Is dialogue between vegetarians and Christians even possible? Although the modern Western vegetarian movement was originally started by Christian vegetarians (members of the Bible Christian Church, now defunct), Christian vegetarianism is scarcely even mentioned these days. Christians have largely rejected vegetarianism, and vegetarians are mostly non-Christian.
When exploring the possibility of such a dialogue with other vegetarians, the difficult thing to explain is “why Christianity?” Why not just present a straightforward ethical case for vegetarianism or veganism, based on the idea that animals are sentient beings and have rights? Let’s just leave religion out of it. When explaining this possibility to Christians, though, there is a completely different question: “why vegetarianism?” They typically are completely indifferent to vegetarian issues, if not downright hostile.
Let’s start with the “why Christianity?” part first. In 1990, the number of Christians was stable at about 87%, but by 2008, the figure had slipped to 76%. This figure is declining, but still large. At the same time, we all see evidence for a dynamic and growing vegan community. If veganism is to become the dominant lifestyle in America, it will likely have to deal with Christianity at some point, either as an adversary or as a friend.
The heart of veganism is an ethical concern — a concern for animals and for all of life. But in our culture, many people talk and think about deep ethical concerns in terms of Christianity (even when the church is on the wrong side, which it often is). When people leave the church, they feel they have lost something. Even though Christianity is in decline, it is deeply embedded in our culture.
The second part of my question comes from the Christian side and asks, “why vegetarianism?” Of course my vegetarian and vegan friends will be eager to fill in the standard arguments: nutrition, ecology, and ethics. Christian vegetarians can of course make their case by arguing that vegetarianism supports traditional Christian values. Want to feed the hungry? Go vegan.
The problem with this approach is that “traditional Christian values” don’t support ethical vegetarianism for the sake of the animals. Jesus is widely believed to have eaten fish, eaten the Passover lamb, and fed fish to the five thousand. From this perspective, vegetarianism is fine as a personal practice, but to advocate ethical vegetarianism would condemn the founder of the religion, Jesus himself. This is a basic, basic point which I have explained on other occasions. To embrace Christianity, at least in its orthodox forms, means to reject ethical vegetarianism, and vice versa — which explains why the overwhelming majority of vegetarians are not Christian.
This does not necessarily mean that vegetarianism and Christianity are opposed. Christianity could change, and that’s something I’d like to see. The smart people still in the church already understand very well that Christianity is in trouble. Too much of Christianity today represents little better than conventional morality. Gone is the original radical ethics of the primitive community. A few churches, to their credit, are feeding the poor, concerned about the environment, and talking about inequality. This is great, but in terms of the crisis which our civilization faces, it is too little and too late.
Vegetarianism was originally part of this way of life. The rejection of vegetarianism by the church had nothing to do with Jesus. It also had very little to do with “Jewish rituals.” It had to do with a dispute in the early church over the questions of vegetarianism and meat sacrificed to idols. If Christianity wanted to recover this essential piece of its own tradition, it could recover a viable sense of moral purpose.