“You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
Is it ever acceptable to refer to another human being as an animal? You probably know why I’m asking the question. The Twittergensia lost its collective mind (which it somehow manages to lose at least three times a day) recently with comments that President Trump made concerning a particular group of “immigrants.” I put “immigrants” in quotation marks because it was initially reported by certain news outlets that Trump had made the comment in a general way about immigrants. In typical social media fashion, the initial “take” was misleading at best. In context, Trump had made the comment in response to a statement concerning a nasty gang from Central America called MS-13. If you have no idea who MS-13 is, it is probably important to get educated on them before commenting on Trump’s use of the “A” word.
Now, I get it. Trump has not given us any reason to grant him the benefit of the doubt – especially on the topic of immigrants. Those of you who know me, know that it is not my practice to defend, or really say much at all about Trump. However, it is fairly ridiculous for anyone to get angry about Trump calling MS-13 animals. Honestly, that’s a rather tame word to describe them. If you want to be annoyed or outraged at Trump, just wait a couple of hours, and he’ll likely give you something better to vent about on Twitter. Calling a murderous gang “animals” is hardly more deplorable than calling a large segment of the American population a, well, “basket of deplorables.”
Back to the original question though. Is it ever acceptable to call another human being an animal? Anyone who has seen the living conditions of the average teenage boy would be fairly well convinced of the appropriateness of the term. But what was interesting was to see Christians across the Twittersphere run to MS-13’s defense. “A Christian should never dehumanize a person in that way.” Which was confusing to me. Because Jesus said much much worse to the religious leaders of his day. He didn’t just call them snakes. He called them a brood of vipers which is sort of like saying, “Not only are all y’all snakes, but y’all’s mommas are snakes too!” To Jesus, the religious leaders were acting so egregiously that the animal metaphor was only fitting.
But the legitimate concern with using such language (I guess we’ll give Jesus a pass) is how it may casually strip a person of the imago dei. All people, even members of MS-13, are made in the image of God. They are therefore precious, valuable, and targets of God’s mercy and grace. A Christian who is well acquainted with grace should be conspicuously resistant to calling anyone an animal.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice that this whole dust-up revealed an internal contradiction that our culture is struggling with in regards to human dignity. The belief in the special place of human beings among all living things is a hallmark of a Christian worldview that has stubbornly survived even as culture has become more and more post-Christian. There are signs that this is changing however. Fifty percent of Americans no longer believe that humans are special. 69 percent of all atheists believe that humans are no different than the animals. We seem to have found something that they can agree with Trump about! Only it would seem that Trump’s mistake was in not applying the term more universally. Media organizations like the BBC, CNN, Huffington Post and Psychology Today announce with absolute certainty that humans are not nearly as special as we think. Because of this, noted ethicist Peter Singer argues passionately that humans and animals should enjoy the same rights. This doctrine of the animal-ness of humanity is not just taught in the abstract. Like every belief, it has consequences, and it doesn’t take a Google search to observe that we are increasingly choosing to live out this doctrine in the way we treat each other. The dignity and even the definition of what it means to be human is one of the most pressing issues that is facing us as a culture. It is not at all clear to me how a people can jettison a Christian worldview and maintain that there is anything necessarily special and precious about all human beings. How can we legitimately fear “dehumanization” if we have become unsure what a human even is?
Which brings me back to Trump. As a follower of Jesus I should be careful about casually assigning any label on another person or group of people. Labels carry with them an inherent power to strip people of their personhood. Labels bleed from the particular to the universal and from the universal down to the particular. I should be especially careful about using a dehumanizing label of a person – because as a follower of Jesus I should know what a human is! Such words are typically spoken out of anger or fear – not out of righteousness. However, to call a group that harasses, murders, maims, kidnaps, and enslaves without conscience “animals” is not so much doing damage to human dignity as it is coming to its defense.