We Are Not Animals: On Living and Dying With Dignity
“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”
People are not animals; we have conscience and consciousness, a level of self-awareness and self-agency that gives us greater ability to be both more glorious and diabolical than other living things. In an increasingly secular age, however, the modern West’s materialism – which recognizes nothing particularly important about the spiritual realm, if at all acknowledged – lends itself to a “blurring of the lines” (pun intended, see below) in regards to the differences between humans and animals. This has struck me recently for two reasons.
First, we define ourselves as animals with impulses that we cannot and need not control. I do not get angry at my dog for barking at the UPS man because she’s doing what a protective breed of dog (the boxer) is supposed to do. Animals have nothing to go on but instinct. As Chris Rock once said of the unnecessary shock that was expressed when Siegfried and Roy were attacked by one of their tigers, “That tiger didn’t go crazy – that tiger went tiger!” But a new Maroon 5 song suggests not merely that people are animals, but that predatory behavior should be expected and even glorified:
Baby I’m preying on you tonight
Hunt you down eat you alive
Just like animals
When Johnny Cash sang about “The Beast in Me,” he at least knew to cage the beast, not celebrate it. While Adam Levine has received criticism for the song and the uber-creepy video – in which his own wife is quite literally likened to a piece of meat – not everyone has been so concerned. PETA suggested Levine’s “art” did not go far enough, and that, since we’re all “animals,” we should be compassionate animals and be vegan. All in all, it is quite a feat for a song to make Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” sound like a sweet croon.
If one consequence of the blurred line between human and animal is treating others like beasts to be preyed upon, another is treating ourselves like animals to be put down. A young woman in Oregon is receiving a lot of attention for her public plan to die with the assistance of state-approved drugs on November 1st. Brittany Maynard’s story is certainly moving; she essentially has the worst form of brain cancer possible, and wants to choose the time and place of her death rather than endure the extreme suffering that her disease will inevitably entail.
As a pastor, I’ve sat with dying and suffering people more than most. And we should have compassion for folks who must face such a terrible prognosis. But I find it difficult to see assisted suicide as it is touted: as a choice for dignity. It says much about our society, so riven by moral chaos, that the only thing on which we can agree as a moral good is greater and increasing choice – even if that choice is to treat ourselves like animals.
But animals we are not. We are humans, made in the image of God, flesh and spirit, sinew and soul. That some Westerners are beginning to take the logic of denying our particular nature and calling to its conclusion is troubling, though not surprising. But we are humans, and we all should resist the normalization of language and practices that treat us more as animals than people. This is especially true for Christians, who confess that humans are created “just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5) in the image of our Creator, with a special vocation to care for creation, including one another, as God’s precious gift.
We are not prey to be hunted or sick dogs to be put down. We are humans, uniquely equipped to know the good and to do it. The fastest path away from both of those, however, is to deny who, what, and Whose we are.