Christians, more than anyone else, should be uneasy with animal suffering; yet, many view animal welfare as a secular humanist concern, leaving it to others to lead the charge to care for God's creatures.
Amid the perplexing dearth of Christian influence in the area of animal protection, Eric Metaxas highlighted on BreakPoint a New York Times story on the role an evangelical Christian—National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins—played in releasing hundreds of government-owned chimpanzees.
Collins teamed up with the famous Jane Goodall to retire nearly 360 of the NIH's chimps, releasing them into an animal sanctuary after they spent most or all of their lives in laboratory cages.
A 2011 study determined that chimps are unnecessary for most biomedical and behavioral research, and the U.S. is the only developed country that continues to use chimpanzees for invasive research and testing. Hundreds more chimpanzees will remain in other government-run laboratories after the release of these retired primates.
Their release is good news for taxpayers and anyone who loves happy animals. Just watch this video of other retired chimps being freed for the first time, and you'll see what I mean.
Christian thinking tends to be foggy on matters of animal protection, especially when we believe that their suffering will somehow benefit humans, forgetting that animals weren't created to save us. Leadership from someone like Collins in matters of humane stewardship of animals is welcome news indeed.
Many Christians accept or ignore the wide-scale suffering of animals under the justification of scientific "progress" or cheap meat (as a meat-eater, I include myself here). This perspective, though, reflects the influence of a modernist worldview more than biblical thinking.
After all, it wasn't the Bible but rather the father of modern philosophy, René Descartes, who helped popularize the idea that animals are mere machines to be put to human service. "Here is my library, from which I take my wisdom," Descartes told an observer as he dissected a calf. Descartes' disciples are said to have kicked their dogs and laughed to hear the "creaking of the machine."
In contrast, while the Bible mandates humans in Genesis 1:28 to rule over animals, other passages make clear that we are to do so with kindness: the Scriptures tell us not to muzzle the ox while it treads the grain and that the righteous one has regard for the life of his beast.
More biblical thinkers than Descartes and his disciples have also taught compassion toward animals. John Calvin said that we are to "handle gently" the animals God placed under our subjection. John Wesley proclaimed in his sermon "The General Deliverance" that the animal kingdom is included in God's salvation. William Wilberforce, Hannah More, and other 19th-century abolitionists included animal welfare in the reforms they succeeded in bringing to Great Britain.
And C. S. Lewis bucked the prevailing thought of his academic peers in opposing animal experimentation, using the strongest terms:
The victory of vivisection [animal experimentation] marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements. In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice.
We don't need to debate the role animal experimentation has played in the past to acknowledge that now the practice is outmoded and largely unnecessary, the vestige of an archaic and unbiblical brand of empiricism. We need not continue the suffering simply because it is how things were done for so long.
Furthermore, most Christians—who help comprise the American population that spends $61 billion annually on pets—love their own pets and see them, as I certainly do, as members of our families. We could never imagine one of our beloved pets undergoing the treatment given to countless animals in laboratories and industrial farms every day.
We might then ask ourselves if our horror at such a thought is rooted in a perspective that treats animals with compassion only out of mere sentiment or possession—or from of a more biblical view in which all animals—not only the ones we call our own—are seen as God's creatures? Can we—should we—love our neighbor's animals as our own?
Perhaps releasing these retired chimps where they can live out the rest of their days free of cages and pain is one small step for them—and one giant leap for humankind.
Karen Swallow Prior is a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.