How can faithful Christians best care for animals?
Our relationship with God’s creatures is rather spotty.
We may pamper our dogs and indulge our cats, but many ignore reports of the mistreatment of the animals that provide our food, our clothes, or have been used to determine the safety of our beauty products. We long to understand God's design for our relationships with animals.
The first place to turn is the Bible. In Genesis 1:28 we find a description of God’s intended relationship between humans and animals:
“God blessed [the man and woman], and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” (NRSV)
The Rev. Pat Watkins, a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries guiding the globally-focused United Methodist Ministry with God’s Renewed Creation, says we sometimes misunderstand that verse.
“There’s several ways to understand dominion,” Watkins said. “One [is this] sort of arrogant thinking that I have the power of life and death over creation.”
Another way to understand that verse comes from the way dominion is used in other places. Ancient monarchs were said to have dominion over the people. “A piece of that dominion meant that they were responsible for taking care of the widows and the orphans and the people who didn’t get a fair shake in society,” Watkins continued. “So dominion in that sense means caring for the least of these.”
Watkins then offered an illustration. “A parent who has a newborn child has complete dominion over his or her life. Total dominion. Power of life and death of that individual. But in that sense dominion means to love and care for.”
We don’t get to choose, however, which of these definitions we like best. “I think the rest of the Scriptures point me in the direction of understanding dominion as that of taking care of God’s creation. Too many instances in Scripture does God talk about how good Creation is, and how much God loves everything that God has made. Creation even praises God.”
In that sense, dominion is a responsibility. Our role is not as recipeints only, but also as God's trusted caretakers of Creation, including the animals.
The Social Principles
We do this as part of God's wonderfully created order, and not from outside of it. We sometimes forget this. We talk about our vacation camping trip as a time to "get in touch with nature,” as if we are somehow not part of nature the rest of our days.
As United Methodists, we embrace our role in caring for the world, and our place in it. Our “Social Principles” state:
“All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings” (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church para. 160.I).
Several paragraphs later, our relationships with animals are specifically addressed:
“We support regulations that protect and conserve the life and health of animals, including those ensuring the humane treatment of pets, domesticated animals, animals used in research, wildlife, and the painless slaughtering of meat animals, fish, and fowl” (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church para. 160.I.c).
Theologian and author Andrew Linzey, whose books are available through Cokesbury, reflected a similar thought in a statement quoted in Newsweek. “Human beings have a responsibility of a kind that mice or giraffes don't. We are not the master species but the servant species. Our power should be exercised in looking after creation.”
“I think we should all examine our own attitudes towards God’s Creation—or reexamine those attitudes,” Watkins advises, “and make sure our attitudes toward God’s Creation are in line with God’s attitude towards God’s Creation. That we might learn to love God’s Creation just as much as God does, and treat it reflective of that love.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How do animals enrich our lives?
- When you read God’s mandate for human beings to subdue the earth and have dominion over the animals (Genesis 1:28), what do you think that means?
- Should we care about the treatment of the animals who become our food, our clothes, and more?
- Read the story of God’s covenant following the flood in Genesis 8:20-22. What does this story say about human beings relationship with the animals?
- How might a re-understanding of humanity’s role as part of God’s wonderful Creation, help one think differently about our relationship to animals?
- What can you do differently to love Creation the way God loves Creation?
This story was originally published July 30, 2015.