A New York Times headline grabbed my attention on the airplane last week: “Unlikely Partners, Freeing Chimps from the Lab.”
It turns out the National Institutes of Health has agreed to retire and find new homes for nearly all of the chimpanzees it has used for medical research.
The unlikely partners behind this move were world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall and the head of NIH, my friend Dr. Francis Collins. The “unlikely” part of their partnership, according to the Times, is that Goodall is an animal rights activist and Collins is the “ultimate white-coated lab person.”
But left unsaid by the Times is another “unlikely” aspect of Goodall’s and Collins’s relationship: Collins is an outspoken evangelical Christian.
What’s unlikely about a leading evangelical siding with an animal rights activist? Well, as Chuck Colson said years ago on this program, “When it comes to animal welfare today, Christians have allowed the secular world to take the lead and set the agenda.”
And this, my friends, should not be!
Earlier generations of Christians understood well that our stewardship of creation extends to living creatures. St. Francis of Assisi was famous for his passionate concern for animals. And William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist, took a public stand against cruelty to animals and helped found the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And in his book “The Problem of Pain,” C. S. Lewis calls the suffering of animals “appalling.” “Animal pain,” he wrote, is “begun by Satan's malice and perpetrated by man's desertion of his post.”
Now, in one sense, it’s understandable that Christians have in large measure avoided the animal welfare movement—mostly because its most vocal activists espouse a worldview that is actively hostile to Christianity: namely naturalism. That’s the idea that all that is is the result of chance, and that all living things are morally equivalent, which is why the founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals famously said, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”
Nonetheless, by ignoring the issue of animal welfare, Christians are not being the good stewards we’re called to be. So as Chuck once said, “we need to get involved in shaping laws that determine animal treatment. We must make it our business to find out how the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle of the earth are treated on factory farms, in research labs, and by commercial fishermen.”
And while I wouldn’t advocate working hand in hand with radical groups such as PETA, when we can advocate for just reforms or take action to better the treatment of animals, we absolutely should.
In other words, Francis Collins did the right thing. Now, Collins admitted in the New York Times that freeing chimpanzees is one thing. He says, after all, they are “special creatures” possessing similarities to humans “that are quite breathtaking.” But don’t expect NIH to stop experimenting on rats and mice anytime soon—or animal rights groups to stop lobbying on their behalf.
To quote Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, as Chuck Colson so often did, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, "Mine!”
And “His” extends to all of creation, including the animals He made. And wherever and whenever we do good out of love for God, we are witnesses of Christ.