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Christian / Vegetarian Dialogue

Any Christian / vegetarian dialogue must first address the question of Jesusí vegetarianism. This is the first, the most critical, and inescapable question in any discussion of Christianity and vegetarianism. The answer we give to this question will totally change the character of any subsequent conversations between Christians and vegetarians.

If one says that Jesus was NOT a vegetarian, most Christians and most vegetarians will be immediately lost to any future Christian / vegetarian discussion on the "ethical" issue. Most Christians will say something like this: "Jesus ate meat. Paul ate meat. Why canít I eat meat?" And that, for all practical purposes, is the end of the discussion. Similarly, most vegetarians, when confronted with the idea that Jesus at meat, will say something like this: "Jesus ate meat? Your Lord and Savior, who is God incarnate, ate meat? Why should we pay any further attention to this unethical religion?" Again, this is the end of the discussion for all practical purposes.

Itís surprising that so many articulate Christian theologians have failed to see this rather elementary point. If you posit a meat-eating Jesus, then at best you can turn Jesus into a food reformer who would strive to eliminate the very worst abuses of the meat industry. The heart of the vegetarian movement is the claim that it is wrong to eat animals killed for food. Once you stipulate that Jesus ate meat, further discussion between Christians and vegetarians on ethical issues is not impossible, but progress will be limited.

Ethical Vegetarianism in spite of a Meat-Eating Jesus

The central issue for the vegetarian community is what has been called the "ethical" issue: whether it is wrong to kill animals for food out of consideration for the animals themselves. Come to almost any gathering of vegetarians, or open almost any local vegetarian newsletter, and you can quickly verify this. Numerically, those who come to vegetarianism for health reasons is impressive, but the ethical issue is paramount in the vegetarian subculture. As Gandhi noted in 1931, the most active and committed vegetarians are also those who are motivated out of concern for the animals, not just their own health.

What kind of basis do we have for ethical vegetarianism, if we stipulate in advance that Jesus ate meat? The answer I would give is simple: in practical terms, there is none; to condemn meat-eating is to condemn a meat-eating Jesus.

There are ways you can consistently maintain both ethical vegetarianism and follow a meat-eating Jesus, but they are quite awkward and would have limited appeal. So let us examine, from various sources, possible arguments in favor of vegetarianism in spite of a meat-eating Jesus.

1. Different periods of history require different ethics. Jesus lived in a time when meat-eating was the only practical alternative, but today meat-eating is not acceptable.

The Seventh-day Adventists have a literalist interpretation of the Bible, which seemingly requires a meat-eating Jesus. They have also been advocating vegetarianism for over a century; Ellen White (their founder) specifically said that we should not eat animals for reasons of compassion. Thus, they obviously have a vested interests in defending ethical vegetarianism in spite of a meat-eating Jesus, and have had over a century to think about the problem; what have they come up with?

One approach adopted by one Adventist splinter group made the following argument. There are seven epochs of human history. In five of them, including the first and the last epochs, meat eating was prohibited; in only two of them was meat-eating allowed. However, Jesus just happened to live in one of the epochs in which meat-eating was allowed, though we (living at a different time) are not allowed to eat meat. Obviously, this argument posits an ad hoc theology in which God forbids some acts some of the time, and other acts at other times, seemingly just to harmonize the meat-eating of Jesus with the vegetarianism of the later followers.

Richard Young offers a more sophisticated version of this argument. In Biblical times, vegetarianism was not a practical option. But today, vegetarianism is much easier; therefore it was not wrong to eat meat in Biblical times, but it would be wrong today. "Unlike the Israelite society from which our text arose, we live in a society in which technology has liberated us from the need to use animals for food, clothing, and other items the ancients could obtain no other way" (Is God a Vegetarian?, p. 38).

History tells a different story. The Pythagoreans, the Therapeutae, and probably the Essenes were all groups that, in ancient times, already saw that eating animals for food was not justified. In fact, many of Jesusí own followers thought that eating animals was a moral problem. Romans 14 shows Paul arguing against some of his Christian "brothers" who not only are vegetarian, but believe that vegetarianism should be a requirement for all Christians. The Jewish Christian Ebionites were vegetarians because, as one Ebionite told Epiphanius in the fourth century, "Christ revealed it to me." Regardless of whether you think that these views were reflections of Jesusí own vegetarianism, it is indisputable that there were vegetarians in Christianity at a very early stage. Augustine himself says that in his day (the fourth and fifth centuries) those Christians who abstained from meat and wine were "without number." This was a very real issue in Jesusí day, and if Jesus failed to address it, it is not because vegetarianism was not a practical option. A significant and very vocal number of people in Jesusí day ó including many of his own followers ó did see it as a practical option and did make it an issue.

"Somehow, it was all right for Jesus to eat meat, but itís not all right for us; somehow, we are ethically obligated to uphold a higher standard than Jesus did." Who can fail to see that this is inconsistent?

2. Killing animals is sometimes necessary. Therefore, while ethical vegetarianism is generally valid, strict and universal ethical vegetarianism applying to all times and places is not.

Suppose you were trapped in the frozen north, and have no alternative except animal food? Wouldnít killing animals and killing meat be justified? And what about being attacked by a mountain lion; shouldnít we be able to kill animals in self-defense?

I donít doubt that killing of animals is sometimes unavoidable. The case of those who live in the far north, or who live at other epochs or places in history when plant foods were not a practical option, has considerable appeal. Let us grant this argument at the outset: while vegetarianism is ideally better, it is all right to kill animals and to eat meat if thatís the only way you can stay alive.

Jesus, however, was clearly not in this category. Except for the time he voluntarily fasts in the wilderness, Jesus never appears to lack food. Jesus does not live in the frozen north, nor is he attacked by wild animals and forced to defend himself. Indeed, the most incriminating verse concerning Jesus eating fish occurs in Luke 24:43 after his resurrection, at a time when presumably he does not need food at all. It is a gratuitous demonstration of his own physical reality at a time when he has no literal need of nourishment whatsoever.

The question is not whether we can be perfect and avoid killing every tiny bug and insect; the question is whether not eating animals for food is a both desirable and a reasonable behavior to expect from us or from the Prince of Peace in a time when we do not have to eat animals for food.

3. The "Factory Farming" Gambit: Jesus may have eaten meat in the first century, but with the manifest cruelty involved in the modern factory farming system, it is wrong to eat meat today and Jesus would not eat meat today.

This is an argument made by the Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA). They rhetorically title their pamphlet, "What would Jesus eat . . . today?" The CVA, interestingly, takes an agnostic stand on the question of whether the historical Jesus ate meat. But the CVA wants to address ethical concerns even if their listeners adhere to a conservative theology. They say that due to the fact that most meat comes from factory farms, it cannot be right to eat meat today.

But will it convince anyone to become vegetarian who thinks that Jesus ate meat? This appears to be a rationalization adopted by conservative Christian vegetarians after the fact, rather than a serious attempt at talking with Christians about factory farming. It makes Jesus a rather inconsistent moralist; meat-eating is all right, as long as it doesnít cause too much suffering. This argument would legitimate most meat-eating throughout history. The factory farming system is of fairly recent invention, not really being adopted full-swing until after the Second World War. So meat-eating, in this view of Jesus, was all right from the time after the flood up until 1945, and then it became "wrong," at least in the western countries where factory farming predominates. However, in developing countries where there is no factory farming, or perhaps for those who have access to "natural" meat from animals not raised in factory farms at health food stores, then it is all right to eat meat. Such an inconsistent morality would probably inspire little respect for Jesus or for vegetarianism on ethical grounds.

If killing for food in itself is acceptable, where precisely do we draw the line? What would Jesus advocate, in this view, if factory farming makes meat-eating wrong? He would probably suggest a reform of the factory farming system. Give the animals bigger cages, provide more humane methods of slaughter, and then everyone can go back to eating meat. This position of course is possible, and it is certainly more enlightened than that of most meat-eaters, but it is not an ethical vegetarian view. It is a "reformist" point of view that vegetarians and animal rights advocates often ridicule.

What precisely about the factory farming system is cruel and unacceptable, when the "normal" eating of animals for meat is acceptable? If killing is morally acceptable, then what about the infliction of pain? Once you grant that killing animals is all right, itís hard to draw the line and say precisely how much additional pain and suffering have to be added before meat-eating becomes "wrong." It is hard to see how anyone who believes in such a Jesus, could be tempted to adopt ethical vegetarianism. And itís hard to see how anyone who believes, and feels, that meat-eating is wrong is going to be persuaded to follow such an indecisive Jesus.

4. For world hunger reasons, and the inefficiency of producing meat and other animal products, vegetarianism is necessary.

Here is another argument that lets Jesus off the hook for eating meat; presumably, the inefficiency of meat production was not a significant factor in the hunger of Jesusí day. This is indeed an ethical argument, but it is about the ethics of our treating humans. In other words, we have no obligations towards the animals themselves, but we do have obligations toward humans, and because eating meat causes other humans to suffer (they are deprived of the grain fed to cattle), we should be vegetarians. By this logic, it is all right to kill a stray dog, but it is not all right to kill your neighborís dog. This isnít a bad argument to use with people who have no compassion for animals; at least this way the dogs who have owners are safe. But an ethical vegetarian is one who sees our obligations to animals as extending at least as far as not killing them for food, regardless of the economic or other factors involved in meat production.

5. Jesus is fallible, so perhaps he did not see the vegetarian issue clearly, though we should follow him in other respects.

This argument, as far as I know, has never been made in public, though some people have suggested it to me privately. Such an argument, while it would satisfy most ethical vegetarians, essentially takes us out of Christianity. Here is a key ethical issue, central to our lives, and central to the lives of at least some of Jesusí contemporaries and followers. Yet Jesus himself did not understand this issue. If we are to find spiritual role models, it will either have to be Christians who saw this issue more clearly than Christ, or it will be among non-Christians. To say that Jesus was wrong about a key ethical or social issue does not logically take us out of Christianity, but it does take us beyond Christianity for all practical purposes.

Historical Perspective

There are some conservative Christians who are vegetarian ó Christians who want to defend vegetarianism in spite of a conservative theology and a meat-eating Jesus. I have no problem with conservative Christians trying to promote vegetarianism among their own number. Two conservative religious movements have endorsed vegetarianism ó the Seventh-day Adventists and more recently the advocates of the so-called "Hallelujah Diet." Significantly, though, neither the vast majority of Seventh-day Adventists nor the proponents of the "Hallelujah Diet" defend the idea of ethical vegetarianism. Despite the arguments of some conservative vegetarian Christians, they remain largely uninterested in vegetarianism for ethical reasons, concentrating instead on the health aspects. One can also advance various reasons, such as mercy and compassion, to limit the worst abuses of meat consumption, but obviously mercy and compassion is inherently limited ó it cannot be extended to the act of killing and eating an animal for food without changing conservative Christian theology.

I wish them luck in their efforts. However, as a practical matter, ethical vegetarianism is incompatible with the orthodox view of a meat-eating Jesus. I have met countless people in the vegetarian movement who were once Christians, or were raised as Christians, but upon becoming vegetarian found no place for themselves in the church they were raised in. They simply dropped out. They correctly perceived that their new beliefs were incompatible with the conservative Christianity which they knew. The vegetarian movement today is significantly secular, anti-religious, and anti-Christian. That element of vegetarianism which is interested in spiritual matters tends to be eclectic, open, tolerant, and progressive. The vegetarian subculture did not acquire this character either because of a deliberate program to exclude Christianity, nor by chance; this happened because people who are open, tolerant, and progressive in matters of food are usually also open, tolerant, and progressive about other matters as well.

It is instructive to compare the progress of vegetarianism in modern Christianity with that in modern Judaism. For decades there has been a small, but active and lively group of Jewish vegetarians promoting vegetarianism within Judaism. There is an international group, in addition to the Jewish Vegetarians of North America and various local contacts. There are magazines, a web site, booklets, and publications. By contrast, Christian vegetarians have only recently established a minimal sort of organization, the Christian Vegetarian Association. Why is this surprising? In the United States, Christians outnumber Jews by about 40 to 1. All other things being equal, one would suspect that there would be 40 times as many Christian vegetarians as Jewish vegetarians. But in point of fact, the Jewish vegetarians and Christian vegetarians are competing on roughly equal terms ó if anything, the Jewish vegetarian movement is actually stronger.

Christianity is in ferment. The struggle to change society and the struggle to change Christianity are not two different and independent events; they are parallel and interrelated events. Everywhere, people are saying things that have not been questioned for centuries and that would have been unthinkable a century ago. The spectacular and steady popularity enjoyed by such progressive thinkers as Matthew Fox and John Shelby Spong is evidence that Christianity is changing. On the other hand, there is a strong conservative element within Christianity that wants to keep things the same. Fundamentalists in Christianity seek to keep women in their place, think that those of other religions or sometimes even other Christian denominations are going to hell, believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, and condemn homosexuality as a sin. In the long run, this conservative element is clearly losing the battle, but in the short run they have the upper hand because they are very politically active and dominate the leadership of so many different churches.

Can one promote vegetarianism among this conservative element? Certainly, especially on health grounds. But which element of Christianity would most vegetarians be comfortable with? And which Christians will most likely be attracted to vegetarianism ó those aligned with the more conservative Christian groups, or those progressive Christians who are actively searching for new answers? Those are all questions which vegetarians need to be asking.

Efforts to promote vegetarianism within Christianity ó if they are to be more than just "back door" efforts ó must attack the problem at its source. Christianity has lost its way on countless issues: by making judgments on people whose lifestyles or religions are different, by advocating war and violence, by putting forward a primitive and hateful theology, and by ignoring consumerism in a rich and wasteful society. Vegetarianism cannot be separated from these other issues. If we are committed to Christian renewal, we must start with the practice and teaching of Jesus and must radically reinterpret the nature of Christianity.