The Dominion of Love:
Animal Rights According to the Bible
By Norm Phelps
Lantern Books, 2002
$15 USA $22.50 Canada
©2003 Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD
Is there any basis for animal rights in the Bible? In The Dominion of Love, Norm Phelps, the spiritual outreach director of The Fund for Animals, responds with this question: is there any basis in Hebrew and Christian scripture for human rights? His answer is yes and no. The concept of "human rights" does not actually appear in the Western religious tradition. Human Rights is a product of 18th century Enlightenment philosophy, an idea that to this day is rejected by many governments throughout the world. Rights is an "implementing mechanism," says Phelps, created to enforce the ethical teachings of love and compassion expressed by the Golden Rule-teachings that "individual conscience" has failed to implement. Now in the West, he says, we are living in the early years of an Enlightenment for the Animals. Where does the Bible fit in?
Our culture is imbued with its teachings, everything from an eye for an eye to love your enemies to love your neighbor as yourself. Phelps focuses on the concept of loving your neighbor to urge that we enlarge our understanding of who our neighbor is to include our nonhuman animal brothers and sisters. Even if the Bible does not explicitly include chickens and cows in the ancient notion of one's neighbor, there is enough in the substance of biblical teachings and scattered passages to invite such a reading and the implementation of this reading into our daily lives and protective laws. Does not Matthew 23:37 cite the mother hen as an example of protective love where it says "How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings"?
Does the Bible support animal sacrifice and meateating? Yes in some parts, and with equal relish, here and there, it supports human slavery, rape, ethnic cleansing and other barbarisms we no longer countenance. "When we read in the Bible stories of God commanding or condoning the killing of animals," says Phelps, "we should remember these tales of barbarities that God is accused of ordering against human beings. . . . Why should Biblical verses that show divine approval of animal abuse set an everlasting precedent while passages showing divine approval of the murder of men, women, and children do not?"
Phelps concedes that his approach to the Bible involves picking and choosing to an extent. But he argues that he is picking and choosing biblical passages that support the Bible's fundamental ethical call to love God, love Creation, love your Neighbor, and Be Merciful. A stumbling block is what he calls the "aristocracy theory" of creation, the idea that "man" alone is made in the image of God and is thus entitled to "reduce the rest of the earth's population to serfdom."
But even if one nurses an exalted view of humankind, to whom an All Powerful has ironically granted a host of "concessions," it doesn't follow that post-Flood morality need be one's own endpoint on Earth and a license for savagery. Rather, says Phelps, if we love creation, "we will nurture it, comfort it, care for it." The "dominion" he sees as alone hopeful consists in a conscious decision "to love God concretely by protecting and nurturing" all of our neighbors. If Judaism and Christianity do not encourage spiritual growth and a widening of human moral sympathies and obligations beyond the obscurations of history and self-centeredness, including animals "in the fullest unfolding of morality," what good do they bring?
The Dominion of Love includes valuable Appendices that identify specific biblical verses relating to the Human Treatment of Animals arranged under convenient subheadings, and Suggestions for Further Reading. These likewise are subdivided for easy follow-up together with a bibliography and highlight of books of related interest from Lantern Books.