My name is John Dear, and Im a Catholic priest, a peace activist, a writer, and a vegetarian. Ive traveled the world promoting peace and nonviolence and served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the largest and oldest inter-faith peace organization in the United States. Id like to reflect with you about Christianity and vegetarianism.
When I look at the world today, I see a culture addicted to violence. As I write, there are more than 30 wars being waged. There are more than 1 billion people suffering from malnourishment and its effects. There are more than 2 billion people without access to clean water, barely surviving in dire poverty. According to the United Nations, about 60,000 people, mostly women and children, die every single day from starvation and starvation-related diseases. Right here in the U.S., we see executions, rampant homelessness, and injustices of all kinds, including racism and sexism. And in the U.S. alone, we kill more than 9 billion land animals each year by slitting their throats, sometimes while theyre still conscious. We also kill more than 15 billion sea animals, generally by suffocation, bodily decompression, or crushing, every single year.
I agree with Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that the only way out of this culture of violence is through the ancient wisdom of nonviolence. I remember what Dr. King said the night before he was assassinated: The choice before us is no longer violence or nonviolence; its nonviolence or nonexistence. Thats where we stand today, on the brink of a new culture of nonviolence or the brink of nonexistence.
Nonviolence begins with the insights that all life is sacred, that all human beings are children of the God of peace, and that as Gods children, we are under certain obligations. Of course, we should never hurt or kill another human being, wage war, build nuclear weapons, or sit idly by while millions of human beings starve to death each year. Nonviolence invites us, also, to reevaluate the way we treat animals in our society. While we resist violence, injustice, and war, and while we practice nonviolence, seek peace, and struggle for justice for the poor, we are also invited to break down the species barrier, extending our belief in Christian compassion to the animal kingdom by, among other things, adopting a vegetarian diet.
As I look at the world and reflect on this urgent question of violence and nonviolence, I turn, as a Christian, to Jesus. Gandhi said that Jesus was the greatest practitioner of nonviolence known in history. If we know anything about Jesus, it is that he rejected and resisted violence and practiced nonviolence. As the soldiers were taking him away to torture and execute him, another victim of the death penalty, his last words to his community of friends were, Put away the sword. After his execution, God raised him from the dead, and he returned to his friends with the greeting of peace, inviting them to follow him into Gods reign of peace and justice. He invites us to follow him as well.
When I began my journey of Christian peacemaking 20 years ago, I read several books about Mahatma Gandhi, that great teacher of peace and leader of revolutionary nonviolence. Gandhi was seeking personal and spiritual wholeness. He had lived and worked for justice in South Africa, struggled nonviolently for Indias independence, and spent two hours of every day in meditation and prayer. He vowed to live simply, to speak the truth, and to practice nonviolence. And he refused to eat meat, declaring that the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.
Vegetarianism As a Way to Help End World Hunger
Ten years ago, China was a net grain exporter, and it seemed certain that it would continue to export grain. But instead, as a direct result of increasing consumption of animal products, primarily pigs, China is now one of the worlds top grain importers. The practical effect on people is only beginning to be felt in China. According to groups like the Worldwatch Institute, all developing countries that rely on animal agriculture will experience similar consequences, and the resulting increase in starvation and misery as well. It is profoundly disheartening to remember that during the famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, and during the famine in Somalia in the early 1990s, those countries continued to export grains to Europe to feed its cows, pigs, and chickens so that First-World people could eat meat. Likewise, while people suffer and die in Central and South America, the countries there ship their grains to the U.S. to feed our cows, pigs, and chickens so that we can satisfy our desire for animal flesh, milk, and eggs.
Frances Moore Lappé argues rightly that we should all work to eliminate hunger and protect the environment and that one important step we can each take is to become a vegetarian. To me, working to abolish hunger, war, and violence is a basic moral and ethical duty for everyone. Furthermore, for me as a Christian, it is a basic religious and spiritual obligationa commandment, required by God. Frances Moore Lappé helped me to make the connection between justice, solidarity, and the life of nonviolence, and I quickly became a vegetarian. I hope that others will, too, and that we can all take another step toward a more nonviolent, more just world.
The Biblical Vision of Compassion and Nonviolence
There are other good reasons for becoming a vegetarian, and Id like to review a few of them, including the witness of the scriptures, a basic reverence and compassion toward Gods creatures, responsible stewardship of the Earth, and respect for ones own health.
In Gods initial and ideal world, represented in the book of Genesis by the Garden of Eden, there was no suffering, no exploitation, and no violence at all. People and animals were vegetarians, as we read in the first chapter of Genesis: God said See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.(1:29) Immediately after creating this beautiful, nonviolent, non-exploitative world, God, describes it as very good. This is the only time in the narrative that God calls creation very good instead of merely goodand this immediately follows Gods command with regard to vegetarianism.
But after the Fall, people waged war, held one another as slaves, ate meat, and committed every atrocity imaginable. After the flood, when the worlds vegetation was destroyed, we are told, God allowed humans to eat meat. Scholars argue that within the context of the story, this was only a temporary permission, based on human violence and sinfulness: God gives us free will and allows us the freedom to reject God and Gods way of nonviolence, but God tried to help us to become less violent by commanding people to observe Gods laws. In the Mosaic legal system, then, there are more than 150 laws regarding meat-eating, but the vision of Eden is still the ideal and the goal. Indeed, Leviticus strictly prohibits the eating of anything with fat or blood, and many argue that the law of Moses actually forbids the eating of flesh entirely, because its impossible to get blood totally out of meat.
The best example of a vegetarian in the Bible is Daniel, the nonviolent resister who refuses to defile himself by eating the kings meat. He and three friends actually become much healthier than everyone else through their vegetarian diet. They also become 10 times smarter, and God rewards them with knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom. Throughout the marvelous stories that follow, we hear of someone who remains faithful to God, refuses to worship the emperors false gods and unjust ways, and practices a steadfast nonviolence. And this marvelous story begins with divine approval of vegetarianism.
The book of the prophet Isaiah proclaims the vision of the peaceable kingdom, that new realm of God where everyone will beat their swords into plowshares, refuse to study war, enjoy their own vine and fig tree, and never fear again. Several passages condemn meat-eating and foresee a day when people and animals will adopt a vegetarian diet, when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid ... They do no violence, no harm, on all my holy mountain.(Is.11:6-9) Of course, Gods covenant is always with all flesh, animal and human, and in the conclusion to Isaiah, God speaks of those who kill animals in the same way as those who murder people and heralds the dawn of a new day of peace.
According to the prophet Hosea, God says, I will make a covenant on behalf of Israel with the wild beasts, the birds of the air, and the things that creep on the earth, and I will break every bow and sword and weapon of war and sweep them off the earth, so that all living creatures may lie down without living in fear.
All these beautiful visions of the prophets reach their fulfillment, according to Christianity, in the life of Jesus. Jesus is the new Adam, who returns us to the totally nonviolent Garden of Eden. He is the Prince of Peace, who ushers in Gods vision of nonviolence, mercy, and justice. Jesus spent his life healing the broken, liberating the oppressed, calling for justice, practicing nonviolence, and confronting the structures of oppression by turning over the tables of injustice. By the time he was 33, the ruling authorities had had enough, and they executed him.
As I consider what it means to be a Christian today, reflecting on the radical, nonviolent life of Jesus, I believe that today Jesus sides with the starving, the homeless, the refugees, and the children of the world, who continue to be crushed by first-world greed and warmaking. If Jesus lived in our culture of violence, he would do everything he could to confront the structures of death and call for a new culture of peace and life. He would want us to change every aspect of our lives, to seek complete physical, spiritual, emotional, and ethical wholeness, to become people of nonviolence, children of the God of peace. Anglican priest, theologian, and Oxford professor the Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey suggests that following Christ means casting our lot with the most oppressed. In his book Animal Theology, he says that today, no beings are more oppressed than the animals who are treated so badly by the meat industry. I conclude that, as Christians, we must side with the poor and oppressed peoples of the world and with animals.
In fact, the Gospels are full of favorable references to animals and reveal that Jesus had a great reverence for animals and nature. As Lewis Regenstein points out in his book Replenish the Earth: A History of Organized Religions Treatment of Animals and Nature, Jesus calls his followers sheep. He compares his concern for Jerusalem with a hens caring for her brood. He likens himself to animals, such as a lamb and a dove, because of their innocence and meekness. Behold the birds of the air, Jesus says. They do not sow, they do not reap, nor do they gather into barns, yet your heavenly God feeds them(Mt. 6:26). Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Jesus later asks. And yet not one of them is forgotten by God.(Lk. 12:6)
Indeed, in Johns Gospel, Jesus describes himself as a Good Shepherd and notes that a good shepherd lays down his life for his flock of sheep. Dare we conclude that Jesus supports the ultimate act of compassion and love, to die nonviolently, even to protect animals?
Jesus embodied nonviolence and compassion. The rest of us are called to follow in his gentle footsteps. Yet few have approached him. I think of St. Francis of Assisi, who walked among the poor, preached peace, and, in particular, loved and celebrated all of creation, including animals. Not to hurt our humble brethren, the animals, he said, is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission: to be of service to them whenever they require it. If you have people who will exclude any of Gods creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, he said, you will have people who will deal likewise with other people.
Rev. Dr. Linzey suggests, like St. Francis, that human beings should act not as the master species, but as the servant species. Christ came as a humble servant and called us to love and serve one another and not to harm anyone. Linzey suggests that the Gospel call to service includes selfless service and justice not only to the poor and oppressed, but to all creation, including animals. In this, we become more Christlike.
Many early Christians advocated vegetarianism, including Tertullian, the great advocate of nonviolence; St. John Chrysostom, the patriarch of Constantinople; and St. Jerome, a doctor of the church and an early translator of the Bible. The theologian Clement of Alexandria urged Christians to become vegetarians, saying, It is far better to be happy than to have your
bodies act as graveyards for animals.
It is clear that for the first three centuries after Christ, a Christian could not kill or participate in war. Christians were nonviolent. Some scholars argue that most early Christians were also vegetarians and that meat-eating was not officially allowed until the fourth century, when the church embraced Constantine and the Roman Empire. Then, just as Christians rejected Jesus nonviolence and devised the heresy of the so-called just war theory, they deliberately approved meat-eating.
Regardless of this past practice, though, the question we Christians have to ask ourselves is how can we become more Christlike and more faithful to the nonviolent Jesus. Where in our lives could we be more merciful, more compassionate? In our own times, Christians around the world are waking up to the Gospel imperative to pursue peace and justice for all people, to reject war, and to practice the active nonviolence of Jesus. They are also rethinking our mistreatment of animals and the rest of creation. Many are becoming vegetarians. In 1966, the Vatican newspaper wrote for the first time, To ill-treat animals, and make them suffer without reason, is an act of deplorable cruelty to be condemned from a Christian point of view. Other bishops began to include cruelty toward animals under the basic sin of violence. In December of 2000, the Vatican newspaper pointed out that the Catholic Catechism says it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. The article went on to question the
way animals are raised and killed for food today.
So, when we sit down to eat, when we say our grace and invoke the blessing of Jesus, we should also choose to adhere to his life of compassion and nonviolence by maintaining a vegetarian diet.
And we know that as we practice mercy to one another and to all Gods creatures, we too shall receive mercy and blessings, as Jesus promised in the Beatitudes.
Yet the reality today for Gods creatures is neither compassionate nor merciful. Our treatment of Gods animals is cruel and gruesome. Each year, the United States raises and kills about 9 billion land animals and slaughters another 15 billion sea animals. Laying hens, who are raised for their eggs, spend their entire lives crammed into wire-mesh cages not much larger than file drawers and stacked in warehouses with tens of thousands of other birds. Conditions are so horrendous that their feet often grow through and around the wire. One-third of the birds suffer broken legs on the packed and painful ride to the slaughterhouse, which often entails days without food and water, through all weather extremes. One egg represents 34 hours of suffering for a hen, not to
mention the ride to the slaughterhouse and slaughter itself. Two hundred and fifty million male birds are suffocated or ground to death. They are useless for the egg industry and are a different strain of bird from those useful for meat.
If these farmers, slaughterhouse workers, and truck drivers treated dogs and cats in this manner, they would undoubtedly be prosecuted for animal abuse.
It is important to remember also that most animals raised for food are like Frankenstein animals. They have been genetically bred to grow so quickly that their hearts, lungs, and limbs often cannot keep up. Chickens, for example, now grow more than twice as quickly as they did just 30 years ago and are slaughtered before they are even 2 months old. On average, cows give about four times as much milk as they would naturally, and many give 10 to 13 times as much milk, their udders literally dragging on the ground. Turkeys have been genetically bred so that they cant even mate naturally anymore. In fact, a few years ago, The Washington Post published a Thanksgiving story about turkeys entitled, Techno-Turkey: Serving Up Science for Dinner. We are playing Dr. Frankenstein with Gods creatures. We are pursuing our demonic addiction to violence with our unimaginable cruelty not only to one another but to Gods creatures as well. Gandhi said you can judge a society by the way it treats its animals. And yet, every single day, we inflict pain, suffering, and death on millions of Gods animals.
Tolstoy insisted that vegetarianism is the taproot of humanitarianism. Vegetarianism proves that were serious about our belief in compassion and justice, that were mindful of our commitment, day in and day out, every time we eat. We are reminded of our belief in mercy, and we remind others. We begin to live the nonviolent vision, right here and now.
Over the centuries, the human race has grown slowly in its awareness of and respect for human rights, including the right to life itself. It is now generally understood that oppression and exploitation of human beings because of their race, gender, religion, age, and physical ability are unacceptable. As we continue to grow in our moral consciousness, we will learn to abolish war, nuclear weapons, and violence itself. We will also learn to protect the earth and break down the species barrier while embracing our responsibility toward all creatures. Albert Einstein called human bigotry against other species an optical illusion of consciousness. Our task, he said, is to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures.
The great humanitarian and theologian Dr. Albert Schweitzer, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, stated, Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to humankind.
Many Christians who agree that harming a dog or cat is wrong think nothing of harming cows, pigs, chickens, fish, and other creatures. We need to understand that if were eating meat, we are
paying people to be cruel to animals. For the simple reasons that all animals are creatures beloved by God and that God created them with a capacity for pain and suffering, we should adopt a vegetarian diet.
Vegetarianism As a Way to Protect the Earth
Another reason for becoming vegetarian is to help protect the environment. Mainstream environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Worldwatch Institute, and the National Audubon Society are drawing attention to the environmental havoc generated by raising animals for food and commercial fishing. In fact, one cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist; its a contradiction in terms.
The harsh reality is that raising animals for food is steadily polluting and depleting our land, water, and air. In the U.S., 20 times as much energy is required to produce a calorie of animal flesh as the amount needed to produce a calorie of vegetable food. We wastefully cycle 70 percent of all we grow, such as soy, corn, wheat, and other grains, through animals, rather than eating these foods directly. Likewise, more than half of all the water used in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food, which is why meat-eaters require at least 14 times as much water for their diets as do vegetarians. Also, the intensive production of animals for meat requires about 25 times as much land as the production of the same amount of food from vegetable sources.
And thats not all. Its not just inefficient to eat animals. The 9 billion land animals that we raise for food in the U.S. excrete 130 times as much waste as the entire human population of the United States130 times! And there are no waste treatment systems for animals. That stuff is swimming with bacteria, hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides. Quite simply, its toxic waste, and it is the number one source of water pollution in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the fishing industry is steadily ruining the worlds delicate marine ecosystems. The fishing industry drags driftnets that are miles long along the bottom of the ocean, destroying everything in their path. Factory trawlers are vacuuming the oceans of sea life at an alarming pace. Thirteen of the 17 major global fisheries are either depleted or in serious decline. The other four are overexploited or fully exploited. These same trawlers dump unprofitable, often dead, animals back into the oceans, along with massive debris and spent fuel.
A former cattle rancher named Howard Lyman, now executive director of EarthSave International, urges people to become vegetarians, arguing that, among other things, meat-eating is destroying valuable and irreplaceable topsoil. Hes the person who was sued, along with Oprah Winfrey, by Texas cattlemen after he discussed the possibility of mad cow disease in the U.S.the jury ruled in his favor. Lyman points out that our soil used to be teeming with life, but now it is lifeless brown dirt. In fact, 85 percent of topsoil erosion in this country is due to raising animals for food.
So, if youre reusing bags, using a shower saver, turning off lights when you leave the room, and trying to walk and bicycle, rather than drive, thats great! But to become even better stewards of the earth and Gods creation, we also need to take the next step and become vegetarians.
Recently, I asked a young Christian friend why he became a vegetarian. He said that the change took place when he learned of the environmental destruction caused by the corporate meat industry. He could not in good conscience and good faith continue eating meat knowing that he was supporting the destruction of the planet. It went against everything he wanted his life to be about. He said: We are destroying the ecosystem by creating massive chicken, cow, and hog factories; poisoning the water; and tearing down the rain forestsall to produce meat. Were destroying the entire ecosystems of most poor countries. This whole corporate meat business is destructive. If millions of us become vegetarians, we will reduce the demand and help save
Vegetarianism As a Path to Health and Wholeness
Another basic reason to become a vegetarian is to promote good health. God has given us our bodies as gifts, and we need to treat them well, so that we can serve others and be instruments of Gods peace. Up until about 15 years ago, it was assumed by most physicians that human beings had to eat meat to survive. Nowadays, not only is everyone in agreement that our bodies
Another reason for becoming vegetarian is simply to support basic human rights. A vegetarian diet is the only diet for people who care about the suffering of other people. Domestically, slaughterhouses are dens of death not just for animals, but for the unfortunate people who work in them. Slaughterhouses have the highest rate of injury, the highest turnover rate, the highest repeat-injury rate, and the highest rate of accidental death of any industry in the country. In fact,
As we look back on very recent history, we see an astonishing array of positive social changes. Many good and thoughtful people of the 19th century did not recognize the basic human rights of women, children, Native Americans, or African-Americans. Human slavery flourished until the end of the 1800s in the United States. Women were given the right to vote less than 100 years ago. The very first child abuse case was prosecuted in this country, also, less than 100 years ago. In each case, the Bible was used to bless and defend injustice. But, thank God, we have taken steps toward justice. Yet, unfortunately, we continue to use the scriptures to defend violence and justify war, executions, animal abuse, and nuclear weapons as if God, wanted us to be violent and kill. I am convinced that God is a God of peace and nonviolence and that Jesus wants us to be people of peace and nonviolence.
Despite all the problems of our times, I remain hopeful. More and more people are seeing the wisdom of nonviolence, including the wisdom of vegetarianism. In the U.S. alone, more than 1 million people adopt a vegetarian diet every year. As these trends gain momentum, they will have dramatic and positive consequences for our health, our environment, animal welfare, human rights, and, indeed, our disposition toward compassion and nonviolence.
As Gandhi said, Jesus practices the revolution of nonviolence par excellence. He reveals that God is a god of nonviolence and wants us to enter that life of nonviolence. The Christian Gospels
quote the prophets, call for peace, and uphold Gods original vision of the Garden of Eden. They insist that Jesus called us to live here and now in the reign of God, a reign of peace and nonviolence that includes compassion toward one another, all creatures, and the earth itself. The point, Jesus said, was not sacrifice, but compassion; not violence, but nonviolence.
|People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; 757-622-PETA