The death of Cecil, the South African lion, has haunted me since news of it was reported, shortly after July 1. Observed in a wildlife sanctuary by Oxford University since 1999, Cecil was stalked, lured from the confines of the sanctuary where he lived, baited with elephant meat, and shot with a crossbow by Minnesota dentist Walter J. Palmer. Before he was killed by a rifle, Cecil was allowed to suffer for 40 hours from the arrow that Palmer lodged in his quarry.
Cecil’s decapitated head and flayed skin were intended for one of Palmer’s trophy rooms, alongside the brown bears, moose, and other game he has killed over the years for sport. Instead, today Palmer is in hiding, paying out thousands of dollars to security services in Florida and Minnesota and to a public relations firm to help dig him out of a deadly trap of his own devising.
The savagery and arrogance of big game hunting is beyond imagining. But I wonder if Walter Palmer doesn’t offer us, in grotesquely exaggerated fashion, a vision of our own depredations and defilements of nature. Few of us brandish cross-bows, or slaughter innocent creatures in mismatched contests of wit and weaponry. But to the extent that we treat God’s gift of nature as ours to “use,” according to the same calculus of “master” intelligence and know-how as did Palmer, we have collectively caused at least as much harm, trauma and irrecoverable damage as any civilized killer with a weapon.
The Pope’s recent encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si,” makes this abundantly clear. It should be required reading for every spiritual descendant of the Pope’s chosen namesake, St. Francis.
The list of human acts that are depleting resources, triggering disease and ecological (and economic) imbalances, and destroying animal populations fill pages: the use of petrochemicals, mono-farming, our reliance on plastic packaging, fracking, climate control, just to name a few …
We don’t need more inventories.
We need action. And this action must be predicated on a personal inventory of our attitudes and our practices.
In the past week, I found a dead robin on my walk, then a dead mouse.
“Must be the roving cat,” my husband opines.
I disagree. I don’t think it’s the cat, because there are no marks on either of their bodies. I suspect that it has to do with the poison we have used for the first time in 25 years to eliminate crabgrass from our lawn.
“Everyone does it,” is no longer a good enough defense.
“A single person can’t make a difference.”
Ditto. Not good enough.
Here is where Cecil and his unsavory slayer may be our unlikely teachers.
In “The Problem of Pain,” C.S. Lewis argues that our modern tendency to treat social and natural crises on a metric of scale — to quantify and to detail complexity — distorts our moral compass when it comes to grasping and responding to suffering.
Lewis argues that suffering cannot be quantified. The suffering of the neighbor who has late-stage diabetes cannot be compounded with the suffering of the friend dying of breast cancer to produce the moral (or emotional) equivalent of “double” the amount of suffering. It does us no moral or intellectual good, he argues, and indeed to shift from the concrete instance of suffering before us, to an abstract model of pain, can numb us to any response at all. Abstracting a problem and going numb to it robs us of our capacity to take meaningful action. It reduces our connection to suffering to an intellectual puzzle that it is all too easy to distance ourselves from.
The death of one lion for sport is an ultimate suffering. So is the death of one robin, one mouse.
As a goad to action and a locus of intentional good, the individual case may be our best hope. Our own home, garden, neighborhood, schoolyard. The species of bird, fish, the waterway that we love.
“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?” Even schoolchildren know this teaching of Jesus.
Ecologists can give us important facts about system changes in the environment, just as ethicists can argue general precepts from single examples. But only we as individuals can choose whether to ride a bicycle, buy a hybrid car, or insist on the SUVs that burn up twice as much gas. Only we can begin to practice small acts of restraint that will lead to larger lifestyle and, in time, more widespread change.
Many years ago, I met a man who, at the age of 21, had inherited a family fortune. He could easily have lived off the earnings of his investments for the rest of his life. No one would have challenged this decision. His peers would have, in fact, admired him.
But in a single stroke, he chose to give all of it away. He lived simply, and as he matured, became a different kind of person. He spoke out on issues of income equality, fair wages for the working poor, and affordable housing. He now heads a small agency dedicated to advocacy and teaching about these issues. He speaks at national conferences and has become a leader in the field of economic justice.
We all know individuals who have made similar self-giving choices. They have opted for simplicity, voluntary poverty, and service. For the most part, they are freer than those of us who have avoided such inner accounting.
In the example of Walter Palmer, we have seen very clearly the difference that one person can make. Palmer couldn’t have known, when he shelled out $55,000 to his Zimbabwe guides, that he would become a lightning rod and, for many, a tipping point for the challenges that Pope Francis has laid out with such candor, thoroughness, and courage, in “Laudato Si.”
Perhaps the time has come to step out of our own hiding places and our own deadly traps. The death of Cecil may be the invitation to a new way of justice and salvation.