by Jen Clyde
Recently, my email account has been awash in messages from groups advocating against breed discriminatory legislation, specifically laws requiring animal control officers to destroy family pit bulls. As I was researching these laws and signing petitions, I was also studying the Bible and reflecting on my Christian faith. One of the challenges people of faith face in the modern world is applying the rules and lessons of ancient teachings to a modern cultural context. What would Jesus think about pit bulls? Jesus loved to connect parables to animals, so I believe that he would be quick to apply pit bulls to important lessons on God’s love and acceptance.
To illustrate this point, I look to Matthew’s retelling of the story of Jesus blessing the children:
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
Matthew 19:13-14 (NIV)
In this passage from Matthew, the disciples are trying to keep a pack of kids out of Jesus’ hair. He has important, adult work to do, and these little kids are getting in the way. Jesus cuts the “helpful” disciples to the quick, saying that little children, who even today are essentially the most powerless members of society, are the rulers of heaven.
Jesus was revolutionary for many reasons, not the least of which was his commitment to social outcasts. Widows, the poor, tax collectors, sinners – all people who were looked down upon by the elite class of society – were lifted up by Jesus one by one, time and time again. Almost as often as he healed, Jesus encouraged us to love those we fear or feel superior to.
As I reflect upon this story, I like to reimagine it in a modern setting. Perhaps Jesus is at a park, in an outdoor amphitheater, talking to a gathering of curious and devout Christians. It’s a Saturday, and other people are also out enjoying the park, largely oblivious to Christ’s presence. A woman walking a pair of pit bull dogs pauses on the path near the amphitheater to listen to what Jesus is saying. Excited by the crowds and eager to be the center of attention, one of the dogs breaks loose and, trailing his leash behind him, bounds up to Jesus and knocks him over.
The disciples are horrified. Who released this undisciplined monster? Is he dangerous? Will he bite Jesus? They rage at the woman, and she attempts to disengage her dog from his furious and enthusiastic licking of Jesus’ face.
At this point, I imagine Jesus sitting up, laying hands on the suddenly calm dog and rebuking the disciples, saying, “Let the pit bulls come to me, for dogs such as these frolic in the kingdom of heaven!”
Forgive me; I don’t mean to make light of the lesson. But in this day and age, we place a lot of value on individual children, so I think Christ’s deeper meaning may have become obscured in ways that are a bit more clear in this version of the story. At the time of Christ, many children died long before developing distinct personalities or becoming contributing members of society. Consequently, people had much larger families and children weren’t individually valued quite as much. That’s not to say they had no value; they just couldn’t be depended on to survive.
With this in mind, the revolutionary quality of Jesus’ statement becomes clear. It’s as if he’s saying, “Do you see this little kid, who could die at any minute and who is in constant need of valuable resources? This child is more deserving of heaven than anyone else!” It’s not about how big and important we are here on earth; it’s about how much God loves us in spite of the value assigned to us by society.
Now back to the pit bulls. This is a group of dogs so universally hated and feared that only one of the 600 pit bull terriers surrendered to shelters will ever find his or her way into a home. In spite of the loyalty, affection and intelligence of many of these dogs, they are regarded with suspicion and haunted by popular myths. For example, many people believe that pit bull dogs have “locking jaws” that allow them to tear into prey and hold on like a bear trap. This is false. According to senior researcher and behaviorist Dr. Lehr Brisbin of the University of Georgia, American Pit Bull Terriers are physiologically no different from any other breed of dog. They do not have biting super powers, nor do they exhibit more biting pressure than other dogs of a similar size. Yet the media continues to sensationalize dog bite cases involving pit bulls and legislators continue to connect arbitrary euthanasia of pit bulls to safer, bite free communities. Like the tax collectors Jesus defended, pit bulls have a bad reputation but they are not inherently evil.
Bite fatalities are not determined by breed, but by the treatment of the dog’s owners. If any dog is isolated from positive family interaction, abused and neglected, left alone with children or infants, there is a high risk of serious bites or mauling. If a dog is not spayed or neutered or if he or she came out of a puppy mill, there is an increased risk of biting. According to Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, “Statistics on fatalities and injuries caused by dogs cannot be responsibly used to document the ‘dangerousness’ of a particular breed …” This means that our judgements against pit bulls are based on groundless stereotypes.
Jesus represented sinners and outcasts, gave hope to the downtrodden and encouraged us to see the potential for good even in the things that we fear. Pit bulls are no different from other large dogs; they bite about as often as standard poodles and they do not have super powered jaws that lock. They are just dogs, but because they are commonly owned by people in poor and working class conditions, because they have been associated with violence and gambling, because they are often neglected and abused to the point of becoming anti-social, North Americans have grown to hate and distrust them, just as we once hated black cats. And thousands of pit bulls are euthanized in municipal animal shelters each day as a consequence.
Jesus defied stereotypes, superstitions and excuses. He pushed back against groundless popular cultural beliefs and biases. He healed on the Sabbath and proclaimed the value of young children and widowed women. I believe that, if he were to return to us in physical form today, Jesus would have stood up for pit bulls.
Jen Clyde lives in the Bay area of California, is a Third Order Franciscan postulate and is deeply committed to animal health and welfare