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Too Radical for PETA

Remember PETAís "Jesus was a vegetarian" campaign several years ago, which attracted so much attention with its billboards and press releases? Well, itís over.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has not exactly repudiated this campaign, but they are no longer loudly proclaiming "Jesus was a vegetarian" ó and havenít done so for some time. They now present a variety of reasons for being a vegetarian, so that even if you donít think that Jesus was a vegetarian, you should be vegetarian yourself. "Even if Jesus did eat the Passover Lamb 2,000 years ago," says PETA's "JesusVeg" web site, "that should not placate us regarding the 20 billion of God's creatures who are abused for food each year."

Bruce Friedrich of PETA was recently on Lee Strobel's cable TV show, "Faith Under Fire" talking about Christianity and vegetarianism. He didn't really try to make the case for the vegetarianism of Jesus, and Strobel (a fairly fundamentalist type) commented on that.

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LEE STROBEL: Okay, another one of your billboards, Bruce, says, "Jesus was a vegetarian". And I've seen your stuff online where you argue very strongly that Jesus was a vegan. Uh, do you still hold to that position? What evidence do you have that Jesus refrained from eating meat?

BRUCE FRIEDRICH: Well, once, once, once again Lee, we're trying to raise a, an issue and to get people talking about the issue and thinking about the issue. There is some scholarly research that argues from a historical standpoint that Jesus was a vegetarian, although, what we're trying to do is to get Christians thinking about what we should be eating today. [There was no further discussion of Jesusí vegetarianism during the rest of the show, except by a meat-eating Christian who attacks the idea of Jesusí vegetarianism, with again no direct rebuttal on this issue from Bruce.]

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Iím not sure how much I can complain about this ó someone has to make the case for vegetarianism to fundamentalist Christians who think that Jesus ate the Passover lamb, or fish, or whatever. I usually find myself more conservative than PETA, especially on the question of tactics. For the sake of getting attention, they will do a lot of things which are either dangerous, strange, or just downright offensive. When PETA activists say "Iíd rather go naked than wear fur," together with legally but provocatively-posed models willing to share this sentiment illustrating the first option, I find this, well, embarrassing.

However, all of this puts me in an interesting position: now that PETA has essentially jettisoned their "Jesus was a vegetarian" campaign, and now that I find myself promoting this idea of Jesusí vegetarianism, I find myself in the very odd position of actually being more radical than PETA on at least this one issue.

Why did PETA change?

Wow, how did THAT happen? I donít know why PETA did this, but I can put two and two together. There are three reasons I think are likely: (1) Ebionites are not as "sexy" as Essenes; (2) negative reaction from orthodox Christian meat-eaters; (3) negative reaction from conservative Christian vegetarians.

First of all, a bit of history. As much as Iíd like to claim credit, I had nothing to do with PETAís original "Jesus was a vegetarian" campaign (not even close). I first found out about PETAís campaign through the media, long before The Lost Religion of Jesus had been published. I then sent Bruce Friedrich a copy of the manuscript  (which maintains that Jesus was a vegetarian). 

PETAís argument at the time relied heavily on the Essenes, which I thought was a distraction. If you talked about the Essenes then you also had to talk about the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumran sect, and so forth ó which becomes really complicated, because you have to explain why the Qumran sect was not vegetarian, but that Jesus and the Essenes were.

The Ebionites, by contrast, were clearly connected to Jesus and were clearly vegetarian, which is what I talked about in The Lost Religion of Jesus. Of course, nobody has heard of the Ebionites, whereas lots of people have heard of the Essenes, which creates a problem. "The Ebionites were vegetarian, and were the true followers of Jesus" doesnít quite have the ring that "Jesus was an Essene" does.

Once the original "Jesus was a vegetarian" campaign was underway, two more things happened to PETA: there was negative reaction from Christian orthodoxy, and there was a negative reaction from other Christian vegetarians.

The negative reaction from Christian orthodoxy came from indignant Christian meat-eaters and the response went something like this: "Jesus was NOT a vegetarian, because the Bible says he wasnít. What about eating the Passover lamb? What about the loaves and the fishes? What about eating fish after the resurrection? This is a denial of the Bible, itís sacrilegious, itís basically evil."

The negative reaction from Christian vegetarians was more subtle. It is enshrined in the reactions from a number of traditional Christian vegetarians, which was along the lines of "why are you offending Christian orthodoxy in this way? We donít need to say that ĎJesus was a vegetarian.í Jesus would certainly be against factory farming, even if he ate a little fish." It was these "Christian vegetarian naysayers" ó Christian vegetarians who donít think that Jesus was a vegetarian ó whom, I suspect, really convinced PETA to drop the campaign.

What should we do?

I understand the political dilemma that PETA is in. However, they put themselves in this position by undertaking a really radical stand which really challenged Christianity at its foundations ó without even realizing it. Then they backed away, urged on by the naysayers in the Christian vegetarian ranks. In doing so PETA made the wrong choice and betrayed its radicalism, and hereís why.

1. It's true that the Ebionites (whom almost nobody has heard of) are not as "sexy" as the Essenes (very much in the popular consciousness).  But the fact is, that history matters. Thatís why the whole question of the historical Jesus is such a hot topic, and why the Jesus Seminar has been so viciously attacked by Christian fundamentalists. To say, and be able to prove, that Jesus was very different from the fundamentalist opinion of him is a threat to the very foundations of the Christian right.

Look at Dan Brownís popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, which sold zillions of copies and is now being made into a movie. This book has vague, half-baked notions of history and Leonardo da Vinci some of which are completely false. Itís not exactly a fraud ó the book is, after all, fiction ó but much of it is not based on history. Yet it has become very popular. Why? Because people are thirsty for spiritual knowledge, they're not finding it in the traditional churches, and the book trashes traditional Christianity. If people are so desperate that they will embrace something scarcely based on either history or tradition, would they not perhaps embrace the truth once it is explained to them?

Moreover, there are countless vegetarians who were raised at least nominally as Christians but who have turned their backs on traditional Christianity.  They saw the conflict between vegetarian ethics and tradition -- and embraced ethics.  Shouldn't we reach out to these people in some way?  Wouldn't an affirmation of the historical Jesus who was a vegetarian and who disrupted the animal sacrifice business in the temple do this?  

2. To the Christian vegetarian naysayers, who say that Jesus ate meat but that we should be vegetarians anyway, my concern is this: if you say that Jesus was not a vegetarian, then you have rejected ethical vegetarianism. Youíve made it impossible to say that itís ethically wrong to eat meat, because that would reject Jesus, who (according to this argument) himself ate meat. You might be a vegetarian for health reasons, as with some Seventh-day Adventists, but you have lost the ethical argument. I have explained this, together with my responses to various counter-arguments, in my article "Christian / Vegetarian Dialogue."

By rejecting ethical vegetarianism, youíve lost most Christians (and most vegetarians) from the whole discussion. Most Christians will say, in effect, "Jesus ate meat; Paul ate meat; why canít I eat meat?" Most ethical vegetarians will say, in effect, "you mean your Lord and Savior, whom you are trying to emulate, ate meat? Why should I pay any attention to this unethical religion?"

3. To the nonvegetarian Christian "traditionalists" who complain that "Jesus was a vegetarian" is an attack on Christian tradition, my response is the same as that in The Lost Religion of Jesus: you are right, this is an attack on your so-called "Christian tradition." This is the same "tradition" that gave us the Crusades, the inquisition, and the intolerance and hatred of the modern Christian right which now has blessed a wicked war in the Middle East: hatred at home, and hatred abroad.

Youíd have to be blind not to see that Christianity is in a major crisis over what, exactly, its tradition means. Some people seem to think that Christianity is a license to wage aggressive war in the Middle East, preach intolerance of othersí beliefs, persecute homosexuals, and insist on the literal interpretation of the Bible (whatever THAT means). Can we remain neutral in this conflict and just let them fight it out among themselves, while promoting vegetarianism to whichever Christians will listen? I donít think that anyone who cares about Christianity and is aware of these other issues will want to do this.

Why is this predominantly "Christian" nation also the wealthiest and has the biggest military in the world? Isnít real Christianity about simple living and nonviolence? Shouldnít we talk about getting rid of our consumer culture, about stopping aggressive war, about reversing our "car culture," about changing our lives, about changing our society and our world? Donít we need to completely re-examine Christianity, and isnít vegetarianism just part of this?

Rethinking the whole Christian tradition, and taking the gospel message seriously, is so much more than vegetarianism, even ethical vegetarianism. But this "so much more" is not just a cranky sectarian left-wing viewpoint. It is in fact the message of Jesus ó precisely what both the world at large, and Christianity in particular, now urgently requires.

It is a message which is also, alas, too radical for PETA.

-- Keith Akers