Religion & Liberty Online

The Dignity of Chickens and the Character of God

After a farmer in Australia had a change of heart about keeping his chickens in battery cages, he freed all 752 hens. The video below (via Rod Dreher) shows the chickens taking their first steps on soil, and feeling sunshine for the first time.

What is your initial reaction on seeing the video? Did you roll your eyes at the liberal-leaning, anti-business, vegetarian-loving motive that surely inspired the clip? Did you automatically assume the “animal rights” nuts (the video was created by Animals Australia, a group founded by the evil-promoting bioethicist Peter Singer) are off on one of their Quixotic crusades again? Or did it make you sad — like it did me — that an atheistically inspired movement appears to be more concerned about God’s creatures than are many of our fellow Christians?

If a poll were taken on the question of which group has the most care and concern for the welfare of animals, Christians—whether Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, etc.—would invariably be near the bottom of the list. How did we lose our status as stewards of creation? After all, animal welfare was once considered the province of Christians. In fact, one of the first organized movements for animal welfare dates back to 1824, when William Wilberforce‚ the British politician who worked to abolish the slave trade‚ and other evangelicals helped establish the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Catholics too have a long and rich history of concern for God’s creatures that dates back at least as far as St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. Theoretically, the Church’s position hasn’t changed. In an interview given before he became pontiff, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said that animals must be respected as our “companions in creation.” He acknowledged that while it is acceptable to use them for food,

[W]e cannot just do whatever we want with them. . . . Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.

caged3Evangelical leader Richard Mouw came to a similar conclusion after discussing the care of animals with a group of Dutch Reformed farmers. As one chicken farmer told Mouw:

”Colonel Sanders wants us to think of chickens only in terms of dollars and cents,” he announced. “They are nothing but little pieces of meat to be bought and sold for food. And so we’re supposed to crowd them together in small spaces and get them fat enough to be killed—But that’s wrong! The Bible says that God created every animal ‘after its own kind.’ Chickens aren’t people, but neither are they nothing but hunks of meat. Chickens are chickens, and they deserve to be treated like chickens! This means that we have to give each chicken the space to strut its stuff in front of other chickens.”

Mouw says that the farmer “sensed an obligation to treat his chickens with dignity—not human dignity, mind you, but chicken dignity.”

This is where Christians differ from animal rights groups like PETA. While we believe in protecting animal welfare, we also believe that dignity is inherent to the creature. In contrast, atheistic animal rights advocates believe dignity is merely qualitative and that we are all—animals and humans—mere creatures.

But in leveling our creatureliness, such groups deny the dignity of both humans and chickens. Dignity is defined as the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect. In the Christian view, human and animal life has an inherent dignity derived from God. A generous and loving Creator not only provides our biological existence but also retains this same gift for his own enjoyment. Human life, therefore, belongs not to us but to God.

Animal life, also belongs to him, but humans are called to exercise “dominion” over the rest of creation (Gen. 1: 28). All life is intrinsically valuable because our Creator values it. Whether of humans or chickens‚ dignity is not a quality that is earned, but rather a status that is recognized.

One of the primary duties for Christians is, therefore, to recognize the dignity of all of God’s creatures and to exercise our dominion over them in ways that are humane, responsible, and God-honoring. Using a hot blade to slice the tip of the beak off a chick is not humane. Storing them in cages so crowded that the hens can’t even extend a wing is not responsible. And making the profane claim that starving chickens is “like a fast”, as one Trappist monk and chicken farmer said, is certainly not God-honoring. These actions are nothing short of sinful.

As theologian R.C Sproul says, in our sin we become false witnesses to God:

When we sin as the image bearers of God, we are saying to the whole creation, to all of nature under our dominion, to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field: “This is how God is. This is how your Creator behaves. Look in the mirror; look at us, and you will see the character of God Almighty.”

What does our exercise over dominion say about God? Does how we treat chickens and cows, dogs and ducks, and other “companions in creation” speak truthfully about our Creator? If not, what will we as Christians do to stop misrepresenting the nature of God?

Giving each chicken the “space to strut its stuff in front of other chickens” may seem like a minor concern. But when we fail to recognize the dignity of chickens, we fail to adequately reflect the character of God. And that is a matter of eternal consequence.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).