By Amy Sondova Ben DeVries love his four cats—a lot. But Ben is more than just a proud pet owner; he’s an advocate for animals within the Christian community. Founding his website, Not One Sparrow, after completing his similarly titled senior capstone project (Not One Sparrow Is Forgotten: A Biblical-Theological Foundation for Animal Welfare) at Trinity Evangelical Seminary, Ben’s dedicated to calling faith communities back to the one of the first commandments—for man to care for the earth. Sharing his work and his heart, Ben was kind enough to “Take 5” with Backseat Writer. It should also be noted that Ben is the author of A Delicate Fade (Zondervan). Plus, he has graciously published some of my animal photography on his site, so that makes him extra cool.
The phrase “not one sparrow” comes from Jesus teaching on God’s care for His people, why did it seem like a logical name for your blog?
That’s a good question, and pretty key to Not One Sparrow’s motivation. The sparrow passages (Luke 12:6-7 and Matthew 10:29-31) are often used as reassurance that God knows what happens to the sparrows, but he cares about us his human children that much more. And that’s certainly true. But the point Jesus is trying to communicate wouldn’t hold up unless the metaphor he’s using of God’s concern for the sparrows wasn’t true as well: “Aren’t five sparrows sold for a couple of pennies? But not one of them is forgotten by God.” We’ve often skipped past that part as Christians. But part of being created in God’s image as well as becoming more like Christ involves growing to care about the things they care about, and that definitely includes animals.
In Genesis, God commands humans to care for the earth and all in it, how does this message affect “Not One Sparrow”?
You’re right, stewardship of creation definitely involves caring about animals. But even Christian environmentalists, while they do care very much about ecosystems and species preservation, have often overlooked God’s concern for individual creatures. I’m hoping that as the Christian community as a whole gets more involved in the creation care discussion, which is an excellent thing to see, we’ll also grow to become sensitive to the wellbeing of individual animals like God models in the process, and not just the pets in our homes. Living up to our calling to be stewards of creation, which is actually the first responsibility which God gave to humanity in Genesis, isn’t possible unless we realize that God has invested too much uniqueness and love in each one of his creatures for us not to care about them.
The church spends a lot of time talking about issues like abortion, but largely ignores the environment and care for animals—why do you think this is?
I think there are a lot of reasons the Christian community doesn’t pay much attention to creation care, or hardly any attention at all to animal issues. There’s been a lot of discussion about how we’ve emphasized personal salvation issues to the neglect of social issues (except for a select few, like abortion and gay marriage). We often act as though the world and creation are doomed to destruction anyway, so why bother doing anything about them? But suffering is suffering and wrong is wrong, and we can’t just wash our hands of certain causes, especially when it’s in our own self-focused or lazy interests to do so. God cares about every aspect of his kingdom and creation, and even if a new heaven and earth are coming down the pike, I think he’s very interested to see how we treat the original ones first. It’s also the case that some Christians are willing to think about creation care and animal welfare as valid concerns, but they often ask how these could ever be a priority when humans have so many urgent needs, spiritual and otherwise. I’ve asked the same question myself.
But being concerned about humans and animals isn’t an either/or, just like being concerned about humans and the environment isn’t an either/or, or being concerned about evangelism and discipleship on the one hand or social justice on the other. God doesn’t care about one aspect of his world to the neglect of another, and in fact, he designed each part to relate to all of the other parts. So neglecting one dimension of creation is bound to affect all of us negatively in the long run anyway, and it already is in many respects.
Are you advocating a vegan lifestyle? If not, how do we become more responsible meat eaters?
This is a difficult question, but definitely one which immediately comes up when most people think of animal issues. PETA comes to many people’s minds, and while I don’t want to vilify them, I try very much not to come across the way they do. Not One Sparrow is first and foremost an animal advocacy effort, and I want people to be able to come and explore a biblical motivation for being concerned about animals at their own pace, along with some of the practical issues this motivation naturally leads into, without having to make a decision about any form of vegetarianism (not eating any meat) or veganism (not consuming any animal products at all) on the front end.
But there are definitely connections between animal welfare and the way we eat. The vast majority of our meat, dairy and eggs come through factory farming, which is an unbelievably cruel and inhumane system through which over 10 billion animals are funneled each year in the U.S. alone. While God gave us permission to eat meat in the Bible, he never gave us permission to treat them like production units, or trample all over their most basic needs and dignity. I have a feeling he’s terribly grieved by what’s been going on in this industry, and probably a lot more than we realize as a church. It’s very much a moral issue, and we need to start paying more attention to it. Not only are animals being abused, but major reports are finding that animal farming accounts for more greenhouse gases than all vehicle use put together. Again, this is just more evidence about how all of creation interrelates, for better and for worse.
And, of course, being an animal lover, I’m sure you have some critters. So, tell me about your pets!
Yeah, my wife and I have four cats, all of which were adopted one way or another. There are pictures of them up on the personal page at Not One Sparrow, along with my personal story related to animals in general. But our cats been a huge part of my becoming involved in animal issues, and have really helped me recapture the fascination I used to have with animals as a kid. Getting to know their unique personalities and habits has helped me to understand that every must have the same value and “specialness,” whether we happen to acknowledge it or not. We can tame animals and develop special relationships with them that way, like C.S. Lewis wrote about in The Problem of Pain, but uniqueness and value are things which God gives to animals, whether we bring them into our homes or not. By the way, thanks a ton for the interview.