Friday, September 17, 2004

The Stewards of Creation

My sister takes her Christian beliefs very seriously; and does her best, as far as I know, to put these beliefs into practice in her everyday life. (What a radical concept!) We don't agree on everything; and so we've had some very interesting conversations! Among other things, her understanding of the Faith has led her to become a vegetarian.

She sent me an email yesterday, containing an article by Charles Colson, entitled, "Abusing our Power: Do Christians Sanction Cruelty to Animals?" The article carries a May 7, 2003, dateline, so it isn't exactly breaking news.

There are those who would maintain that it is possible to be a "good Christian" only if one is a vegan; or, at least, a vegetarian. I do not agree; but this does not mean that we do not need to be concerned about the suffering of the animals in our care.

Adam names the animals

Did you know that it is possible to interpret the Bible so as to state that, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were vegetarians? Consider Genesis 1:29, which says,
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
There were also no carnivores. Genesis 1:30 says,
And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.
(In the King James Version, "herb" means "plant," and "meat" means "food.")

All this changed when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, Who had given them the fruit of every tree in the Garden, but told them not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 2:16-17) As a result, the ground was cursed; no longer would it bring forth food for Adam effortlessly. Now, he would eat of the ground only after painful toil, by the sweat of his brow. (In a similar way, Eve would not bear children painlessly; childbirth would now truly be "labor.") Then the Lord God made garments of skin to replace the fig leaves they had sewn to cover their nakedness. (Gen. 3:21) Now, unless I'm mistaken, you can't make a covering of skin without first skinning the creature to which the skin had originally been attached!
UPDATE: 18 September
I am advised that the patristic understanding of the "skin" that Adam and Eve were covered with is our own human skin. This is a sign of mortality and the reason that it was necessary for Christ to become Incarnate -- to take on our skin, as it were -- in order to redeem us. (My thanks to Fr. Joseph Hunneycutt at Orthodixie for setting me straight.)

We come to Cain and Abel, making their offerings to the Lord. Cain, a farmer, makes an offering of a part of his harvest. Abel, a shepherd, offers fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. Cain's offering is rejected; Abel's is received favorably. (see Genesis 4) Again, unless I'm mistaken, you can't make an offering of part of an animal without killing the animal.

After the flood, when Noah and his family have left the ark, the situation changes again. God says,
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein. (Gen. 9:1-7)
Before this time, only plants were eaten as food; but now God permits Noah and his family (from whom we are all descended) to eat meat as food, as well as plants. Humans are no longer restricted to being vegetarians, by the grace of God. When the law is given to Moses, there will be some restrictions put in place, most notably regarding the eating of the flesh of pigs (and also of shellfish) -- but these dietary laws served a different function, and do not set aside the permission given by God to Noah and his descendents to eat animals as well as plants. And to those who would argue (with some logic) that this permission to eat animal flesh was given to Noah and his family only on a temporary basis, as all plant life had perished in the Flood, and would no longer be necessary (or allowed) once a new harvest had come to maturity -- sorry, but the text doesn't say that!

Was our Lord Jesus a vegetarian? It was not possible for Him to be one. In order to be a Jew, one had to partake of the Passover meal -- a roasted lamb. Those who refused to eat were "cut off" from the people of God; and this was not possible for our Lord, Who fulfilled the Law in every way, and was without sin or fault.

In the Orthodox Church, monastics do not eat meat at any time (unless required to do so for their health); and all Orthodox Christians are directed to abstain from eating meat on most Wednesdays and Fridays of the year, as well as during the four "fasting seasons" of the year. This is not because meat is forbidden to us; indeed, we see from Peter's vision while in Joppa (Acts 10) , that all things that are good for food are permitted to us. (This is not the main point of the vision; but it is an aspect of it!) It is our understanding that we are affected by the qualities of what we eat; and that the flesh (and other products, such as eggs, milk, and cheese) of warm-blooded animals stirs our own blood -- that is, our passions. We also believe that our periodic abstention from such foods teaches our flesh that it cannot always have what it wants; that our bodies must be subject to, and obedient to, our will, even when it is our will to not eat meat. And this goes beyond food. If I can teach my flesh to obey my will when I choose to abstain from eating meat, I can teach my flesh to obey my will when I choose to abstain from sin: whether anger, hatred, rage, jealousy, lust, envy, covetousness, greed, gluttony, laziness; or any other sinful passion that besets me.

Well, I've taken a long road to show that Christians do not have to be vegetarians; although as Orthodox Christians we are all "periodically" vegetarians; and we all derive some benefit therefrom. But we must not forget that we are also called to be stewards of God's creation; and that is where our responsibility to the animals comes into the equation.

Human beings are the crown of creation. We are made "in the image and after the likeness of God." We are a microcosm. That is, we sum up in ourselves all of creation. Our original calling was to have dominion over all creation, in order to be, as it were, the priests of creation -- to stand before God on behalf of all creation, to praise and worship Him, making the offering of all creation to God through our service. We failed in that duty; we betrayed the trust given to us. We, more often than not, serve ourselves; and use the talents God has given to us, and the riches of the created world, to satisfy our passions, rather than making these subject to our will, and serving God. We think (if we do, indeed, think about it) that, because we have been given dominion over all the earth, we can use it as it pleases us. Nope. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

We were given dominion over what God has made in order to grow more and more into the likeness of God inherent in us. We were given dominion in order to exercise the authority of God over His creation in His name, on His behalf. All of creation recognized our position as the "right hand of God" in ruling; and, so long as we lived in harmony with God (that is, as long as we were obedient to God), all of creation was in harmony with us. But then the ground is cursed; and notice that, when Noah and his family are permitted to eat meat, something else changes: now, the animals will fear human beings, will flee from them; may even eat them.

Read Colson's article about animal abuse, and our stewardship. Then, let's talk about ways we can make this a part of our daily lives.