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Traditional Christianity and Vegetarianism ó Three Book Reviews

Good New for all Creation: Vegetarianism as Christian Stewardship, by Stephen Kaufman and Nathan Braun. Cleveland: Vegetarian Advocates Press, 2002 (revised 2004).

Is God a Vegetarian? Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights, by Richard Young. Chicago: Open Court, 1999.

Godís Covenant With Animals: A Biblical Basis for the Humane Treatment of All Creatures, by J. R. Hyland. New York: Lantern Books, 2000.

Isnít traditional Christianity against vegetarianism? Didnít Peter Singer say that as far as the animals are concerned, the Christian religion is a very great problem, because of concepts such as "dominion" of humans over animals, humans as "special" because they are created in the image of God, and the lack of souls for animals? Donít traditional Christians think of Jesus as a meat-eater who killed a herd of swine by sending demons into them?

It certainly seems that traditional Christianity sees nothing ethically wrong with eating meat as such. In the books which I am reviewing, Richard Young, as well as Kaufman and Braun, make this explicit. Yet there are some traditional Christians who are also vegetarians, and even defend vegetarianism as a Christian virtue, even while rejecting the idea of ethical vegetarianism. It is a sign of the maturity of a movement that it produces intelligent books on the subject. We now have at least three books which can claim to represent the views of traditional Christians and which also promote vegetarianism.

All of these are fine books. It is a sign of the dedication and sincerity of these people that they were written at all. They are testimony to the values of original Christianity ó regardless of what happened to the tradition along the way ó that they seek to reconcile and make peace between both the vegetarian tradition and the traditional Christian viewpoint. All of these books seek to work in traditional vegetarian arguments for vegetarianism and put them in a Christian context. But how can we do this in a way that is effective in persuading traditional Christians?

The striking thing about Good News for All Creation is both what it says and what it does not say. It is quite short, almost like an extended pamphlet rather than a book. The main body of the text ends after page 59, although appendices more than double this to 123 pages. It presents the standard arguments for vegetarianism (health, the environment, world hunger, and ethics) with appropriate references to the Bible, "Godís handbook for our lives." It also presents some characteristically Christian themes, such as Godís concern for victims, the rejection of animal sacrifice and Jesusí statement "I require mercy, not sacrifice."

For anyone concerned about the Bible, Richard Youngís book Is God a Vegetarian? is a much more thorough presentation. Young, like the authors of Good News, takes "Biblical Christianity" as his starting point. But Is God a Vegetarian? goes much deeper and further than the former book, exploring areas of scripture that Kaufman and Braun do not even mention. He agrees with Kaufman and Braun that Jesus was not himself a vegetarian. However, he also systematically examines such topics as the souls of animals, Noahís Ark as a "food factory," eating lamb as part of the Passover, and so forth.

Young acknowledges that the Bible has contradictory traditions ó some sanctioning, some questioning meat-eating. He adroitly summarizes the problem: "when there are conflicting voices in Scripture on what the church deems peripheral issues we tend to let our own social location rule our selection of texts, and either ignore, or explain away, or harmonize the contrary texts." That is not only the story of vegetarianism in Christianity, it is the story of Christianity itself ó it has, for centuries, adapted itself conveniently to whatever social customs seem to prevail at the time, for example sanctioning slavery, the oppression of women, and so forth. The corrective for this, for Young, is to listen to what the Bible actually says.

Regina Hylandís book, Godís Covenant With Animals, takes Youngís approach one step further. Like Good News, her style is brief and to the point ó at 107 pages, it is actually the shortest book of the three. Like Is God a Vegetarian?, she turns toward the scriptures and identifies different traditions in the Bible. But she sees these conflicting voices as coming from a different place together. She synthesizes these voices in the idea of "progressive revelation": that God reveals to us whatever we are capable of learning.

Yes, there are animal sacrifices in the Bible; yes, there is meat consumption; yes, there is exploitation and "dominion" ó but this is not Godís real message. God, through the prophets such as Isaiah and through Jesus Christ himself, condemns animal sacrifice and the whole sacrificial religion which sanctions meat-eating and exploitation of animals. In short, like Young, she identifies differing traditions in the Christian message, but she identifies true Christianity with the compassionate tradition and rejects the "domination" tradition of animal sacrifice.

These three books offer us three very different pictures of traditional Christianity and of vegetarianismís role in Christianity. Which of these is the best book for traditional Christians? If you want to say the fewest number of things which might offend a traditional Christian, then Good News is probably your choice. This puts the basic vegetarian arguments (health, ecology, and ethics) front and center in the book, with appropriate Bible quotations in support. The strength of the book, however, is also its weakness; it avoids controversy simply by not taking any positions which might push the wrong buttons with traditional Christians. Most especially, it is concerned not to contradict the idea that Jesus ate meat: "Jesusí diet 2000 years ago in a Mediterranean fishing community does not mandate what Christians should eat today."

If, on the other hand, you want a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the different Biblical traditions surrounding animals, which fully acknowledges the divergence of the Biblical traditions, then Youngís book Is God a Vegetarian? is the book to offer. Youngís book is the longest and most informative of the three, and curiously, it is the only book with recipes ó not a bad idea, considering its audience. Most traditional Christians, I am sorry to say, are not that familiar with the Bible, and are going to be surprised that Young knows the Bible so thoroughly. For traditional Christians who actually want to study the Bible, Is God a Vegetarian? is the book which will give them the best information consonant with their values.

Finally, we have Regina Hylandís book Godís Covenant with Animals. At first glance, this seems to combine the defects of both the previous books with none of the advantages. It is the shortest book, yet it also is clearly the most combative of the three, the one book which unambiguously comes down on the side of compassion for animals.

"The eating of flesh is a perversion of Godís law . . . And to thank God for providing food is the modern equivalent of sacrificial religion; it represents a continuing determination to claim Godís blessing on the slaughter, and consumption, of his creatures." These are strong words, and stirring words ó who can answer this challenge to Christianity? The fact is that Jesusí message was controversial in its day ó remember how he got crucified? He was crucified after an incident in the temple, in which he disrupted the animal sacrifice business there. Jesus, that is, came squarely down against animal sacrifice and on the side of compassion, even giving his own life for this principle.

Hyland is really pressing against the very edges of Christianity ó she talks as if ethical vegetarianism is part of Christianity. Does this mean that ethical vegetarianism could possibly be part of "traditional Christianity" after all? Or does it mean that Hyland is now outside of "traditional Christianity"?

Ellen White and Charles and Myrtle Fillmore did the same thing in the early 20th century, by declaring the eating of flesh as food to be morally wrong. But the movements which they pushed forward (the Seventh-day Adventists and Unity School of Christianity) chose to disregard their foundersí advice. Hyland endorses the idea of "progressive revelation," and is evidently ready to jettison most of the features which vegetarians find problematic about Christianity: the "dominion" concept, the lack of souls for animals, and so forth. But whether Jesus was an ethical vegetarian, or condemned killing animals for food, she does not clarify.

Some people feel that this isnít what Jesus is about at all ó that Jesus wasnít interested in vegetarianism, ethical or otherwise; that Jesus was somewhat concerned about animals but that this was not his primary concern. Someone has to speak to, and for, such traditional Christians, putting the "gospel of vegetarianism" into their own language. This is where books such as Kaufman and Braunís, and especially Youngís with its detailed Biblical exploration, are very useful.

But somehow I cannot forget that incident in the temple in which Jesus disrupts the animal sacrifice business. How can we ignore this side of Jesus, or casually put it aside, as if it didnít matter? And why should we, as vegetarians, shortchange the message of Jesus about compassion so as not to offend some "traditional Christians" who might be offended by the message? Surely, diplomacy and scholarship have a role to play in advancing vegetarianism within Christianity; but someone has to actually preach the message of Jesus, and that is what Regina Hylandís discussion of Godís Covenant with Animals does the best.

-- Keith Akers
May 10, 2005