On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"Jesus, as he so often did, "answered" the question with a parable that didn't actually answer the question. Instead, the parable showed what it would mean to love one's neighbor. Ever since then, Christians have struggled with the question of who our neighbor is.
"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself."
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
This question isn't just for Christians. All men who want to be good instinctively understand this law of God: that we should love our neighbor. As a Christian, I view this as largely a struggle within Christianity, but in order to make this accessible to non-Christians, I'll describe it instead as a struggle of civilization against barbarism. I think either description is apt.
So we all know what it is to be good, we have to love our neighbor. Which means we have to love all other human beings. But this is too hard; no human can live up to it. So sometimes, instead of struggling with the impossible, we try to distort what we know is right in order to find something that is not right but is achievable. So we constantly seek to narrow the scope of who our neighbor is, to dehumanize those that prove inconvenient to love. This way we can fail to love without failing to be good.
In Europe, civilization fought against tribalism: the idea that our neighbors are just the members of our tribe and everyone else is less than human. Many cultures around the world still struggle with this form of barbarism. The moral justification of slavery was also, at its core, a dehumanization, a failure to recognize that slaves were our neighbors. The West (meaning Christian Europe and her children) defeated tribalism and slavery in a series of wars. But we didn't defeat them in all places or for all time and both slavery and tribalism still exist.
As we were fighting tribalism and slavery, we saw the rise of nationalism and Marxism and racism: the dehumanization of others based on nation, class or race. Again, we fought against these pernicious doctrines, through hot and cold wars and at the ballot box. And we mostly won, although these doctrines are still around, ready to flower when conditions are right.
But getting men to love their neighbors is like herding cats. As soon as you round up one escapee, three more dart out of the herd. Even as we were defeating nationalism, Marxism and racism, we saw the renewed flowering of some of the most ancient ways of dehumanizing people --barbaric doctrines that we thought we had stamped out a thousand years ago, about how the old or the infirm, or the very young do not live lives that are valuable in themselves, but only as they relate to others.
Oh, we're better than the ancients of course. It used to be that when someone got too old or too sick to be useful, you would just toss them out of the city and let them die of exposure. Now we worry much about how much pain they are in and ask if they would like to die instead. Or if they are unable to communicate, we leave the decision up to family members. And of course where the ancients might kill a child just after birth if they didn't want it, we only kill children just before birth. That few minutes before the head comes out of the womb makes all the difference in whether you are a barbarian you know.
However, not all anti-human doctrines result from a too-narrow understanding of who my neighbor is; others result from too wide an understanding. What good does it do to love your neighbor if you love your money and comfort more? Sure, I'd like to jump in and help that poor drowning man, after all he's my neighbor and I love him, but my clothing would be ruined and I'd be soaking and cold besides. Loving your neighbor means nothing unless you love your neighbor more than you love other things.
The twentieth century saw the growth of some of these too-wide doctrines. The environmental movement has morphed into a religion where people put Life or The Environment on the same level as human beings. The Earth is their neighbor and in some cases they love the Earth more than they love their human neighbors. Many people have died as a result of policies intended to preserve the environment or save species from extinction.
Others think that pet animals are their neighbors, or even all animals. I once new a couple who both said that if they had a choice between saving the life of their own dog or the life of someone else's child, they would pick the dog. Not only were they not ashamed of this view, they were positively outraged that I was shocked about it. It was obvious to them that their dog was just as valuable as a human being. This doctrine is every bit as barbaric as racism or Marxism; perhaps more so, because a racist at least loves the members of his own race more than he loves animals.
I don't know that people have died yet because of this pro-animal barbarism, but people have certainly gone to prison over it. Even shooting a sick dog in your back yard can get you in trouble these days.
You don' t even have to kill an animal to go to prison. Just watch any episode of Animal Precinct. You will see some pathetically neglected animal being pulled out of someone's yard and then see the owner taken away in handcuffs. Now, I get angry when I see those mistreated animals. I feel badly for them. But animals end up like that all the time in the wild. A horse that breaks its leg or a dog that gets its bowels twisted up is going to die horribly.
In fact, most animals in the wild eventually get too old or sick to eat, and they die pretty much like those poor neglected animals --unless they get lucky and fall to some predator that strangles them to death or rips their belly open. You have to compare the fates of neglected animals, not to the fates of people, but to what nature had in store for them.
And you have to look at the people too. Do you really think that someone who lets an animal suffer like that is really all there? These people they take away in handcuffs always seem to me to be a little bit insane or drugged-out or just not very bright. They just weren't capable of caring for an animal and they didn't have the judgment to see that they weren't capable. Many of them probably looked at the starving, sore-covered animals and didn't even see anything wrong. Is it really right to send someone to prison just for being too out of it to care for their property as they should have?
And others may have been all there but just don't see animals as people. Maybe the person grew up on a farm or used to be a butcher, or has some other background that prevented him from ever developing this sappy animals-are-people-too viewpoint that the laws are based around. In such cases, the law is actually sending these people to prison for their opinions.
Fines may be appropriate. Maybe some required education. And maybe even prison for repeat offenders. But what is lacking in these animal cruelty cases is a clear perspective on the essential difference between people and animals. People are our neighbors. And that drugged-out, inept, stupid person is infinitely more valuable than the animal he mistreated. A man who has no empathy for animals is also infinitely more valuable than the animal. The law needs to take that into account.
Now, Xrlq has accused me (in the update) of being heartless because I'm not willing to take money from other people by force and use it to rescue animals and because I do not want to use resources to rescue animals while people are still in danger. I am not heartless. It is not that I don't care about animals. Rather, I have a proper sense of just how precious a thing a human being is, and just how far an animal is from that exalted status.
People are my neighbors. Animals are not.
UPDATE: I made some edits to clarify my thesis