Why should we care and rescue animals from harm in human disasters such as the present withdrawal from Afghanistan ?
This is a topical question that requires comment from theologians. I focus on the disaster in Afghanistan and the criticism of Pen Farthing. I speak from personal experience of having lived and worked in the region with wonderful people who deal with the daily cruelty to women and children.
To give context, corruption in this region is endemic and cascades from the top down. There is no ‘society’ as we know it, in the world of the poor. Their lives are cheap and women have little if any freedom, as we understand it. The treatment of animals – also the innocents in these situations - is very similar to that found in many other countries. They are not generally treated with care or compassion. Dogs are categorized as unclean. Unfortunately, we in the West also have this idea, especially in religious quarters as many priests will not let dogs into church or church grounds. Cats are tolerated more than dogs who are in the main, kept chained as guard dogs or fighting dogs, whilst strays have stones hurled at them by children/adults if they come close or used as target practise by the local police. That said, there is a small percentage who do care and some of these are criticised in the same way that animal protectionists are in our societies. This then is the brutal backdrop that envelopes this commentary on the question of why we ought to care and rescue animals in situations like Afghanistan.
I can state with authority that there are both Christian and other sacred texts to support the proposition of caring and rescuing animals in such situations. As a Christian, one of our deepest beliefs is that we are made in the Image of God. We believe that our God is good, loving and compassionate. As such this defines, or should define, our beliefs and actions. St Basil states that as God has left nothing, including the little sea urchin, outside of His providence, it naturally follows that we too should be good, loving and compassionate to all of His creatures. Whilst we cannot fully achieve that Image we are, nonetheless, to strive towards achieving a good likeness of it. We know this can be achieved in good part in this earthly realm because the Saints are our exemplars. Many had good and compassionate relationships with animals, be that in the deserts of Egypt or the forests of Sarov in more modern times.
We also find support in our Scriptures such as Isaias 11:6 and Psalm 35:6 (36) where men and animals will be saved. It is however, in the New Testament that we have our most important text for this discussion. In Luke 14:5 (in the original Greek) Christ, in his teachings on the Sabbath, states that we must be above the law in virtue even if that means at times, disagreeing with those in authority who have lost their spiritual acuity. This teaching clearly indicates his expectations of care and compassionate action when the situation arises :
Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well [pit], will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day ? And they could not reply to this.
Christ adds the human to His previous teachings in Matthew and Luke and in so doing, evidences his expectation of an equality of care, compassion and most importantly for this discussion, of immediate action to save animals and humans – regardless of the religious teachings or social norms of the day. Christ’s audience not only understood the parable but also the wider context. I use it here to the same effect. Which of you if you see a stray or injured animal will not immediately try to help in some way ? Here one could expand the discussion by including the parable of the Good Samaritan, which challenges us to ask who qualifies as our neighbour ? All that God actualizes as created beings fall into the category of His neighbour – the ‘other’. Thus, as Image, all created beings should become our neighbours ; those of whom we are called/taught to care, nurture and rescue from harm in order for them to flourish and achieve their God-determined telos. This is part of our role as ‘priest of creation’, a phrase so frequently used by Orthodox Christians yet rarely achieved in practice.
That one man, among the many thousands of men and women who fought in Afghanistan, stayed to care for the animals and train the good ordinary people of Afghanistan – many of whom are women - in order to better the lives of both people and animals in that country, is extraordinary. That he tried to save both humans and animals and failed is surely worthy of our respect rather than our condemnation. He stands as a type of ‘kenotic saviour’- something that can be achieved by ordinary people if they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the good of others – no matter who that other may be. That he is criticized should not surprise us. Why ? The fathers are clear – we are in the main, selfish, arrogant creatures who are way short of where we ought to be in terms of caring for others and way short of where we ought to be spiritually, if we are to love as God loves us.
Not everyone can do as this man has done. God has perhaps given them other skills or other burdens but let those of us who have a faith remember some basic truths. We as Image, are to be good, kind and compassionate to all and when we can - when God creates the conditions for us to act for the benefit of others - and this may well entail some form of sacrifice-of-self in order to do so, then we are to act immediately in love for all, rather than criticizing those who try to help others – no matter who that other may be.
Dr Christina Nellist, B. Ed ; Ph. D ; FOCAE.