else in your life. Perhaps choosing compassion for one of God’s creatures could be a tool for the Holy Spirit to soften your heart toward a difficult or stressful family member. What if choosing to practice peace at the table could begin to train our hearts toward the coming peace, when the Kingdom is finally and fully realized?

What if choosing to practice peace at the table could begin to train our hearts toward the coming peace, when the Kingdom is finally and fully realized?

I understand that Christians differ on these issues, and even on their views of peace regarding the animal kingdom. I personally believe that the Garden was, and the coming Kingdom will be, a place without violence or death for all who have lifeblood. I believe that the images we see in Isaiah are glimpses of the large arc from creation through the fall and to final redemption. This affects my interpretation on how the coming kingdom is played out in my day to day life. Places like factory farms do not only harbor darkness, despair, and pain for animals, but also for fellow humans who have to work in those environments and for God’s good earth. 

Finally, while I am writing that the act of eating a plant-based diet can be an act of peace, the goal for all of us who follow Christ is to ask how we might begin practicing God’s Kingdom now. Whether it concerns the choices we make on our plates, our politics, how we relate to our family, or any number of the myriad decisions we make over the course of our lifetimes, the question is still: How can I be an instrument of peace?

Tim Mascara is an Associate Pastor at StoneBridge Church Community. He lives in Davidson, NC with his wife and two young boys. This piece originally appeared at EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org and is reprinted here with permission. 

Who is my Neighbour? A St. Francis of Assisi Feast Day Meditation

by Michael Gilmour

 Photo: Michael Gilmour

Photo: Michael Gilmour

The punchline of Luke’s Good Samaritan story comes at the beginning rather than the end, and it is not Jesus who delivers it but instead a nameless onlooker. He cites Torah: love God and love your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10:27; cf. Lev 19:18; Deut 6:5). Jesus agrees and then goes on to tell the oft-told tale of an assault and robbery, and the unlikely hero who comes to the victim’s aid. Love is owed to a stranger left for dead on the side of the road, and it is a cultural and religious outsider who extends it. My neighbour does not always look like me, or believe like me but that’s no matter. Jesus collapses the two great commandments. If we love God, we love our neighbours, whoever they are. We love our neighbours because we love God.

The onlooker who wisely recited Torah then adds a question (Luke 10:29): Who is my neighbour? Jesus’s story is the answer given. Your neighbour is the one in need. Your neighbour is the one in need, even when they are not part of your community. We are to love across boundaries. Love not only family and tribe, or those of our race and nation, or gender and religion, or sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Love not only the citizen but also the refugee. Simply love your neighbour as yourself, says Jesus. Love the one in need as you love yourself. That’s all it says.

Animals are neighbours too. There’s nothing in the story limiting this boundary-defying love to bipedal types. If this sounds odd, note the vague kinship between this parable and remarks Jesus made about an animal fallen into a pit (Matt 12:11). You don’t pass by the sheep in its moment of need any more than you pass the victim of a robbery laying in a ditch at the side of a road. You help that poor creature, and you do so even if it’s the Sabbath. Humans extending kindness to nonhumans—Jesus expects it of the God-fearing. And perhaps it’s worth noticing it works both ways in our parable. The Good Samaritan isn’t the only one who helps the injured man: he places the stranger “on his own animal” to get him to an inn for care (10:34). A brief hint of cross-species compassion?

The story of the Good Samaritan resonated recently as I led a chapel service at Providence University College (Manitoba) marking World Animal Day and the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. This is not usual fare for us. Few of the fifty or so students and staff in attendance had previous experience of animal blessing or animal-themed services, or even heard sermons suggesting animals are theologically consequential or relevant for religious ethics. So, how to get that point across?

Enter Daisy, the tripod puppy and newest layabout at chez Gilmour who joined me for the service. Last spring I received word from one of our graduates of a stray dog found injured at the side of the road after being hit by a car. She stopped to help, taking the puppy to a nearby veterinary clinic even when unsure of how to fund the expensive surgery/amputation needed to save her. This was a costly act of kindness. Costly just like the love shown by the Samaritan (“he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend’” [Luke 10:35]). I wanted students to meet Daisy. To meet one of God’s creatures who experienced a boundary-transgressing act of Christian love. There is room in the church for other species. The church, represented in that moment by a generous, self-sacrificing student, reached out to a helpless animal and saved her life. A Christian reached across boundaries to show the love of God. (And at this St. Francis service she was further welcomed by the community of God’s people—and exuberantly so, as you can see—by some of our dog-loving students!)

 Photo: Michael Gilmour

Photo: Michael Gilmour

The service also marked the launch of Providence’s second Friendly Food Challenge (on which, see the CreatureKind blog, “Throwing Rocks at Giants”). The hope was to help participants make the connection between sweet Daisy who made all in the room smile that day, and other equally vulnerable, equally important animals who live and die as part of the food industry. Pets, wildlife, domesticated farm animals—they are all God’s creatures, and the call to extend love beyond boundaries must include them too. I am pleased some students and staff at Providence University College are making that connection, leaving meat off their plates as an expression of compassion.

Michael Gilmour teaches English and biblical literature at Providence University College. His most recent book is a study of animals in the writings of C. S. Lewis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Good Love

Sermon delivered by Michael Anthony Howard at Brookside Community Church, April 22, 2018. Reprinted here with permission. 

The Resurrection illustrates what good love looks like. When love is good, it has the power to transform us and offer new life to the world!

The Raging Rambo

Whether it was natural born or not, Rambo was “a killer.” As Kathy Stevens puts it, he “thought his job was to kill us. It was a job he seemed to relish.” When Rambo arrived, he was “full of testosterone and rage.” He was “so violent and volatile,” she said, “we began to compare…war stories.”[1]

 Photo: Catskill Animal Sanctuary

Photo: Catskill Animal Sanctuary

Rambo you see, was a hateful, hostile, raging Jacob ram. If you happened to be the poor, helpless human assigned to feed the sheep for the day, Rambo was ready to draw first blood. He would rear up on his hind legs and come at you head-first, full speed ahead, with those twisted horns of his. Kathy and her team had rescued Rambo from an animal hoarder. There were seventeen animals locked in a very small, filthy stall. One was a dead cow. The other animals were adopted, but Rambo was too violent. Even a few very experienced sheepherders tried to take him in, but they gave up within a few days.

It was hard to know what to do with him. There was deep concern for the safety of farm workers and the rest of the sheep. Rambo was claustrophobic. He was too destructive to keep in a barn stall. He destroyed the fence, “smashed it to smithereens.” It is not untypical for Jacob rams to be highly emotional and extremely dangerous. But even after Kathy had Rambo neutered, nothing seemed to ease him. Alarmed that Rambo might get someone killed, Kathy was advised to “put him down immediately.” “For our own safety,” Kathy said, “I struggled with whether…it was indeed time to give up on Rambo.” In two years, Kathy had seen dozens of injured and traumatized animals be transformed. “This,” she said, “would be our first failure.”[2]

I think Kathy is an example of what Jesus called a good shepherd. She is a sheep-lover, someone who really loves her sheep. She challenges us to rethink what we mean by the word good. She helps us see what good actually looks like.

Framing Exercise: What is Good?

The relationship between Kathy and Rambo helps us better understand the teachings of Jesus we read this morning. It relates to what linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff calls framing.

In our text this morning (John 10:11-18), Jesus uses the word good. How we understand what good means depends on how it is framed. “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we [perceive and reason about things.] As a result, frames shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.”[3]

By identifying himself as the “good shepherd,” Jesus is in the process of reframing. He takes the everyday experience of tending to sheep and makes a comparison between what is good and what is not good. In comparing the “hired hand” to the “good shepherd,” he is reframing our understanding of what constitutes as good.

Love Without Domination

The deep truths in passages like ours today can elude us because of the way we frame them. I grew up on a farm, and we had all kinds of animals. I’m not sure I would say I loved all of our animals, but like many farmers, I think my folks would say they did. Many farmers will say they love their animals, but what they mean is that they have an attachment to them. They feel a kind of warmth, an affection, a fondness for them. Caring for animals is certainly hard work. While they may call it love, I think most of those human-animal relationships are examples of domination. Rarely do they mean the kind of good love Jesus described in our passage for today.

Let’s begin with a first question: Why would someone get in the business of taking care of sheep? There are many who are widely considered shepherds, but they are not good in Jesus’ sense of the word. The frame here is one of domination. Rather than shepherds, these farmers would more properly called wool harvesters. They see the sheep as a possession. Their relationship is one defined by ownership, based on maximizing their benefit. Their relationship is one of domination. When the sheep are no longer profitable, the relationship ends—and most of the time, that means death for the sheep.

The good shepherd, on the other hand, is a sheep lover. They see the sheep, not as possessions but as partners. The frame here is one of nurture and mutual care. The sheep and the caretaker both exist with equal value and dignity. One does not exist for the sake of the other. The benefits that come from this kind of relationship are more spiritual than material. As Richard Rohr puts it,  “Material gifts decrease when you give them away. Spiritual gifts, by contrast, increase the more you use them. Yes! You get more love by letting it flow through you… If you love, you will become more loving. If you practice patience, you will become more patient.”[4]

The Teachings of Jesus

Throughout Easter, I have asked us to consider the Resurrection as our divine initiation into life free from the powers of Death (with a capital D), the Domination System that governs our relationships, our institutions, and the way we look at the world. By using the term good shepherd in contrast hired hand, Jesus is offering to free us from the domination system by reframing our understanding of what is good.

In the context of the gospel story, we can assume that the hired hands represent the political and religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They see their relationship to the world under the frame of domination. When danger comes, they run. Protecting their authority, maintaining the status quo, or upholding their religious doctrines are more important than keeping their followers—the “sheep”—from danger. As participants in the Domination System, the sheep exist for the hired hand’s benefit. Everything they do is carried out for their own self-interest.

Jesus, on the other hand, represents the good shepherd. His relationship to the world operates under the frame of nurture and mutual care. Jesus identifies himself not as someone above the people, but as one of them. The shepherd identifies with the sheep as if the shepherd and the sheep share a common nature. For those that maintain a classical trinitarian theology—the Father, the Son and the Spirit are co-equally God—what Jesus says should blow your mind. Jesus says, “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father,” this is the same as the relationship between the sheep and the good shepherd. When danger comes, Jesus offers his own life for the sake of those he loves. Because for the good shepherd, when the sheep suffer, the shepherd suffers.

Jesus is an illustration of what the good shepherd looks like. He is good because he loves the sheep as he loves his own life. He is good because he is willing to lay his life down for the sheep. He is good because his love is a good love. The shepherd sees the sheep on their own terms, as fellow creatures with their own needs to meet and hardships to bear. For the good shepherd, the sheep are here with us, not just for us. That is the only what that love can be good, when it is a love between two equals.

Kathy Stevens and Kaden Maguire

Kathy Stevens is an example of a good shepherd. She is a sheep-lover, someone who really loves her sheep. Like Jesus, watching her work challenges others to rethink what we mean by the word “good.” She helps me see what “good” actually looks like.

Starting out with nothing, Kathy created the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, a 148-acre refuge in New York's Hudson Valley for eleven species of farmed animals rescued from cruelty, neglect, and abandonment. They have rescued over 4,000 animals since 2001.

Kaden Maguire is an example of one of the Catskill staff, but he is anything but a mere hired hand. He knows every one of the sheep by name. He can tell you about Cleo and his son Ferguson, two sheep that suffer from a disease called Lintivirus. Cloe came to the farm as one member of a whole herd that were rescued from an animal cruelty case in 2016. They had been neglected. They were knee deep in waste, emaciated, and infested with parasites and disease. In the framework of domination, these sheep offer no material benefit whatsoever. They cost time, money, and resources to keep alive. And yet Kaden is out there, every day, watching sheep like Cloe, Lavern, Bertha, and Leena as they care for their children and teach the world how smart, kind, and beautiful they are. By spending time with Kaden, I got a glimpse of what Jesus must have meant by the good shepherd. Kaden loves his sheep, but it is a love that seeks to be free of domination. Kaden is a good shepherd because he teaches the world what good love looks like.

The Rest of Rambo’s Story

My wife Zion and I took our daughter Joey to stay at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary just a few weeks ago. I had just preached a sermon—you might remember it—where I talked about “Rambo Jesus.” Well, wouldn’t you know, we stayed in the Rambo room! One of the first stories that our guide, Drew, wanted to tell us was Rambo’s story.

After having him neutered, Rambo calmed down a little. But they were still afraid. They didn’t listen to the advice of those who said Rambo needed to be put down. Instead, they decided he just needed a little more time. They let him roam freely, and after a while his eyes began to change and he seemed to show signs that he trusted that he was never again going to be confined. He began to let go of his anger and feel at home at the Sanctuary.

On one cold bitter night, after turning out the lights and saying good night to everyone, Rambo came up to Kathy and began to bleat as if something was wrong. He led Kathy into a stall where she found two of the turkeys missing, Chuck and Cliff. Rambo then walked out with Kathy into the rain to find them outside their pen. Chuck was drenched with his head tucked in trying to stay warm. Poor Cliff was motionless in the driveway in a cold, shallow puddle.

Once everyone was back, dry and safe, Kathy began to reflect, “What just happened?” It was the first time Rambo had really used his voice, and he had figured out how to tell a human that something was wrong. Even more than that, he had just shown concern for two animals of a different species. Kathy says that that moment changed her life. As she writes in her book, “Nothing I [had read or studied in my many years of graduate education and experience] told me that my core beliefs were based on a false set of assumptions, on naïveté or ignorance. But in a darkened barn on a bitter early winter night, a sheep who finally believed he belonged with us did exactly that.”[5]

That’s what reframing looks like!

Not everything we call love is good love. Often it is little more than a sentimental form of domination. Good love, however, is based on relationships of nurturing and mutual care. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd [because] I lay my life down for the sheep.” That is what the Resurrection teaches us, that God doesn’t give up on us when things get tough. God loves us with an infinitely patient, an unending, deeply nurturing love—the way Kaden loves Cloe, the way Kathy loved Rambo. This is the kind of love Jesus calls us to have for each other and the world around us.

As 1 John 3:16 tells us, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

The Resurrection illustrates what good love looks like. What the world needs are people who give their lives to learn how to love well, who know what good love looks like. Because when love is good, it has the power to transform us and offer new life to the world!

[1] Kathy Stevens, Where the Blind Horse Sings (New York : Skyhorse Pub, 2009), p.49-50.

[2] Ibid., p. 51.

[3] George Lakoff, The All-New Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014), p. xi-xii.

[4] Richard Rohr, “Love is Who You Are,” Thursday, August 11, 2016. https://cac.org/love-is-who-you-are-2016-08-11/ (Accessed online, April 21, 2018).

[5] Kathy Stevens, Where the Blind Horse Sings, p. 57.

Undoing Domination, a Sermon

Sermon written and delivered by Michael Anthony Howard at Stanley Congregational Church, Chatham, NJ on July 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission. Listen to the sermon audio, download sermon notes, and access the sermon worksheet here.

 IMAGE CREDIT: Die gelbe Kuh (The  Yellow Cow ), by Franz Marc (1911) [ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz_Marc-The_Yellow_Cow-1911.jpg ]

IMAGE CREDIT: Die gelbe Kuh (The Yellow Cow), by Franz Marc (1911) [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz_Marc-The_Yellow_Cow-1911.jpg]

The Logic of Domination

There are about 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone. It is amazing when you think about it. The Milky Way isn’t even very big. Every star has an approximate average of 1.6 planets. So, if you do the arithmetic, that’s 650 billion planets. The Earth is home to roughly 2 billion species of life. Some 70 to 90% of those species are bacteria. There might be a total of 40 million insect species. Yet, our science is just in its infancy. Some 10,000 species are discovered each year. To date, only about 1.5 million species have been described, and less than 1% of those are bacteria. Of those two billion species (or 1.5 million species we have named), almost 60 thousand are vertebrates, 5 thousand are mammals, and 350 are primates. Human beings are but one of them.

While the universe has been around for 13.772 billion years, we homo sapiens have only been around some 300,000 years. If my middle school math days serve me well, 13.772 billion minus 300,000 is still 13.772 billion — in other words, we’ve not been around long enough for our history to be within the order of significant digits.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many of us have been taught to think of our place in the world with an outrageous and unjust logic — the universe is ours and it exists for the taking.

But this logic doesn’t just stop with anthropocentrism. Let’s follow this logic down a little further. Of the 7.6 billion human beings on the planet, how many have access to clean drinking water, a healthy diet, good health care, a quality education, a living wage, etc? A little more than half of them are men. Of those 3.8 billion men, how many of us are white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, Christian, American? All of these characteristics are things that I share with most of our national leaders, almost all of our nation’s past presidents, and the richest man on the face of the earth. I find it curious and scary to believe that such a small portion of the world’s population has believed for so long that the world was made for them. But let us not be naïve, most of us humans think the same way about our relationship to the rest of Creation. Domination, see, comes in many forms.

This unjust logic of ours, our model of society, our understanding of the meaning of life, the way human beings have perceived themselves in relation to the rest of Creation — at least for the last four hundred years or so — has almost entirely shaped our way of life. It is hard to disagree with liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, when he described the modern human. Most of us live, he said, as if the most important thing in life is

to accumulate vast amounts of the means of life — material wealth, goods, and services — in order to enjoy our short journey on this planet. In achieving this purpose we are aided by science, which comprehends how the Earth functions, and technology, which acts upon it for human benefit. And this is to be done as speedily as possible. Hence, we strive for maximum profit with minimum investment in the shortest possible period of time. In this type of cultural practice, human beings are regarded as above things, making use of them for their own enjoyment, never as alongside things, members of a larger planetary and cosmic community. The ultimate result, which is only now becoming strikingly visible, is contained in an expression attributed to Gandhi: The Earth is sufficient for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed. [1]

In other words, our basic model for relating with each other — how we know what life is all about — is domination. When we see ourselves as being above rather than alongside, we operate within a framework — a logic — of domination.

The Dominion Argument

At Brookside Church, we’ve been wrestling lately with our ability to own up to the fact the Bible has been used to justify violence. When it comes to our interpretation of the world, our relationship to Creation, the way we think about salvation, and how we understand what it means to follow Jesus, the Bible can be both helpful and problematic. Last week, I pointed out how the gospel’s portray Jesus as skipping over problematic passages when he read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue. That way of reading scripture, which is commonly know as “cherry picking,” I asked us to consider thinking about it as “avoiding landmines.” I argued that if we are not careful with the way we read scripture, we will find that the body of Christ may actually lose body parts.

This morning, I want to draw your attention to a specific biblical landmine. This is one of the most commonly referenced passages when it comes to Creation, justice, and the role of Christianity in the world: Genesis 1. It’s not so much an entire passage or even a verse — really, it’s just one word: dominion.

This entire chapter is a beautiful and poetic description of God’s relationship with Creation. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that when it is read with the intent of asking what our relationship to Creation should be, Christians tend to narrow in on this one word. And this is specifically true when you talk about the relationship between human beings and other non-human animals. God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion…”

Dominion? “Didn’t God set human beings over Creation? Didn’t God give people dominion over animals and doesn’t that mean we can… [kill them, eat them, wear them, cage them, experiment with them, fill in the blank]?”

First off, the word dominion is repeated twice. That must mean it was important to the scribe or scribes that used it. But that should never, ever, trump what God said about Creation at every step along the way, “It is good.” For God to declare these things to be good, especially animal life, even before human beings existed, implies that they are valuable in their own right — that God delights in them. As Jewish scholar, Roberta Kalechofsky points out, “this substantiates the view that animals were regarded as integral subjects in their own right. God’s [expressed] delight in these creations…does not reflect a god who created animal life to be in bondage.” [2]

Carol J. Adams, arguably one of the most important feminist writers today and author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, wrote, “The more the word dominion is broken away from [the context of this poem of beloved relationship in] Genesis 1, the more likely it is that what one is defending is a broken relationship between humans and other animals and the world they inhabit.” [3]

Even more, what is interesting is that while the word radah, which we translate as dominion, is mentioned twice in verse 28, in the very following verse (Genesis 1:29), God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” In other words, whatever dominion humans have been granted over animals, it doesn’t involve eating them. Even more, if we’re going to be using this passage to understand our relationship with Creation, we must be constrained first and foremost by our reverence for the fact that God took delight in what God created. God said, “It is good.”

I mean, think about it.

“It is good,” so we are justified in separating a baby calf from its mother so we can have her milk. “It is good,” so it must be okay for us to cut off the beaks of chickens. “It is good,” so we can feel innocent when we pay someone to rip into their flesh in order to prepare our dinner, knowing that most of us would refuse to spill their blood if we had to do it ourselves. “It is good,” we think, because it is good for us human beings. That is the logic of domination.

If dominion doesn’t mean domination, what then does it mean?

Quoting again from Carol Adams:

It has been said that if kings and queens exercised dominion over their subjects the way human beings do over the other animals, kings and queens would have no subjects. So why is being in God’s image often interpreted in view of power, manipulation, and hegemony instead of compassion, mercy, and emptying unconditional love? We often anthropomorphize God as powerful, fierce, and angry (if not belligerent). When we are lording over others, using power — it is then that we are most likely to assert the image of God. Acts of unconditional love, suspensions of judgment, mercy for the weak, and kindness to animals get associated with a wishy-washy picture of who Jesus was, but are rarely discussed regarding God the Creator. [4]

The Impulse of Jesus

And here we come to the heart of the matter. Most of us have had our imagination of God shaped more by this logic of domination than by the teachings of Jesus. The Christian God as often taught by some Christians is a god of domination. He — and this god is always a he — could more easily be confused with the violent war gods of the Greeks or the Romans than with the teachings of Jesus. What if we approach the question christologically? What if we decided to ask what “dominion” might look like — our relationship to Creation and non-human animals — if we begin our thinking about God and humanity by learning from Jesus?

The central impulse at the heart of Jesus’ teachings was the proclamation of the Reign of God, or what Walter Wink called “God’s Domination-Free Order.” It was the creation of a new community, a new citizenship, based on a shared commitment to doing the will of God. This is what many of us have begun calling “The Beloved Community,” or the “Kin-dom.” Kin-dom, I think, helps point us to the truth that Jesus’ teachings challenge us not to see ourselves above Creation, but as alongside it as kindred earthlings. For followers of Jesus, this kin-dom teaching consisted of a twofold commitment to nonviolence and undoing that logic of domination. Walter Wink called it the Domination System: “An encompassing system characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, patriarchal gender relations, prejudiced racial or ethnic relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them.”
 [5]

Understood in this way, Jesus’ ministry was a radical critique of the logic domination, aimed at bringing healing to Creation by calling people to repentance and helping them discover what it means to be fully human.

The central teaching of the church is based on the idea of the incarnation — that somehow, in Jesus, God was revealed not to be above Creation, but alongside Creation. The central quest for communities of faith today is to recover for ourselves what Jesus unleashed, that original impulse at the heart of his teachings aimed at undoing the old order of domination and bringing about a new order of life and freedom. Only then will the church have what is needed to bring about positive change in people and all Creation.

I pray that this becomes our quest, that hear the voice of our still speaking God and take up our call — to learn to stand alongside Creation as kindred earthlings, following Jesus to undo the logic of domination.
 — Amen

Notes:

[1] Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), p. 2.

[2] Roberta Kalechofsky, “Hierarchy, Kinship, and Responsibility: The Jewish Relationship to the Animal World,” in A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, edited by Paul Waldau and Kimberly Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 97–98. Quoted in Carol J. Adams, “What About Dominion in Genesis?” In A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals (The Peaceable Kingdom Series Book 2) (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), p. 5.

[3] Carol J. Adams, “What About Dominion in Genesis?” p. 5.]

[4] Ibid., p 2.

[5] Walter Wink, The Human Being Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 270.

New Animal Welfare Standards for Organic Meat and Dairy Products Are Withdrawn. Now What?

by Lois Godfrey Wye

On January 19, 2017, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final rule imposing new requirements on suppliers of organic meats and dairy products. The new rule set certain standards for animal care, to “create[] greater consistency in organic livestock and poultry practice standards” and “to assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent and uniform standard.”[1] The effective date of the regulations was repeatedly delayed, however, and on March 13, 2018, the USDA announced it was withdrawing the rule. No new standards for animal care will be required for organic meat or dairy products. Why did the agency change its mind? And what does it mean for us, as Christians who care about how animals in our food supply are treated?

 Sprinkles | Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals 

Sprinkles | Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals 

The Rule

First, let’s take a quick look at what the regulations would—and would not—have done. Kitty Block, Acting CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, summarized the requirements this way in her blog, A Humane Nation:

[The regulations] encompassed an array of housing, husbandry, and management standards, standards that consumers expect when they buy organic products. The rule prohibited cruel practices like “tail docking” of cattle and transporting animals too sick or injured to endure the journey. The rule also ensured that animals raised under the standard could not be tightly confined, and it set minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for egg-laying chickens. Importantly, the rule closed a loophole in current regulations that allow large poultry companies to skirt the law and use screened-in porches to satisfy “outdoor access” requirements.[2]

Gene Baur, of Farm Sanctuary, however, points out that even these protections were “minimal,” that many cruel practices would have been permitted, and “and ultimately, animals raised for organic certification, like other animals exploited for food, are treated more like commodities than like living feeling animals . . . The updated organic rule limits some of the abuses routinely endured by farm animals, but it still places commercial interests above ethical considerations.”[3]

What Happened?

So why are these improvements, minimal or otherwise, not going into effect? After the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the new administration wanted to review the rule, so it delayed the implementation date, and took public comment on whether or not the regulations should be withdrawn. Public comments overwhelmingly favored allowing the regulations to go into effect—by a margin of 63,000 comments supporting the rule to 50 comments opposing it[4]—but the USDA determined, after reexamining the statute under which the regulations had been issued, that it did not have legal authority to impose requirements regarding animal care.  Instead, the agency believes its authority is limited to restricting use of chemicals or synthetic substances in feed, nontherapeutic use of medications, and similar activities for organically-produced meats and dairy products. It also believes that the costs and benefits of the regulations had been inaccurately calculated and that the costs of the regulations outweighed the benefits.

In assessing the benefits of the regulation, the agency did not consider benefits to the animals themselves, which it called “speculative.”[5] The issue is addressed only in the context of economic benefits, and the agency observed that “it is uncertain that organic farmers and consumers would see positive impacts from implementation of the OLPP rule. The assertion that the OLPP final rule would result in economic benefits from healthier animals is not supported by information or research linking outdoor access on pasture or vegetation to improved economic outcomes for producers.”[6] Consideration of what may or may not be humane treatment does not appear to have entered into the calculus.

A Christian Response

It is, of course, heartbreaking to lose an opportunity for real improvement in the way at least some of the animals in our food system are treated. But, without debating the correctness of the agency’s decision, what does this mean for us, as Christians who care about animals? 

First, as Christians, we do not have the luxury of giving up hope. Writing this on Holy Saturday, I think of the words of Fr. James Martin, “We are called to the wait of the Christian, which is called hope. It is an active waiting; it knows that, even in the worst of situations, even in the darkest times, God is powerfully at work, even if we cannot see it clearly right now.”[7] Because hope is an “active waiting,” we can and must continue to work for change and to support animal welfare improvements whenever the opportunity presents itself. This is the work of caring for God’s creation and bringing God’s kingdom nearer.

Second, even as we continue to work for institutional change to benefit animals, both the rule and its roll back underscore the limitations of that process. As Gene Baur explained, the rule “still place[d] commercial interests above ethical considerations,” and the animals were still seen as commodities rather than living beings. While the rule would have meant definite improvement for some animals in the food system, they were limited changes for a limited number of animals. We cannot depend on Caesar to implement our ethics for us. Many organic farmers who supported this rule did so because of consumer demand for a reliable organic label that would provide assurance of certain standards.[8] This is a testament to the importance of personal choices in driving change. Our choices and our behavior matter—not just to us, but to those around us. We need to live our ethics. 

If we choose to eat meat or dairy products, we have to do the research to find suppliers who meet our ethical requirements. That means we need to know what food labels really mean—which can be a challenge, because they are often misleading.[9] It also means we need to look past the labels to find out whatever we can about the brand. We are responsible for our choices, and we cannot pass the implications of our actions on others.[10] 

It also means that—whether we choose to eat meat and dairy products or not—we have an opportunity for education. We can make sure that people who do so choose are aware that “organic” does not mean “humane,” and if they are concerned about animal welfare, they, too, need to understand labels and suppliers. There is a great deal of misunderstanding among consumers, and if we have lost an opportunity to see some industry-wide standards implemented and clarity in labeling, we have not lost the opportunity to continue to speak out to our friends, our families, and others to help them understand what labels mean—and what they do not mean. 

For Christians, loss is never defeat, and as we live in hope and gratitude, we will continue to seek ways to bring the Kingdom nearer.   

Cropped photo - me at WARL event.jpg

Lois Godfrey Wye has a Masters Degree in the Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary, where her studies focused on the intersection of animal welfare and Christian theology. She is an environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the Board of Directors of the Humane Rescue Alliance. She blogs (occasionally) at Dominion In The Image of God

References

[1] 82 Federal Register 7042 (Jan 19, 2017).  

[2] A Humane Nation, March 13, 2018.

[3] Farm Sanctuary, Compassionate Communities Campaign, Modest Organic Farm Animal Welfare Standards Draw Ire of Agribusiness, undated, https://ccc.farmsanctuary.org/organic-standards-draw-ire/.

[4] 83 Federal Register 10775 (March 13, 2018)

[5] 83 Federal Register 10779.  https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2018-05029/p-56

[6] Id.

[7] Father James Martin: Holy Saturday Teaches Us The Right Way to Wait, America, The Jesuit Review, April 15, 2017, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/04/15/father-james-martin-holy-saturday-teaches-christians-right-way-wait.

[8] 83 Federal Register 10779.

[9] The Animal Welfare Institute has this helpful guide.

[10] There is a confession of sin used in the Episcopal Church which asks forgiveness for “the evil done on our behalf.” Enriching our Worship, p. 56.  Reprinted here. https://www.facebook.com/stcolumbasmaine/posts/499669426761028 I cannot say this without thinking of animals on factory farms, fur farms, in labs or circuses, or other places so terrible for them for the supposed benefit of humans. 

Throwing Rocks at Giants

by Michael Gilmour

My daily commute takes me south of Winnipeg into an area with several intensive hog operations. Manitoba produces somewhere around 8 million pigs a year, more than any other Canadian province, and each day, whether minus 30 C (-22 F) or plus 30 C (86 F), I pass one, two, three, four transport trucks carrying pigs to slaughter. I catch glimpses of them through air holes as I whiz by at 100 kilometers an hour, and they at the same speed in the opposite direction.

  Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

They’re cold or hot, tired, thirsty with no access to water, often crowded, and certainly distressed owing to the noise, wind and newness of the experience. Most have never seen sunlight until this day. I always react. Sighs. Muttered prayers (“May the Lord bless you and keep you ...”). Curses directed at industrial-scale cruelties. And a sense of utter helplessness to do anything about it.

  Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

But during one grumpy commute, I remembered there are others making their way to Providence University College where we work and study also thinking about those distressed pigs. So began the Friendly Food Challenge.

One day a week we urge employees and students to choose a meat-free meal or meals. It is a small gesture and those participating do so for a variety of reasons: health and weight loss; environmental concern; foodie curiosity (our supportive cafeteria staff offer up tasty vegetarian fare); a “team spirit” willingness to support campus initiatives; and for a number of students (bless them), animal compassion.

By most measures, the scale of what we’re doing is inconsequential. Providence serves around 340 meals each Wednesday and since starting on November 1, 2017 (World Vegan Day), members of our community chose meat-free meals around 250 times. That won’t show up on any company’s ledger sheet, but no matter. It is instead a quiet, largely symbolic protest against cruelties inherent in factory farming. A handful of students at a little evangelical university on the prairies, surrounded by large livestock producers, bearing witness and saying this is not right, we refuse to participate.

  Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

Photo courtesy of Manitoba Animal Save.

Many animal (and other) advocates know what it is to be overwhelmed. The problems are enormous, the suffering endless, the cruel Goliaths too big to take down. A “why bother” defeatism is a real risk as a kind of compassion fatigue sets in. But maybe we ought to measure success in smaller increments. If the ultimate prize is out of sight, beyond the horizon, any move toward it is good news. Calls to service do not always come with an assurance of success. Prophets are to speak though few listen to them (Jer 7:27; Ezek 2:5, 7), we’re to serve the poor even though poverty itself seems an undefeatable scourge (cf. Matt 26:11).

There is mystery here. Willingness to take up a task, even if not wholly successful on the surface, matters. Unlike the story of David’s exploits, what constitutes victory is not always so obvious as a dead giant on the battlefield. Trucks still roll down the highway leading to our school, but it seems our students have accomplished something big. Confronting any form of systemic violence with only a few small stones in hand takes courage. Their willingness to do something acknowledging the pains and distresses of farm animals is indeed a victory worth celebrating.

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Michael Gilmour teaches English and biblical literature at Providence University College. His current research considers the convergence of animal welfare movements of the nineteenth century and animal-friendly creative writing. His most recent book is Animals in the Writings of C. S. Lewis.

Ferdinand and the Practice of Nonviolence

by Elrena Evans

I first learned about nonviolence from a bull.

ferdinand-bull-bullfighter.jpg

My childhood copy of Ferdinand was beautiful—the red cover, the flowers, even the lettering. I remember very clearly the way the light and dark shading of the font played together in perfect harmony in the title on the cover.

What I remember most is the picture of Ferdinand sitting, all by himself, under the cork tree. And how the story tells us that “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”

Ferdinand’s mother doesn’t appear in the new film Ferdinand, but her kindness and understanding are reimagined in the character of a little girl named Nina. Devotees of the original book will find many remembered elements present in the movie—the cork tree, Ferdinand’s height measurements as he grows, the flowers at the bullfight, and of course, the bee—but on the whole, what Ferdinand has to offer audiences is so much more.

I’ll admit I went into the movie a bit skeptical. From the trailers, I feared an hour and a half romp through size gags (“Have you seen these hips?” Ferdinand asks), poop jokes (“I can’t wait to show you to the rest of the guys,” Lupe the goat enthuses, “They’re going to fertilize the yard!"), and a nonstop loop of a Ferdinand version of The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird. What I experienced, however, was a wonderful entré into a child-friendly discussion of nonviolence, with additional themes of intentional family and animal welfare running throughout.

The film’s reimagining of Ferdinand’s story starts in a bullpen, where Ferdinand, the flower-loving youngster, is bullied by his peers (the root for “bully,” as the movie points out, is of course “bull.”) It’s hard not to fall in love with Ferdinand’s big-eyed character as he looks the bully in the eyes and simply states, “I won’t fight you.” Ferdinand’s character in the movie is more intentional in his commitment to nonviolence than his counterpart in the book—rather than being a lover of flowers for whom fighting just isn’t on the radar, the film version of Ferdinand is explicit about his beliefs. He is not made to fight, and he will not fight—anyone, anywhere, at any time. Even when his life is on the line.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Ferdinand’s big-eyed character as he looks the bully in the eyes and simply states, “I won’t fight you.”

Ferdinand’s beloved cork tree grows on a flower farm in the movie, where Ferdinand arrives unexpectedly in the middle of profound loss. The human flower farmers become family for him, along with their dog Paco, who denies the affinity he soon feels for Ferdinand.

“Dogs are dogs and bulls are bulls,” Paco says, as Ferdinand lifts a trough of water with his horns to water the flowers. “That’s normal.”

“If I was a normal bull,” Ferdinand replies, “I would have never found this farm. And we wouldn’t be brothers!”

“A dog and a bull can’t be brothers!” Paco insists. “That would be weird.”

“Really?” Ferdinand asks. “Then why does your tail wag when I call you ‘brother?’”

The most intense scene in the move takes place not in the bullring, or even the bullpen, but a slaughterhouse. Known as the “chop house” among the bulls, I was unsure at first whether the movie was trying to play the scene for laughs—because I wasn’t finding it funny. When one of the bulls is sent to the chop house, though, it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t intended to be humorous. As the camera pans from an ominous-looking, dark building set in the background right up to the chop house doors and inside, the grim machinery clanking away on the screen caused one young moviegoer in the audience with me to lean in toward a parent and ask, “Mommy, is that actually how they kill them?” An excellent moment to start a conversation on being CreatureKind.

Although Ferdinand concludes (spoiler alert!) with a happy ending, it’s clear throughout that Ferdinand’s practice of nonviolence isn’t rooted in the ends justifying the means. He isn’t refusing to fight because he thinks it’s easier or safer. On the contrary: at multiple points throughout the film, Ferdinand stares danger in the face and renews his affirmation that he was not created to be a fighter. With strong messaging around nonviolence, chosen family, and being who one was created to be, Ferdinand is not only a fun and engaging family movie, but an excellent touchpoint for family conversations afterward.

Elrena Evans is Editor and Content Strategist for Evangelicals for Social Action. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State, and has also worked for Christianity Today and American Bible Society. She is the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, and co-author of the essay collection Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She enjoys spending time with her family, dancing, and making spreadsheets. This post is reprinted with kind permission from Evangelicals for Social Action. 

Dwelling in the Wild Places, Welcoming the Light

Advent Meditations on Multispecies and Interspiritual Encounter

by Ed Sloane

For the last several months—since June—along with my friend and colleague, Michael, I have been involved in a spiritual adventure. Oddly, this adventure doesn’t require going anywhere. It is an adventure in the arts of dwelling. Out of a desire to live in greater spiritual kinship with all life in a place and to deepen our sense of justice to include more-than-human beings, we began an experiment in faith and worship in and around our home of Wheeling, WV (situated in the Upper Ohio River South watershed), which we have come to call Wild Church West Virginia. You can read more about our adventure from Michael here

 Cows at the New Vrindaban Temple Goshalla (Cow Shelter) | Photo by Ed Sloane

Cows at the New Vrindaban Temple Goshalla (Cow Shelter) | Photo by Ed Sloane

We began this experiment in “rewilding our faith” out of a conviction that encounter with God and one another should not be limited or bounded by institutional walls. By stepping outside and going to the margins we can more readily encounter the mystery of God. ‘Re-wilding’ builds bridges where boundaries have caused division, cultivates an expansive sense of community and belonging, and honors difference while attending to points of commonality.

As we begin to know and feel with the human and more-than-human others with whom we dwell in a place we see that we are more connected and share more in common—something we would have never experienced if we chose to remain hermetically sealed in our own little institutional containers. Rewilding allows us to live in a more connected and capacious world, or, better, to acknowledge that the world is a composite of worlds and worldings. It has been such a joy to cultivate interspiritual friendships and to expand our sense of justice and kinship to include the more-than-human cohabitors with whom we share our place. Dwelling in the wild places, those dark corners of self, society, and season where the dividing lines are less visible and where the marginalized often make their home, forces us to focus our attention, or to pay attention, in a different way that seems especially suitable for the season of Advent. We have to slow down and let our eyes adjust. We have to pull others closer so that we might gently warm one another.

At our last liturgy, as Michael recounts, this praxis of dwelling occurred in beautiful fashion. We celebrated Advent/Christmas alongside our Vaishnava Hindu (often referred to as Hare Krishna) friends in their Goshalla (Cow Shelter) alongside many of the cows who call this place home. Happily, the cows were often vocal participants, offering their own joyful noise during song and prayer. In what follows, I offer some reflection on the readings from our last liturgy.[1]

wild looking cow.jpg

As the days grow shorter and colder, at least here in my little corner of the global North that is West Virginia, I am more aware of darkness in our world and in my own life. Before electricity and central heating, when life was somewhat more attuned to the rhythms of the earth and its seasons, this was a time of expectant waiting for the return of light to the Earth.[2] Location aside, light seems to be a potent symbol of hope for the dark nights of soul, society, and season. Both Vedic and Christian Scriptures draw upon this symbolic resonance. Further, both traditions connect the imagery of Divine Light to the expectant hope for a better world characterized by peace, harmony, and justice for all beings.

In the hymn to Usas, the Daughter of Heaven, The Rig-Veda proclaims, “Dawn comes shining like a Lady of Light, stirring to life all creatures…Beam forth your light to guide and sustain us, prolonging, O Goddess, our days. Give to us food, grant us joy, chariots and cattle and horses” (Rig Veda VII, 77).[3] In Christian tradition, the candles of the Advent wreath call to mind hope, peace, joy, and love and the light of God, which Christians believe is Christ, entering into the world. The words of the prophet Isaiah offer a vision of a world transformed by the light of God. As we read, “he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Isaiah is clear too that this transformed world includes the more-than-human, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11: 3-4, 6, 9). However, both the Vedic and Judeo-Christian traditions make clear that while the light’s dawning is inevitable our ability to notice it is not. Our own action and awareness is necessary. The question is, how are we to orient our action and attention; in what manner should we practice dwelling?

Christ is born into a world in which there is no place for him

Capaciousness is also an important theme for the Advent Season. After all, as we read in the Gospel of Luke, Christ is born into a world in which there is no place for him. People in Bethlehem are busy, preoccupied with other concerns, and they cannot, or will not, prepare a place in their lives for the divine. More to the point, they are hermetically sealed in their own worlds. They occupy a space in which they do not really dwell. As we hear, Mary “wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7).  It is often passed over that Jesus is born among more-than-human beings. It is these, and those who live in something of a symbiosis with them (those who synch their lives to the rhythms of the more-than-human, ie. the shepherds), who first give witness to the birth of the new light, the Son of God. They dwell in such a way that they have a place to both notice and welcome this other.

In the Vedic scripture, The Rig-Veda, cows are identified as a sacred animal, acting as a conduit to the divine. As Raimundo Panikkar explains, “the Vedic world often utilizes the cow as a symbol. Cows draw the car of Dawn and are also called its beams; reference is made to the rain cloud as a cow and even the Gods are sometimes said to be born of cows. For Men [sic], cows represent riches and all the blessings of a happy earthly existence” (Rig Veda VI, 28).[4] These images suggest fascinating multispecies and interspiritual crossings. Echoing the story of the more-than-human species making space for Christ, the light of the world, cows draw light into the world; cows give birth to the divine. The Rig-Veda takes us further than the Christian Scriptures. Not only do cows witness to the divine, they actually bring the divine into our lives. The Rig-Veda offers a vision of multispecies play and symbiosis in which ecological processes co-mingle, and life is a co-creative venture.

Our tendency, especially in the West, has been to separate from the more-than-human, to define the Other as less-than-human (and therefore inferior and uncivilized), and to exhaust and extract rather than cultivate and nurture.

This encourages us to shift our ethical thinking away from stewardship and toward kinship as a principle to orient our action and attention. It seems that from these scriptures it is the more-than-human who are much more effective stewards of the divine than we humans. Our tendency, especially in the West, has been to separate from the more-than-human, to define the Other as less-than-human (and therefore inferior and uncivilized), and to exhaust and extract rather than cultivate and nurture. But, to echo Isaiah, this is not the way of the Peaceable Kingdom in which none shall hurt or destroy.

As an ethic suitable for rewilding our faith, for embarking on the adventure of dwelling, kinship challenges us to let go of the enlightened paternalism of stewardship, which leaves us with the comfort of control and the conviction that we know best what is needed. Becoming kin, embracing an Other as friend and coequal, and as a subject with whom our own being and becoming is mixed on some deep level is, of course, a challenging space in which to dwell. It means we might be changed. It means that this other human or more-than-human might know better and have something to teach!

Christians have been comfortable with the stewardship ethic, because it echoes other tendencies toward enlightened paternalism to which we sometimes fall prey. Indeed, it is tempting to take the fact that The Rig-Veda and Hinduism precede Christianity and suggest that Christ fulfills and completes these earlier revelations. Christians often fall to this temptation. Humans more generally, mainly Western humans, fall to this temptation too. We like to think in linear terms. Our religion, our species, our civilization is the more evolved, the more complete. Wild Church, and the interspiritual and multispecies encounters it provides, and an ethic of kinship encourage a different thinking about how we situate ourselves in time and place, and in relationship to the Divine. When we attune ourselves to the rhythms of the Earth we find that other beings and other traditions continue to cultivate and enrich the mystery of God.

Anthropogenic (human induced) climate change, the fruit of Western intoxication with colonialism and consumer capitalism, requires we become more attentive to how we dwell in place, how we make our homes, and how we encounter difference. Interestingly enough, when we attune ourselves to one very specific place, our world becomes much larger. In fact, we discover that what we once understood as our world, our place, is really in fact a shared commons that is composed of many worlds, which are distinct enough that we can learn something and be invited to think about our own world-making in new ways, but similar enough that we have something to talk about and share. I don’t have much faith, hope, or love for the future of the ‘world’ we now occupy. There is too much destruction, pain, and exclusion there. In this present darkness though, I do believe in the advent of new light. I do seek to attune my heart that I might hear in the hymns sung by my more-than-human kin and my more-than-Christian friends a proclamation that a different world, or, better, the flourishing of many once excluded worlds is possible and that all beings might some day dwell together in the wilds of the Peaceable Kingdom(s).

Ed Sloane is a doctoral candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. His research focuses on place and community based pedagogy in religious education and multispecies justice. Ed also serves as chair of the West Virginia Chapter and is a board member for the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. He is the co-coordinator of Wild Church West Virginia. 

[1] The readings were, in order from the liturgy: Rig Veda VII, 77; Isaiah 11: 1-9; Luke 2: 1-20; Rig Veda VI, 28. The readings from the Rig Veda can be found in Raimundo Panikkar, Mantramanjari, The Vedic Experience: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977): 169-70; 286-8.

[2] I think it worth reflecting on the ways that electric lighting screws with this symbolism. When electricity, and the privileges attached to it, provides endless distractions, fuelling consumer lifestyles and ecological damage, should our hearts long for darkness? How has the taken for granted, and silently destructive, character of lighting shaped the imagination of the privileged? How do those who do not have access to electric lighting, or those who constantly worry that their economic marginalization might result in the loss of light experience the lack or loss of light in their lives?

[3] In Raimundo Panikkar, Mantramanjari, The Vedic Experience: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977): 169-70.

[4] Ibid., 286-8.