We Must Fight Injustice to Animals – by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu is archbishop emeritus of Cape Town and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid work. Nelson Mandela described Tutu as: ‘sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless’. Writing in the foreword to The Global Guide to Animal Protection produced by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and the University of Illinois Press Archbishop Tutu makes a strong stand for justice for animals.

I have spent my life fighting discrimination and injustice, whether the victims are blacks, women, or gays and lesbians. No human being should be the target of prejudice or the object of vilification or be denied his or her basic rights. I could not have lived with myself, as a Christian and a bishop, if I had looked the other way. But the business of fighting injustice is like fighting a mutli-headed hydra.  As one form of injustice appears to be vanquished, another takes its place.  Even if the path of progress seems interminably long, we can content ourselves with the sense that injustices to other human beings are at least on the agenda, or mostly so.

But there are other issues of justice – not only for human beings but also for the world’s other sentient creatures. The matter of the abuse and cruelty we inflict on other animals has to fight for our attention in what sometimes seems an already overfull moral agenda. It is vital, however, that these instances of injustice should not be overlooked.

I have seen first-hand how injustice gets overlooked when the victims are powerless or vulnerable, when they have no one to speak up for them and no means of representing themselves to a higher authority. Animals are in precisely that position. Unless we are mindful of their interests and speak out loudly on their behalf, abuse and cruelty go unchallenged.

Religious traditions do not, by and large, have a good record on animals.  It has taken Christian churches some nineteen hundred years to recognize the immorality of slavery and even longer to recognize that women should not be treated as second-class citizens.  Animals have invariably occupied a rather low, sometimes non-existent place on the moral agenda of the churches.  But things are now, slowly but surely, beginning to change.  In the same way that sensitivity to race and gender-based injustice has taken years – even centuries – to develop, so increasingly numbers of people are gradually beginning to adopt more thoughtful and compassionate attitudes towards animals.

In many ways, it is odd that my fellow Christians have failed to see the issue of how we treat animals as a Gospel issue.  After all, animals are also God’s creatures. 

God’s Creation

Christians believe that the world is God’s creation.  It is a kind of theological folly to suppose that God has made the entire world just for human beings, or to suppose that God is interested in only one of the millions of species that inhabit God’s good earth. Our dominion over animals is not supposed to be despotism.

We are made in the image of God, yes, but God – in whose image we are made – is holy, loving, and just. We do not honour God by abusing other sentient creatures.

If it is true that we are the most exalted species in creation, it is equally true that we can be the most debased and sinful. This realization should give us pause.  So much of our maltreatment of animals stems from a kind of hubris, in which we foolishly suppose that our own welfare is God’s sole concern.  In fact, God’s creation is entrusted to our care and under our protection.  There is something Christ-like about caring for suffering creatures, whether they are humans or animals.

The link between cruelty to humans and cruelty to animals

Even when faced with urgent human problems, we should not overlook the issue of justice to animals. In fact, an increasing amount of evidence shows that there is a link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to weaker human beings.  We know, for example, that violent killers of humans often begin their careers years earlier by practising on animals.  All of us have an interest in the creation of a cruelty-free world.  Churches should lead the way by making clear that all cruelty – to other animals as well as human beings – is an affront to civilized living and a sin before God.

This Global Guide reflects a growing worldwide sensitivity to animals and a developing sense that – as a matter of justice – they deserve our compassion and respect.  It has my warm support.