The Dominion of Love

Rev. Will Tuttle, Ph.D.

It seems that some of the primary justifications people use for eating animals are ideas they’ve found in the Bible. Usually it’s either that animals don’t have souls, that God gave us animals to eat, or that Jesus ate fish. These beliefs are deeply rooted and pervasive, and it’s difficult to argue against them without getting into complex issues of translation and interpretation.

Norm Phelps, spiritual outreach director of the Fund for Animals, has done both the animal rights movement and the Judeo-Christian tradition an enormous service with his new book, The Dominion of Love. This book is valuable not only to Christians and Jews, but to anyone interested in the relationship between spirituality and the humane treatment of animals. This is because he probes straight to the heart of the matter by focusing on the Bible’s two fundamental spiritual teachings, and by comparing both Old and New Testament passages to these two “Prime Directives,” he brings clarity to the teachings and separates the wheat from the chaff.

One of the Prime Directives is to love God with all our heart and mind, and the other is to love our neighbor as ourself. He calls them the Prime Directives because they are presented in both testaments as fundamental, and he points out that these two core teachings make the Bible, at its heart, a profound human rights and animal rights treatise. The only way we humans can meaningfully show love for God, who is infinite and needs nothing from us, is to love God’s creation and all God’s creatures, and loving our neighbor certainly means acting kindly toward all our neighbors, both human and nonhuman.

These two Prime Directives provide a touchstone for interpreting the Bible, and also for seeing which biblical passages (and church doctrines), in opposing these Prime Directives, must be faulty and the result of delusion on the part of those who formulated them. He calls such passages “line noise” and “static” in both the writing and translating of the Bible. He points out that even Bible thumpers acknowledge the presence of “static” in the Bible, and no longer, for example, use Bible passages that support human slavery (e.g., Lev. 25: 44-46) to justify this inherently cruel institution. They understand it as cultural baggage several millennia old and mainly ignore it.

Now is the time, Phelps passionately argues, to see that from the viewpoint of its deepest and most eternal and universal teachings, the Prime Directives, the Bible unequivocally condemns animal slavery just as it condemns human slavery. We must stop using the Bible to justify animal abuse, but rather use it to guide us in our quest for peace and justice for all beings, which he shows is articulated in the Bible as the dominion of love.

What makes this book especially valuable is that, while it is a Herculean task to thoroughly examine the numerous references to animals and animal welfare contained in the Bible, Phelps manages to do this in fewer than 200 pages of reading that is consistently interesting and arresting. The book has grace and potency, and it contains a wealth of jewels to help even the most orthodox see the message of compassion for animals and for all life that is at the heart of the Bible’s teaching.

Much that Phelps unearths in his research is fascinating, and he demonstrates how Biblical passages that on the surface seem to promote or permit animal cruelty, when looked at more closely with regard to historical context, translation, and intent, are actually saying something quite different. Though his intention is clearly to recast the Bible in a light that is more favorable to animals, The Dominion of Love does not force the Bible into a procrustean box. A tone of evenhandedness pervades the book, and while, for example, Phelps points out that in the Bible Jesus is never depicted eating meat during his mortal lifetime, and that the chances are he was a vegetarian, he candidly acknowledges that we can probably never know for certain whether he was in fact a vegetarian.

Some ultraconservatives will probably balk at Phelps’ methods and conclusions, but anyone with even a slightly open mind will find in this book much to ponder, and valuable fuel for the journey to deeper understanding of the Bible’s message of universal compassion.

Will Tuttle, Ph.D., composer, pianist, Zen priest, and author of The World Peace Diet, is cofounder of Karuna Music & Art and of the Prayer Circle for Animals and Circle of Compassion ministry.

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