Eucharist – Dogs & Cats
St Frideswide’s , Oseney
Eucharist on Sunday 9th September 2012
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Isaiah 35.4-7; James 2.1-17;Mark 7.24-37; Psalm 146.
He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
We begin our Gospel reading with a spirited dialogue between Jesus on the one side and the Syrophoenician woman, and one which initially, at any rate , does not show Jesus in the best light. Of course, as a human being, he had to learn what it felt like not to be Jew, not to be one of God’s chosen people. He had to learn what social exclusion meant, before his divine and human nature were fully integrated. All our readings tells us that. What does it mean to be poor, what does it mean to be always hungry, to be mentally ill, blind, deaf, or an outcast and what must it be like to be a dog? We all know that social exclusion is wrong under every circumstance and I do not intend to devote today’s sermon to nagging you and asking you to be nice to human beings, because I know you all try your best, as do I, to be inclusive, but instead I will explore a topic which has exercised the Church all too little over the years: I am going to the dogs. What are our responsibilities to dogs and , indeed, to other animals?
Dogs seem to be in rather short supply in scripture, with the exception of the faithful little dog which accompanies Tobias and the archangel Raphael on their adventure (Tobit 6:2 and 11:4). It has been suggested that there is some Greek influence here, a reminiscence here of Odysseus’ faithful hound Argos, but it is certainly an odd element in a Jewish text, probably originally in Aramaic. Clearly the language Jesus uses implies that he was brought up to regard dogs as unclean, like pigs; though the episode of the Gadarene swine (Mark 5:13) is in my opinion connected with a victory of a local Pagan swine-cult. However, if one takes the story at its face value one can only be sorry for the pigs. It should be added that if an animal is not kosher that only means the animal cannot be eaten; it does not imply that it cannot be cherished as part of God’s Creation.
We pride ourselves on living in a society which cares about animals, and, certainly, I am delighted to find so many happy, friendly and well-loved dogs in this Benefice, starting from friends from the Rectory who came on the Prayer Walk yesterday! However, as is the case with human beings, that feeling of empathy is not necessarily the case everywhere, and the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals has just published a booklet to highlight the problem, dealing with cats as well as dogs, for they too often suffer at the hands of our species.
Some dogs and other animals are subject to systematic abuse, often in problem families where children and women are also abused, the subject of a harrowing conference held in Oxford some years ago under the auspices of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. Dogs are simply neglected and starved, abandoned by their owners, brutalised as ‘fighting dogs’, subjected to cruel experiments in research, and even have explosives strapped to them so that they can be employed as living bombs in warfare. The booklet details puppy mills in which bitches are simply breeding machines to feed pedigree dogs onto the market , and in which the welfare of the animals is at best a secondary consideration. And we all worry about the breeding and disposal of racing greyhounds which are unfit to run and of foxhounds when they are too old to keep up with the pack or used in research. There is far too much abusive and callous disregard of the welfare, physical and mental of ‘man’s best friend’.
Some in the Church might say: ‘We have to prioritize, and put human beings first’ but that is, of course, a totally false position. Just as St James tells us not to favour the rich over the poor, so we should show compassion to all Creation, at least if we are to be effective stewards of it. For the Christian who truly follows Christ, compassion has absolutely no limits. That was certainly the position of St Francis of Assisi for whom every animal was a brother or sister.
Fortunately, the majority (and I hope it is a majority) of dogs and cats, are cherished companions, but many other creatures in our world are not so lucky. What goes for dogs, goes for horses, mules and donkeys, all of which are types of animal which though many are treated with kindness, many others ,especially mules and donkeys, suffer hardship and far worse.. The ass (donkey) was the very creature which first saw Our Lord as a baby in a manger, according to the famous legend which first appears in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew , probably as late as the 8th or 9th century, and it was the ass which bore on it back the saviour of the world on Palm Sunday (Matt.21:1-11). Horses and mules have been forced to participate in wars not of their own making since very early times: when we hear the scriptures being read do we ever stop to think about the Egyptian horses drowned in the Red Sea (cf Exodus 14:23-28; 15:1 ff.)? One of the most moving war memorials I know anywhere is the one in Park Lane,London commemorating all the animals killed in warfare.
And what should we say, think and do about cattle, sheep and pigs? They are reared in their millions for food, and too seldom allowed even the vestige of a community life, as calves, lambs and piglets are taken from their mothers almost at birth. And the plight of birds, chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese may be even worse. Caged, packed together, often without access to daylight, unable to preen or forage, what sort of life is that? There is something supremely horrid about chickens in their millions simply treated as commodity to be bred in broiler plants and killed and packaged on conveyor belts to feed the fast food market. And this, despite the fact that neuroscience now backs the anecdotal evidence (anecdotal evidence which goes back for centuries) of those people who do care for the plight of other animals. Every one of these creatures from chickens to lambs and calves has cognition, expresses emotions, feels pain, knows fear. Is there any way that this treatment of animals can be consistent with the obligation of stewardship we are given by God in the first chapter of Genesis?
And then there are wild animals. Although,in this country, no longer hunt whales (which may be as intelligent as us) we have damaged their marine environment, while on land, wild nature can only survive in small pockets, constantly under threat from development. Elsewhere in the world the position is dire, for example the forests in south-east Asia, home of the Orang-outangs has been decimated as have the woods of central Africa where the gorillas live – and are hunted. We act as though the world, land and sea, was entirely ours to play with, and (as our government is doing now) we seek economic growth at all costs rather than peace for the environment that is the common home of all living beings. If animals (such as badgers) get in the way of that, it is simply hard luck- for them!. By doing so, we are in danger of forgetting God and scorning the admonition that our entire duty is to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with Him (Micah 6:8).
As St James warns us, it is simply not enough to have faith, if one does not act on it. Faith without works is completely useless. Too easily, it can simply be an excuse to prop up our prejudices, against others, and so we find people getting ever more worked up about keeping their wealth intact, excluding others of a different culture or religion, sexuality or sex instead of embracing all and establishing justice for all, including (it goes without saying) dogs and horses and pigs and every one of God’s creatures. If we are ever to be responsible stewards of Creation, we will have to totally change our style of life. So, at the very least, the rearing of animals in factory farms and eating factory farmed meat, has to be entirely wrong and evil, as it is a grave offence against the basic tenets of the Noachic contract which we recall God made with ‘all flesh’(Genesis9:9-17). Remember Balaam’s ass (Numbers 22:21-33) which saw and obeyed the angel when Balaam could not; if the ass had gone one step further the angel would have slain Balaam,but not the ass ; remember Jonah who wanted simply to see Nineveh destroyed, regardless of the people and regardless too of the animals which lived there, but which were precious to God(Jonah 4:11) ; remember what Jesus said about the sparrows caught in the net of a fowler, that they too are known to and loved by God (Matt.:10:29).
I have just returned from the three day Animal retreat at Cropthorne near Pershore in Worcestershire, devoted to prayer and reflective talks about animals and their needs. I spoke about the love we all have for some birds and the hideous mistreatment of others. In our meditations we recalled the dogs under the table and reminded ourselves that if they are excluded, it is by us blinkered humans and never by the will of a God who knows what it is to be despised and rejected by men, spat on, beaten and crucified.
Lord of the World remember all your suffering creatures , creatures of the same God, and may we, as Christians, as a Church, resolve to be more thoughtful, more compassionate and more merciful to every one of your creatures in future.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.