After writing “Pearls Before Swine” (March 11, 2011 blog), in which I argued that promoting vegetarianism within Christianity didn’t make sense to me, I received several interesting responses.Several wrote just to say they agreed. One person commented that promoting vegetarianism within Christianity cannot be done because Christians are typically close minded. When they try to talk to Christians about vegetarianism, they encounter the very kind of objections that I mentioned in the article. Another person complained that their close associates in “alternative Christianity” are not vegetarian, and that some of their Buddhist friends are not vegetarian either, in spite of the first Buddhist precept not to take the life of any sentient creature.
However, I also got some interesting attempts to offer a rebuttal. My blog doesn’t have a “comment” feature (UPDATE: I have now fixed this — comment away!), and I haven’t contacted them to get permission to quote their e-mails, but I thought their comments were interesting enough to mention in a general way that doesn’t identify them or quote directly from their e-mails.
1. One response was from a seminarian. He said that while he felt that vegetarianism was ethically neutral, that Christians needed to live in community together and accept their differences. There is, he argued, a more central calling that brings us into Christian community and that we shouldn’t be divided by vegetarianism.
He didn’t mention Paul, but his comments closely followed Romans 14:3, “let not him who eats [meat] despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats: for God has welcomed him.” Paul is both the key reason why early Christianity did not continue the vegetarianism of Jesus and his first followers, and also the key evidence that early Christianity was united in its vegetarianism and opposition to animal sacrifice. While I have some problems with Paul’s thinking, I’m glad that someone, at least, takes New Testament teachings seriously and is thinking about them and trying to apply them.
2. Another suggested an interesting and different translation of Luke 22:34, which they suggested I mention to Christians. In the Revised Standard Version, this verse reads:
But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness . . .
An old Syriac Gospel gives a somewhat different translation:
Now beware in yourselves that your hearts do not become heavy with the eating of flesh and the intoxication of wine . . .
This is from Evangelion Da-Mepharreshe, volume 1, edited by F. Crawford Burkitt, Cambridge, 1904, p. 395. (You can download this from Google books.) I also checked the old Syriac translation of Luke 24:42-43, and it agrees with the King James Version in including both fish and a honeycomb among the items Jesus was offered to eat.
This is a very interesting development, because it means that there was at least one tradition in which Jesus directly instructs people to beware of meat and wine, paralleling Paul’s concern about offending those who did not eat meat or drink wine at Romans 14:21 (James and the leadership of the early church, most likely).
I’ll certainly add this to my list of arguments for vegetarianism in early Christianity. My fear is that most Christians are not going to listen to this level of detail about the scripture; they might continue to eat meat even if it were discovered that in the original gospel Jesus said, “Truly I say unto you, go vegan.” Many modern American Buddhists, despite the first precept which explicitly prohibits taking the life of any sentient creature, feel no compunction about eating meat. It is not the gospel in writing that matters, it is the gospel in the heart.
3. A Seventh-day Adventist wrote to point out that they were Christian vegetarians. Most SDA churches recommend, but don’t require vegetarianism; and an increasing number of SDAs are not vegetarian at all. But there is one SDA group, the “Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement,” which evidently considers itself a vegetarian church.
I wrote back to ask whether his church thought that Jesus was a vegetarian. He said that the conclusion that Jesus was vegetarian is inevitable if you look at various scriptures, and cited Genesis 1:29-31 (and John 1:1-3), Isaiah 7:14-15, 65:17,19, 25, and Revelation 21:4; 22:2, 3.
I looked at the web site for this group and didn’t find a lot specifically on vegetarianism, though there was this statement:
“When the Creator prescribed man’s diet in paradise, He showed what is the best foundation for human nourishment–plant foods. Grains, fruits, and nuts were the diet chosen by our Creator. Genesis 1:29.”
They are also evidently pacifists: “According to the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:13), and the teachings of Jesus, we, as His followers, cannot participate in politics, revolt, bloodshed, or war.”
I admire the SDAs, but I have problems with the scriptures and don’t believe in a literal interpretation. There are a lot of positive things in the scripture, but a lot of negative ones as well. It’s not just the places where Jesus seems to recommend fish, it’s also where God commands the slaughter of women and children (e. g. I Samuel 15:1-3).
There is a gospel on paper, and there is a gospel in the heart. While I love discussing the history of early Christianity, the main obstacle to vegetarianism within Christianity is not that Christians don’t understand their history. Rather, it’s that their hearts are closed.
For now, I prefer to preach the gospel in the heart. If the heart is closed, then no matter what the scriptures say, they won’t listen. If the heart is open, then they don’t need the scriptures.