peta: more christian than christians?

Political conservatives and Christians often dismiss PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as more than a little loony—and maybe they are. There is no doubt that they have taken the love for animals to a new level, which at times seems idolatrous or pagan. I think that if it came down to it, many of its members would choose to save an animal over a human ten out of ten times. Nevertheless, I wonder if PETA’s excess has blinded Christians from the fact that their name—at least—is something Christians should advocate for as well.

I often hear Christians shirk their responsibility to care for animals based on a notion that animals are soulless creatures given for man to rule over. However, it is clear from the Genesis accounts of creation that this is not so. I think our translations obscure this point.

In the second account of creation, it says that Elohim formed man with the dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a nephesh chayim (a living soul/being) (Gen 2:7). Many Christians generally speak of this as the act that distinguishes humans from animals and that this nephesh chayim is the mark distinguishing human nature from that of the animals. Nephesh is the word our English translations translate soul, being, or life. Gen 2:7 is translated nephesh chayim living being or living soul (KJV).

What is obscured, however, is that this phrase, nephesh chayim has already occurred three times (Gen 1:20, 24, 30) in the creation account and will occur once more (Gen 2:19). In each of these occurrences, animals are the reference. However, rather than showing continuity in our translations, the major translations translate nephesh chayim as living creature(s). (Actually, the ESV does show continuity by translating the description of man as a living creature in Gen 2:7.)

So, what is the distinction between man and animal? Is it nephesh (soul)? No, not according to Genesis. Is it intelligence? In degree only, because monkeys have shown the ability to learn language and many animals including rats and birds demonstrate remarkable problem-solving abilities. Is it emotion? No, animals are clearly emotional creatures demonstrating happiness, sadness, depression, fear, and love (?). Is it sentience (consciousness or perception)? No, animals clearly prefer to live and avoid pain. In the face of the predator, prey either flee, fight, or organize to protect themselves and their kind. Is it relationships or social networks? No, just watch Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet.

According to Genesis, the difference between humankind and the animal kingdom is the image of God, which bears with it a responsibility to reign over the other nephesh chayim (Gen 1:28) and cultivate the ground (Gen 2:5). The image of God, I believe, is to be a visible representation of God in the creation. This may include some abilities more advanced than animals, but many of these things are in degree only. Rather, the image of God seems to be a position in the created order—a responsibility. The sovereign God, grants a share of that sovereignty to humans. However, this reign is not an excuse to abuse, mistreat, and exploit the creation. If we are to reflect God in the world, one has to ask if we would want God exercise his over us in the same way we have exercised ours over animals (e.g., hunt us for sport, abuse us, subject us to deplorable conditions)?

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