Book Review by Karen Davis, Ph.D.
The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible
by Norm Phelps (New York: Lantern Books, 2002). $15 paperback. 205 pages.
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 meat-eating? 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
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 legitimately 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 highlights of books of related interest from Lantern Books.