My husband jokes that I cry at road kill, so you might imagine my reaction when yesterday’s stroll turned into a scene from the PBS program, “Predator and Prey.”
The scene started out almost bucolic-like. There I was with two kids and a geriatric dog taking a stroll through the local farm. (We’re fortunate to live next to the only urban farm of its kind in downtown Atlanta.) Clear, blue skies following the storms of the previous night. The scent of an early spring in the air. Long, undisturbed rows of purplish, flowering cabbages. And then, of course, the chickens, happily ensconced in their cages, clucking away. The picture was so idyllic that I let our dog, Carter, off his leash and leaned back against an old, rusty lawn chair to rest my feet on the stump in front of me and bask a while in the sun.
I almost didn’t notice when Carter began to circle the chicken coop. I almost didn’t notice when he crouched next to the rooster’s cage waiting for an opportune moment to pounce. If truth be told, I had figured that my dog was too old, too slow and too dumb to be a threat to a rooster safely locked away in a metal cage.
I was wrong.
In one long, fateful moment, the door to the cage jangled open with one nudge of my dog’s nose. It was just long enough for me to see Carter pounce on the poor, hapless rooster. In just a few more moments, Carter had managed to grab the rooster by what I think was its buttocks- (do chickens have butts?)- and slide the rooster out of its cage and across the grass some feet away, during which time I had sprung into action, sprinting to Carter and a squawking, flapping rooster, all the while frantically screaming at the top of my lungs. By the time I had arrived at the scene, Carter had begun the primal death shake, flinging the rooster back and forth in his teeth.
So there we were, quite the spectacle, three levels of the food chain locked in a full-blown, life-and-death drama: a rooster fighting to survive, a dog engaged in a an age-old, blood sport, and a frantic dog owner grabbing her dog by the collar and hitting him with all her might to get him off his prey- and all the while my five-year-old and two-year-old looking on in suspense, like curious onlookers at the scene of an accident.
I must have smacked my dog hard enough for it to hurt, because he did finally and momentarily release the rooster just long enough to let it stumble away shell-shocked, leaving a few bloody feathers in its wake. With the help of a friend, we managed to scoop the poor creature up and transport it back to its cage, and then to leash Carter.
But the chicken wasn’t the only one reeling. I was, too.
It got me thinking about the cruelty of a world in which Darwin’s principle, “survival of the fittest,” plays out just about anywhere and everywhere. In the food chain, to be sure. But also in families, in the work place and- on a day when the Syrian government resumed its genocidal attacks on its own citizens in the city of Homs- whereever power-hungry dictators prey on the weak, treating human beings made in the image of God as disposable.
And, it seems to me that when the church is living into God’s best for her, she is proclaiming in word and deed that there really is another, better, more life-giving way to live together. That in God’s plan of redemption in Jesus Christ, no power or principality is worthy of such worship that we would let even one person become disposable. Because the church, as I was reminded in worship last Sunday, exists to call into question our idols, those things that would tell us it’s a “dog-eat-dog” (or, in this case, “dog-eat-chicken”) world out there, in which every person is for her self.
To the degree that the church models this kind of God-breathed, cross-shaped community, she lives into God’s mission of restoration. To the degree that she does not, the results are nothing short of diabolical. The church becomes just another vehicle for the exploitation of the weak, as we saw in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and as we see today in less dramatic but still diabolical ways, when the church institutionalizes abuse or chauvinism of any kind.
Each week, as a chaplain in the workplace, I have the privilege of visiting and praying with a certain group of hard-working men and women who for minimum wage spend long, grinding days working on a factory floor. Whenever I show up and no matter the workload, these friends greet me with smiles and an enthusiastic “Let’s pray!” And we do. For a brief opening in their day, despite the ceaseless whirring of machines and an endless assembly line of manual labor, we hold hands and bow heads to lift up praises and petitions.
Last week my friends looked especially weary. That’s when I learned that the management of the company had recently denied their (blue-collar) workers their two, legally required fifteen-minute breaks, and had shortened their lunch break from one hour to forty-five minutes. The implicit message? “You’re at the bottom of the food chain, which means we can treat you how we want, even if it’s against the law.” Yet another case of “dog-eat-chicken,” I guess.
Someone who teaches theology for a living at a fancy university recently chided me for my tendency to see the world in terms of this dialectic of power. And I guess he’s right: I do. But it seems to me that there’s biblical precedent here. The apostle Paul, in writing to the church in Ephesus, wrote this: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Whenever employers exploit their workers, and dictators oppress their people- even when dogs viciously attack chickens purely for blood sport or the thrill of the hunt- these powers are at work in full diabolical display.
But God gives an alternative picture of how life God’s way can be. It looks something like this: “the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard with…the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). And, the church, to the degree that she lives into this beautiful, life-giving picture of the dawning kingdom of God, is God’s visible judgment of a “dog-eat-chicken” world. This, I suppose, is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. It means caring about those at the bottom of the food chain, because Jesus does.