- Animals Are Not Ours (No, Really They're Not) by Sarah Withrow King
This is a timely and unusual book. Timely, as there is a growing recognition that the animal advocacy movement had roots in an evangelical tradition.1 And unusual because "evangelical" animal theology has become as rare as hen's teeth since the late 19th century.2
Withrow King identifies herself as an "evangelical" from the outset. This is a heavily contested term (Haykin & Stewart, 2008), and she emphasizes three features: A personal sense of the presence of Christ; a distinctive view of the Bible as the "inspired word of God" by which the "lives and decisions [of evangelicals] are shaped" (pp. 7, 15); and a commitment to activism. These aspects of her faith color the book and entail a greater degree of personal disclosure than is common in ethical discourse. Thus, at the heart of her argument, is the person and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth in whom, she says, we "see mercy on a radical level. We see love and sacrifice. We see service" (p. 27). She describes her relationship with Christ as a deepening and personal experience of mercy and grace: "Some folks say that not eating animals makes them kinder, less angry, more compassionate. Jesus did that for me" (p. 3). But her discussion is not simply subjective, but theological. Moreover, its theology is distinctive in that it returns repeatedly to the canonical Judeo-Christian texts, rather than being mediated by articulations of them.
Her theology entails an emphasis on praxis rather than theory. Always an "activist," her strong sense of justice was, she says, "fuelled in part by my evangelical beliefs . . . I also knew that God had called me to stand up for justice and life in the face of a culture that systematically finds ways to prevent lives from flourishing" (p. 2). For Withrow King, "injustice" extends beyond the narrow confines familiar in 21st-century evangelical discourse. This places her squarely in an earlier evangelical tradition from John Calvin's radical rejection of animal cruelty in the 16th century to C. H. Spurgeon's similar outspokenness some 300 years later, which I will discuss later. However, it also puts her at odds with most of her evangelical contemporaries. She herself repeatedly draws attention to this, describing her isolation within her evangelical community. When she told one Christian that we kill billions of animals for food each year, his reply—"thank God for that"—made her realize the need for a theological framework (p. 6).
This candid tone extends throughout the book, setting the argument within a personal narrative. For example, after arguing that Descartes viewed animals as "thoughtless brutes," and that this led to hideous cruelty, she observes: "I really want to punch Descartes in the face, even though I try to [End Page 214] be a nonviolent person" (p. 22). This makes for an engaging read and raises a more general issue about writing in this field: That of self-disclosure in response to great suffering. As Rod Preece (2005) has noted, this is not always well negotiated, either by those who distance themselves from pain by ethical objectivity, or by those whose passionate advocacy sacrifices accuracy. Withrow King blends personal disclosure with discussion and analysis.
The book consists of short chapters and moves from a theological discussion to practical examples, including a glossary, frequently asked questions, and more. The practical advice is useful and well documented, but as it is widely available elsewhere, I will focus here on the distinctive aspects of her theology.
As might be expected, she engages with a range of contemporary theologians, including animal theologians such as Andrew Linzey and David Clough. However, she repeatedly notes that her evangelical contemporaries share neither her theology concerning animals nor her sense of calling to animal advocacy, and she laments their indifference or hostility. In particular, it is noticeable that she rarely engages with her own historical tradition, other than to reject it...