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Bambi Must Die
June 10, 2001
By Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to Psalm 8 and follow along as I read verses 1-9. Hear what the spirit says to us.
1. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
4 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
5 For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
6 Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:
7 All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;
8 The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.
9 O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
When we think of deer, we think of Bambi--that cute cartoon critter with big eyes, long eyelashes and adorable human expressions. In the movie, Bambi is addressed reverently as "the young prince of the forest." The opening scene is an animal version of the Christmas morning manger scene. After the admiring animals finish hailing the birth of the young prince and depart, the camera pulls back to show mother and child nestled in a thorny thicket, like the madonna and child, while a remote, godlike father looks down from a nearby crag. Walt Disney's talented artists certainly knew what they were doing. They devised an irresistibly infantile look for Bambi, and then sealed the deal by dubbing in a charming childish voice
So you can be sure of controversy whenever someone recommends the systematic killing of deer. What people hear - deep down inside - is that Bambi must dieor, that bad things happen to cute animals.
This controversy arises every year, when springtime deer populations explode. Recently in Milford, Michigan, public hearings were held over plans to kill deer in three parks in the region. Some want to blow away Bambi and gather the neighbors for a Bambi barbecue. Others are outraged by the notion of murdering poor, innocent deer. In one of the parks, the deer herd is five times too large, resulting in many malnourished deer. Because of overgrazing, at least 19 plant species have disappeared, and 23 more are threatened. Local authorities plan to bring in a sharpshooter to kill some of the 528 deer.
Animal rights groups have protested, saying that if the herd is too large, deer will naturally reproduce less. They will not by the way. Deer do not know when there are too many deer. Some also suggest sterilization, a feeding ban, or a relocation of the animals. The problem will most likely not be solved peacefully or permanently. Emotions run high whenever someone implies that Bambi must die.
Now I realize that a Christian worship service is neither the time nor the place to recommend a particular policy for controlling animal overpopulation, but this issue does raise for us the question of how human beings are to relate to nature. We need to take a clear-eyed look at what it means to live responsibly in the world. We have all seen pictures of planet earth taken from space. It looks like a big blue marble. It is a beautiful place. God has entrusted us with this beautiful place, and make no mistake about it, we will give an account of our trust. Let us then talk about an environmental theology.
Psalm 8 is an excellent place to begin. This psalm, by the way, had the distinction of being the first biblical text to reach the moon. When Apollo 11 left a silicon disc containing messages from 73 nations, the Vatican contributed the text of this psalm. Psalm 8 was clearly an appropriate choice for this cosmic journey, for it is both an eloquent proclamation of the cosmic sovereignty of God and a remarkable affirmation of the exalted status and vocation of the human creature. The eighth psalm is a hymn of praise to God for having created human beings in the divine image, and for having placed us in a natural world of wonders where our relationship with God is the greatest wonder of all.
Psalm 8 begins and ends with the same refrain: "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" Within this envelope, the psalm falls logically into two parts. verses 1-2 extol the greatness of God, and verses 3-8 articulate the position of human beings within the divinely created order.
V1 speaks of the Glory of God as being above the heavens. This is surely figurative language. How could anything be above heaven, which is the very presence of God? This is poetry expressing the psalmist joy in God.
Not only is God's glory manifestefd in the most exalted places, but God has "founded a bulwark" (or "established strength") from "the mouths of babes and infants" (v. 2). This is the Psalmists way of showing us that God's sovereignty extends throughout the created order, even to the smallest baby.
In v3, the creation of the universe is describes as the work of the fingers of God. This is a deliberate echo of the account of creation in Genesis. Within this context of cosmic creation, the psalmist asks in v4 what is the rightful position of human beings. His answer is found in vv. 5-8. Having been created "a little lower" than angels, human beings are insignificant in comparison to the cosmos, yet the human being has been crowned with both glory and honor. The manifestation of this unique position is human dominion over earth's other animals.
The word dominion in v6 has prompted some interpreters of the Bible to suggest that it is acceptable for us to destroy the environment. After all God gave us dominion, did he not? This is an unbiblical attitude. Our dominion is our stewardship. We are not the owners of the earth. We are stewards, and we will give an account of our stewardship. We need to recover a fuller, more balanced understanding of the Bible's view of the place of human beings in the created order. Psalm 8 is a step toward such a balanced understanding in its celebration of God's providential ordering of creation, in which human beings are neither the lords of creation nor its servants, but are members and citizens.
Skeptics say that because God destroys nature through floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters, humanity has the right to follow this example of destruction. What this argument ignores is that God, as caretaker of creation, also revitalizes and renews nature. A gardener breaks the soil with a hoe in order to let new life grow. God is a gardener, and we are gardeners. We are the facilitators and guardians of life.
As facilitators and gardeners, one of the first things we must recognize is that the world is not a static creation. The creative activity of God did not cease on the sixth day. It is obvious that that creative activity is still going on today. Some environmentalists are so intent on preserving species and blaming man for all the problems of the earth that they act like no species ever became extinct until human beings came along. In fact, we know from the fossil record, from the bones, that many species became extinct before man every appeared on the planet. That is of the nature of things. We cannot conserve all species. We cannot save all the Bambis. A few years ago, when a deer charged across the road in front of me one night and did $1400 worth of damage to my minivan, I did not want to save any of them. But that is not the point. The point is that the world is not being, the world is becoming. The goal of this becoming is what the book of Revelation describes as a new heaven and a new earth. Thus any Christian environmentalism undestands that this world is not the end of things. It is not a goal, it is a means toward a goal. There is a creative purpose in the world around us that is moving toward a final objective. We are the stewards that are in charge of moving the world toward that objective.
The Greek term "Logos" means "word" and is translated as such in the gospel of John. But in Ancient Greek philosophy, "Logos" was also a technical term for the Energizing Fire, the indwelling creative spirit that pushes the world toward its destiny. John was well aware of this philosophic aspect of the term "Logos." He describes Christ as the Logos incarnate. The Word made flesh. This "Word" created the world and is even now in the world to guide and move the world toward its final purpose. How does the Word do this? Through us. Many scholars today say that we should think of the whole world as an organism. We, human beings, are the brain of the organism. We are the intelligence of a global being. Our responsibility then is to make sure it all continues to work, and continues toward its final goal. To put it another way, the world has a destiny, and you and I have a destiny. Our destiny is to help the world achieve its destiny. This is our stewardship. It applies to our total environment. Our loving relationship to God is expressed not only in our loving relationships with other people, it is expressed in loving relationships with all the plants and animalswhich are also Gods creation.
Now we must admit that the church does not have a strong history of either environmental theology or practice, but this silence appears to be changing. Even conservative churches now promote environmental theologies and programs. In part this change is an inevitable response to what Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff calls the "cry of the earth, cry of the poor." Human problems and crises cannot be separated from environmental destruction. Throughout the Third World, hundreds of thousands die due to polluted water, contaminated land, polluted air, and poor sanitation facilities. It may be that in the future, battles among groups of peoples and nations will be due to environmental scarcity, as burgeoning populations seek fuel, food, water and land.
It is only common sense then not to foul our own nest, not to kill and pollute and destroy indescriminately. That is also what the Bible says. The Bible says taking care of the earth is the right thing to do.
As we look around us today there is no debate about whether we have dominion over the earth. We obviously have dominion. We decide the fate of the plants, the animals, even of the earth itself. No one would argue that. But we need to hear the Scripture when it says we are accountable for this dominion.
Psalm 8 reminds us that the Creator of an infinite universe has chosen to be "mindful" of us and to care for us. This is an absolutely amazing attitude for an almighty Lord to have. But this perspective also sets an example for how we are to treat the planet entrusted to our care. When the psalm writer says to God, "You have given [people] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet" (v. 6), he is clearly not envisioning any abuse of creation by the people of the world. Instead, he expects us to be mindful of other creatures and to care for them - "all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas" (vv. 7-8).
We've been made "a little lower" than God, and crowned with glory and honor (v. 5). And why is this? To join God in the care of creation. To share God's power and unite with him in being mindful of the other creatures of his world. Dominion does not mean domination. It means being good caretakers of creation.
Understanding the Reality
So, does this mean that Bambi must die? Sometimes it does. Within God's magnificent creation, there are many natural situations in which deer are destined to perish. In a new book called Heartsblood, veteran outdoorsman David Petersen says that most Bambis are food for predators and intended by nature to die young. This is not his personal opinion or desire - this is rock-hard reality, proved by the fact that most young deer DO die within the first few months of their sweet little lives.
"Like it or not, this is the way it is," says Petersen. "While I don't like it much - all the suffering and death inherent to life - I've learned at least to acknowledge natural reality. And not just reality, but the evolutionary wisdom it implies." Nature has determined that a deer normally has twins each June, and that one fawn winds up as food for a bear, cougar, coyote, bobcat, lynx, fox, or eagle. The other baby - the stronger or quicker one - usually escapes and grows up to continue the species. This is not a pretty picture, but there is a certain wisdom to it. The author of Heartsblood wants us to avoid both sentimentality about little animals and ignorance of biological facts.
Clearly, we are suffering from Bambi Syndrome. One of the symptoms of this disease is a failure to recognize that young animals simply must die as part of the great circle of life. But another sign of this condition is the erroneous impression that nature is always good and that humans are always bad. This particular dimension of the Bambi Syndrome has been, unfortunately, created by the producers of the Bambi movie themselves. They made a conscious decision to make "Man" the common enemy of all the animals in the film, and they removed all animal predators from the script. In the movie Bambi, no animals swoop down and eat other animals. The only enemy is Man.
We still suffer from this particular dimension of the Bambi Syndrome. It is not true that humans are the primary killers of young animals. It is not correct to assume that the natural world is always good and delightful and harmonious, with animals playing together peacefully like the childish creatures of the Disney film. In fact, in the state of Minnesota, there are an estimated 15,000 deer killed by cars each year. That is a lot. But wolves kill 40,000 deer and other predators, such as coyotes, bears, bobcats, kill another 60,000. And of those 60,000, most of the deer that are killed by predators are fawns, babies.
This is not to say that human beings are off the hook. We cannot simply say that deer are destined to die young, and that is just tough. As creatures made "a little lower than God" and given dominion over the work of God's hands, we are still charged to care for. and be mindful of, the divinely-created creatures all around us.
This means that our involvement in the world is based on respect for the natural order that God has created. As Christians, we do not worship nature, but we do respect nature as "the work of [God's] fingers" (v. 3). To live responsibly in the midst of a glorious creation means that we must work with the indwelling creative spirit, and that means we must have some understanding of the creation. We need real understanding of our complex ecosystem, so that we can allow both predators and prey to play the roles that God has given them. Life and death in the wild is not always pretty. As someone has said, "nature is red in tooth and claw." Nevertheless, there are patterns and purposes in animal behavior that we must work to protect.
Tragically, the word "dominion" has been used by some as a license to destroy animals, sometimes to extinction. We have hunted and fished with selfish insensitivity, putting our own pleasures and desires ahead of concern for the environment. At the same time, we have focused on human habitats ahead of natural habitats, and in the process destroyed forests, polluted water and contaminated the air. But when we exercise our dominion so thoughtlessly, the home we eventually destroy is not the home of some other animal. It is the home of the human animal. When we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves.
God calls us to a different destiny. We are called to praise God and glorify God. Part of praising and glorifying God is caring for the planet. It is exercising the stewardship God gave us. It is living the love Christ taught us. It is living in love with all creatures, Great and small. Amen.
Petersen, David. Heartsblood. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000, 155.
Schabath, Gene. "Proposed deer-kill pits rivals." The Detroit News, May 25, 1999.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 07/18/01