I like to scroll down the list of “recent discussions” in the Washington Post blog, “On Faith.” The blog poses a single question to a panel of theologically astute folks from different faiths. One question immediately caught my eye. “Do Animals have Rights?”
A couple of decades ago this wouldn’t have sounded like a question for theological reflection. But times have changed. The Cornell historian, Dominick LaCapra, noted our twenty-first century fascination with the cognitive and emotional lives of animals, and dubbed this “the century of animals.”
The responses on the WaPo blog were all thoughtful expressions of a single theme: all God’s creatures are to be respected.
I would add this: We need animals. They serve as models of moral goodness. If you grew up as I did watching every Sunday night as cheetahs sink their teeth into antelope rumps on “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” this may come as a surprise. Like most modern people, I had assumed that animals are governed solely by the rule of bloodstained tooth and bared claw.
Yet recent research into the social lives of wild animals suggests something more nuanced. In their book, “Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals,” Marc Bekoff and Jessica Parker provide a compelling overview of this research. Their provocative thesis is that animals possess a broad repertoire of moral capacities, including trust, reciprocity, and above all, empathy.
Alongside this list of abilities, Abba Xanthias -- a fifth century desert monk -- would add one crucial inability. “A dog, he says, “is better than I am because it also has love but it does not pass judgment.” Animals are unable to judge and this suggests the Abba points to a moral simplicity.
My favorite bumper sticker reads: “DOG IS LOVE.” Maybe that sounds faintly sacrilegious – a bit to close to 1 John 4:8. But not to a dog lover like myself. I don’t think God would mind sharing this moniker with one of God’s greatest creations – the humble, loyal dog.
Abba Xanthias gets to the heart of what is wonderful about dogs. They are incapable of passing judgment. His saying is meant to raise eyebrows – much like the sacrilegious sticker. It is meant to shock us into recognition of what is most important.
Mark Ralls is senior pastor of Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, New York.