Saturday, 9 November 2013

Jesus Christ was unashamedly speciesist

In 2011 British farmers slaughtered 26,000 cattle and introduced emergency measures to curb the spread of bovine tuberculosis, costing the taxpayer £90 million.

In response, government ministers approved the cull of up to 100,000 badgers thought to be responsible for harbouring the disease. 

The move provoked the largest animal rights protest since those over fox hunting in the 1990s. Dr Brian May, particle physicist and lead guitarist for the popular rock group Queen, set up an e-petition to ‘stop the badger cull’. When over 155,000 people signed it prompted a parliamentary debate.

It was Australian philosopher Peter Singer who popularised the term ‘speciesism’ in his 1975 book ‘Animal Liberation’ which many regard as giving the animal rights movement its intellectual basis.
In a landmark article titled ‘Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life?’, published in the influential American Journal ‘Paediatics’ in 1983, he wrote:

'We can no longer base our ethics on the idea that human beings are a special form of creation, made in the image of God...Once the religious mumbo-jumbo surrounding the term 'human' has been stripped away, we may continue to see normal members of our species as possessing greater qualities of rationality, self-consciousness, communication and so on than members of any other species, but we will not regard as sacrosanct the life of every member of our species, no matter how limited its capacity for intelligent or even conscious life may be... If we can put aside the obsolete and erroneous notion of the sanctity of all human life, we may start to look at human life as it really is, at the quality of human life that each human being has or can achieve.'

To Singer and many influential thinkers like him, man is nothing but the product of matter, chance and time in a godless universe; merely a highly specialised animal. The value of an individual human being is determined by his or her level of rationality, self-consciousness, physical attributes or capacity for relationships.

This view has led him controversially to support human embryo research, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia.

There is an element of truth in what Singer says. Humans are living beings with body plans and physiological functions that are very similar to many other living creatures. In fact we share over 98% of our DNA – our genetic programming – with chimpanzees.

But Jesus Christ taught that we are different from animals.

Human beings are made in God’s image. Animals are not. This does not mean that we don’t share some characteristics with animals. We do. Both animals and humans are made of flesh and blood out of inanimate matter, ‘from the dust of the ground’ (Genesis 2:7). We have body plans and organ systems (anatomy), functions (physiology) and complex cellular activity (biochemistry). But we are also unique in being made in God’s image.

Human beings are fundamentally different from all the other beings of God’s creation.

The Bible says that ‘the righteous care for the needs of their animals’ (Proverbs 12:10). This is what God himself does (Psalms 104:10-18). But Jesus also said that people were far more valuable than birds and sheep (Matthew 6:26, 12:12) and on one occasion he sent 2,000 pigs to their deaths in order to restore the sanity of one demon possessed man! (Mark 5:1-20)

Jesus was, in other words, unashamedly ‘speciesist’. The clue as to why he was can be found in a well-known encounter he had with some of his opponents.

When the Pharisees tried to trap him by asking whether it was right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar Jesus asked them to show him a coin. They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’

When they replied ‘Caesar’s’, he said, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’

When we read this familiar story we are drawn to focus on the coin, but Jesus’ comments uncover a much deeper question. If a denarius bears the image of Caesar, then what is it that bears the image of God? Because the thing that bears the image of God belongs to God and must be given to him.

The Bible begins with the four majestic words ‘In the beginning God…’.

At the end of the creation narrative in Genesis 1 God creates the animals:

‘God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.’ (Genesis 1:25)

But then in the next verse he reaches the crowning point in his whole creative process:

‘Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’

It is human beings – both male and female – who are made in the image of God and who therefore belong to God and should be given to God. This was the point ironically lost on the Pharisees in Jesus’ encounter over the coin. They had refused to give themselves to God despite belonging to him.

Of course everything in the universe belongs to God (Psalms 24:1), even Caesar’s coins, but in all God’s creation only human beings are made in God’s image and have a special status that no other part of creation enjoys.

This has huge implications for the way we should treat human beings.


  1. For those who reject the idea of a creator God and humanity made in his image (Let me be clear that I DO believe in these) there is still no logical argument for treating other species as equal to humans. If we are nothing more than a product of evolution, then the only thing that matters is the continuation of our species in general and our specific genes in particular. So the health of humans, and our food supply, has to be more important than the lives of badgers.

    If the proponents of this view that we are nothing more than evolved animals followed their own argument to its logical conclusion, the most important humans are those who share the most DNA with me - starting with the immediate family, but extending according to the theory of the "selfish gene" to others most genetically similar to me - eg my own ethnic group. And those who are no longer able to reproduce or contribute to the well being and propagation of my gene pool have no value at all.

    Thank God that most "rationalist" atheists are not quite as rational as they like to believe.

  2. Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the coming of God's kingdom (Matthew 6:9-10), the kingdom of peace, in which the entire world is restored to a vegetarian paradise (Genesis 1:29; Isaiah 11:6-9). Recalling Psalm 37:11, he blessed the meek, saying they would inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5) The kingdom of God belongs to the gentle and kind (Matthew 5:7-9) Christians are to "Be merciful, just as your Father is also merciful." (Luke 6:36) Those who take up the sword must perish by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

    Jesus repeatedly spoke of God's tender care for the nonhuman creation (Matthew 6:26-30, 10:29-31; Luke 12:6-7, 24-28). Jesus taught that God desires "mercy and not sacrifice." (Matthew 9:10-13, 12:6-7; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-32) The epistle to the Hebrews 10:5-10 suggests that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets (which Paul, and not Jesus, regarded as "so much garbage"), but only the institution of animal sacrifice, as does Jesus' cleansing the Temple of those who were buying and selling animals for sacrifice and his overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. (Matthew 21:12-14; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:14-17)

    Jesus not only repeatedly upheld Mosaic Law (Matthew 5:17-19; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 16:17), he justified his healing on the Sabbath by referring to commandments calling for the humane treatment of animals.

    When teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, Jesus healed a woman who had been ill for eighteen years. He justified his healing work on the Sabbath by referring to biblical passages calling for the humane treatment of animals as well as their rest on the Sabbath. "So ought not this woman, being a daughter of loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?" Jesus asked. (Luke 13:10-16)

    On another occasion, Jesus again referred to Torah teaching on "tsa'ar ba'alei chayim" or compassion for animals to justify healing on the Sabbath. "Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?" (Luke 14:1-5)

    Jesus compared saving sinners who had gone astray from God's kingdom to rescuing lost sheep. He recalled a Jewish legend about Moses' compassion as a shepherd for his flock.

    "For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost. What do you think? Who among you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?

    "And when he has found it," Jesus continued, "he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!'

    "I say to you, likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance...there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Matthew 18:11-13; Luke 15:3-7,10)

  3. "The compassionate, sensitive heart for animals is inseparable from the proclamation of the Christian gospel," writes Reverend Andrew Linzey, an Anglican priest and the foremost theologian in the field of animal-human relations, in Love the Animals. "We have lived so long with the gospel stories of Jesus that we frequently fail to see how his life and ministry identified with animals at almost every point.

    "His birth, if tradition is to be believed, takes place in the home of sheep and oxen. His ministry begins, according to St. Mark, in the wilderness 'with the wild beasts' (1:13). His triumphal entry into Jerusalem involves riding on a 'humble' ass (Matthew 21). According to Jesus, it is lawful to 'do good' on the Sabbath, which includes the rescuing of an animal fallen into a pit (Matthew 12). Even the sparrows, literally sold for a few pennies in his day, are not 'forgotten before God.' God's providence extends to the entire created order, and the glory of Solomon and all his works cannot be compared to that of the lilies of the field (Luke 12:27).

    "God so cares for His creation that even 'foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' (Luke 9:58) It is 'the merciful' who are 'blessed' in God's sight and what we do to 'the least' of all we do to him. (Matthew 5:7, 25:45-46) Jesus literally overturns the already questionable practice of animal sacrifice. Those who sell pigeons have their tables overturned and are put out of the Temple (Mark 11:15-16). It is the scribe who sees the spiritual bankruptcy of animal sacrifice and the supremacy of sacrificial love that Jesus commends as being 'not far from the Kingdom of God.' (Mark 12:32-34)

    "It is a loving heart which is required by God, and not the needless bloodletting of God's creatures," concludes Reverend Linzey. "We can see the same prophetic and radical challenge to tradition in Jesus' remarks about the 'good shepherd' who, unlike many in his day, 'lays down his life for the sheep.' (John 10:11)"


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