The Shelf Life of a Social Statement

As we approach Earth Day 2019, our thoughts rightly turn to creation theology. I appreciate the March 29, 2019, post on the Living Lutheran site by ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. She refers to the 1993 ELCA Social Statement, “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice.” There is much in that statement which remains relevant and commendable. But I wonder. What is the shelf life of a social statement?

For the post, see
https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/03/all-created-things/?fbclid=IwAR2acbNVs5CLlBJRw9ubyi5djZeTbnrLlNfcs_inAVGtSWYLaBDlZGVxxMQ

The statement identifies the human vocation of dominion in terms of suffering service on behalf of all creation. “Human dominion…should reflect God’s way of ruling as a shepherd king who takes the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7), wearing a crown of thorns.” The statement also notes the created continuity between humans and animals. So far, so good.

On balance, however, the statement is relentlessly human-centered. For example, the statement identifies “Justice as Participation” as an operational principle for people of faith. “We live within the covenant God makes with all living things,” the statement notes, “and are in relationship with them.” Even though that covenant is made with all things, the only participatory voices mentioned in the succeeding paragraphs are limited to human voices. The only interests mentioned in the succeeding paragraphs are limited to human interests. The voiceless remain silenced.

The statement continues with the principle of “Justice through Solidarity.” That principle means that “we stand together as God’s creation.” This principle may contain a nod toward justice regarding animals. However, the label of “creation” tends to mush all human entities into a featureless category. This permits us to ignore the impacts particular creatures who can and do suffer at our hands.

The principle of “Justice through Sustainability” focuses on the needs of future human generations. And where the focus on animals is obliquely mentioned, that focus is on wild animals with no language regarding domestic animals.

The statement describes the ELCA as “a community of moral deliberation.” Among the bullet points in this section are included mentions of “personal habits of food consumption,” “farming practices,” and “treatment of animals in livestock production, laboratory research, and hunting.” After these brief mentions, the statement concludes with concern about the environment as a whole.

It would be unfair to expect a nearly thirty-year-old statement to anticipate all current realities. So I wonder about the shelf life of a social statement. In particular, the statement seems to studiously avoid any concrete concerns about industrial agriculture. It is well-documented that industrial agriculture now produces more greenhouse, global-warming, gases than all other human activities combined. It is documented that industrial agriculture results in the deaths of nearly 60 billion sentient land animals annually, often by methods that would be regarded as torture when applied to humans This doesn’t begin to count water creatures of various kinds. Nor does it actually address the continued use of sentient and intelligent vertebrates in product development and testing.

The nature of vertebrate sentience and consciousness, especially in terms of capacity to suffer, is much better understood than it was thirty years ago. The statement’s understanding of the continuity between human and animal creation is well-taken and even scientifically supported. But the statement does not follow through on the implications of that continuity for our servant vocation in relationship to other creatures. That information was not readily available, perhaps, in 1993. But a simple Internet search provides gigabytes of text, audio and video data (some of it stomach-turning in its detail).

Consumer culture creates stories that permit us to be comfortable with our commodification of others. One of those stories is that the animals we love to eat are different from the animals we love to cuddle. So, for example, the current effort in the Iowa legislature to toughen legislation regarding animal abuse is regarded in several quarters with suspicion. “Agricultural groups have in past years have
[sic] argued tougher animal cruelty laws could create new regulations for farmers and might be hijacked by animal rights groups intent on shutting down livestock operations.” See
https://www.radioiowa.com/2019/04/02/toughening-animal-cruelty-laws-under-review-in-iowa-legislature/.

The border between cuddling and carnage must be maintained, according to the above perspective. But what is the justification for that boundary?

The language of that news report is interesting. Animal rights groups are subtly accused of potential violence. They might “hijack” proposed regulations for their nefarious purposes. Even the reporter succumbs to the cultural narrative that farm animals are different, and that the crazy animal rights people are the ones prone to violence. Prosecuting “pet abuse” is legitimate. Prosecuting pig abuse is not. Perhaps an updated ELCA Social Statement might examine such incoherent thinking.

I am not, however, optimistic that such a reexamination will take place. The ELCA has thousands of congregations economically beholden in a variety of ways to industrial agriculture and related activities. The reticence to address these issues in the 1993 statement is, I suspect, largely the result of that relationship. That much has not changed in thirty years.

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