Christianity, Animal Rights, and Environmentalism
Why Christians Cannot Support Animal Rights
In recent years, an increasing number of self-identified Christians have begun propagating the beliefs of the animal rights movement. These Christians assert that, contrary to the traditional view of the Church, God does not want humanity to kill, harm or eat animals. They contend that humanity’s carnivorous behavior was a result of the Fall, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden (Gen 3). God only tolerated our meat eating as a form of concession just as God conceded with our tendency to divorce (Mk 10). Rather Christ came to restore peace, not only between God and humanity, but also between humanity and animals (Col 1:20). Therefore, Christians, being followers of Christ (2 Cor 5:18), must participate in restoring relations by adopting vegetarianism and forsaking hunting, fishing, and trapping.
Animal Rights is UnChristian
To put the matter bluntly, I contend that self-proclaimed Christians cannot affirm that position and those that do are either ignorant, deceived, or are not really Christians. Let me provide just a few reasons for this. First, Scripture clearly says that God gave dominion to men and women (Gen 1:26-8). As the animal rights activists rightly state, dominion does not mean despotism. Humans were to govern the world in service to God as a beekeeper manages the bees owned by someone else. Genesis 2 explicitly relates God’s command to work the garden and to protect it. The evidence suggests that God wanted humans to protect species from extinction. If God had an overwhelming concern over each and every individual animal then one would have to ask why God sent the flood to kill all air-breathing creatures, save those in the ark (Gen 6-9)? If you have any doubts, ask how our lives would be different if Adam and Eve decided to express dominion over the Serpent rather than listening to it (Gen 3). Adam and Eve failed to protect the garden because they failed to eject, or dare I say kill the Serpent, for its blasphemy. In short, they failed to express their God given authority over the serpent. So when the animal rights activists say that there was peace and harmony in the Garden they are not completely correct. For there was at least one animal that was not in harmony with the command of God.
The Old Testament, Psalm 8 provides additional support for the traditional view of humanity’s authority over creation. The passage clearly observes how humans have authority over domesticated and wild animals alike. Of further interest is to see that the Psalm is treated as a prophecy of Christ by the New Testament (Heb 2:7).
Jesus Didn’t Support Animal Rights
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the animal rights view is Christ’s own words and deeds in regards to humanity’s treatment of animals. Here is the issue at stake. Either Christ was morally correct in his words and deeds or He wasn’t. If He was, then we can copy him. If he wasn’t then he was not God and certainly couldn’t die for our sins as the perfect Lamb of God (1 Pet 1:18ff). Consider Christ’s words. Jesus expanded humanity’s dinner menu by declaring all foods ceremonially clean. In one fell swoop, Christians were no longer subject to the restrictions of Kosher Laws (Mk 7:19) and could now enjoy the flavors of pigs and lobster with divine blessing. If Christ really wanted to protect animals from human predation, why would he expand the animals humans were allowed to eat? In addition, Christ asks the disciples to bring him some fish so he could cook breakfast (John 21:10f).
Christ’s actions towards animals are even more telling. He allowed demons to drown pigs without ever bothering to run into the Sea of Galilee to save them (Lk 8:33). He even helped the disciples kill more fish through the miracle of the fishes (Jn 21:6). Those actions don’t seem to speak very highly of the compassion to animals that animal rights activists say we should follow.
The Problem of Cruelty
Some of you may agree with my comments so far but are concerned that my position actually provides justification for people to be cruel to animals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christ was not cruel to animals but neither was he subject to them. But we must first be clear on what constitutes cruelty.
Animal rights start from the assumption that humans do not have a right to utilize animals for our purposes. So from this starting point, anything that interferes with an animal’s freedom can be considered a violation of its being and therefore cruel. To an animal rights activist, keeping a lion in a zoo is cruel because the lion loses its ability to “enjoy” the great outdoors hunting its prey. Christians believe that zoos are an appropriate expression of dominion over creation provided the animals were treated properly (i.e. zoos that provide proper sanitation, care, and treatment of the animals).
But what about something more controversial, such as sport hunting or say fur trapping? Aren’t these expressions of human greed and selfishness? They certainly can be but that would depend on the individual sportsman. Sport hunting and fur trapping are not by definition instances of cruelty. Why? Because God put animals on the earth for human enjoyment and enjoyment can range from deer watching to deer hunting. Christ never condemned the disciples’ fishing with nets, devices where fish can actually die by being crushed. It isn’t that Christ wasn’t concerned with animal suffering as he clearly was (Lk 12:6; 13:15). The difference was animals under our direct control, such as pets or livestock, require a higher level of attention than animals in the wild. I believe if the apostles had a more humane way of capturing fish that didn’t unduly hinder them financially; Christ would have had them use it. But we need to distinguish between capture techniques and euthanasia. I suggest the view known as animal welfare provides the biblical balance of respect for animal suffering and human need. Animal welfare seeks to treat the animal in a way to minimize its suffering while recognizing that it is an animal. Hunters who employ good shooting practices, and trappers who choose their sets carefully are each exhibiting the best qualities of animal welfare. Trapping and hunting are capture techniques, not euthanasia techniques. Capturing free-ranging animals is very different than dealing with an animal in a controlled environment. You treat your dog differently than a deer because a dog is under your control a deer is not.
As you can guess, my book, Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Wipf and Stock 2009) has much more to say about this topic. But the bottom-line is trapping as performed legally and responsibly in the United States and Canada are completely within the bounds of good Christian behavior. Enjoy the bounty that God has bestowed upon us, recognizing that all of creation belongs to him and needs to be treated as such.
Stephen M. Vantassel is a specialist in the field of wildlife damage management as well as an Evangelical theologian. He has also dedicated his life to oppose the anti-environmentalism inherent in the animal rights protest industry and welcomes opportunities to show the public how dangerous animal rights is to the health of the planet.