It was the image of a shepherd that brought notorious dog fighter Michael Vick back to God.
Psalm 23, attributed to King David — a repentant adulterer and murderer — invokes pastoral imagery to depict the Lord as a gentle, loving shepherd and the speaker as a helpless, fearful sheep in need of guidance.
It’s ironic — or perhaps fitting — that this is the scripture that would speak so meaningfully to a man accused of abusing, neglecting, torturing and killing dozens of dogs. But, as fallen NFL star Vick told students assembled Monday for Liberty University’s convocation, this is the passage he returned to again and again while serving a 23-month sentence on federal charges related to his dog-fighting operation. In his convocation address, Vick spoke passionately about his faith and animal welfare.
Vick, who grew up in a non-church-going home but is a Christian now, began reading the Bible on his own when he was about 12 years old. He struggled to understand and interpret a book that he said he found “difficult,” but it was so important to him to do so, he shared, that he slept with it under his pillow.
But by the time he signed a historic contract with the NFL after a record-breaking college career at Virginia Tech, he had left that Bible behind, he said.
Vick said he knew right from wrong when he was growing up. He always saw himself as an animal lover, growing up with various pets and bringing home stray dogs that he would care for. He even had teachers who advocated for animal welfare. He knew from a young age, he said, that caring for animals “was the right thing to do.”
But when he was 9, teenage boys in the city of Newport News, Va., where he grew up, started taking him to neighborhood dogfights. The young Vick observed how these operations were largely ignored by neighbors and authorities. “My perception changed because what I saw was not the same as what I heard,” he explained. He began to see dog fighting in terms not of right and wrong but of competition. “I fell into the trap of thinking it was cool.”
That inconsistency between what he heard and what he saw is part of the reason Vick has been active since his release from prison in advocating for new and stricter animal-welfare laws and in educating young people about animal welfare. Vick recognizes now the role of mentors and the law in setting an example and teaching people not just to know what is right (as he said he knew) but to do what is right, too.
In other words, people — like sheep — need shepherds.
The way we, as human beings, relate to helpless creatures dependent upon us can teach us a great deal about our dependence upon God. This is precisely the picture drawn in Psalm 23. It’s a picture of human humility in the face of our helplessness, the very opposite of the arrogance, Vick said, that was the root of his animal cruelty and his abandonment of God.
Of course, Psalm 23 is not the only part of the Bible with something to say about God’s expectations for humans in caring for animals, expectations that are just as much a reflection of our relationship with God as of our relationship with other creatures. Exodus 23:5 commands believers to help the hurt donkey of an enemy. Deuteronomy 25:4 prohibits the muzzling of an ox that is threshing. Proverbs 12:10 declares that a righteous person cares for the life of the beast. Matthew 10:29 says that God cares even for the sparrow. And Jesus is described in John 10:11 as the Good Shepherd “who lays down his life for the sheep.”
If Vick ignored these passages — even when he knew it was wrong to do so — he is not alone. While church history features many leading figures who voiced biblical attitudes toward animal welfare, the modern American church has not been the leading voice it could and should be in an age of widespread industrial farming and animal exploitation. These practices often require unnatural confining, shortened life spans, and unnecessary disease and pain for animals.
In some cases, Vick’s sins of commission may be matched by willfully blind consumers’ acts of omission. So while Vick must — and apparently does — take responsibility for his crimes and cruelty, he and we must also understand the way communities foster expectations and an ethos — in all things. Animal welfare is not so much a less important issue than other matters of concern as it is a barometer of the values and priorities we have that are reflected in how we handle these other issues.
It is encouraging, then, to see animal welfare become a greater concern within some pockets of the church. While Liberty University frequently features celebrities and famous athletes in its convocation services, Monday’s convocation focused on the issue of animal welfare. Along with Vick’s talk, the university’s ongoing work with the local humane society was highlighted. In fact, as a result of 43,000 hours by more than 1,800 Liberty volunteers and a quarter-million-dollar donation toward new facilities, Liberty was recently named the Humane Society’s volunteer of the year.
Vick was banned from owning a dog during his probation period, and that required difficult explanations from him to his young daughters when they desperately wanted a dog. Now that he is a dog owner again, I asked him during a news conference what his changed relationship with dogs has taught him about his relationship with God. He said it is teaching him that “we have a ton of responsibility” in terms of doing right and wrong.
Vick finished his talk by reading the psalm to the 10,000 students seated in the athletics auditorium. “Every time I read it, it took on new meaning. Every time I read it, I believed it,” he said.
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Her books include “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me” and “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the number of hours Liberty volunteered for the Humane Society.