Traditional Christianity and Vegetarianism ó Three
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
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
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
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
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
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
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