In Chapter 6 of Inhabiting Eden, Patricia Tull enumerates the terrible ways we treat animals, especially in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). I encourage you to read this list if you have the stomach for it. If you are easily traumatized by the suffering of animals, I recommend skipping that part of the chapter. You probably know it all, anyway. Tull shows how the Bible asks better of us. She closes by asking us to consider our relationship to animals more broadly, to consider that we might have a spiritual connection that might guide our ethical commitments.
One possibility is that we simply feel sentimental about animals. Our pets are cute and friendly. They do funny things. They curl up with us. They’re soft and comforting. In the wild, animals seem majestic and visceral. They are fascinating. So maybe it’s just a superficial connection. It may often be the case.
Second, Tull mentions, in a wonderful turn of phrase, that we might experience “speciated loneliness, hunger for greeting beyond the human” (105). Is it possible that we feel alienated and alone as human beings, that we crave connection to something beyond ourselves and find in animals a possible escape? Tull suggests that we try to ignore this instinct. I wonder if she’s right, that the reason we so often consign animals to sentiment is that sentiment is easy to dismiss when the animal no longer meets our needs. If instead animals are our partners in nature, broadening our world, they are harder to let go.
Finally, she suggests that animals have their own intrinsic value. She further suggests that we know this intuitively, though, again, we deny it in order to make our use of animals more palatable. We know that our animals “feel pain and desire, possess intelligence, agency, dignity, value of their own, significance for us” (106). In short, they are creatures of God and should be treated as such.
I can’t say what the implications of this are for you — we don’t really make decrees at Church in the Cliff. Believing Tull’s words to be true, I still eat meat. I think I always will. But I eat less of it. Though it’s a funny sketch on Portlandia, I actually do care about where the animals I eat were raised and how they were treated. And I also accept that such considerations, at this point, are a luxury, a privilege. But without the premise that animals are beloved creatures of God deserving of their own dignity aside from our use of them, we cannot even begin to explore our own conscience and we cannot figure out what is our work to do.
I would be remiss in writing today, suggesting that our recognition of basic dignity be expanded to include our brothers and sisters in the animal world, when we all awoke to yet another attempt to strip that dignity away from human beings. I’m not a fan of the military, but I’m a big fan of equality and justice. If our concern is the budget, it is an absurd proposition that refusing medical care for transgender people is the solution. If our concern is effectiveness, don’t we want to draw the best from the largest possible pool and judge each person on his or her ability?
And let’s not forget SB3 which is being debated in a special session of the Texas Legislature. Ostensibly, it is to protect women from predatory men who are pretending to be women. This was such a problem that they had to call a special session; it could not wait. But such an assault has never happened. Even police are opposed to this, wondering how they would enforce it and why they would waste their time and energy doing so.
Both of these moves have one purpose: to deny the basic dignity of transgender people. The president called transgender people a burden and a distraction, people we just can’t bother with as we have so many other important things to do, like taking away people’s health care. SB3 tells transgender people that they should not exist in public, which is really to say they shouldn’t exist at all. Worse, this is all being done for political capital, red meat for red voters. A tweet with no authority and a bathroom bill that can’t be enforced only serve to humiliate and denigrate one group of people to appease and embolden another group of people. And both the denigrated and the emboldened are being used to keep the powerful in power.
On Sunday, we looked at the well-worn text of Isaiah 11.6-9. It is most often read as “proof” of Jesus’ role as Messiah, the child who will lead them. Tull instead focuses on the eschatological hope of a world without predation, where all creatures live in harmony. She sees this as the alternative future toward which we should be turning in order to solve our environmental crises. I believe she is right. But it is also the alternative future that saves us from ourselves, that reminds us that we are all in this together, that we can no longer allow the powerful to divide us. They prey on all of us, pitting us against one another, appealing to our worst selves for their own profit. They use us without even sentiment, much less dignity. Perhaps our reclamation project begins with the understanding that creation care is care for all of creation, whether cow, queer, coal miner, or Christian. All are beloved of God.