“The Suffering of Animals: A Christian Response:” by John Morris

February 8, 2015

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

My text this morning is taken from our reading from Isaiah 40, verse 21: “Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told to you from the beginning?”

I’m going to start by connecting what I want to say with Peter’s terrific sermon last week.  Among other things, Peter asked the question, how can Seekers continue to hold up and nurture prophetic voices in our community?  He pointed out how our very name, Seekers, was chosen to emphasize that there are prophets living here and now, and it is the quality of our listening, our seeking, that makes prophets.

In particular, we all know that Seekers has raised a strong, clear prophetic voice on behalf of the vulnerable, the powerless, and the oppressed.  Historically we have made it our call to champion the cause of children and of women – two groups that, up until very recently, have been at the mercy of those in power; and their struggle is by no means over.  We have also tried to speak for the racially oppressed in the United States, denouncing mass incarceration, the inequities of the health care system, and other forms of institutional racism.  We have explicitly welcomed and affirmed members of the LGBT community.  And we have not hesitated to turn the focus inward, asking how this church can keep working to rid itself of racist and sexist habits.

The causes of children, women, gays, and the oppressed are all united by an identical claim for justice from society, and their call upon us for love and acceptance.  I believe that Seekers is acting in a very Christian way when we take up their struggle.  What distinguishes Christianity, the actual walk of Jesus, from many other worthy moral viewpoints?  It’s the naming of love, mercy, and compassion as primary ethical values.  In a world where “human rights” would have been nonsense syllables, Jesus still called on us to treat the least of us as if she or he was Christ himself. 

So prophetic voices, in the Seekers tradition, can and must continue to be raised.  Thank you, Peter.

Here is voice not from Seekers, a real old-fashioned “prophetic voice,” that I’d like to share with you now:

“It has pleased God, the father of all men, to cover some men with white skins, and others with black skins; but as there is neither merit nor demerit in complexion, the white man, notwithstanding the barbarity of custom and prejudice, can have no right, by virtue of his color, to enslave and tyrannize over a black man; nor has a fair man any right to despise, abuse, and insult a brown man.  Nor do I believe that a tall man, by virtue of his stature, has any legal right to trample a dwarf under his foot.  For, whether a man is . . . white or black, fair or brown, tall or short, and I might add, rich or poor, for it is no more a man’s choice to be poor – such he is by God’s appointment; and, abstractly considered, is neither a subject for pride, nor an object of contempt.”

Very strong words.  A strong statement for equality, and against racial prejudice.  I hope we can excuse some of the old-fashioned language – God the father, using “man” to mean humankind, the idea that God instituted social hierarchies – because this passage was written in 1776, the year of our own Declaration of Independence.  The author is an Anglican priest, an Englishman, named Humphrey Primatt, and it’s taken from a book he published called “The Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty . . .”  Actually, that is not the complete title, but I’ll hold off giving you the full title until I’ve read another passage from it:

“Now, if amongst men the differences of their powers of mind, and of their complexion, stature, and accidents of fortune, do not give any one man the right to abuse or insult any other man on account of these differences; for the same reason, a man can have no natural right to abuse or torment a beast . . . because a beast has not mental powers of a man.  For, such as the man is, he is as but God made him; and the very same is true of the beast.  Neither of them can lay claim to any intrinsic merit . . . At their creation, their shapes, perfections, or defects were invariably fixed, and their bounds set which they cannot pass.  And being such, neither more or less than God made them, there is no more demerit in a beast being a beast, then there is merit in a man being a man; that is, there is neither merit nor demerit in either of them.”

The complete title of Humphrey Primatt’s book is The Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals.

In my own prayerful work around this issue, I have been struck, powerfully, over and over, by the comparisons and similarities that Humphrey Primatt articulates so well.  I can give you my own view in simple words: The abomination of slavery, and racial oppression, is no different – and springs from the same sins – as the enslavement of animals, right here, right now.  Moreover, the causes of abolition, women, children, and animals are historically linked.  Beginning in the early 19th century, abolitionists, suffragettes, and advocates against cruelty to children and animals were more often than not the same people, coming from the same spiritual background, using the same arguments, and appealing to the same sentiments, including religious sentiments.  They had a vision of a wonderful world – the world of the peaceable kingdom – in which all of God’s creation could live in harmony.

So Seekers, by linking the rights of oppressed peoples with the rights of women and of children, is in a grand American tradition.  For generations, Christians and other ethical thinkers have declared these diverse struggles to be one and the same.


Well, if the links between the oppression of animals, and the similar treatment of subjugated peoples and women and children are so obvious, why have we, both as a society and here at Seekers Church, lagged so far behind in championing the cause of animals?

First, let me point out that there has been progress, enormous progress.  Up until the end of the 20th century, educated and intelligent and kind people (I’m sure including many members of Seekers) had to be convinced that animals really could suffer in morally meaningful ways; and that our institutions of animal oppression – factory farming, fur farming, hunting, animal experimentation – are hideously cruel.  That discussion is now largely over, I would say.  I don’t know anyone among my friends who seriously doubts the suffering of animals, or the barbaric cruelty of the factory-farming industries.  If anyone is still unconvinced, I can guide you to relevant sources, but you’ll need a strong stomach.

The question has turned, rather, to this one: Cruel, yes; destructive of our planet’s ecology, yes; but still, somehow, necessary.  Isn’t it?  Especially those animal experiments?  Don’t human beings need to dominate their fellow beings, in order to secure the quality of life to which they are accustomed?  Indeed, isn’t this somehow part of the natural order?  Don’t beasts do the same thing?

This appeal to a “natural order” is much less convincing than it might first appear.  Let’s grant that animals in nature eat each other, and do pretty much whatever is necessary to survive, and that human beings are of course part of nature too.  So why shouldn’t we do the same thing?  The problem is that simply showing some behavior to be “natural” doesn’t provide a moral justification for it.  To make this clear, let’s take two other “natural” behaviors.  Many animals regularly eat their young, or otherwise quickly dispose of the unfit and unwanted.  And nearly all animals breed as soon as the females are able to do so, and the males do not ask their permission.  Yet we humans have constructed societies based on giving up such natural behaviors.  We understand quite well the appeal of killing unwanted or inconvenient babies, but we do not, because we believe it is wrong, however natural.  We might like to force girls to have babies at the age of 12 or 13, but this too most societies now believe to be a great wrong, depriving them of their childhood, though nature would appear to condone or even recommend it.  So we need a much better reason than “nature” or “the natural order” to justify how we treat non-human animals.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “It is our business to live by [Christ’s] law and not by nature’s.”

As for the necessity of animal oppression to our own interests, those of you who’ve followed my historical analogies can probably guess the sort of thing I’m going to quote next, from “William Harper’s Apology” of 1837:

“Supposing finally that the abolitionists should effect their purpose. What would be the result? The first and most obvious effect would be to put an end to the cultivation of our great Southern staple (cotton). . . [Cotton farming] cannot be carried on in any portion of our own country where there are not slaves. . . . [S]lavery has not only given existence to millions of slaves within our own territories; it has given the means of subsistence, and therefore of existence to millions of free men in our Confederate States.”

Yes, it’s the economic and cultural argument for slavery, the idea that “our way of life” would be destroyed if slavery was abolished.  Slavery, though perhaps morally odious, was so necessary to Southern livelihoods that to do without it was unthinkable.  And let’s not forget Patrick Henry’s famous admission: He said that he would be in favor of freeing all slaves were it not for “the general inconvenience of living without them.”

I suspect much the same feeling underlies our contemporary reluctance to act on what we know about the enslavement of animals.  We simply cannot imagine – or we think we cannot imagine, perhaps because we haven’t tried hard enough – what a life without the meat industry and the dairy industry and the leather industry and the medical drug-testing establishment would be like.  Such enormous changes!  And all for what?  Animals?  But come on, now – and this is the final obstacle, I believe, to hearing the prophetic call of our non-human cousins – humans are simply more important.

As some of you know, I’ve spent the past three years writing a novel (which by the way is now completed).  One of the main themes of the book is the value of human life and the value of nonhuman life.  For three years I’ve posed the question to myself and to my characters, every which way, trying to see my way toward an answer: Why, exactly, is human life more valuable than nonhuman life?  I’ve tried so many ways of looking at the question, exploring possible responses through the lives of my characters, which is one of the great gifts of fiction.  Here is the answer that I have come up with:

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

If anyone can tell me, I want to hear from you.  But as far as I can see, Humphrey Primatt was closest to the truth: “For, such as the man is, he is as but God made him; and the very same is true of the beast.  Neither of them can lay claim to any intrinsic merit.”

Let me conclude this morning by coming back to Christianity, and to Christ.  Our Prelude music was the Agnus Dei from one of William Byrd’s masses.  “Lamb of God, grant us peace.”  Cardinal Newman wrote an amazing sermon in which he said that the best way he knew to really feel what Christ’s suffering must have been like, was to imagine an animal being tortured and killed.  Think of Jesus literally as the Lamb of God, he urged, then picture that defenseless, innocent lamb being abused and then slaughtered, and you will have some feeling for what Christ underwent.  Suffering is an equal-opportunity nightmare, available to all sentient beings.

Yet the similarities between us and other animals is only half the point. Here is the other half: We must end animal suffering at our hands not just because of their similarities to us, but also because of their differences.  They are weak, we are strong; they are helpless, we hold all the power; they cannot give their consent, they cannot protest; they are innocent and cannot deserve their fate.  We have, like it or not, been given dominion over the Earth, if not by God then certainly by evolution.  We are the top species.  But please remember: Christianity has a very unusual view about what it means to be “at the top,” to be the one with the power.  We believe – or at least, following Christ, we try to believe – that the first shall be last, that the meek will inherit the earth, and that to serve is the highest good.  The Lord washes the feet of the servant, not the other way round.  So our obligation to animals is exactly the same as our duty to the poorest and weakest among our human family: We have all the power, and we must use it to serve them, not ourselves.  Christ calls us to compassion and mercy, not selfishness and cruelty.  “Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told to you from the beginning?”

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