Recently a friend and I discussed how our theology developed over the years. We both shared a basic commitment to what could be called a ‘social justice’ approach to theology. It was interesting to see the differences in how we came to our theology but what surprised me was the unplanned manner in which I described my own formation. I had not reflected on my early formation for some time. It seemed that I had been holding my earlier theological commitments with a sort of unquestioned self-evidence, as I suspect most of our beliefs are formed. I did not draw on memories of how I was impacted by the Bible or some influential pastor or teacher (though these were part of the story). I was also not a kid with some early or innate sense of justice sticking up for the underdog on the playground (I passed most of my childhood years with indifference and even spent some time bullying). Rather, I was drawn to a single memory of my time volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service after high school. We were stationed in Yuba City California, a couple of hours drive inland from San Francisco. Early in my time another guy my age started volunteering and we would plan various weekend trips. One weekend we decided to go to San Francisco. Through various twists and turns our naïveté of big cities (in an age before smart phones and wifi) led us into the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood (often referred to as the birthplace of hippies). This was easily the largest urban setting I had ever been in (downtown Winnipeg being the previous record holder). As we slowly navigated the busy and oftentimes bizarre streets I looked over and saw, just for a moment, the distinct image of a man squatting on the sidewalk in the midst of a bowel movement. I can’t remember thinking anything much at the time but the image imprinted itself. In Cruel Optimism cultural critic Lauren Berlant speaks about how changes happens in our life in a way that resonates with many of my experiences. She writes that change is “an impact lived on the body before anything is understood, and as such is simultaneously meaningful and ineloquent, engendering an atmosphere that [we] spend the rest of . . . [our] lives catching up to.” I suspect that for some of us much of our life can be summed up in the living out, the ‘catching up to’, a handful of experiences and images that have impacted us.
As I reflected on my commitment and theological orientation to justice it was, strangely enough, this image that made its impact, an experience I was still trying to catch up to. Somehow, deep in this urban centre that felt foreign and exotic I found entangled in the strange, something familiar. Though I can’t imagine I would have articulated it at the time this image brought me back to the farm I grew up on. We raised cattle among other animals. For much of the year these animals roamed our large property confined by a simple strand of lightly electrified wire. The fence kept these animals from the house and front yard where I could play safely but often I was in the back yard with these animals. I learned to relate to them acknowledging connections and limitations, similarities and differences. And among other differences they relieved themselves whenever and wherever they felt. They were at once exempt from culture but also confined and controlled by it.
And so there was something in this image of a man, a fellow human, performing an act that was foreign and yet familiar, something seemingly animalistic that resonated with me. I was, at least unconsciously, intrigued. What led to this man performing this act in this way? I remember latter that day needing to go the bathroom and realizing that while you may not have to pay directly to use a toilet you needed a base level appearance if not ability to be a consumer to be allowed entry into this civilized norm. That image impressed on me the reality of different zones and environments, the reality of different borders and boundaries in which humans lived which in turn affected how they behaved and were treated.
Since moving away from the farm I have spent almost all my adult life living in a downtown urban setting. I haven’t met too many other farm kids who have made this transition but the move has always felt natural to me. Earlier in life I would have articulated this as a straightforward commitment to the social gospel in which we are called to live among the poor and marginalized. I am beginning to wonder though if I simply found in urban centres the sort of boundaries, hierarchies, and differences that were familiar to me on the farm.
Most of us maintain some sort of qualitative distinction between humans and animals. Yet it does not take much scrutiny or close observation to notice that the relationship (or line) between humanity and animality is less clear than we might think (or perhaps like). It does not take long to uncover atrocious histories of racism that were explicit in establishing a hierarchy of humanity that transitioned directly into the animal. Somehow or other white male scientists considered themselves the highest species among all that roamed the earth. But you don’t need to look at these grand arcs of history to simply take note of zones, boundaries and hierarchies that lead to situations in which someone might defecate on the sidewalk. There are groups disproportionately fenced in (incarcerated) at higher rates. There are economic boundaries that keep groups from home owning in general or moving to ‘safer’ neighbourhoods. The front yard of the farm being the well-manicured and controlled suburb while the backyard left more unpredictable and untended, needed for profit but excluded from mutual recognition. We characterize these ‘backyards’ as more dangerous but are usually more accurately described as the grouping and confining of the vulnerable which inevitably becomes marked by the ‘uncivilized’ characteristics of unmanageable addictions or grinding poverty and the attending responses of despair. Such confined vulnerability draws predators in the forms of oppressive prostitution and general violence. Where I live in Winnipeg it is short walk across Portage Avenue from Wolseley to the West End. I once noticed the change in posters from lost cats or dogs in Wolseley to missing friends and family in the West End.
This single image in San Francisco rippled through me and my experience on the farm. What did it mean when the relations between human and animal, the setting of boundaries and of differing values and behaviours bleeds into human forms? Or more accurately the starkness of this image shook my senses into an emerging awareness of the hierarchies and divisions that already exist in life, among humans and between species. It was this image and the environment it engendered that more than anything provided a framework, an intelligibility for the message of justice in the Bible to be felt and heard. Increasingly, my sense is that if our notion of faith and justice come simply from ‘following the Bible’ then we will remain (as we mostly already are) too easily mired in the endless debates of interpretation, for truly there are some unjust and unhelpful expressions to follow in the Bible. The Bible alone has never been enough for discipleship (for those who might still be offended by this I might add that the Bible itself acknowledges this).
What if, rather, we spent time attending to the otherness, the differences and relations of humanity and of animality and then allowed what we saw and experienced to become entangled in the otherness, the differences and relations of God (in the songs, prayers, words, and silences of worship). This paying attention to the images and impacts that changed us can help develop another way of doing theology, doing discipleship in which accountability does not rest simply in the interpretation of a text nor some notion of natural theology (for what is natural theology but what we humans want to see in nature). This form of attention allows us to consider the fullness of life in the environments and hierarchies that are produced in the relations of humanity, animality and divinity. I am not looking to shift or erase the lines between the human, animal and divine only to ask that we might pay more attention to the type of differences, hierarchies, and often violences that can be produced in the way these lines are drawn or followed. I am not convinced that such sustained attention will produce a clear or consistent systematic theology but it may be a fruitful source of discipleship. What are some of the images and impacts in your life that you need to return to, images that return (perhaps surprisingly) when you reflect on key areas of your faith and life? For me, at any rate, this image keeps open the question of what it means to follow Jesus who we call human and divine and to whom we sing worthy is the lamb? This image keeps my eyes searching for the boundaries and the hierarchies we experience. While I have expressed some of the real challenges and restrictions placed on people in my neighbourhood part of my love for my neighbourhood is precisely the possibility of freedom from insidious demands of maintaining a proper ‘front yard’. It is from the backyard that we might witness and experience the prophecy of Malachi in finding freedom and go leaping like calves from the stall.
For further reading
Stephen D. Moore, ed. Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology, 2014.
Anthony Paul Smith, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought, 2013.