The gospel of peace to all creation
Broadening the Anabaptist vision toward the care of animalsby Matthew Eaton
When I meet new people and tell them that I am from New York, most assume that I grew up alongside of the millions of people in the city itself. I quickly correct this assumption by clarifying that I am from northern New York, in a city called Watertown, about 300 miles north of the most populous city in the United States.
Northern New York is largely covered in forests, small lakes and the Adirondack mountain range; a far cry from a city that is home to over 8 million people. It seems clear to me now that it was this geographical context with its low human population and rich natural expanses that allowed me to develop a strong bond to creation from an early age. Though not raised a Mennonite, this love of creation will greatly affect my life years later when the Anabaptist vision of peace awakens in my heart.
As a child I live outside the city of Watertown, with easy access to thickly forested areas and abundant wildlife. I love being in the woods; it’s quiet, no one can bother me, and it’s home to many animals, all of whom captivate my imagination. I spend hours in the woods listening to birds, watching fish in small ponds and delighting in the squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and deer that populate our back yard. I also live in a house that is always home to companion animals. Cats are the pet of choice at home, but there are also dogs, rabbits, assorted rodents, birds, turtles, fish and even snakes. Animals are my perpetual companions throughout childhood. They are part of my family and deserve compassion and respect as much as humans. At no point are animals outside my moral sphere. The compassion and respect that I learn as a child are never relegated to the human world only.
Wilford D. Yoder | 2010 TM photo contest winner
Fast forward from my childhood to seminary life. I began coursework at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and adopted my first two cats, Julio and Fargo. For three years I read and wrote theology with these two always in my presence. Though academic life is not exactly exciting, Julio and Fargo seem to enjoy it, as they rarely leave my side. During this time, I come to know my new friends thoroughly and learn that they share many “human” characteristics with me. I see joy and excitement when Julio begs to be let outside to explore the back yard and bathe in the sun. I see contentment and a love of companionship as Fargo sleeps away the days as close to me as he can get. I see frustration when the two want to sit in the same spot, anger when one tries to take a larger share of the food, fear in the face of new situations, and the discontent of physical pain. Like me, they know joy and sorrow and want a life of peace in which they can flourish.
Day after day, as I study nonviolence alongside these two friends, it is hard not to wonder if the Anabaptist vision should include them. As these friendships grow and my commitment to pacifism becomes stronger, the Anabaptist vision begins to stir beyond its original intent. I consider whether the nonviolence that so strongly defines my tradition ought to include Julio, Fargo and others like them.
The Christian tradition is filled with resources that encourage humans to extend dignity and nonviolence to animals (and the entire creation). I discover that from the creation narrative to Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom to the teachings of Jesus, we are repeatedly encouraged to treat all creation with the love of Christ.
What I find most powerful, however, is Paul’s eschatological vision of salvation in Romans 8:18-23. Paul convinces me that God desires to redeem the entire cosmos, not simply humanity. I learn from him to envision an end to creation’s “bondage to decay” and to hope that God will somehow end the suffering and violence that now permeate existence. I come to believe with Paul that God has a better eschatological end in mind for the entire cosmos—an end free of the pain and suffering of violence.
This is admittedly a big vision. Every day I experience and benefit from the violence built into the natural processes of the cosmos. Yet though violence in nature is inevitable, I am not convinced we must therefore accept any and every instance of it as though nothing can be done or as if God is simply waiting for the “eschaton” (the last things) to redeem creation. As I read and reflect on Anabaptist nonviolence and the Christian eschatological tradition, I see the beauty of a divine vision not meant for the future alone.
The Anabaptist tradition has long resisted the idea that the teachings of Jesus are restricted to some future time when they will be completely possible to live. We see the vision of Christ as one meant to transform our world here and now.
Anabaptists have certainly not blindly accepted violence between humans as the way things have to be, despite the fact that violence has played a large role in human heritage.
While a vision of ecological nonviolence cannot be completely ushered in at the moment, this does not mean we simply wait for a future time to extend the gospel of peace to our animal neighbors. With the peaceful end God has in mind for creation, it is clear that Anabaptist-Mennonite nonviolence has a direct role to play in our relationship with creation. I propose that we broaden the Anabaptist vision of nonviolence to a position of “eco-pacifism.” Exactly what this means and how it would work out is complex and requires actual dialogue in Anabaptist communities. To put it simply, I suggest eco-pacifism as an ethic that (1) sees all creation as morally considerable and
(2) employs the ideal of nonviolence to (3) treat all creation (insofar as it is possible) in accord with its intrinsic nature, allowing it to meet its own purposes and function according to its own design.
I recall vividly my realization of the necessity of a theology of nonviolence toward our animal neighbors. While reading C. David Coats’ Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm, I was horrified to discover the methods of modern industrialized farming—a far cry from traditional animal husbandry.
From a chapter on pigs in factory farms I learned about the treatment of sows used to give birth to as many offspring as possible—all of whom will be slaughtered for human consumption. I read of mothers confined for the better part of their short lives to birthing crates where they can barely move, let alone properly care for their young. The thought of an animal being restricted from movement for three to four years, being forced to give birth as often as they are able and then to be deprived from natural interaction with their young moved me to tears. I found that conditions for other animals are no better; I immediately became a vegetarian and sought other ways to promote nonviolence toward our animal neighbors. How could I continue to accept such radical violence toward creatures loved by a God who seeks to redeem them from violence?
Eco-pacifism does not always mean a refusal to take life. I recognize that we cannot always survive without some forms of violence and the taking of life. But we may ask when it is in line with God’s eschatological vision to refrain from killing if it is unnecessary for our survival. Since so much of the future vision described above relates to an end to suffering, Anabaptists should consider refraining from killing or supporting the killing and torture of other-than-human animals that have the capacity to suffer when it is not necessary for our survival. While we cannot eliminate all violence in nature, it does seem to be in our power to extend the nonviolent love of the gospel to many animals. Doing this represents a further inbreaking of the kingdom that we believe ought to impact our world now as well as characterize the age to come.
My experiences have shaped my sensitivity toward this topic. My upbringing in close proximity to animals of all kinds, my strong bonds with two specific companion animals and my love for the Anabaptist tradition of nonviolence shape my outlook on life. Humans are by no means the only species longing for redemption and peace. God offers this redemption and peace to all creation, not just humans. Redemption begins on Earth and involves living according to the divine vision of peace here and now. To this end, Christians ought to begin extending the gospel of peace beyond the border of species. Though we may never in this life arrive at the fullness of the vision, we can see its partial fulfillment as we live more and more peacefully with our animal neighbors.
Matthew Eaton is a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, studying theology with a focus on ecological and animal ethics, and attends Toronto United Mennonite Church.
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