Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"God Gave Us Animals": Rejecting Manifest Destiny and the License to Kill

A Gross Misunderstanding

In religious circles, discussion of human-animal relationships will invariably elicit the phrase: "God gave us animals."

In context, it is usually meant to convey, fully, the idea: "God gave us animals to do with what we wish, for our own personal gain, and if there's anything that seems wrong about the things we might choose to do, then it's not actually wrong, because we have the God-given right to do it."

Why is this said and thought?  The idea manifests from 1) cultural norms, 2) personal habits, but not 3) the Bible.

Our True, Biblical Dominion

Let's look at the idea that people are "in charge" of animals (and, for that matter, the entire planet).  Its Biblical origin is Genesis 1:26:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
I put in bold the word dominion, which means "the power or right of governing and controlling; sovereign authority."  Who we are with respect to non-human animals and the planet is sovereign authority.  Here are some Biblical characteristics of sovereign authority:

Righteous leadership is not self-pleasing.  It is serving.  We do in fact have dominion over this planet, but this means we have a responsibility towards it - a call to love.  Isn't that also how we would like to be lead?  In Hebrews 13:17 we are commanded to obey and submit to our leaders.  We might pray not to have leaders who operate their dominion like a dictatorship, thinking only of their own personal gain!  Yet that is exactly how most people perceive their dominion over the world around them.  Not serving, but deserving.  Not giving, but taking.

Dinner in Eden

A great debate can arise when conversing about human health and the consumption of animal products.  Is it necessary for our health?  Should we eat certain kinds of fish, milk, or animal flesh in order to prevent illness and build muscle?  Will we wither away and die without adequate amounts of animal protein and animal fat?  This debate is not exactly a Biblical one.  Our best hope for answers probably lies in modern studies in science and anthropology - or perhaps, even, good old trial-and-error. However, questions we can tackle using scripture are these:  Were human beings designed to eat meat- is the ritual part of our human identity, a genetic birthright?  Does the idea of eschewing knife and spear require us to affront some quality God knit deeply into our souls?  If Adam was designed as a ferocious hunter, living wildly in the forest from one kill to the next, the answers to these questions might be 'Yes'.  However, Genesis 1 tells a different story (verses 29-30):
And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
Whatever you believe about diets, one thing is clear:  the Bible says Adam lived on plant foods, all the days of his life.  He and Eve were both designed for it.  Interestingly, so were all the animals too.  Part of the message of creation is that God never intended anything to be predator or prey.  At least in the Garden, there was complete harmony.  There was no intent to hunt and kill.  Humans were designed to be part of the wild, to rule over it, to subdue it perhaps, but not to destroy it.  What changed?

The First Death
So when the woman saw that the [forbidden] tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:6-7)

This was the initial sin through which the Apostle Paul later explains all other sin followed.  This was a game-changer for humanity, and for all of creation.  As a result of Adam and Eve's embarrassed nakedness, they covered themselves with fig leaves.  But God later clothed them in animal skins (Genesis 3:21):

And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

Maybe these skins were made from animals already dead, or maybe the animals were killed for the skins.  It doesn't matter, the point is: why did they need to be made?  They were needed as a result of human sin.  They were not needed because God had planned for it, or because Adam and Eve deserved to have them.

More Death from Sin

Genesis 6:5-7:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
Because of man's wickedness, God enacted a flood which wiped everyone and everything out.  As a result, not only were people killed, but animals and vegetation were destroyed as well.  Again, man's sin resulted in suffering for the animals and the whole Earth.  Thankfully, Noah "found favor in the eyes of the LORD", and was spared.  He built an ark and thus saved the lives of his family and all of the living things that came on board.  Fast forward, after the water subsided and they all stepped off the boat onto dry land (Genesis 9:1-3):
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
This is the first time that humans are explicitly given permission to consume animals for food.  It may be debatable whether or not they were eating animals prior to this.  I don't believe that is what the Bible indicates, but it doesn't matter- why were they ordained to to so now?  Presumably, it's because the Earth was in such a state after the flood that not enough vegetation had survived to sustain human life.  God allowed this for survival purposes, but also was quick to give humans a list of laws on how to prepare their animal food, so as to minimize damage to their bodies (such as cooking out all the blood, all the fat, and abstaining from certain kinds of flesh).

The practice of animal-killing for all of its various purposes was result of human sin.  It was not part of God's original design for man, and it is not part of who we are as human beings.

Manifest Destiny

Let's transition from the Biblical to more recent history.  An unfortunate manipulation of Genesis resulted in Manifest Destiny, which was an idea propagated in the mid-19th century claiming it was God's will for Americans to expand their empire at all costs, i.e. "expansion, pre-arranged by Heaven..."[1]  During a four-year period, the national domain increased by 1.2 million square miles, a gain of more than 60 percent.  Some of the most ardent expansionists were slave owners   seeking to expand their empire.  They were also anxious about Great Britain's claim to the Pacific Northwest, and the fact that Great Britain had abolished slavery in its West Indies colonial possessions in 1833 [2].  Motivation for expansion came largely from fear: both fear to change, and fear to lose material security.  But, as humans often do when unknowing and afraid, fear-induced ideas were promulgated by superficial reasoning - whatever we're moved to do, it must be God calling us to do it.

Stemming from Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism was the idea that America was different than other countries, and that it had special rights and duties to spread "liberty and democracy".  Like Manifest Destiny, American Exeptionalism also contains fear shrouded in true American principle, but also now includes infused pride as well.  It is prideful to think that American values are superior to other countries'  - simply observe any past and ongoing flaws, ex. slaverycivil rights, and social welfare issues.

The worst fault with American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny was our treatment of Native Americans during expansion.  The Trail of Tears is the most well-known example of atrocities committed during this American Holocaust.  Thousands of natives were displaced and many died as a result of expansionist greed and religious ignorance.  But what seems clear now might not have seemed so clear then.  What were the true motives and thoughts behind American actions?  Many were probably legitimately blinded and had honest intentions.

Same Problem, Different Mask

And, of course, everyone knows about the infamous system of American slavery which persisted until 1865. When we look back on those times, we might think of plantation owners as corrupt, greedy, and inhumane.  But what if they really thought they were doing right?  Speaking of God, what if they believed that their actions were actually justified and even blessed by Him?

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, has said:
[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.

"If slavery be a sin, it is not yours. It does not rest on your action for its origin, on your consent for its existence. It is a common law right to property in the service of man; its origin was Divine decree."

"African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing."

"My own convictions as to negro slavery are strong. It has its evils and abuses...We recognize the negro as God and God's Book and God's Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him - our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude...You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be."
Everything in you that cringed while reading the quotes above, the passionate rebuttles instantly flowing from your heart, the indignation and resentment for those ideas at your soul level - there is exactly the same effect on a moral vegan who hears arguments used to justify animal enslavement, abuse, and torture.  The arguments are essentially the same.  Just switch "negro" with "animal", and keep constant the heart of the speaker and its abuses of Scripture.

In America and worldwide, our treatment of animals sustains eearliy familiar patterns observed in our past treatment of Native Americans, African American slaves, women, gays, minorities, and those who are simply considered "different".  These patterns include: an exceptionalist attitude, indifference toward the truth, eagerness for self-satisfaction, fear of change, and a false religious justification.

Rejecting A License to Kill

Deuteronomy 20:19
“When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you?
Despite what many believe, God actually does care a lot about how we interact with the world around us.  Even the trees he protects from senseless destruction.  He never gives mankind permission to do whatever we want with the planet or the animals.  You may have believed in the past that it didn't matter, but after re-considering, you should feel empowered to stand up for what, deep down, you feel is right.

1 Corinthians 9:9-10
For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.
Here, Paul is expounding on an Old Testament scripture which protected the rights of working animals.  This particular law decreed that if your animals are working in the field, don't prevent them from eating and nourishing themselves while they work.  This law seems like it is for the animal, and indeed it is to some extent.  However, as Paul points out, God ultimately put the law in place for the benefit of humans.  Some people believe that the way they treat animals is completely independent from the way they treat other people, but that simply isn't true according to the Bible.  God knows that the one will affect the other, and so he calls people to live a lifestyle which will ultimately maximize compassion for all living things.  If a man mistreats his animals, he will mistreat his family as well.  Likewise, if he is kind to his animals, then he will be kind to his family.

Proverbs 12:10
The righteous care for the needs of their animals,
but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.
There is a clear Biblical connection between the righteousness of a man and the way he treats any living thing around him, human or animal.  We need to reject the notion that "God gave us animals" to do with whatever we please.  We also need to reject the notion that there is a "humane" version of what we are already doing.  People who are concerned about being "humane" want to do just enough to feel good about themselves, but not enough to produce real change.  If a living thing does not need to die, is there a "humane" way to end its life?  If you have your choice of things to wear, is there a "humane" way to choose its skin?  If you have your choice of other foods to eat, is there a "humane" way to choose its flesh?  Your attitude toward these questions will bleed over into your treatment  of fellow human beings.  We need to reject the idea that we have a license to kill, and aim to make a real difference.

The Takeaway

I aim to address those people who have used God to justify their meat-eating or other animal-using habits.  I concede that there may be other reasons for you to do such things - health/nutrition beliefs, environmental beliefs, personal philosophy, etc.  However, please stop making God and the Bible your justification.

Also, the views I've expressed should not divide anyone.  Instead, I hope that this conversation can bring people together.  Christians who are vegan, don't be fooled into believing that you are automatically on higher moral ground, or that you are maximized in your closeness to God, because you are vegan.  You are likely surrounded by many non-vegan Christians who are far more righteous than you, in areas of life where you are weak, and it is your duty to love them and learn from them.  Christians reading this who aren't vegan: thank you.  I hope you can better understand your vegan friends and respect their decisions without wrongly accusing them of being strange or going against some natural design.  I hope that you were even inspired to dig deeper, to learn more, and perhaps experience these truths for yourself.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In this world,

there is imperfection in everything, and it is not wrong to see good bursting though it all.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

If art

can make you feel happy, sad, excited, afraid, can make you laugh, tremble, and cry, if it can connect you with your dreams and invigorate you to experience new things, then running over mountains is one of the most powerful art forms I know.