DENTON, Tx., March 21, 2012—A few years ago, “animal rights” was not on the public radar. People have for a long time been concerned about cruelty to animals, but the move to grant them legal—human—rights is more recent.
Ours is no longer a society where we live close to the land, having to raise crops and livestock to keep ourselves and our families alive. We use animal products, but they come to us in sanitized form. Instead of grabbing a live chicken to kill and cook for dinner, we buy a chicken ready to bake. We never hear it cluck, see its feathers, or have to ring its neck. Just remove the plastic wrap and pop it in the oven.
We never feed a cow, hear it moo, watch it grow, call the vet when it gets sick, and butcher it for our table. By the time we see chicken or beef, it is ready to cook or ready to eat.
Having lost touch with the material needs of animals (feed, shelter, medicine), some find it easier to think they can be in touch with animals’ immaterial needs. “Animal rights” was not born on the farm. Yet, perhaps it was inevitable the movement should surface.
Generations of Americans have been taught that humans are the result of evolution from animals, thus putting us (at least roughly) on par. If people are accorded rights, and if people and animals are basically the same, we face a problem with two potential solutions. Either people can give up their rights, or else people can begin treating animals as though they have rights.
So far, no crusade has been launched to abandon human rights. But the opposite tack has been taken. PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk said, “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness, and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Not everyone who advocates for animals would go as far as Newkirk, but it is this militant, dogmatic strain of “animal rights-ism” under consideration here, the kind that would label people immoral for using animals in food, clothing, medical experiments, etc.
The Bible provides a framework within which animals can be used without being abused, and which respects the God-ordered structure of creation. A biblically informed philosophy of animals would include several facets.
First, the Creator lays claim to all he has made. “For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10). God has the right to determine the proper use of his own creation. If God gives man the authority to use part of creation in a particular way, then it cannot be wrong for man to do so.
Second, God’s initial orders to the very first humans included a mandate to subdue and dominate the earth, including its animal inhabitants (Genesis 1:28). That mandate was never repealed. Nor was it given with an expiration date. God made man to dominate the planet and the animals. Man was not told to put animals on a pedestal. Man was not tasked with preserving, at all cost, every species and sub- species of every animal so that nothing ever goes extinct. Rather, God told man to launch out, explore, and command the creation. Man is a steward and, by his actions, can be a good or a bad one. One problem with the “animal rights” camp is their defining good stewardship without regard for what God said about acceptable use of natural resources.
Third, it is instructive to remember the very first clothes made from animals were made by God himself to cover Adam and Eve after they sinned. God used animal skins (Genesis 3:21). Later, God will speak figuratively, comparing his people to a young bride whom he will clothe with leather (Ezekiel 16:10). Later still, John will be known for wearing a garment of camel hair and a leather belt (Mark 1:6). We are not required to wear leather or fur, but biblical precedent demands we not press the view as though it were a matter of right and wrong.
Fourth, the Bible leaves no doubt on the rightness of eating meat. “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things” (Genesis 9:3; cf. Acts 10:10-13). Vegetarianism is certainly an option (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:13), but no one can make it a rule for the rest of us. Here is another area where “animal rights” crusaders are not content to live and let live. Their view must be forced on everyone to the greatest extent of their power. The beef industry exists, not because “animal rights” extremists are content to tolerate views differing from their own, but, rather, because they (so far) have lacked the influence to shut it down. Interesting, that it is those who try to respect the Bible who are labeled as intolerant, even though the shoe belongs on the “animal rights” foot.
Fifth, man has the right to own, trade, buy and sell animals (cf. Matthew 10:29). If mankind has been given the charge to have dominion over the earth, that would certainly include the domestication of livestock. God would not have said what he did had he intended animals to be not eaten, not worn, not owned, and not used in any way that might threaten their supposedly fragile psyches. The stage could have been set with God telling early humans to just enjoy animals at a distance, leaving them to their own devices, undisturbed in their natural habitat. But that is not what happened.
Sixth, there are biblical examples of animal companionship. A desperate mother once asked Jesus to heal her daughter (Mark 7:25-30). This gave rise to a conversation about feeding children and dogs, and of dogs under the kitchen table. Obviously, a dog under a table where children were eating would be a tame dog, not a feral dog from some back alley. One Old Testament parable spoke of a man with a pet sheep very dear to his family (2 Samuel 12:3). It is not wrong to own pets, or to enjoy the companionship of pets.
Seventh, though the Bible indicates animals are under the control of people, it is not heartless toward animals. Nor does it sanction people behaving cruelly toward animals. After all, how a man treats an animal says something about the man. An ox used to work the grain was to be allowed to eat some of that grain (Deuteronomy 25:4). Twice that verse is quoted in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 9:9; 1 Timothy 5:18). Solomon wrote, “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Proverbs 12:10; cf. Exodus 23:5).
A good heart is not a cruel heart. But using animals in ways that God approves does not make man cruel. It is wrong to be cruel to people or animals. However, animal advocates must not define cruelty in such a way that biblically authorized uses of animals are forbidden. We do not eat a chicken sandwich because it thrills us to think an animal suffered. Medical experiments involving trials on animals are not conducted from a motive of cruelty. Sport fishing and sport hunting are not done because people are driven by cruelty.
Animals are not people, and people should know they are not animals. With rights come obligations. Animals have no obligations; they live by instinct. Animals do not operate in the moral arena. People do, and people have obligations. You cannot grant rights to a category of creatures incapable of exercising rights. You cannot defend animals as on equal footing with people without demeaning the dignity of people. And you cannot rightly champion animals while challenging the very purposes for which God designed them.
Weylan Deaver earned a B.A. degree (Bible major, Philosophy minor) from Freed-Hardeman University, and an M.B.S. degree from the Bear Valley Bible Institute. He serves on the distance-learning faculty of Tennessee Bible College and is a minister for the church of Christ. He and his wife have four children, all homeschooled. Follow his blog at biblicalnotes.com and find him on Twitter @wdeaver.
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