One of the skunks I mentioned in my last post is gone. I saw it the other day when I was out for a walk. At the end of my street, as you turn the corner, someone had apparently hit it with their car. And — skunks being skunks — I smelled it before I saw it.
As you read this, I’m guessing not many of you are sad. The demise of skunks is not usually cause for grief. If, on the other hand, I had hit the fawn that ran in front of my car the other night, I’m sure more of us would have felt a tinge of regret (including my not-easily-impressed-with-wildlife wife, who let out an “aww” as the little deer stumbled across the road in front of us). Or, let’s take it one step further: if it had been my neighbor’s big, white fluffy dog, there would have been genuine compassion for his pet.
Why the difference? Well, between the skunk and the deer, it’s what we might call the “cuteness factor.” Deer, especially when it reminds us of Bambi, evoke more of a sense of attraction than a skunk who may look like a Disney character, but certainly doesn’t smell like a Disney character.
To most of us, a skunk has no natural attractive qualities — especially with the sense that attraction moves you closer to something; in that sense, no, I am definitely not attracted to skunks. Even so, when a skunk lets off stink, a skunk is simply doing what skunks do. And they do that for a reason. Sensing danger, they pull out their strongest response: Stink the enemy away.
I mean: how can you blame a skunk for doing what it has to do to defend itself? Isn’t that what the animal kingdom is about? It’s why dogs bark; it’s why cats scratch. It’s why bees sting and mice bite. They are doing what comes naturally, especially when threatened: they are defending themselves.
But animals have another instinct: to devour. Less about protection, this is about consumption — for every animal has to eat.
Both of these are the animal condition: defend and devour. It is the way of survival. To me, this is best pictured in the snake, who is pretty good at both: defending and devouring. A snake will bite you if threatened; and will swallow you if hungry. I didn’t go looking for examples of this, for I really have no desire to see a snake do either, but video of snakes defending and devouring are, no doubt, just a click away.
So what? Why blog about animals? Well, for one, it’s everywhere we look. On the one hand, it’s the animal condition — one that should not surprise us. Animals will instinctively, without malice, do what comes naturally to them. You stick your hand in a snake hole, you will get bit. Whether you do it intentionally or by accident doesn’t matter; a snake’s gonna do what a snake’s gonna do.
Same with mosquitoes. And gorillas. Even viruses. We fight against the flu and ebola, as we should, but they bear us no malice. They are simply doing what viruses — what all living creatures do — defend and devour. In fact, I think we could extend the description even further, to phenomena of nature. Hurricanes can be devastating and deadly. And I wish no one to get caught in their wake. But hurricanes are simply what happens when the right conditions of temperature, moisture, wind, and atmosphere combine in a powerful way. They don’t intend us harm; harm is simply what results when they simply do what hurricanes do.
For such is life on this fragile planet we call earth. Creatures and creations of all kinds that exist to defend and devour.
Of course, these instincts are not contained to snakes and skunks. They are also true of humans, too. Most of what we do, instinctively, at least, is to devour or defend. We work so we can have money so we can eat. Devour. We struggle, especially in America, with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, in part because of what we eat. Devour.
On the flip side, we go to the doctor to deal with our heart disease and diabetes. Defend. As a country, we raise up an army. As individuals, we lock our doors. We take vaccines. We stay away from wandering skunks and questionable holes in the ground.
But this principle of defending and devouring goes further. The guy at work takes credit for your work. Your neighbor loses her cool when your dog poops in her yard. The lady in the Lexus takes your parking spot at the mall. Your facebook “friend” goes on a rant that gets personal and political at the same time.
What’s going on here? Well, it’s the animal inclination to defend and devour. And what’s our normal response? To defend and devour right back.
And like our animal friends, it’s only natural; it’s what we instinctively do. Often, without much thought or consideration, people hungry for more (power, position, comfort, support, money, acceptance) will devour. And people who are afraid, or hurting, or uncertain, or doubting, or discouraged, or wounded, will defend. And often, in both cases, it’s not pretty.
Which tells me that there is only one way to stop this cycle. Unhealthy devouring and defending continues until someone doesn’t return kind-for-kind. Instinctive acts continue until someone recognizes that “hurting people hurt people,” and adding hurt to hurt doesn’t heal the hurt. But turning the cheek might.
Maybe that’s why Jesus told us this in Matthew 5.39. The only way to live in the world, but not be of the world, is not to live as the world. The only way to be a part of the animal kingdom while not living as animals, is to rise about the “defend and devour” instinct.
In other words: follow the lead of Jesus — who came not to be served, but to serve. Who came not to devour, but give his life as a ransom. Who, when he most needed to defend himself — and could have — didn’t simply turn the other cheek, but turned his whole life over to the Power & Principalities that devoured him.
But in the giving, in the dying, in what was certain defeat, came victory. And — shockingly — the thing we have no defense against (Sin & Evil) was defeated. And the One Thing that is certain to devour all of us (Death) is — amazingly — turned on itself, and new life arises.
So, in a world of defending and devouring, I want to remember two things:
- There are a LOT of hurting people who are acting on instinct. In a million different ways, we need to turn the other cheek, to show them and the world a way not animal, but human — truly human, as modeled by the One who is truly and completely human.
- And with that complete human, Jesus, overcoming death, nothing in this life ultimately has the power to devour us. With sin and evil defeated, I don’t have to defend myself. Jesus has already done that. I simply need to put down my weapons, and allow grace and love to win the day: in my life, in our churches, and in our world.