Biblical animal prophecy reveals ecology is all about peace

by Donna Schaper

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The prophet Isaiah spoke about the promise of universal peace in this way:

“Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the viper’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.”  (Isaiah: 11:6-9)

Wolves and lambs, cows and bears, lions and kids and vipers, oh my!

A human child plays near a snake and offers a paw into the adder’s den? You’d think the Bible’s peaceful forecasts were written after showing up at a contemporary environmental conference. Those conferences today often start in a heavy-duty theological quarrel about Lynn White’s prophetic 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” that often ends with a dismissal of his point of view. 

To refresh: White argued that we thought we were superior to nature and better than animals. He accurately read the dominion texts in Genesis 1. Anthropocentric reigned as his critique of Western theology. Sallie McFague and other theologians argue that White failed to let the Yahwist dominion account of creation quarrel with the priestly version. In Genesis 2:15, God took “man” and put him in the Garden of Eden to fill and keep it, not to dominate it. 

Now, you may want to scoff at these quarrels between biblical hermeneutics and long-dead essayists -- but don’t. Dominion is what animals give up on their way to peace. This wild and crazy biblical text about animals getting along, rather than fighting, is paired nicely with the Genesis quarrels. Like a good wine with a good dinner, they go together. 

Many think that ecology is all about nature when it is rather about peace. The metaphorical wolves and lambs of society have long fought over the water and the oil. The animals choose another way in the prophecy of just how different things are going to be. When tend and befriend replace dominion, wild and crazy things result.

“Revelation comes to those who are radically hospitable to what they don’t know,” said Rebecca Parker, a Unitarian Universalist theologian, in a 2008 sermon. 

Parker is right. Earthlings will be saved by our animal curiosity about each other. Whenever we imagine we are better than animals, we are choosing against them and their miracle ways. We are refusing to imagine peace. 

Peace comes when we move beyond one of our natures, that of fight and flight, into another of our natures, that of tend and befriend. Peace comes when we move out of one of the stories we tell ourselves -- that we are here to have dominion -- and move into another story: that we are here to fill and keep, tend and befriend the earth. Lions and lambs are meant for each other. We actually belong one animal to another.

Environmentalists have long been on the road to becoming ecologists. Environmentalists often stop too long at the station of dominion, where we must save the earth in order to save ourselves.  We are actually anthropocentric in this way, imagining ourselves the center of our world.  Ecologists, on the other hand, take the argument beyond anthropomorphism.  We go to further stops along the way: We save the earth in order to save the earth and not just to save ourselves, but also the porcupines.

Another important idea can use a little dusting off, too. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s view of “I/Thou” is rightfully famous. We are to treat each other as subjects. We are not to treat each other as objects. We are to treat each other as holy, not as ordinary.

H. Paul Santmire, an eco-theologian in the Evangelical Lutheran church, has developed an important quarrel with Buber. Like the theme animals of our prophecy, quarrels need not be antagonistic. Lions and lambs can lie together. One argument can safely sit alongside another without biting it. We can admire Buber’s I/Thou and keep it in our core. And we can also add to it.

Santimire recommends an ecological approach, one that gets us out of that place where we don’t belong, that place of domination. There we act as though animals and plants exist to feed us.   We imagine human relationships as way too important. His alternative calls for an I-Ens or I-it relationship, in which we place ourselves as part of the whole.

From domination, it is a small step to get to rich people and poor people. In that view, rich people deserve more than poor people. Rich people are not only better than animals, they are better than other people. Humans are alphas, never betas. Animals are rarely considered our neighbors and more often understood as property, food and labor, or generally, as less than or “useful” to humans. They do not have a room of their own.

It is a quick step away to have the hideous hierarchy of rich and poor, the ins and the outs, those who matter and those who don’t matter. Hierarchies live comfortably in the house of dominion and domination. Wholeness lives happily in the house of tending and befriending.

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]

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