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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.