I've been facilitating a group at my church (St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral) in a study of Barry Lopez's book, Of Wolves and Men. We completed our study two weeks ago, and I have some final reflections.
The book is divided into four sections: The first section is a scientific study of the wolf; the second is based on interviews with Native Americans, who have closely studied the wolf in the wild. Our group used these two sections as a means to attempt a well-rounded image of the wolf. The last two sections have to do with the rationales whites have used to exterminate the wolf: section three is a detailed and disturbing history of American justifications for this slaughter; section four relates the mythic history that might underlie those justifications.
The typical Western view, from the time of Genesis and the Greeks, has been to divide the light from the darkness, to judge things and creatures as good or evil. According to Lopez, America's indigenous peoples consider creatures from a more utilitarian view, wondering whether this creature has something to teach about survival in a given environment.
The Native Americans interviewed are primarily from the tundra (Alaska) and the plains (e.g., South Dakota). Their attitude concerning the wolf depends somewhat on their environment: on the tundra there is less fear because one can see what the wolf is up to; on a grassy plain, it is more difficult to discern what the wolf is doing, so the Plains Indian is more cautious around the wolf.
In neither case is the attitude necessarily of fear; it seems more one of respect. In fact, the Pawnee so closely identified with the wolf that other tribes call them “The Wolf People”.
What would it take for us to respect the wolf? Why must we romanticize it at one extreme, or demonize it at the other?
The Indian Wars of the late 1800s were coincident with a War on Wolves. Wolves were affected by the slaughter of the buffalo, which was enacted to starve out Indian warriors. But wolves were also slaughtered. It seems both the Indian and the wolf were unfortunate impediments to our “manifest destiny.”
When I facilitate these discussions, I like to focus on the “big questions”. In this instance the questions were:
- The wolf are close kin with the dog, separated by no more than 15 generations. Why do we love the dog, yet fear the wolf?
- Does our fear of the wolf reflect a fear of our own wildness?
- If so, is it possible to reconnect with that wildness?
- What does our attitude about the wolf say about our discernment of good and evil?
That last question made the group profoundly uncomfortable. I suspect this was because it could lead to a position of moral relativism, that is, the position that humans do not have the capacity to discern good and evil. It might be fair to say we lack sufficient evidence, in most cases, to pass such judgment.
The group was approaching this question as relatively liberal Christians. Ours is a denomination with a strong respect for sacred scripture — our view is that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation. This respect is joined by valuing tradition and personal experience.
So: we begin with Genesis, of course, where JHWH declares all of creation “good”. JHWH may make distinctions between day and night, but the whole of the created order is declared good; even the beasts that walk the earth. Even the wolf. Then let us jump to this story from the Book of Acts: Peter is asked why he baptizes the uncircumcised along with the circumcised. He replies by describing a vision in which he is offered treyf (food an observant Jew should not eat). He refuses, saying “Let nothing profane or unclean enter my lips.” The voice in the vision replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
These two passages suggest to me that humans are not qualified to judge other creatures. If God has proclaimed all creation good, and all creatures worthy, who are we to disagree?
We share much in common with the wolf: both species are primarily predators (rather than scavengers); both primarily eat meat; both are highly adaptive (wolves are native to forest, tundra, and desert). This commonality does not give humans the right to judge the wolf as good or evil. Where a human may have a complex moral compass, the wolf has a basic one: survival.
We do not walk with the wolf — we have not walked the paths of the forest or plain seeking food and shelter for generations. Lacking this experience, how can we judge the wolf?
This makes me question what right we have to judge anyone. Should we not, as the saying goes, walk in another's shoes first? Should we not practice compassion rather than condemnation, empathy rather than judgment?
Yet I am not fully a moral relativist. I believe I may judge actions, but not people. A person may commit an evil act (e.g., bombing innocents), but I am not entitled to call that person evil. As one striving to follow the Christ, I am called to reserve the harshest judgment for myself, and avoid judgment of others.
All praise be yours, through Brother Wolf,
dweller of forest, tundra, and desert.
May we be blessed with his devotion, his vision, and his endurance.
May we confront our fear.
May we come to accept the darkness in ourselves
that we project upon the wolf.
May we come to respect our brother,
learn from him,
and recognize him as a fellow traveler in your grace.
This we ask in your Holy Name.