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21st of January 2018

Economy



How important are animals to the Nativity?

THE Christmas story concerns the birth, in very unusual circumstances, of a member of the species homo sapiens, one who was destined to transform the history of the world. But what about other animals? Is their rightful place in this ancient narrative essential, secondary or even non-existent?

That is an issue people started arguing about long, long ago and the discussion shows no sign of dying down. It has been debated as a cultural question, a legal conundrum, a theological matter, an ethical dilemma and all of the above rolled together.

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In modern times, protests by animal-rights campaigners reach an annual crescendo as quadrupeds are hauled on for display in live Nativity scenes. Leading the charge is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an American-based group whose 6.5m members take the view that other species should never be used for eating, entertaining, scientific experimentation—or, of course, for religious edification.

A few days ago, PETA’s president Ingrid Newkirk used an op-ed in USA Today to protest over the “thousands of reindeer, donkeys, camels, horses and other conscripted animals who will now be forced to give rides or reduced to serving as live ornaments in confusing and disorienting holiday pageantry”.

Exploiting animals in this way can end badly, she noted: a horse-drawn carriage had crashed in Minnesota, killing the driver. In Kentucky, a display involving camels had to be cancelled after one of their minders was caught punching a beast. Ms Newkirk could have found plenty of examples in Europe. In Spain, animal advocates were appalled when a young donkey, featured in a Nativity show, died after an overweight man tried riding it. And festivities in the town of Zaragoza were marred by a nasty video of a donkey collapsing and being dragged to its feet.  

Wittingly or otherwise, the former Pope, Benedict XVI, gave campaigners like Ms Newkirk a fresh argument (one she frequently uses) when he observed in a book about Jesus that there are no explicit references to animals in the New Testament accounts of the birth of Jesus.

That is true. The ox and the ass which have featured in Nativity scenes since the fourth Christian century reflect two passages in the older, Hebrew scriptures: one from the book of Isaiah and one from the prophet Habakkuk which says (in a 2,200-year-old Greek version that was used by the early church): “Thou shalt be known between two living creatures.”

But to what “living creatures” does that passage refer? The early church fathers differed a lot over that question. The ox and the ass was one interpretation; Origen thought the ox represented the Jews and the ass the Gentiles. Some saw a reference to the angels which hovered over the holiest part of the Jerusalem temple; others saw a symbolic allusion to Christ and the Holy Spirit. And of course, a Jewish reading of that passage would be quite different from any of those Christian interpretations.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the role of animals in the Nativity story is a kind of artistic embellishment, an attractive but secondary detail. That line of thought has in fact helped to convince the American judiciary that Nativity displays on government property are legitimate. In 1984, the Supreme Court handed down a famous judgement which became known as the “reindeer rule” and set guidelines for what could or could not be displayed in a public space at Christmas time without breaching the constitutional separation between church and state.

In Lynch v Donnelly, the court was asked to consider whether a municipality in Rhode Island could display a crèche, or a reproduction of the baby Jesus, along with more secular symbols such as a plastic reindeer, a Santa Claus house and a Christmas tree. The court agreed to allow the crèche because it was in the context of a more secular display, and “the city has not impermissibly advanced religion.” But a crèche alone would have been an unacceptable blurring of church-state boundaries.

Presumably the plastic reindeer met no objection from PETA either. But in New York this year, animal-rights advocates had to settle for a compromise, allowing one of the world’s most famous Christmas displays of animals to go ahead. As part of a political bargain, it was agreed that the donkey, two sheep and three camels which star in RadioCityMusic Hall’s Christmas extravaganza, along with the high-kicking Rockettes (pictured, from last year), would be exempt from a measure banning circus animals. RadioCity proudly announced that Ted the camel, who has featured in the display for 20 years and apparently survived the experience, would be stepping on as usual. Both the Rockettes and the beasts were formally blessed by the city’s top Catholic, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. 

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