He’s our house rabbit.
And this is how he taught me not to be a jerk.
My wife and I bought George from our local pet store just before we got married. When I was a kid I owned a rabbit as well as two guinea pigs, but that was years ago, and they lived outside. When George first entered our lives, we were largely labouring under the assumption that rabbits were basically big hamsters; balls of fuzz requiring minimal effort. We were shocked to discover that they’re in fact remarkably intelligent little creatures, more akin to a small cat (or a “dumb dog” as Owen once affectionately put it), bristling with personality.
Ah, but there it is.
To quote Neil Gaiman: “I’ve been looking for a word; a big, complicated word but so sad. I’ve found it now – alive”.
At the centre of the Christian moral universe is one, all-encompassing conviction. Everything that lives does so because it possesses the ‘breath of life’, an analogy the Bible employs to describe what it means for inanimate flesh to live, move and have its being. Living creatures are not like clockwork robots – biding time until that last turn of the gears. Neither are we some gross organic accident – a mess of overactive synapses mimicking genuine sentience. Bone and sinew is just that, and only that, says the Christian, unless it is given that which is proper only to God: life. Such a big and complicated word, precisely because it does not belong primarily to a world of bone & sinew, but to heaven.
That’s why (as Aaron and Owen have recently explained) Christians tend to be pro-life. Partly because the unborn child cannot speak and so deserves a champion, but mostly because all humans bear an image and breathe with breath that is not our own. Human creatures bear the likeness of God himself. We are stained with his fingerprints. Much more than this, we're made to participate in the eternal plan of salvation. This is something to be cherished.
But animals are living creatures too. They may not bear the imago Dei (image of God) - and all that comes with it - but they nevertheless possess the spiritus Dei (breath of God). They too boast something not of this world. Something proper only to the divine nature. That’s what lies behind the scriptures consistently matching our obedience to God with concern for an animal’s welfare. “The righteous man has concern for the life of his beast” [Prov 12:10], says Solomon, whilst the Law disciplines those who would be apathetic towards a creature’s helplessness [Deut 22:1-4].
Here’s where we reach a flashpoint, for animal theology is a liberal’s business (or so the thought goes) alongside environmental awareness, racial justice and combating poverty. The problem is that this is simply untrue. If something is God’s concern then we better start making it our own. There are no tribes in the Kingdom of God; only children. It is good for us to draw from unusual wells so long as they provide water. Church history is replete with examples of Godly men & women caring both for scriptural fidelity and for animal life, the latter concern flowing directly from the former. John Calvin, for example, could not make it any clearer:
The ox shall have just matter to condemn you. Ox have no speech as we have, and yet cannot escape. God will condemn us for cruel and unkind folk if we pity not the brute beasts. It is said in Solomon’s Proverbs, that the righteous man has regard for the blood of his horses and of his beasts that labour for him. … Verily a beast cannot speak to move us to pity and compassion, and therefore we must go to them of our own good will, even though we are not requested to do so. … We must not be slow. For why? Although a beast cannot speak a word, yet does God command us to help it.
[Calvin's Sermon on Deut 22:1-4]
Once again: we care about living things not primarily for their sake but because all life proceeds from God, always, and in every way. It took George for me to see that more clearly. Prior to us getting him I had been flippant about animal welfare – to the point of carelessness. I’d say that we shouldn’t harm such creatures but they are nevertheless “just an animal”. But I’ve since watched George exude a distinct personality, whatever that might mean in formal philosophical terms. I’ve seen him express something resembling joy and fear. I’ve witnessed him learn, remember and react.
He is (like all animals) undeniably alive – a big and complicated word, but one with staggering theological implications. And yet he’s just a rabbit. Except, those with the breath of life are never ‘just’ anything. Theologically speaking, I can’t conceive of a more gross understatement. We cannot understate its significance any more than we can overstate the hope of Scripture – that whatever else we do and however else we might account for an animal’s fate, Christ resides in heaven until that time when he restores all things [Acts 3:21], gathers all things [Eph 1:10] and makes all things new [Rev 21:5].