By Laura Hobgood-Oster
All over the U.S. animals (well, mostly dogs) gather on church lawns, in city parks and even inside some sanctuaries to ‘be blessed’ on the Feast of St. Francis. To me, this is a lovely sight – animals returning to the sanctuary. For some people it might seem strange, or maybe even inappropriate, in Christianity for this multi-species celebration to happen. But happen it does and with increasingly frequency. I think Francis of Assisi would be quite happy about these gatherings taking place on his feast day.
So what is at stake here? Why are some Christians starting to reconsider the place of animals in their religious lives? And why might some Christians worry about the implications?
First and foremost, the world is a precarious place for other-than-human animals. And I would argue–and do often–that the world is an increasingly hostile and dangerous place for many animals because of humans. Food production systems have turned animals into mere units of production. Cows, pigs and chickens live tragic, short and painful lives in this industrialized process. Forests and waterways that were once homes for so many species are being used up or so polluted that scores of species will disappear by the end of the twenty-first century (or sooner). A world without polar bears, orangutans and blue whales is a much lonelier place, even for six billion humans. Certainly, religious traditions have something to say about this? If they don’t, if religions are silent on all of the animals who live on the earth, then they are narrow traditions indeed.
But I for one am very hopeful precisely because religions do have something to offer that will help us to rethink our way of living in the midst of such a beautiful and mysterious array of species. I study the history of the Christian tradition and have been diving deep into that two-thousand-year story to find out how and where the animals are. And, believe it or not, I have found them everywhere!
So where are they in the history of the tradition? And how might we rethink their place in the twenty-first century?
Animals are often found in the stories of saints: from Saint Anthony Abbot, the patron saint of animals who is usually pictured with a pig, to Saint Brigitte of Ireland who welcomed dogs into her kitchen with open arms, to Saint Martín de Porres who opened an animal sanctuary in his hometown of Lima, Peru, and countless others. Isn’t it telling that the holiest people in Christian history are often connected by their relationships with animals?
But they aren’t only with the saints. Various Christian rituals and images also include animals. Blessings of animals – farm animals, companion animals, wild animals – have taken place in Christianity for centuries. And one is hard pressed to enter a church building in Europe without seeing animals in the fabulous artwork. It is amazing how many animals there are when one starts to look!
Of course, not everyone agrees with this interpretation. At stake might be the understanding of humans as the only ones who matter in Christianity. But holding onto that is such a misinterpretation of the belief system, that we must seriously reconsider it. In the Bible, God reminds us that we are important, but we are not the only ones who are important. Just read Job 39 again if you need a reminder of that idea! God created wonderful animals and takes great joy in their company with or without human presence. It is humbling, but Christians need to de-center themselves to be relevant in the twenty-first century.
So how do we do this? We must take off the blinders that allow violence to happen to other animals and confront these issues directly with active compassion. I believe that there is no way a person who proclaims, “I am Christian,” can be ok with the violence of factory farms. There is no way that a person who declares a “love for Jesus” can then turn their back on animal control facilities killing five million dogs each year because nobody will home them. Is not Christianity a religion of mercy and hospitality – of opening homes to strangers?
I do dog rescue. Every dog who comes into the Georgetown municipal shelter is my responsibility. I lose some, I “save” some. A cocker spaniel came in a last month. He was so covered with matts that he could hardly lift his head. His companion spaniel died from heat exposure – from his matts – before animal control could get there. When we groomed him he smiled and pounced and was happy. There is no doubt in my mind that loving animals and working to make the world a safer and more compassionate place for them fits right into the middle of Christianity!
So on this day, the Feast of St. Francis, I encourage you to thank God for the many animals in your midst and to confront the cruelty that surrounds too many of them. What could you do to help welcome animals back into God’s sanctuary?
Laura Hobgood-Oster is the author of the newly released The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals, published by Baylor University Press. She is Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.