Animals as Crucified Beings

A lot of discussion of religious doctrine is over my head, but lately I’ve become interested in Ignacio Ellacuría’s concept of ‘the crucified people’ and how it could apply to animals. As I understand the concept, the liberation theologist was using the plight of Jesus of Nazareth as a symbol to highlight marginalized, exploited humans of the modern era.

The comparison seems fairly commonsensical, given Jesus’ identification with the oppressed of his time. In contrast, the canonized gospels don’t show Jesus to be inordinately concerned with nonhuman suffering. One could argue extending Ellacuría‘s concept to include animals isn’t in keeping with Jesus’ message in the Bible.

This objection can be elided, in my view, with the help of a Christology which acknowledges the limitations of Jesus the man, whether that’s Unitarianism, Adoptionism, Separationism, or something else. From this perspective, we can view Jesus as a great spiritual teacher — limited by his time and place in history — whose fundamental ethic of compassion we want to extend to nonhumans.

In an essay explaining the metaphor, Ellacuría wrote: “The crucified people has a twofold thrust: it is the victim of the sin of the world, and it is also bearer of the world’s salvation.” I support those who argue animals meet the criteria for personhood, but ‘people’ is frequently used as a synonym for ‘human,’ so, for the sake of clarity, I’ll talk about animals as potentially crucified beings.

“The way society is organized and maintained by a minority that exercises its dominion through a series of factors, which taken together and given their concrete impact within history, must be regarded as sin,” Ellacuría said. One suspects the liberation theologist is referring to capitalism and colonialism, but could not the critique also apply to domestication and other forms of animal use?

This might sound outlandish, but it probably wouldn’t be to at least some Old Testament writers. After all, the Garden of Eden is presented as a vegan paradise; meat-eating is only introduced after the mythical Fall. Isaiah promises a world of interspecies peace, where the wolf will live with the lamb. And in Hosea, God says he will make a covenant with the beasts of the field to end human violence.

If God is love and sin separates us from God, surely there is nothing more sinful than the way we treat animals. We have created hell on earth for our fellow creatures, who we torture and kill by the billions every year, as part of our food system. In this sense, animals are victims of the sin of the world, like Jesus and the crucified people.

But in what way is the crucified people, like Jesus, bearers of the world’s salvation, and can we say the same of animals? Frankly, this is the part Ellacuría’s essay which I have the hardest time understanding. Was the liberation theologist merely saying proletarians and peasants are revolutionary subjects as a Marxist or Maoist might?

“In its very existence the crucified people is already judge,” Ellacuría said, “although it does not formulate any theological judgment, and this judgment is salvation, insofar as it unveils the sin of the world by standing up to it; insofar as it makes possible redoing what has been done badly; insofar as it proposes a new demand as the unavoidable route for reaching salvation.”

Animals are not capable of abolishing domestication. They are not revolutionary subjects in the same way Karl Marx believed proletarians were or Mao Zedong thought peasants were. But I believe that, for instance, by struggling to escape a slaughterhouse, animals can unveil the sins of the world by standing up to it. This struggle implicitly proposes a new demand as the unavoidable route for reaching salvation.

In that sense, animals could be understood as crucified beings, like Jesus and the exploited humans of the modern era Ellacuría was writing about. Again, I’m fairly ignorant of religious doctrine. I hope I haven’t misunderstood the liberation theologist too badly, beyond the deliberate attempt to interpret his concept in an anti-speciesist way.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at