VOICES: Where are the St. Francis’s, Wesley’s, and Schweitzer’s today?

Most Christians have some awareness of St. Francis’s concern for animals, but few would connect John Wesley, founder of Methodism, and Albert Schweitzer, missionary, doctor, theologian, and Nobel Peace Prize winner in any profound way with the treatment of animals. This is unfortunate.

Today, any suggestion that Christians re-examine their faith and begin to include animal suffering in their scope of moral concern is often met with derision and hostility. Instead of trying to address the issue in creative and appropriate ways that provide understanding for church members, the clergy seem to prefer remaining willfully ignorant and dismissive. Fear of losing members has been expressed, but if handled in a sensitive manner, I believe the fear will prove to be mostly unfounded.

With Sunday School classes and Bible Studies in place, churches provide a ready-made environment for dealing with a subject. Introducing the thinking and philosophy of the three Christian luminaries could be a non-threatening method of acquainting members with alternative views of Christian responsibility when it comes to animals. Some knowledge of cultural practices with animals would be required to add context to the discussion. The church has rightly been called a “Sleeping Giant,“ which, if properly awakened, could hasten the day when animal suffering is significantly reduced. Advocating for meaningful Bible Studies of this timely moral issue by members might give it just the push needed. A willingness, also, to incorporate plant-based foods and dairy alternatives, along with seeking out cruelty-free products are concrete steps toward reducing cruelty and ones that approach what the Christian luminaries taught.

The following are a few examples, out of many, of the orientation of the three, that could be examined:

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226): Numerous stories illustrate the Saint’s love and close relationship to animals. For example, he called all creatures his brothers and sisters and as such, their welfare concerned him. St. Francis was also known to rescue animals being harshly treated. He was adamant that animals were as much God’s creatures as humans and as such should be protected. He believed it was not only our duty to refrain from harming animals, but to help them when they required it. It is said that St. Francis preached to a flock of birds that gave him their full attention. Such charming and heartwarming accounts suggest a different attitude toward animals may be more appropriate for Christians than is currently exhibited. St. Francis went on to say, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.“

John Wesley (1703-1791): In his sermon The General Deliverance, he declared, “Nothing is more sure than as the Lord is loving to every person, so is his mercy over all his works“. He tells us to imitate God with our own tender mercies. Wesley also clarifies that it was Adam with perfect faculties and no biases who was given dominion. This verse is very often appropriated out of context to excuse the treatment of animals. Wesley goes on to ask if animals will always remain in this deplorable condition, concluding they will not. He says, “Their groans are not dispersed in idle air but enter the ears of Him who made them. "

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965): When still a small child he said he wondered why people never prayed for animals, so he composed the following prayer: “Dear God, protect and bless all living things; keep them from evil and let them sleep in peace.“ Eventually, he organized his life and philosophy around the principle of ‘Reverence for Life,’ saying, “Whenever I injure any kind of life, I must be certain that it is necessary.” Schweitzer asked, " How much effort will it take for us to get people to understand the words of Jesus, blessed are the merciful, and bring them to the realization that their responsibility includes all creatures?”

Sadly, most Christians, as well as the secular population, are more concerned with maintaining their pleasure, convenience, and tradition, than in expressing mercy, compassion, and selflessness when it comes to animals. Perhaps, somehow, acquaintance with these Christian luminaries may help encourage a more reflective, thoughtful, and compassionate approach.

Larry Brown is a retired teacher, songwriter, musician, and former candidate for State Representative. He has been a vegetarian/vegan since 1976.

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