Thursday, July 8, 2010

After the flood

I was driving down Highway 1 the other day and saw two crows hopping across the road. That was not unusual, but the fact that they hopped, stopped and pecked at something, then hopped again and pecked again, almost like it they were after a moving target, was a little strange. Usually when I see crows on the highway they're tearing up some poor animal that is not moving anymore because it's been thoroughly pulverized under the wheels of dozens of cars. So as I got closer I slowed down a little bit and then I understood. A salamander was trying to cross the road, and these two crows were trying to eat it before it got away. As I watched, the salamander made a mad dash (as much as half inch long legs can dash) the last three feet into the ditch, dodging and weaving to avoid sharp beaks the whole way. The crows finally gave up and flew away.

I thought then about God's words to Noah after the flood in Genesis 9:1-7. For the first time in this story, God pronounces a word that fear will be the normal state of things. It's a little hard for us to imagine, but Genesis seems to imply that before the flood, there were no predators, no eating of meat by any creature. It was like Isaiah's vision of the messianic age in Isaiah 11, where he describes the predators and the prey lying down together and the lion eating straw like the ox. "They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain," he says, and we begin to see that whatever the reality of this is for the predators, it is our own predatory selfishness that first needs to be subject to the Messiah's rule. It is our own prey-like vulnerability that God desires to protect. So it seems that Genesis 1-8 assumes this kind of harmony, and life after the flood is radically different. Now predators will hunt, and prey will be eaten, and all animals will be afraid of humans. The crows were right to pursue that salamander. They were just following the order God has placed in creation. They are scavengers, first, but also predators second.

Sometimes this natural order makes us intensely uncomfortable. We don't want to examine this predator-prey relationship too closely. On a grand scale, we recognize that without the wolves, the deer become overpopulated and begin to die of disease and starvation. But very few of us are comfortable watching a pack of wolves pull down and devour a fawn. I grew up watching Wild Kingdom where most of the time, at the end of the chase the film crew made sure that the predator went off in search of easier prey. But the reality in nature is that life usually ends brutally.

This becomes even more difficult for us when we become the predator. We've exterminated the wolves from most of the country -- just good business to eliminate the competition -- and so now we keep the deer herds in check as millions of orange-clad hunters wander into the woods each November. Even here, with high-powered weapons killing at a distance, there is often enough gore to turn your stomach. A friend of mine wounded a doe badly several years ago. He's careful about his shooting but this time the bullet opened her up too far behind the vitals, and suffice it to say that the blood trail was an unpleasant thing. There is a touch of sadness, of grief, in the cleanest and most humane killing of a beautiful animal. Yet the alternative -- not to kill the animal -- is in the long run far less humane. Rarely does any animal in nature die of old age. A little over a hundred years ago, conservationists with the best intentions cordoned off the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon. They hunted down most of the predator populations and forbade hunting by humans with the idea that the Kaibab would become a paradise for mule deer. Sure enough, for three years the deer population grew and filled the area, as though God's words in Genesis 9:7 were being fulfilled. But two years later, it was nearly impossible to find a mulie on the Kaibab. Carcasses lay everywhere; trees and underbrush had been decimated, and disease and starvation had killed hundreds of thousands of deer. Overpopulation is far less humane than a stable predator-prey relationship.

What does this mean for us? We find ourselves in a world where life comes only at the expense of death. Veganism is no refuge from this cycle; resources being what they are, you eating your broccoli means that the ground cannot be used to provide food for another creature. While there may be sound reasons for people who choose a vegan lifestyle, the ethical concern not to cause the death of an animal is not a reasonable basis for this choice. There is no life without death.

This plain and simple fact -- that life happens on the shoulders, on the carcass, of death -- is a bit of natural law that leads us again to the cross. In the death of Jesus my life appears. Out of his sacrifice I am spared. By his blood I am healed. At some level I may wish it was not so, but my wishing doesn't change reality, any more than I can rescue the fawn from the teeth of the wolf pack. Jesus sees reality more clearly than I do, and knows I cannot live without his death. So he, the willing victim, goes to the cross for my sake, and out of his death I receive life. I cannot turn aside from this or avoid this reality. It is truth.

Jesus is not ashamed of this. He is not resentful about losing his life, or powerless to save himself. "No one takes my life from me," he said, "I lay it down of my own will, and I have power to take it up again." A change begins when Jesus goes to the cross -- a change that he called "the kingdom of God." This kingdom is only a foreshadowing now, only a foretaste, but someday, in its fulfillment, we will begin to see what Isaiah meant when he described the scene in which the lion lies down with the lamb, the child plays above the adder's den, and there is no more loss of life.

Thanks be to God!

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