Practical Issues > Things to do > Religion and Animals

The Peaceable Kingdom
by Rev. Susan Durber, 1998


Isaiah 11: 1-10; Matthew 3: 1-12; Acts 1: 1-11

'Then the wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard lie down with the kid;…
The cow and the bear will be friends,…
and the lion will eat straw like cattle.'

Some of you will remember the Sunday when a pigeon flew into church during the service. It flew about for a while and, to my mind, swooped dangerously near to the pulpit - so I preached the sermon from the middle of the church where I felt safer. I certainly couldn't imagine being like some of you this week who stood in the middle of Trafalgar Square and let the pigeons land on your outstretched arms. I remember that the organist on that occasion accused me of speciesism. And while an irrational fear of fluttering creatures hardly amounts to a cardinal sin, being prejudiced against animals would be a serious charge for a Christian community. Andrew Linzey is a Fellow in Theology at Mansfield College. He specialises in animal theology and he argues that the Christian tradition has, in many of its forms, indeed been speciesist. Speciesism being the 'arbitrary favouring of one species' interests over another'. He has challenged the ways in which Christians think about God and creation, using methods very similar to those of feminist theologians who have helped us to think again about the place of women in God's creation.

Of course it would be easy to find the very idea of animal theology funny. We do often seem to find the combination of animals and religion rather comical. Perhaps you remember the episode of the Vicar of Dibley where all the parishioners brought their various farm animals and pets to church. There are all those embarrassed funerals we hold for our children's pets, thinking it unbearably solemn and ridiculous to be saying the Lord's Prayer over a hamster. We are never quite sure what to say when someone asks whether animals have souls or whether there are animals in heaven. And though a nation of pet lovers and increasingly of vegetarians we sometimes find too much devotion to animals embarrassingly sentimental.

But today, the Bible gives us a vision of a Messianic age in which the animals will reveal to us the nature of God's love, and the wolf will lie down with the lamb. The Bible takes animals seriously as creatures of God and as participants in the redemption of the world. Though we have rarely included animals in our worship, in our churches, in our hymns and prayers and social action, the Bible counts them in to the story of salvation.

In the twentieth century postmodern world of our living, animals have lost for us their seriousness and much of their dignity. In films like Pocohontas and the recent version of Dr Doolittle animals are turned into cute creatures - anthropomorphised, stylised and domesticated - made comic creatures. They are stop-frame animated. We have forgotten the awe and fear that animals inspired among the ancients. We have cute teddy bears and beanie babies and even cuddly snakes as door stops. But we have forgotten how to respect creatures for their own nature and to treat them in terms that might even be their own. We have made animals feed us, we have tamed them and put them to play in our circuses and zoos. We have forgotten their wildness and their otherness, their being of God and their dignity and truth. And so we are astonished by passages like Isaiah 11 because for us stuffed animals of all kinds lie together in the toy shop and there is nowhere now in England where anyone could go and be afraid of the wildness of the animals.

The Christian tradition, along with others has included those who have fought long for the rights of animals and for their good treatment. A member of this congregation, Margaret Gray, stands in a long tradition of those who have protected animals. She has recently been given an honour by our city for her founding and support of the local animal sanctuary. She would approve I've no doubt of this poem by William Blake:

'A Robin Redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage
A dove house filled with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell through all its regions.
A god starved at his Master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
A Horse Misused upon the road
Calls to Heaven for Human Blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing,
A Cherubim does cease to sing.
A Game Cock clipped and armed for fight
Does the Rising Sun affright..
He who shall hurt the little Wren
Shall never be beloved by men.
He who the Ox to wrath has moved
Shall never be by woman loved.
The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity…
The Bleat, the Bark, Bellow and Roar
Are waves that Beat on Heaven's shore.'

Christians have learnt and argued too that animals cannot be thought of just straightforwardly as our property. The most characteristic of all Robert Louis Stevenson's utterances was at Pitlochry in 1881 when he saw a dog being ill treated. He at once interfered, and when the owner resented his interference and told him 'It's not your dog', he cried out, 'It's God's dog and I am here to protect it'. A huge part of the reason that we have animal sanctuaries and protests against vivisection and a whole discourse of animal rights is that we believe that animals belong, not to us, but to God. Cruelty, whether to human or beast, has been described as the worst of heresies.

But Christians have said other things too about animals, things which give them meaning within the story of salvation. For example, there are countless stories from the Middle Ages and earlier about holy people and animals. We're mostly familiar with the stories about the lions and other wild creatures who, when thrown a tasty Jew or a juicy morsel of Christian refused to eat and instead lay down like kittens to have to have their tummies tickled. A change in the natural way of things indicates how innocent were the martyrs. Or there are lots of rather charming stories about the saints who just had a way with the animals, St Francis being, of course, the most famous. He wanted towns and corporations to take time off from levying taxes so that they could scatter crumbs for the birds and he raged, he raged against the caging of larks. He loved animals so much that he called them brother and sister. But perhaps you have not heard the story of St Kevin who was something of a hermit and lived in a little hut devoting himself to prayer and reading. One day as he knelt in his usual way with his hand outstretched through the window and lifted up to heaven, a blackbird settled on it and laid in it her eggs. The saint was so moved by the patience and gentleness of the bird that he stayed there, neither closing or withdrawing his hand. And until the little birds were fully hatched he held it our unwearied, keeping it in a nest like shape. And there are stories too about Jesus, fanciful no doubt, but speaking volumes about what Christians have believed and acted upon. There is a legend about the child Jesus making birds from clay and blowing his spirit into them so that they are made real and fly away. Even such sentimental stories reveal something of the aspirations of Christian tradition to celebrate a new relationship, a new covenant between humankind and then other creatures of God's creating.

But there is a darker side to the witness of Bible and tradition. Picture the altar steps of the Temple in Jerusalem, streaked and smelly with the blood of countless slaughtered animals and birds, sacrificed to a God who seemed to require the deaths of his creatures. Think of some of the laws which required the faithful not to rescue an animal on the Sabbath. Remember the ways in which the people of the Bible often used animals names to insult others. Even John the Baptist called the wicked of his generation a 'viper's brood', as though being a snake was to be a terriblc creatures. The Canaanite woman who asked for healing for her daughter knew well that some of the Jews called the Gentiles 'dogs'. And Jesus came to challenge and to overturn such thinking. He said that even the sparrows, sold cheaply in the market as food for the poorest people, were loved and treasured by God. He argued with those who would leave an animal to suffer because of the Sabbath laws. And most significantly of all, by tradition, he spent time in the wilderness, and all that time he was 'with the wild animals'. A tiny little phrase from the Gospel, but it must be linked to that wonderful messianic passage from Isaiah 11 in which we see a vision for the new peaceable kingdom of the coming age - when the wolf will live with the lamb and the cow and the bear will be friends. Such a telling and amazing hope for justice and universal peace - so that not only will our human conflicts and struggles be resolved but even the ancient enmity of the wild beasts - and all creation will be transformed.

In Mark's Gospel, Jesus makes friends of the wild beasts. Now in the wilderness of Israel in those days there were bears, leopards, wolves, poisonous snakes, and scorpions. And people of ancient times lived with a fear of animals that we have largely forgotten. A first century Jewish historian called Philo wrote about animals as creatures who were set on attacking human beings - he even thought that the Egyptian hippopotamus and Indian elephant were dangerous to us! Wild animals were alien and frightening and people were terrified in just the way that we are frightened of the creatures we construct in our stories and call monsters. In such a setting the story of Jesus in the wilderness with the wild beasts is very significant. Jesus begins to bring about the vision of Isaiah 11 - as the wolf lives with the lamb and the cow and the bear become friends. He sets the messianic precedent. And Jesus does not kill the animals, neither does he dominate them or make pets of them or ask them to perform tricks - he is simply 'with them'.

And so what does this mean for us today who live in such a different relationship with animals from the ancients of old? The messianic peace with animals, the healing of the ancient enmity between human beings and animals, surely means something different now. For far from being fearful of the wild, we have made almost everything tame and it is we who threaten the survival of animals, we who encroach on their habitat, we who threaten to turn their wilderness into a wasteland they cannot inhabit. Many of the animals Jesus and John the Baptist encountered in the wilderness are extinct today.

But as is often the case with the Bible, the text speaks new for new times. These famous verses about the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the cow and the bear, the child and the snake are very carefully written. Each verse has a pair - one animal is wild and the other tame, one is threatening and dangerous to human beings, the other used by us, domesticated we say. And the prophet says that these distinctions will be challenged and broken apart in the new age of God. It may be that today we have forgotten how to let all animals be wild and other and alien, with a dignity quite apart from our reckoning with them. And the prophecy does not say that all animals will now be tame, but that wild or domestic, roaring or mewing, all creatures will be able to be themselves - not named by our labelling of them, but truly themselves, as noble and beautiful creatures of the one God. Jesus' messianic presence with the animals affirms their independent value for themselves and for God. Jesus does not adopt them into the human world, but lets them be themselves in peace.

And of course the Messianic promise does not only apply to animals. All the other distinctions we employ to oppress and destroy the world will also be overcome. All the old markers of identity will fall away until all are known for what they truly are. White people will live alongside black people, in justice and harmony. Men and women will not be named oppressor and oppressed, but will simply be themselves before God. Jew and Gentile, slave and free, straight and gay, old and young - all these distinctions will fall as we discover a new common being before God. Behold, a new creation. The image of the wolf and the lamb provides a powerful picture of a new world in which all relationships will be transformed.

When Jesus was born, the traditional stories tell us that there were animals there - as God became human. The child was visited by the simple shepherds and by educated and sophisticated magi. Jews and Gentiles came to pay him homage. In such a story is the heart of our vision for a new world in which the old distinctions, the old oppressions fall. In the coming age of God, all the isms of race, gender, even species will fall away - and all the earth - all creation - in every part - will be made new. It is for this that we wait in Advent and for as long as it takes. Amen.