Laura Hobgood-Oster, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s compassion for animals, London: Darton Longman Todd, 2010.
Paperback 228 pages, $AUD 18.32 (online) Kindle E-book $USD18.95
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Saint Francis would be saddened to see the crises affecting the world’s animals, and even sadder to realise that humans are a main cause of habitat loss for wild animals, cruelty to food animals and neglect to companion animals. The Friends We Keep is a thorough examination of what Christian theology has to say about animals. Professor Hobgood-Oster wonders whether we have made of Christianity a faith that concerns only humans.
She notes that, while there is not a huge literature on animals and Christianity in any period, from the time of the Reformation on, animals seem to disappear altogether from Christian thought. She attributes this disappearance partly to Luther. Luther emphasised the Word, and so elevated human beings to a high point – Jesus the Word was a human being, so human beings must be distinct from and of more concern to God than other animals. In emphasising salvation, other Reformers followed the humanists of the Renaissance in also giving pride of place to the salvation of humans.
Before the Reformation, animals played different roles in the lives of the saints: St Anthony the Abbot was often depicted with a pig. Jerome kept a pet lion in his monastery. A bird nested in St Kevin’s outstretched arm. St Francis tamed the wolf from Gubbio. The great Saint Hilda kept snakes at Whitby. Animals were both companions and helpers for humans. Some of the legends are based in fact. Others are charming and have little historical value except to illustrate that animals were more visible to pre-Reformation Christians.
Going even earlier in the tradition, the Bible has a positive role for animals. The giants Behemoth and Leviathan are God’s playmates in Job. In Genesis 29, Jacob waters Rachel’s mother’s flock, putting their needs above his and Rachel’s. In the New Testament, Jesus is happy to agree that dogs should get crumbs from the table (even if only metaphorically)! Hobgood-Oster tells a delightful anecdote from an apocryphal Gospel in which Jesus expresses compassion for a mule whose owner beats him until it bleeds.
Hobgood-Oster catalogues human cruelty to animals both in anecdotes and in statistics: the effect is almost overwhelming.
In today’s world, animals suffer in many of the places where humans interact with them. We breed horses with ankles the size of human ankles and wonder why race-horses “break down”. We crush pigs into tiny pens so that the sows can move only enough to feed the piglets. At puppy farms we keep bitches in elevated cages and continue to fertilise them until they stop having pups. Even the pets we choose we neglect.
How should we respond as Christians? Is Christianity good news only for humans? Laura Hobgood- Oster is Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies at Southwestern University. She argues we should show hospitality to animals in every way possible. She is personally involved in the rescue of dogs, but she notes many ways in which Christians might unleash their compassion for animals. In her University ethics committee she argues for fewer animals to be “sacrificed” for research, and for the most humane use of animals when they are necessary.
She suggests we eat compassionately, and one practical way of doing this is to eat less meat. Christians might return to the Friday fast and have a weekly meat-free day – at the least. They should be aware of the conditions their food animals lived and died, and where possible source their meat from local farmers whose animals are free-range.
If we bless animals, we should do it seriously. We should consider blessing food animals and wild creatures. The Friends We Keep includes liturgical resources, including a prayer from the Australian Uniting in Worship. Many organisations are listed, nearly all in the US, that promote better treatment of animals.
One of these organisations is The Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare (www.franciscan-anglican.com/enaw) which acknowledges a Franciscan influence. I read The Friends We Keep as a Franciscan, conscious of St Francis’s teaching that every creature is a little Word of God, revealing something of God’s nature to us as we encounter each one in love.
It is encouraging to read a Christian address these issues. While I admire much of the Australian ethicist Peter Singer’s radical understanding of animal rights, we Christians do have a distinctive viewpoint which should be heard.
The Friends We Keep is a book both to alert Christians to the theological dimension of God’s hospitality to all creatures, and an activists’ manual to help us engage lovingly and compassionately with the animals whose lives we humans affect. A book for Franciscans – and the animals we may bless.