The Inherent Moral Worth of a Pelican

One of the most poignant images to emerge from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a pelican mired in oil, unable to fly, unable to swim. For those of us who count ourselves among the followers of Jesus, it is impossible not to recall that the pelican is an ancient Christian symbol for Christ.

The question for preachers is whether there might be a theological gloss to the Gulf tragedy, especially the suffering of animals and marine life.

Several years ago, while writing “Thy Kingdom Come,” I visited the AuSable Institute, an evangelical environmental study center in Mancelona, Michigan, near Grand Traverse Bay. There I learned something called “moral considerability,” which remains for me the most compelling argument for the protection of animal species and the earth itself.

Briefly, moral considerability extends the idea of worth beyond humans to animals and to the entirety of the created order. As such, it provides a correction – even an antidote – to the misappropriation of something called “dominion theology,” a misreading of Genesis 1:26: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (See Matthew Scully’s excellent book on the topic, “Dominion.” Scully is an evangelical and former speechwriter for George W. Bush.)

Too often throughout church history Christians have used the notion of humanity at the pinnacle of creation to justify neglect and even wanton destruction of the natural world. Assigning moral considerability to other elements of God’s creation – animals, forests, water resources, marine life – serves as a corrective to the excesses of dominion theology. It prompts us to assign value to other elements of the created order.

A full apprehension of moral considerability has enormous implications for how we live and even for what we eat. It forces us to understand the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico not merely in political or economic terms – the price of oil, loss of income from fishing and tourism – but in moral terms: the destruction of God’s creation.