The Lantern Books Blog: Lantern Books 2005 Essay Contest Runner-Up, Heidi Huse
May 3, 2006 10:43am
A Truly “Pro-Life” Ethic
by Heidi Huse, Martin, Tennessee
Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, we ourselves will not find peace.—Albert Schweitzer
I’m pro-life—not an easy admission for a liberal democrat academic to proclaim. Of course, being pro-life would seem to preclude me from being pro-choice; the vitriolic debate is waged in clear either/or terms. Nevertheless, what I refuse, in identifying myself as pro-life, is to define the parameters of my ethical stance in the narrow terms by which a pro-life ethic is typically constructed—almost exclusively in terms of the protection of unborn humans from abortion. While my pro-life worldview, deeply influenced by Christian ethics, includes valuing the right of an unborn fetus to develop unthreatened through birth, I wish to reappropriate the term from the anti-abortion movement and reframe the pro-life ethical standpoint in much broader terms. If “we” (whoever “we” might be) are going to seriously advocate a pro-life morality, then our lives should consistently demonstrate the fullest possible understanding of the term.
In that context, we need to consider how, in many ways, our Judeo-Christian, western, capitalist culture is ironically anything but pro-life: for many babies after they’re born; for those without political or corporate power; for those in deep poverty or otherwise disadvantaged or marginalized; and for animals who are altogether excluded from serious moral consideration or compassion. Especially in current Christian theology and practice—at least in the teachings to which I’ve been exposed by a variety of evangelical pastors and Bible teachers over the years—animals are expendable, creatures without souls and therefore without any inherent value in God’s economy. They’re mere resources to exploit for human benefit as we desire: as involuntary objects for us to hunt and slaughter at whim for our own appetites; as technologies to genetically manipulate; as research subjects upon which to conduct barbaric procedures in the name of “science”; as profit-makers to breed indiscriminately; as entertainers to expose to all manner of cruelties and harassment for our amusement. One central rationale for such disregard of animals is God’s mandate in the biblical creation narrative to “have dominion over and subdue” creation, which is too frequently and acontextually interpreted as carte blanche for unlimited human exploitation of animals. Any minimal mercy “we” might show to specific animals or animal species is our choice, one we’re free to revise according to our own purposes.
But if humans are going to fully explore what it means to live a “pro-life” ethic in our world, then we must examine our behavior toward all lesser beings and be willing to transform our attitudes and actions. In his book God, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe, Westmont College Philosophy Professor Robert N. Wennberg compares Christian anti-slavery movements to Christian animal advocacy. His argument centers on the tendency to use verses of Scripture to support animal exploitation, which he compares to 19th century scripture-based defenses of slavery. He points out that the Bible does not directly offer an anti-slavery stance; some verses actually seem to take slavery for granted, if they don’t support slavery outright. Yet a significant portion of the abolitionist movement was undertaken as a Christian moral effort, based in the message of scripture as a whole, in the activists’ understanding of what God ultimately desires for all of humanity. Wennberg explains that a similar moral argument for animal advocacy is defensible, again despite the fact that certain verses of Judeo-Christian scripture seem to endorse animal exploitation and consumption. I can’t imagine any American or Christian currently espousing slavery as moral. It’s likewise not a stretch to argue that animal domination and exploitation by humans is not morally justifiable in American or Christian life and practice.
The 2004 U.S. presidential elections demonstrated the influence Christians as a voting block can exercise on national leadership and policy. A national effort to expand a pro-life ethic, in which Christian individuals, congregations, and organizations advocate and practice wholly life-affirming lifestyles could radically transform our nation and have powerful positive global influence. But to do so requires radical change in ourselves: in how we live our daily lives; spend our money; eat; spend our leisure time; vote; and treat companion animals—as well as in what we demand from researchers, corporate leaders, and elected officials. One case in point is Christian sanction of hunting as a virtuous, God-blessed, outdoor, family, bonding experience and opportunity for evangelism, when hunting is actually antithetical to a truly pro-life moral standpoint. Such exaltation of hunting is not evident in Christianity’s history. For instance, although much of modern Jewish lifestyle is as exploitive of animals as is Christian life and practice, Jewish religious scholar Richard H. Schwartz points out in Judaism and Vegetarianism that in Jewish Scripture, hunting was cast in a negative moral light, tolerated mostly as a means for blood-thirsty individuals who couldn’t control their lusts for meat to get their “fix.” The Jewish use of animals in sacrifice demanded strict adherence to well-defined procedures, and taking an animal’s life humanely and in reverent humility was the highest priority. The compassion shown for animals in ancient Jewish religious text and practice runs counter to the barbarity of canned hunts and slaughtering animals into extinction prevalent in U.S. and global hunting practices and, sadly, regularly endorsed in the evangelical community. Re-envisioning a pro-life stance on hunting might for many Christian hunters seem blasphemous—going against a long-held, deeply valued current of tradition. But it would be a necessary transformation if the Christian community is going to pursue a truly pro-life moral code.
More difficult for many Christian pro-life advocates, perhaps, might be moving toward a vegan lifestyle, after a lifetime of blindly consuming meat as a necessary and enjoyable part of most if not all meals. In fact, many people cling tenaciously to their love of meat and imperil their own health. Yet an expanded pro-life ethic would necessarily confront the brutal realities of modern factory farming and assembly-line slaughter in which tens of thousands of animals are put to death daily in unspeakable terror and suffering; the employee turnover rate in modern slaughterhouses is virtually 100 percent, so clearly the humans involved in the slaughter are also deeply and negatively affected by the requirements of their work. Congregations everywhere would have to reconsider the central entrées in their church potluck dinners, which regularly showcase a specific meat or variety of meat dishes. Christian families and individuals would have to decrease their reliance upon animal products for food and consumer goods. Christian charities would have to revise their food offerings to the needy to center on vegan nutrition. And just as pro-life Christians are well-informed about current laws on abortion and the views on abortion held by particular civic leaders, they’d have to become equally informed about current anti-cruelty laws (or the lack thereof), and about the views on animal exploitation of their current and future policymakers.
One common argument against animal advocacy is that there’s just too much human suffering to solve before we can begin to consider the plight of animals. But such an argument should not be put forth by those who profess that God’s resources are abundant and infinite, as is love, of which God is the ultimate source. The question is: Do those professing such a faith really believe it? It would seem that if the supply is truly limitless, no living being need go without. Further, Christians are called to be ministers of reconciliation to a suffering Creation, including animals, which, according to biblical teaching, right along with humans, await the reconciliation of all things to God’s fullness. So why do those advocating a pro-life moral standpoint continue to vigorously pursue and protect lifestyles that brutalize and exploit non–human beings rather than pursuing a lifestyle of compassionate stewardship and caretaking? Instead we need to emulate how God deals with us humans who, as His own lesser beings, are showered with nothing but His unconditional love and mercy (despite the fact that much of the time we don’t deserve it).
In the epigraph above, Albert Schweitzer implies that created life exists on a continuum; what impacts one end of the continuum has a very real effect on the rest of us creatures. If we humans continue endorsing and living merciless and deadly ethics with our non-human co-creatures, we ourselves will continue to experience a merciless and deadly world. There’s too much evidence throughout history that human justifications for exploiting animals bleed directly into our justifications for exploiting other humans who’ve been somehow deemed lesser. We’re either pro-life, or we’re not. Ironically, God seems to be pro-choice, leaving the decisions for how to live up to us both individually and corporately as humans, as children of God and as caretakers of Creation. We need to seriously ask ourselves what love demands from us in how we deal with all living beings as together we move ever closer to God’s kingdom of true peace.