Over the last several weeks news headlines have carried pronouncements of unspeakable tragedy and carnage. Well-known singer Christina Grimmie was senselessly murdered in Orlando. Then, just a day later, the world awoke to news of the worst mass shooting in American history. France witnessed another terror attack, the brutal and intimate murder of a police officer and his girlfriend in front of their son. A member of Britain’s parliament was murdered. Each story elicited a similar sadness, outrage, and empathy.
Interspersed among these headlines were two incidents with related plots. In Cincinnati, a 4-year old boy was nearly killed when he climbed into a zoo’s gorilla enclosure. Then in Orlando, a 2-year old boy was attacked and killed by an alligator in Orlando. Responses across the media and in the general public were more diverse than following the human-precipitated tragedies, which surprised some.
When deplorable acts of violence occur through human agency, blame is ultimately laid at the feet of the perpetrator. Certainly social structures and institutional realities come into consideration, but an individual person is finally deemed responsible.
It is much more difficult, however, to determine a path of agency and justice in the wake of animal perpetrated violence. Some cast aspersions on the mother of the 4-year old boy who fell in the gorilla enclosure: Why wasn’t she paying attention? How could she let her child wander? A petition was even begun, asking police to investigate the mother for neglect. A few blamed the zoo for improper procedures. Many were outraged over the subsequent killing of Harambe, the gorilla who resided in the enclosure. Similarly, in Orlando some were asking why parents would allow their 2-year old to play near a lagoon in Florida when “No Swimming” signs were clearly posted.
These incidents provide a window into our society and, despite the unthinkable and horrific nature of their tragedy, provide opportunities for reflection.
For much of society, worship of God has been replaced by worship of the created order. Paul pointed out this sociocultural shift in Romans 1:23, “…and [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal men and birds and animals and creeping things.”
Stephen Webb argues environmentalism is a type of broadly acceptable and palatable civil religion; he says it is good politics and tolerable religion to worship nature. We saw this briefly last year when a Minnesota dentist was barraged with death threats over the killing of a “beloved” lion in Africa (this incident in particular showed the inadequacy of prevailing American cultural narratives). While the veneration of Harambe and hypothetical purported willingness to choose his life over the 4-year old boy is clear evidence of that, I do not think such a simple analysis sufficiently bears forth the intricate thoughts and emotions at play.
James K. A. Smith says a hallmark of our secular age is the possibility of belief. For 1,000 years Christianity served as the dominant worldview for much of the Western world, rendering unbelief almost entirely unheard of. Today the inverse is true: Where belief in a transcendent God is considered untenable for vast stretches of society, the possibility of belief – and subsequent poorly suppressed yearning for it – appears to lurk in the most unanticipated spaces. Frankly, we should not be surprised when so-called “ecosexuals” facilitate ceremonies in which humans are encouraged to marry the ocean, and then consummate said marriage.
Christians recognize it is precisely the distortion of orthodox Christianity that permits – and even supports – a misguided and disproportionate love of nature. Cognizant of how idolatry warps worship of the one true God and of the increasing secular pressure exerted on America, it is no wonder the imago dei has taken a backseat to animal activism and environmental worship. When nature is an object of worship, humans are subservient to its capricious and merciless whims. The created order is due sovereign respect, and we humans have no recourse save to spew vitriol at those poor parents who dared allow their children to interfere with its matchless wisdom and authority.
Stephen Webb, however, also argued since the decline and distortion of Christianity gave birth to the pathology of environmental worship, it is a pathology for which only Christianity holds the cure. How, then, does the church embody that cure?
First, we must never hesitate to remind a weary world of the dignity of life and the beauty of humanity. The world is fallen and humans bear the indelible marks of total depravity, but that doesn’t change the reality that all humans bear the imago dei and are worthy of charitable and generous love. Our world is losing sight of the preciousness of humanity – its loveliness and redeemability. In a society where the lines between human and animal are blurring, we must resolutely proclaim the beauty and uniqueness of humanity – rejoicing in our embodied reality.
In light of the Orlando nightclub shooting Scott Sauls challenged the church to embody the gospel’s humanitarian pulse and ethic. We value human life because it is created in the image of God; we value human life because God sent Jesus Christ to redeem it. This is the church must not tire of championing. Certainly we mourn the loss of Harambe, but far greater would have been the death of that 4-year old boy. And most tragically do we look on the death of a 2-year old in Orlando. The more we talk about the value of human life, the more opportunities we have to remind people that Jesus valued humanity so much He was willing to sacrifice Himself on its behalf.
Second, we must remind the world there is a larger frame from which to view these tragedies. In Genesis 1 and 2 God made mankind steward over the animals and creation, but in Genesis 3 that stewardship was rendered much more difficult. The fall introduced enmity and strife into the world, and as a result we cannot expect congenial interactions with wild animals, even animals residing in a zoo or a theme park.
What we can expect, however, is the glorious hope of a new heaven and a new earth. In that soon-coming reality we will never again know the pain of a dead 2-year old or 49-murdered souls. We will not fear animals because we are promised the wolf and lamb shall graze together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food; truly in that day animals will neither hurt nor destroy (Isaiah 65:25).
Animals cause tragedy, nature is unpredictable, and humans commit unthinkable acts of cruelty because we’re not home yet. There is a day to come, however, when Jesus will illuminate heaven by His very presence and wipe away every tear. Let us speak generously of the inherent value of all human life, the unimaginable glory of a new heaven and new earth, and of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to ensure that men could dwell in that new creation of fellowship with God, with one another, and with the animals for all eternity.