The Cruelty of Nature

This morning, on my way to St. Elmo’s Cafe in the Del Rey district of Alexandria (once upon a time, it was the tiny town of Potomac, Virginia), Jennifer and I came upon an interesting sight.

In the middle of the street, an angry blue jay fought off a flock of those ubiquitous little brown and gray birds (let’s call them sparrows, which is what they probably were). The blue jay had its tail feathers spread, and appeared to have have something clutched in its talons, and making a lot of noise as sparrows charged and dove at the jay. There was a lot of angry sounding chirping.

As the combatants moved, it become clear what the jay had — a not-quite-grown sparrow in its talons that it was busy, between attacks from the tiny flock of desperate sparrows, pecking to death. The sparrows, clearly more than the young bird’s immediate family, were trying desperately to save the little bird. However, even though they were many and the jay was one, the jay was much bigger and stronger than all the sparrows combined, and it finally succeeded in killing the young sparrow (it began to pull the little bird’s feathers off). Whether there was sorrow among the sparrows or not I do not know. All I knew is that the jay had its breakfast (who knew that blue jays ate other birds?) and that, in the scheme of things, what is one sparrow anyway?

There are few people who love the natural world as much as I do, and who appreciate green things and critturs as much as I do. But I also understand that nature is without pity and with sympathy, and we — as human beings — let ourselves be overcome with sentiment for nature at our own risks. Essential to life is the taking of other life. Killing and eating is how creatures survive, and I have long believed that we must let nature do what it does, and not interfere. There is no justice, or injustice, in nature.

However, even though we are in the world, as people we are not of it. Unlike the other creatures we inhabit the world with, we are different — created by God with something of the image and essence of God. Nature’s cruelty is meaningless. The fittest are those that survive. The fact the jay killed (and began to eat) that little sparrow is not a moral judgment in favor of the jay and against the sparrow.

The violence men do — especially to other men — is different. It has meaning. Men have long mistaken wealth, position, power and strength as the “mandate of heaven,” judgment that God loves them more than the week, the hungry, the powerless. As an entitlement to dominate, devour and destroy the weak, the hungry, the powerless. But all our theories and notions of what constitutes fittest and most deserving among ourselves (the richest? the most civilized? the most powerful?) have all led to incredible cruelty and mercilessness. The creatures of this world are hard-pressed to show mercy. How can they? But we can. I believe we must. It’s what makes us different — better — from the creatures we share the world with.