Ever since the serpent beguiled Eve, and God condemned the serpent to crawl on its belly in the dirt, serpents, or snakes, have seemed to most of us as disgusting, horrible creatures, little better than spiders and scorpions. That they are sometimes venomous, even lethal, adds to the revulsion and horror that humans often feel.
I have recently been struck by the debate over whose lives matter, especially because the debate has been circumscribed to human racial divisions. But life is, of course, much more than this.
All lives matter: humans, birds, toads, bees, cows, pigs, dogs, cats, insects, fish, and yes, even snakes.
I have not always believed this. I have killed my fair share of snakes. Indeed, about five years ago a huge rat snake showed up in my back yard. I did not want to kill it, and tried to remove it, but it would not cooperate. Was I to allow it to reside on my property? Of course not! So I killed it with a shovel. But it put up a good fight, and it took me a good fifteen minutes to drag it from a defensive position it took up. I took many blows to kill it. Afterwards, I felt terrible. I killed an innocent creature for no other reason than that it was an inconvenience. What right does one being have to take the life of another being merely because of inconvenience?
The definitive statement on behalf of snakes was made by the naturalist John Muir early in the twentieth century, in his essay, Yellowstone National Park. Rattlesnakes, he wrote, are an “irrational dread of over-civilized people” who fear too much. “Poor creatures, loved only by their Maker, they are timid and bashful . . . and. . . seldom, either by mistake or by mishaps, do harm to any one.” Nevertheless, the question is repeatedly asked: “’What are rattlesnakes good for?’ As if nothing that does not obviously make for the benefit of man had any right to exist; as if our ways were God’s ways.” Ultimately, rattlesnakes are “good for themselves, and we need not begrudge them their share of life.”
Life is an end in itself. And it takes great arrogance for humans to assume that they have the right to take life—any life—whenever it suits them. It is of course legal to kill most forms of life on earth, generally out of convenience. But as the theologian Richard Hooker once declared, “whatsoever we do, if our own secret judgment consent not unto it as fit and good to be done, the doing of it to us is sin, although the thing itself be allowable.” Perhaps, in other words, an action is legal—but it might not be moral. It might not be right. God alone knows.