Thursday, March 04, 2010

Re: Stoning Whales

If you don't waste as much time on the Internet as I do, you may not have come across this piece of work by American Family Association blogger Bryan Fischer. Fischer argues that Tillikum, the Sea World killer whale who last week killed a trainer, should have been stoned to death back in 1991. Last week's incident was the third fatality involving Tilly, the first of which happened 19 years ago. Fischer says:

If the counsel of the Judeo-Christian tradition had been followed, Tillikum would have been put out of everyone's misery back in 1991 and would not have had the opportunity to claim two more human lives.

Says the ancient civil code of Israel, "When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner shall not be liable." (Exodus 21:28)

Fischer continues:

But, the Scripture soberly warns, if one of your animals kills a second time because you didn't kill it after it claimed its first human victim, this time you die right along with your animal. To use the example from Exodus, if your ox kills a second time, "the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death." (Exodus 21:29)

In other words, when Tilly was involved in a second death in 1999, both he and Chuck Thompson (the Sea World curator in charge of animal behavior) should have been stoned to death.

(To be fair to Tillikum, the first death was entirely accidental. The second involved a man who snuck into Sea World after hours to go swimming with the orcas. Hardly Tilly's fault.)

The logistics of stoning a 6-ton sea mammal alone make me wonder whether Fischer is being facetious. But I've never known the AFA to have a sense of humor. So let's think about this.

Fischer argues that the Bible is clear that, if an animal belonging to a human kills a human, that animal should be put to death, by stoning. If you take literally the Scripture that Fischer cites, then this law applies only to oxen. It says nothing about whales. But even if one considers the spirit of the law, one could make a solid argument that this commandment applies to domesticated work animals and not to wild animals that have been captured, forced to live in the whale equivalent of a cupboard under the stairs, and coaxed into performing for tourists.

But let's say that the law was meant for any animal, wild or domestic, whom a human has claimed ownership of for any purpose. If, as a culture, we decide that fidelity to Scripture requires us to stone whales who are responsible for human deaths, it follows that fidelity to Scripture also requires us to stone disobedient children per Deuteronomy 21:18-21. And that wouldn't be good.

The Jewish tradition has compilations of rabbinic commentary that help unpack and interpret troublesome laws and stories. Christians use a different tool. We grant authority to Old Testament Scriptures that suit us and ignore the ones that don't. Christians of all stripes do this. If a law or story supports a social, cultural, or moral issue that we're passionate about, we cite it without qualification. If we find a Scripture problematic, we say that Christ rendered it moot or that it was specific to the culture of the ancient Near East and no longer applies today. We all do this, and I don't know that there's a solution to this problem. Maybe we all just need to be honest about our inconsistency.


Anonymous Kevin said...

I spent way too much time trying to find the whale in the cartoon drawing before reading this post.

7:38 AM  

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