My life story could be told in the dogs I have owned: Chiang, Clara, Moppy, Abby and for the past decade, Samson the Wonder Dog, our 70+-pound Lab. For me, the bigger the dog, the better. I’m not so much into small, yappy dogs, but if that’s your thing, have at it.
When I was a kid, I hid my eyes when Lady and the Tramp shared spaghetti noodles and kissed. I rooted against Cruella Deville when she tried to kill 101 Dalmations. The first movie I cried at was OId Yeller. I loved the Incredible Journey stories, and even Turner & Hooch. I even liked the Taco Bell dog.
Like I said, I love dogs.
But I am increasingly uncomfortable with the personalization and valuation of dogs in our culture. This has been rising in the popular consciousness for a number of years, and has recently hit the tipping point. Let me explain.
Dog owners have a unique relationship with their pets. There is a deep, personal, nearly visceral bond between the two. Dogs are intelligent, and have a way of communicating. The look in the eyes, turn of head, raising of an ear, wagging of a tail and other body language can display what appears to be eagerness, curiosity, fear, inquisitiveness, protectiveness, affection and more. (Of course, a dog can also say “Bacon!…for me!!” in a thousand different ways.)
Now, dogs don’t talk in words, so most of the time, our sense of what a dog is saying, thinking, feeling, etc must be supplied by the conjecture of the human interacting with them. Beginning with movies like Lady & the Tramp (and probably before), there has been a steady march towards personalizing dogs—giving them the same sort of motives, logic, emotions, expressions and inclinations that human beings in the same situation would have. Listen to many conversations and you will be hard pressed to tell the difference between references to the dog and the human.
That’s only a small piece of the personalization puzzle. Add the heart-tugging commercials for the ASPCA that show sad dog faces set to the background of love songs like Willie Nelson’s You Were Always on My Mind or Sarah McLachlan’s Angel. And don’t even get me started on PETA and their weirdness.
Here’s the thing that disturbs me: this steady march towards personalizing dogs has had the effect of humanizing dogs. And in humanizing dogs, we have elevated the value of a dog’s life. And to many minds, that elevation has resulted in drawing an equivalence between the value of a dog’s life and the value of a human life. And that equivalence has the ultimate effect of devaluing a human life.
Case in point: the Michael Vick affair. Pro football quarterback Michael Vick’s involvement with the abusive treatment of dogs that were part of his dog-fighting ring was, and is, despicable. He should have faced criminal penalties for such behavior, and did. He served time in a federal prison for those charges, according to the established sentencing guidelines.
But the response from some quarters since Vick has been released has been simply unbelievable. Many felt that he had completely forfeited his right to make a living as a professional football player. Campaigns and protestors railed against the Philadelphia Eagles, who gave him a short-term contract to see if, after his two-year-layoff, he still had the skills necessary to play at a professional level. Many did not want him to be part of their community. Even when he has served his sentence, fully complied with the terms of his parole, has both verbalized and demonstrated remorse, and now evidences a genuine change of lifestyle, there are those who will not accept anything less than for Michael Vick to be ostracized from society.
I understand the outrage. What I fail to understand is that the insistence on maintaining the value of a dog’s life seems to negate the possibility of genuine human redemption. There is a sense that a crime against a dog is so despicable that it leaves a person scarred and ruined beyond recovery. Is this the crime from which there is no return? I just rarely hear the same sort of ongoing outrage over crimes that impact human beings.
This all crystallized on a recent segment of Hannity. During the Great American Panel segment, discussion turned to President Obama’s recent call to the president of the Philadelphia Eagles, congratulating him on the team’s role in Vick’s rehabilitation. Since this is Fox News Channel (fair and balanced), it was another obvious opportunity to rail against Obama. In that discussion, conservative columnist Tucker Carlson said,
“I’m a Christian, I’ve made mistakes myself, I believe fervently in second chances. But Michael Vick killed dogs, and he did in a cruel, heartless way. Personally, I think he should’ve been executed for that. But the idea that the President of the United States would be getting behind someone who murdered dogs? That is just beyond the pale.”
That statement is so messed-up on so many levels. I would love to say that Carlson tied his bow-tie too tight and that the lack of oxygen to his brain led to these comments, but sadly, there are a lot of people who feel the same way.
The problem is that this is framed as a statement of Christian ethics. In the Christian ethic there is no sin beyond redemption, because there is no sin beyond the cross of Christ. There is no sin beyond forgiveness – personal and public – because if there is, then there is no forgiveness for any of us. Yes, there are consequences for sin, but to question mercy and even the encouragement towards rehabilitation flies in the face of the outrageous extent of Jesus’ grace and mercy, which are at the core of the Christian gospel.. As one poet put it, Christians live in “the land of beginning again”, which means there are second chances on top of our second chances—all the way to infinity.
But notice also the use of the word “murder” to refer to dogs. That’s interesting, because even our law codes reserve the term murder –whether premeditated, by reason of insanity or accidental –for taking the life of another human being.
The use of the term equalizes the severity of the death. And that is the problem. Yes, both dogs and human beings are creations of God. But, these lives are simply not the same. A human life is qualitatively more precious than a canine’s life because human beings alone are “created in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27). A human life alone has a soul that has moral capacity and will live eternally. .A human life alone is “fearfully and wonderfully made”, with a divine purpose to every day before one of them come to be. (Ps. 139:13-16) A human life alone is designed to bring glory to God. (Is. 43:7)
In short, a human life is more valuable than a canine life. If we lose sight of that truth and cheapen human life in even in a slight way, our culture will coarsen, darken and begin to wind down a very dangerous path. A consistent Christian, pro-life, ethic begins by affirming the unique and precious nature of every human life.
So, yes, we must love dogs. But first, we must stand in loving amazement before the crown of God’s creation: a human being.
We must love dogs. But first, we must make sure that we stoke the fires of a more intense passion for the protection of all human life, from cradle to grave.
We must love dogs. But first, we must celebrate Irenaeus’ ancient maxim that “the glory of God is a man fully alive” and nurture all that aliveness entails: ordinary and extraordinary, beauty and wonder, creation and destruction, failure and redemption.
We must love dogs. But first, we must love human beings.