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Compassion, Shame and Cecil the Lion

Compassion, Shame and Cecil the Lion

It’s safe to say that there has never before been such outrage over the death of an animal as we’ve seen in the last week over Cecil the lion.

Most of us have seen the headlines: The famous lion was killed a few weeks ago in Zimbabwe at the hands of Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota. It was a trophy hunt for which Palmer didn’t have a permit, and his hunting guides reportedly lured the lion out of a National Park. The event sparked widespread backlash, with Palmer’s dentistry practice picketed by animal rights activists and his vacation home even vandalized.

Many versions of the story are out there, some saying it was all made up and others sparing no sad detail. Either way, Cecil is now a household name.

What seems to be bothering some people more than Cecil’s death though, is that the lion’s popularity has overshadowed other, more “deserving” news.

A few days after the shock of Cecil’s death wore off, some interesting posts started appearing all over social media. Many said things such as “Maybe if Planned Parenthood were trafficking lion parts, the media would be more interested in the story.” Others pointed out, “You know, a lot of starving people also died in Zimbabwe that same day!”

Now, for the record, I absolutely believe that a human being, fashioned by the Creator, has intrinsically more value than an animal. By no means do I think that Cecil is more important than some other issues. But what bothered me about the coverage of Cecil’s death wasn’t that it took attention that should have gone elsewhere. What bothered me was how some people (including Christians) used the uproar over Cecil to shame and guilt others for caring about the “wrong” things.

What is the problem with this approach? Well, first off, it’s assuming that people are actually saying they’re more disturbed by Cecil’s death than, for example, dying kids in the Middle East. But just because people post about one issue doesn’t mean they don’t care at all about other issues.

The fact is, people feel safer voicing an opinion about a dead lion than other, more weighty and controversial topics. And, sometimes, we as the Church may have a hand in making them feel that way.

See, we as Christians want people to care. However, people grow in compassion like they grow in other virtues. And if people are scolded from the beginning and told they care about the wrong things, they will—like anyone learning something new—be tempted to just stop trying.

In this sense, is it possible that we sometimes play a part in programming our culture toward apathy? Sometimes, in our good intent, the Church dismisses “lesser” injustices, deeming them unimportant in the grand scheme of things. All the while, we’re intimidating people outside the Church (and sometimes inside), leaving them feeling that their emotions are superficial.

In contrast, Scripture shows us that Jesus rejoices in the smallest of beginnings. To have victory over the larger injustices of our time, we have to learn to celebrate when people show compassion and cry for justice in seemingly smaller areas, as well.

We have to stop using stories like Cecil to shame people for not caring about other issues. Rather, we should use these types of stories to leverage an even greater response. Instead of brushing people’s reactions aside, what if we asked them why stories like that of Cecil’s death make them so upset?

Instead of making someone feel morally shallow for caring about Cecil, what if we opened up a conversation on why the taking of innocent life bothers us at our core? In doing this, we would help emotionally equip people with a larger capacity for compassion. Compassion needs capacity to grow.

So the next time people get worked up about a story like that of Cecil the lion, instead of rolling our eyes and getting back to “more important” things, let’s slow down for a second to meet people where they are. Let’s give merit to people’s response, no matter how big or small we think it to be. If we do this, I believe we will see an increase of compassionate people fighting injustices—including the smallest and biggest injustices of our day.

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