Feeding the Children of Abraham:
Christianity & Vegetarianism
Since Christianity has its roots in Judaism and the writings of the Torah, activists can employ some of the Jewish arguments for vegetarianism in the discussion of Christianity. For instance, Christians might also be led to see Genesis 1:29 as a signpost of God's wish for humans to be vegetarians, or more properly, vegans. Both religions also envision the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11:6-9, though the details may differ in each case.
While these points of congruence are important, there are some substantial differences that require activists to approach Christianity differently than they approach Judaism. Foremost among these considerations is the figure of Jesus Christ. The teachings and deeds of Jesus are the essence of Christianity and will play a central role in determining Christian attitudes towards animals.
Animal rights thinkers have addressed this issue in the past. Most often they make the case that Jesus was a vegetarian, implying all Christians should be also. While the vegetarian movement would certainly reap great benefits were it to be proven Jesus was a vegetarian, resting the entire impetus for vegetarianism on Jesus' actions could prove disastrous. This is especially true because, contrary to the claims of some, the historical evidence of a vegetarian Jesus is very slim.
Some of those who push for a vegetarian Jesus point to the New Testament for support. They claim the Bible records no incidents of Jesus eating meat or flesh of any kind, aside from possibly eating fish on two occasions after his resurrection and maybe during the Last Supper.68 Others argue that Jesus' original teaching of kindness to animals were excised at the Council of Nicaea, where Constantine and his bishops dropped the ideas to appeal to pagan converts and to satisfy their own taste for flesh.69 Another line of thinking places Jesus as a member of one of the Jewish ascetic sects, usually the Essenes, who were strict vegetarians.70
But the New Testament gives no clues about Jesus' diet one way or another. The issue of eating meat, outside of that sacrificed to idols, was probably relatively unimportant to the New Testament authors. Meat composed only a minor portion of the diet of a first-century Palestinian71, and was produced in a manner free from most of the ethical implications of today's factory farming system. Because the issue of meat eating was so different then, meat consumption was not addressed as an ethical issue.
More important than the ingredients of Jesus' diet are the elements of his message. Jesus was constantly teaching an ethical system which expounded mercy, compassion, and concern, especially for the weak and disenfranchised.72 Animals, especially under current conditions, are clearly the weakest and most disenfranchised of any group. Feeling, sentient beings, they are without a voice we can understand and few will speak for them. The intelligent, sensitive animals, possessors of souls, if we put any stock in the First Testament73, that humans consume for food lead a more cruel and miserable existence than any other group could ever conceive. Were Jesus among us today, he surely would condemn the treatment of food animals as vehemently as he did the treatment of oppressed human animals.
Linzey calls this emphasis of Jesus' the "Generosity Paradigm." Jesus' teachings always stressed the emphasis of those in a higher position to help those worse off. The rich, the strong, and the powerful are to give to the weak and the poor. Again, we can see how animals occupy the position of greatest vulnerability, especially with regards to our absolute power over them.74 Christians should see that they also have a special obligation of kindness and generosity to animals, like they do to children or other weaker groups of humans.75 The strength of humans should be extended to the weak, animals in our case, as Jesus taught. In contrast, using the power humans have to exploit animals should appear no less wicked as the exploitation of the (human) weak by the strong that Jesus so stringently condemned. As vegetarian activists we must inform Christians as to the extent of animal exploitation and ask them if this abuse can be reconciled with the generous, loving message of Christ. If not, Christians should change their dietary habits drastically. Minimally, they should greatly reduce their meat intake. More desirable would be a shift to a vegetarian diet.
Another important element of Christianity that may be useful to activists is the concept of the "new creation." In this view Christ has inaugurated a new community where the communal ethic is stressed, all stands in reconciliation with the Creator, and love is the highest spiritual gift.76 This is the idea advanced by Paul and his letter to the Romans might provide a vegetarian approach in this vein.
"If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died."
"Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble." (Rom. 14: 15, 20-21, NSRV)
Examining the vegetarian cause in light of the above passages offers the activist several areas to explore. The emphasis on the well-being of the community is at odds with the results of factory farming. Not only is the community negatively impacted by factory farmed food (consider the health and environmental effects, as well as the treatment of the meat industry's laborers), but a case might be made for the non-human animals who become the food. Does the reconciliation of creation and Creator include consideration for the animals? How does the new ethic of the supremacy of love reconcile with the brutality of the factory farm? Christianity's communal emphasis in the new creation certainly agrees with a range of pro-vegetarian arguments, whether or not any concern is granted to the animals themselves. Being a member of this new creation calls on humans to behave in those Christ-like ways of love, mercy, and compassion mentioned earlier. Both approaches conflict profoundly with current methods of meat production.
Perhaps the other most important issue for Christian consideration of vegetarianism is that of dominion. The idea that humans occupy a position of dominion and thus, have complete discretion with regards to animal use is somewhat of a given in most Christian thought.77 In fact, it is this thought that probably lies beneath those words familiar to many an animal activist: "Animals are put here for our use."
There are several avenues of approach by which to address the question of dominion. In my view, those approaches that will be most valuable, especially in dealing with traditional Christians, will challenge the standard conception of dominion, without denying that some sort of dominion still exists. Through a careful reading of Genesis 1, Andrew Linzey has uncovered what may be the strongest challenge to the traditional notion of dominion as a justification for killing animals. The essence of this close read lies in the timing of God's granting dominion to mankind. The idea of humanity's dominion over the earth and its creatures is first conceived in Gen. 1:26 and 28. God then lays down the vegetarian diet of humanity in Gen. 1:29, after the granting of dominion. Therefore, if God had intended dominion as the justification for killing animals, especially for food, why does it precede the command to eat a vegetarian diet?78 We should recall the instructions God gave for obtaining meat, once it was permitted. As mentioned in the section on Judaism, certain specific, precise laws were applied to the production and consumption of meat. So even when permission to consume animal flesh is given, the context then is far removed from modern Christian notions of dominion.
Still, there does seem to be some sort of dominion granted to humans by God. Accepting this in no way invalidates a Christian argument for vegetarianism. Rather, it calls for a reexamination of the meaning, bounds, and intent of dominion. There are two main points to consider with regard to the meaning of dominion. The first is to be found in the example of Christ, as we have seen earlier. Christ's lordship and dominion becomes manifest through his service.79 So our greater power and dominion should be manifest in a caring stewardship, a looking after of the earth and its inhabitants.80 While this view remains hierarchical and may contrast with animal rights notions of animal equality, it seems to be the most practical tack to take within a traditional Christian framework. Dismantling and deconstructing the Christian tradition is beyond the scope of this paper and of most animal activists. For the time being, working within the bounds of Christianity will best serve the animals.
This notion of stewardship leads us to our second consideration of dominion, the idea of God's rights. This concept calls on Christians to step back from the absolute power they have assumed over creation and to consider its origin. This anthropocentric emphasis should be more appropriately replaced with a theocentric focus. While Linzey makes a complete and thorough argument there is really only one important point for activists to grasp. That point is this: it is God who has created creation and who maintains it. Creation then has value to God, value over and above any instrumental worth it may give humans.81 Understanding this, humanity's dominion and uniqueness can be seen as special responsibilities requiring people to honor and protect God's creation, rather than as a green light to indiscriminate animal and environmental use.82 Following this line of thought, it becomes clear that current treatment of food animals violates God's rights. As meat is not necessary for our survival, and as it is procured in an exceedingly cruel manner, it becomes an act of wantonness and an infringement on God's rights.83
Many activists are bound to find their sensibilities offended by even these less gratuitous interpretations of dominion and stewardship. These ideas are clearly rooted in a transcendent notion of God, and may be distasteful to some. I understand that, but I have focused on them because they are the attitudes most subscribed to by Christians and will probably bring the greatest shift in the reduction of pain and death for animals without requiring Christians to accept changes that might appear too radical.84
Ecological concerns should play a central role in pointing Christians towards vegetarianism. We have already seen how modern agribusiness practices exact a devastating toll on the earth. Christians should find concern in this as such wanton practices infringe on God's rights and violate the human position of earthly caretaker. Not all Christians will readily adopt this concern for nature however. Activists will find the environmental argument a particularly hard sell for Fundamentalist Christians. Their attitude towards nature had perhaps its "best" example in the Reagan-era Secretary of the Interior James Watt. Watt's fundamentalist beliefs told him the end was near, the Lord was soon to return, so why worry about nature? Watt was eventually removed from his office, but his fundamentalist views are still held by many Christians.85
Thankfully, many other denominations are coming around to a pro-environment sensibility. It is through this channel that faiths which are very unconcerned with animals may be brought around to vegetarianism. Catholicism, for example, has long stood against granting concern for animals. In the 1850's Pope Pius IX refused to allow the construction of an anti-cruelty animal society in Rome because it was a theological error to assume humans had any obligations to animals.86 Catholicism has also been reluctant to adopt the notion of benevolent stewardship, not on the basis of its illegitimacy, but because focusing on it is trivial and will detract from more pressing matters, like caring for other humans. 87 Activists can easily counter this argument by pointing out that it really takes little, if any, extra effort to avoid in practices that are cruel to animals or which are environmentally harmful. And if we really only have a fixed reservoir of concern, how do we apply it even in regard to humans? Catholics clearly look after various groups of humans without worrying that concern for one group will preclude concern for another.
Thankfully, many Catholics are changing their minds on these issues. Most notably, Pope John Paul II has spoken out in concern for the environment. While his message has remained very anthropocentric, the Pope has recognized the extent of environmental crisis and has called for significant changes in the ways humans use the earth.88 This growing concern for the environment will allow animal rights activists to sidestep more difficult, animal-centered calls for a Catholic vegetarianism, by focusing on the environmental consequences of a diet that includes meat.
Many Protestant denominations have also shared in the growing awareness of environmental issues. In the 1970's the National Council of Churches, a group of liberal Protestant churches, and The Interfaith Coalition on Energy, a coalition of Baptists, Methodists, Jews, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others, critiqued pollution, energy waste, and other forms of environmental damage.89
Since that time Protestants have cultivated a growing interest in halting and reversing environmental destruction, perhaps reaching its high point in the 1988 report issued to the World Council of Churches. This report, presented by a ecumenical panel of thinkers, blasted current ecologically damaging practices, including factory farming, and called for a comprehensive plan to address and correct such practices.90 These Protestant concerns over environmental issues provide vegetarian advocates with another powerful religious argument in favor of vegetarianism. As with the Catholics, advocates can worry less about becoming embroiled with Protestants in a theological debate over the animals themselves, and focus on factory farming's effect on nature.
While Judaism offered the activist many religious and legal means to promote vegetarianism's positive effect on an individual's health, Christianity is less concerned with the issue. However, Jesus did tell the disciples to preach the gospel and to heal the sick. It is in his second command that activists might be able to promote the health benefits of a vegetarian diet.
As we saw earlier, meat has a great many ill effects on human health. By avoiding or severely reducing meat consumption, Christians will first help to prevent themselves from requiring healing. They may then "heal" the sick (by preventing illness and disease) by spreading the message of vegetarianism to others. Finally, some doctors are actually healing the sick through diets that are very low in meat or even completely free of animal products.91 These doctors and Christians that endorse and disseminate their teachings are healing the sick in a very tangible way.
Christianity has always been concerned with the poor and weak. Where better to focus attention than on the slaughterhouse workers and meat packers, who, as we have seen previously, are often oppressed and under paid, subjected to boring yet dangerous work. Residents in less developed nations also suffer as agribusiness clearcuts forest to graze cattle, sprays and dumps pesticides into the environment, and so on.92 To support a system that perpetuates such suffering, and for so little gain, is surely in contrast to Christian values. Activists must make Christians aware of the un-Christian treatment of the workers and other people who are affected by a meat-including diet.
As with Jewish considerations for vegetarianism, activists have an assortment of approaches to guide Christians towards a vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism allows Christians to live a more Christ-like life of concern and service for animals, the environment, and other people. It also realigns Christians with what may be their more proper role as stewards of creation, rather than its absolute master.
©Robert Tappan, 1998
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