Part one of this series emphasizes how Adventists are not the first Protestants to recognize the principles of creation stewardship.
Thomas Aquinas famously argued that animals have no objective moral concern. Their value is meaningless beyond any value they can provide to humans. This is called the Utility Thesis and argues that animals are only valuable for their utility to humans. This philosophy even led some to laugh at the idea of killing animals because they saw it as simply dissembling a machine, akin to taking a car engine apart.
This position has strongly influenced Western society for nearly a millennium and paved the way for modern factory farming and animal abuse of all sorts. Does this view align with the biblical evidence? Is that really the way God sees his creatures? Let’s continue to review what the Bible says.
“Two sparrows are sold for a penny, aren't they? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's permission.” Matt 10:29 (International Standard Version) Here, Jesus makes it clear that even animals which man deems of least value, God is still concerned about.
“Mary often remonstrated with Jesus, and urged Him to conform to the usages of the rabbis. But He could not be persuaded to change His habits of contemplating the works of God and seeking to alleviate the suffering of men or even of dumb animals” (emphasis added).4 Again we see that Jesus not only cared for the suffering of humans but also of animals. An animal’s death and life have an ontological significance beyond human purpose.
Science has also shown us how intricately the web of life is interconnected. Each tree in the forest is not an individual plant fighting for survival against every other tree or type of life. Trees of same and even differing species connect to each other underground through root pathways that form a neural network. These roots do not connect directly. Rather, specialized species of mushrooms have adapted to connect to the root-tips of trees. These mycorrhizal (fungal) networks pass both signals and nutrients between trees. The trees with greater access to sunlight can produce more sugar than they need so they feed this energy to other more shaded trees, so all are sustained. This feeding can even continue to the stump after a tree is cut down. This is one way in which a stump can regrow although it has lost all its leaves. Symbiotic relationships exist everywhere, and seemingly unrelated animals and plants are indirectly connected in countless ways.
In 1958 communist revolutionary and father of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong, believed he knew how to increase crop yields for his new country. He knew that sparrows eat grains, fruit, and seeds. So, he hatched a plan to destroy these “pests”. The communist government declared, “birds are public animals of capitalism” and provided prizes to citizens who killed the most sparrows. All methods of destroying sparrows were permitted and their populations plummeted. By 1960 they neared extinction. Then an ornithologist realized the sparrows also ate insects and because of their decline rice yields were falling. Mao ended the campaign against sparrows a little too late. Swarms of locusts destroyed grain harvests contributing to the Great Chinese Famine that killed upwards of 40 million people.5
What may seem worthless or insignificant to human existence can indirectly support our lives. Therefore, all life deserves a special reverence. The example of Jesus and of nature inform followers of God to avoid snuffing out life except when necessary. Even then it should be done with great care and restraint. Here are presented three basic rights that are held by all living creation: 1) The right to exist 2) The right to minimal suffering 3) The right to rest.
These rights extend to all of nature. They are not the only rights afforded to nature in Scripture but are the most basic and obvious. Scriptural evidence throughout the Bible presents the idea that God cares for nature, and He cares how we treat it. God prioritizes humans in the work of salvation. While secondary to humanity, nature is not cast away as worthless or evil. For the salvation God is working is not just that of humankind but of all of creation! “that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God” Romans 8:21 (WEB). The scriptural support for these primary rights of nature are many. Only a few examples are needed to demonstrate them.
One, the right to exist. Genesis one repeatedly states that each part of creation is good or pleasing to God. Throughout the Old Testament humans are portrayed as stewards or caretakers of creation, yet not owners. God is the owner and author of life and is the only one who can take away the right to exist (Psalm 50:10). God has given us provision since the fall to kill and use parts of His creation for our needs. He has also granted limited authority to kill in self-defense and in the pursuit of justice.
He has not however, given us the authority to cause unreserved death for our own pleasures or convenience. He has not granted us permission to push species to extinction for our own comfort or wealth. Each ‘kind’ and even each specific plant and animal has the God-given right to exist for a time.
This is not a new idea to Adventism. Mrs. C. C. Lewis, an Adventist author, noted in a 1912 article that animals “have as good a right to live as we have.”6
Two, the right to minimal suffering. This right includes protection from unnecessary and prolonged suffering. The story of Balaam and his cruelty to his donkey in Numbers 22 is an example of God’s concern over the mistreatment of animals. Proverbs 12:10 says a righteous man cares for his animals. Additionally, the methods of animal sacrifice laid out in the Old Testament are quite humane, especially compared to other sacrificial practices of surrounding pagans. Some sources have proposed that Israelite methods of slaughter were the most humane possible at the time. The extrabiblical law for kosher slaughter that developed in ancient Israelite culture is known as Shechita and places the utmost emphasis on painless death. Sin brought suffering to all of creation, but followers of Christ should seek to minimize that suffering wherever it is present.
This principle has been understood by Christians throughout the ages. Seventh-day Adventists are not the first Christians to shun meat in favor of a vegetarian diet. There have been numerous sects of Christians over the past 2000 years who have foregone meat because of concerns of unnecessary cruelty to animals. They have usually been a minority but nevertheless present and outspoken force.
Three, the right to rest. Both animals and the land are afforded this right in the Hebrew laws. The fourth Commandment in Exodus 20 contains a clause that pertains to animal rest each Sabbath. The sabbatical year which was to occur every seven years provided rest for the land from the strain of farming which aided it in producing better crops the following season. The neglect to rest the land was cited as the reason for the length of the 70-year exile in Babylon (Leviticus 26:34-35). Apparently, God took the command to rest the land seriously!
The rights of nature should be prominent in our theological worldview. We are to champion justice for all of God’s creation. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has done a fantastic job at working for justice in the realm of religious freedom. We could do better in the sphere of environmental justice. The cause of creation care should be visible and ever-present in our efforts to further the Gospel. Otherwise, we risk undermining our emphasis on the Sabbath truth and the Three Angels’ Message. Study and pray about this topic, so you may gain an understanding beyond what is presented here for this is a broad and complex topic.
Read part one here.
Notes and References:
4. Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages (Mountain View: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1898): 90.
5. Rebecca Northfield, “Top 10 invasive species: when pest control goes wrong,” The Institute of Engineering and Technology online (May 24, 2018), https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2018/05/top-10-invasive-species-when-pest-control-goes-wrong/
6. Mrs. C. C. Lewis, A Thanksgiving Story, Christian Education vol. 9, no. 2 (Nov. 1912): 90, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/CE/CE19121101-V04-02.
David F. Garner is from Tennessee and has been a writer and youth ministry worker for over ten years. You can find youth ministry resources at his blog Outdoorlessons.org.
Photo by Pieter van Noorden on Unsplash
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