Vegetarianism: A freak hippie fad or a way to be a radical Christian?

What’s the matter? Now that we know our conversations are to be summarized in another venue, we stop talking? I hope everyone’s just busy being radical in their offline lives.

The real reason for my post is to talk about vegetarianism and animal rights/welfare. This is another topic on which many Christians (perhaps especially Mennonites in rural areas) have only vague notions of why anyone would decide not to eat meat. It seems silly, pagan or perhaps even anti-Anabaptist when you’re talking about “meat canned in the name of Jesus for the missionaries to eat.”

It’s with some trepidation that I write this. I don’t want to come off as a zealot who believes everyone has to do as I do. There’s just so much misinformation out there it’s hard to know where or how to begin. It would certainly be encouraging to discover YARs aren’t scared to talk about something that is at once philosophical and immensely practical for those of us who eat three meals a day.

As some of you know, I’m a vegetarian. I’ve been a lacto-ovo vegetarian, meaning I eat plant foods, eggs and dairy, since I was 16. Just in case there’s any confusion, a vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat the flesh of any animal: cow, pig, fish, chicken, etc. Some vegetarians eat only plant foods, and they’re called strict vegetarians. Those who eat only plant foods and don’t use animal products like leather, silk and wool in their lifestyle are called vegans.

As a Christian vegetarian, my motivations are mainly to oppose cruelty to animals. I believe God created animals not to fulfill every human whim but because they have some intrinsic value, too. If someone needs biblical proof of this, Proverbs 12:10 talks about wise people caring for the needs of the animals in their care. I believe it does matter how we treat animals and the rest of the world, not just how we treat other humans. Diligent parents frequently caution their children to take care of the pet dog or cat because the animal shouldn’t suffer for the children’s lack of responsibility.

The atrocities in some of these factory farms just blow my mind. It’s like any kind of big business: Cost is all that matters. In industrial-size poultry and pig farms, the chickens and pigs live their entire lives inside large, crowded buildings. While it may be a bit silly to say that they all “want” to see daylight, every creature with nerve endings wants to live as pain-free as possible. I’m not interested in anthropomorphizing. There’s just something really wrong with intentionally inflicting pain on another creature for my benefit. That doesn’t seem very Christlike or pacifistic. It would be one thing if I had to in order to live, but I don’t. I, and many others, live quite well without eating flesh foods. I decided since this was all completely unnecessary, I wouldn’t be a part of it. So I quit eating meat. One day I hope to cut out the eggs and dairy, but right now I’m just working on reducing how much of those I eat.

And no, I’m not a big fan of PETA. Their passion is certainly admirable, but I don’t like everything they’ve done.

Do I think it’s a sin to eat meat? No. I mean, not exactly. If I went out and ate (fill in the blank with a flesh food), I would betray my conscience. Because I’m in this to treat all of God’s creatures with compassion, for me it might be a sin. Is it a sin to decapitate your pet cat? What changes when it’s a chicken? Why do we create these categories for animals, that it’s OK to eat certain ones, but others are for companionship? Why do we look down on Chinese societies in which it’s acceptable to eat dogs? Could not the same bloodthirst that prompts people to glamorize war also prompt people to enjoy hunting? I know plenty of hunters. Most say they enjoy it. (“Overpopulation” is a side reason for most hunters I know.) I’m not sure if they just like the thrill of pursuit, or if they enjoy the actual act of killing another creature. From the perspective of the deer, though, they probably enjoy living their entire lives in the wild and then get shot down, rather than living in a small cage, being force-fed, and then slaughtered like many factory-farmed animals.

I’m not talking about anyone’s family farms here. Everyone’s got an “Uncle So-and-So who treats his cows like children.” Most of the meat, dairy and eggs in the U.S. comes from these factory farms. (Yes, I’m speaking to myself on the dairy and eggs.) It’s rather hard to avoid all their products when eating at restaurants or shopping major grocery store chains. Please don’t get me wrong–I’m not expecting everyone to jump up from their computers and dash straight to a farmers’ market to buy fresh produce. (Good thought, but it’s far too early in the growing season for farmers’ markets where I live.)

So, what IS to be done? Is there any defense from an Anabaptist theological perspective for intentionally disregarding pain and/or cruelty humans inflict on animals in the meat industry? Most people I know simply don’t care. Some take offense to the idea they’d do well to thoughtfully consider the impact of their food on others. Others see it as inevitable humans will eat animals, and those who abstain are stupid not to join in. Some think opposing cruelty to humans and animals are mutually exclusive.

How do you see it?

Comments (20)

  1. BlueStarFish

    I have been a vegetarian for the past five years now. Although growing up I never ate all that much meat, e.g. my family would regularly give meat up for Lent, and I certainly have never missed it.

    Another reason for being veggie, apart from the animal cruelty, that I usually give has to do with social justice and world hunger: it takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of edible animal flesh. There are also a lot of environmental issues to do with raising animals for food on local and global scales (problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. H. Steinfeld, P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, M. Rosales, and C. de Haan, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options,” Livestock, Environment and Development (2006). – a UN report)

    To my knowledge I’ve never told anyone to become a vegetarian, but these are some of the reasons I give when asked. My choice has a lot to do with my values and ideals. Living in a big city an organic box scheme is about as close as I’ve found to buying food locally…but I try.

    A small note on the ‘hippy’ label. In developing countries 80% of farmers would not need to change production methods to be certified as organic; and looking at the whole population of this planet eating vegetarian food is still the norm (though probably a matter of necessity rather than choice).

  2. folknotions

    Good post skylark.

    Has anyone else noticed how gender roles/oppression in America are played out in eating meat? i.e., if you don’t eat meat you’re less of a man, or, even more of a stretch, you’re “gay”? I’ve noticed, particularly in conservative circles, how these connections play out.

    A more conspicuous example: how often have you encountered that heteronormative men will cook at times, but only if it’s a steak or chicken and it’s on the grill? Anybody have a biblical basis for this behavior ;)?

  3. Skylark

    Bluestarfish, welcome to YAR! It’s good to have you here, and thank you for noting the efficiency of food production for animals vs. vegetation.

    Folknotions, I most certainly have noticed that phenomena! It’s something frequently complained-about among vegetarians. Straight vegetarian men find themselves frequently defending their sexuality in this culture.

    I notice far more women than men being willing to try going vegetarian. Granted, a higher percentage of men than women who go vegetarian stay vegetarian long-term. If anything, that has the potential to classify women as “adventuresome but flightly” and men as “slow to move but committed when they get there.” Perhaps the stigma of “veg man=gay” keeps the less committed men out. Or something.

    Also notice when we apply animal nicknames to people, men typically get the meat-eating animals, while the herbivorous animals are somehow more feminine. (I’d like to know how rabbits reproduce if they’re all female. ;-)

    Lions, tigers, pigs, eagles, alligators, bears are often names of all-male sports teams. Sports is often so hyper-macho anyway, it’s hardly a surprise.

    Bunnies, squirrels, cows (but not bulls, because the matadors do them in the ring), kitties, most small birds and a few others that escape me are included in cutesy names for sexually attractive women and/or women’s collectables.

    An interesting if perhaps a little misguided book about meat and gender roles is “The Sexual Politics of Meat.” I can’t remember the name of the author, but it was written in the late ’90s if I recall correctly.

  4. mai ouest

    I am inclined to believe that in parts of the world where it is difficult to eat a balanced vegetarian diet of local food, eating meat is a preferable alternative to bringing in food from far away, with the associated environmental costs, which affect us all, people and animals.

  5. Skylark (Post author)

    Hi Mai ouest, and welcome to YAR.

    Are you referring to the U.S. or third-world countries? In many of the factory farms in the U.S. (or run by U.S. companies in other countries where labor is cheaper), the animals are fed a food mixture that comes from great distances away, and once the animals are slaughtered, the meat is transported over great distances to get to people’s plates. While our out-of-season fruits and vegetables frequently come from far away, too, this does skip a step required in animal agriculture. Generally, water and sunshine are fairly local. Fertilizers may be trucked in, but this is also true in plants fed to animals. It still comes out better to focus mainly on plants, even if you do opt for some meat.

    Yes, environmental costs are an important part of deciding what to eat. For those of us with ethical beliefs about eating animals, the environmental costs are another factor to weigh. I try to eat locally whenever practical. It can be hard, especially in the winter, but every little bit counts.

  6. JUnrau

    I think Mai Ouest was talking about places that aren’t factory farming their food.

    I was a vegetarian for 4 years and then went off to China, where people didn’t understand the concept. If you asked for “no meat” shredded pork would still be all over your beans. If you pointed out you asked for no meat, they’d be all “There’s no meat on there.” It was just part of the culture. Sometimes you could say you were Buddhist and that would get you leafy greens without any meat.

    My vegetarianism lasted about three days. But I could see (and hear) the pigs come into town off their boat. The chickens I was eating were running around in the street beforehand. I figured this was far from the North American stacks of livestock might as well be grown in a vat meat, so I didn’t worry about it.

    I did go back to vegetarianism when I came back to Canada since here there’s no chance of seeing my animals before they gave me their fleshy bits.

  7. mai ouest

    Thanks, Skylark, for your comments. You make a very important point about factory farmed meat, though JUnrau is right that I was envisioning other sources of meat. The example I was actually thinking of, though I realize it’s not exactly relevant for the majority of us, was people living in Canada’s north, who have existed for thousands of years on a diet that for much of the year consists almost entirely of meat. For myself, I try to limit my meat intake, but if I knew of a source for meat that had been raised on land unsuitable for crop cultivation and had lived long enough to reproduce a few times rather than being killed while very young so that I could eat tender steaks, I would have no ethical problems eating it.

  8. Skylark

    Hi JUnrau, where in China were you? My 18-year-old sister is also a vegetarian, and she went to China on a tour with her choir. Not only did she get delicious vegetarian meals at each meal, but the food service set up a special table for the five or six vegetarians in the group to use. I’m guessing either it was easier for the wait staff to keep orders straight if the vegetarians were in a designated area, or possibly they’ve had experience with Hindu vegetarians from India. (About thirty percent of the Hindus in India are vegetarians for religious reasons.) I’ve read that some of the life-long Hindu vegetarians would rather not be near meat at all, and so ask to be put at a separate table. Me, I’m not that picky, but to each his/her own.

    If it’s so impractical to be a vegetarian in developing countries, how do thirty percent of Indian Hindus manage to do it?

    And, if a vegetarian lives long-term in a culture that doesn’t understand the concept, they’ll probably be buying ingredients in local markets and cooking for themselves, so it wouldn’t be a hassle to communicate at each meal.

  9. JUnrau

    I spent two years in Wanzhou, which is out near Chongqing. And yes, I could have spent the time buying meatless ingredients at the local markets to cook for myself, but I was already living in a world without cheese and bread for two years; I wanted to enjoy something I ate.

    Also there’s the whole cultural sensitivity thing. I felt I was enough of a burden with my broken Chinese and general social clumsiness that I didn’t need to force everyone I met or who made food for me to accommodate yet another “dumbass foreigner” idiosyncrasy.

    India’s a completely different beast than out in the sticks of Sichuan. As is living in a city with a population of less than a dozen westerners compared with being in a tour group. (Where did your sister go? She one of the EMHS kids?)

    It doesn’t really have anything to do with them being developing countries or not. India has tonnes of vegetarian options because there’s a demand for it. Vegetarian food is just part of the culture there. And it’s also the easiest way to get by if you don’t want to offend people by the meat you eat (since beef offends Hindus and pork offends Muslims).

    China has gobs of vegetables and tofu but don’t have a tradition of not eating meat. So meat finds a way into everything (even putting aside the cooking in animal fats and such). Unless you’re a monk. They get by okay.

  10. Skylark

    JUnrau, I don’t understand what you meant by “I wanted to enjoy something I ate.” Would you not enjoy anything you ate that you’d made from scratch? I tend to enjoy food more when I make it. Maybe you meant that out of all the options, meat was the only thing you liked. I’m a little skeptical of that since you were a vegetarian for four years previous to that. Had you been craving meat?

    What was your rationale behind being a vegetarian? I can understand someone saying, “Well, I’m in it for my health, so I’ll just eat a little meat now and then to keep the locals happy,” but if someone objects to animals as food on moral/ethical grounds, then that’s something you could/should carry with you. Do people change other ethical stances they have when they travel to other cultures that may not understand them? We’re not talking about just downplaying the importance of an issue, here.

    When I studied for a semester in Barcelona, Spain, (a world of difference from China, I know) I knew going in I wouldn’t back down. If people couldn’t understand why I was a little different, oh well. As it turned out, the study abroad program placed me with a vegetarian host family. It was like living in heaven! At that point, no one in my American family were vegetarians, so it was so refreshing to open up the refrigerator or sit down for dinner with my hosts and feel ethically good about every option. We would have GREAT conversations about how we felt uncomfortable with circuses and how awful bullfights were, etc. Yes, it was hampered by my language ability, but it was marvelous. I knew so few vegetarians in my offline life in Ohio I had no idea how it felt to have people look me in the eye and say, “Entiendo completamente” (I understand completely) when it comes to such things. Ironic I had to leave the U.S. to experience that for the first time.

    Is it possible to be sensitive to another person’s culture without participating in it?

    I don’t know what EMHS stands for, but I’m pretty sure the acronym doesn’t apply to my sister. She was in Shanghi, Yangzou (sp?) and a few other places I can’t recall. I’m sure it was quite different for her than it was for you. I still don’t understand why you couldn’t do more of your own cooking. If you were invited to many meals with families to whom you were ministering, could you take along a dish to share? I don’t know if that might be considered insulting, but it works in some cultures–you end up with at least one dish to eat, and they (hopefully) realize you’re trying to be nice and share.

    Please understand. I’m not trying to say all people must be vegetarians in all situations. Since you brought up foreign travel as a complication, I’m attempting to be helpful and figure out ways to make it more practical. Living in the U.S. is where I am right now. I’m not going to change what I’m doing because I “might” someday encounter people in another culture who don’t get it.

  11. ArchaicFuturist

    I’ve been living in Eugene, Oregon, for several years now, and a significant proportion of the people I encounter on a regular basis — perhaps upwards of 50% — are vegetarians, many of those are vegans (eating nothing derived from animals, including eggs and honey), and then there are a lot of raw foodists, who won’t eat anything heated above about 112 degrees (it preserves the living enzymes of the food, according to practitioners). I’ve got a lot of respect for vegetarians, and at various points in my life I’ve been one myself, for all practical purposes, though I’ve never adopted the label.

    I’ve been considering the ethics of eating meat for years now. I tend to start from the position that human beings are not the inherent hegemons on this planet (i.e., not given the right of domination by a deity), and that all species are worthy of equal respect. This would seem to be an argument against eating flesh. But the living world is replete with carnivores and omnivores, and I’m extremely hesitant to start labeling tigers, raccoons, sharks, and snakes as “immoral,” “sinful,” or “evil” because of their eating habits. I don’t think that invoking human moral agency helps here either … I’m not convinced that other animals — or at least certain other animals — aren’t equipped with senses of morality of their own. If I claim that I’m not superior to other forms of life, then their eating habits can’t be inherently inferior to mine either.

    Additionally, Sally Fallon (author of “Nourishing Traditions”) and others make some pretty convincing arguments that the human body needs some animal material — fats in particular — for peak longterm health. Our nearest nonhuman relatives, chimps and bonobos, eat a fairly large amount of meat, and all hunter-gatherer populations — representing a lifestyle similar to that all humans once lead — eat at least some meat or fish.

    Importing soy meal from Asia to raise pigs in a hellish feedlot in Arkansas isn’t sustainable by any means. But by the same token, importing Colorado River water to the drylands of Arizona to raise peaches isn’t sustainable either. Dryland Arizona is much better suited to cattle ranching than it is to crops, as are many, many regions of the planet. It may take 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat, but there are huge portions of the planet where growing grain (or other vegetable food) simply isn’t possible without massive inputs from outside, like imported water or petrochemical fertilizers. I would argue that it makes a lot more sense for a South Dakotan to eat a steak than a banana, assuming that the steak came from a cow allowed free range on the prairie.

    I’ll avoid factory-farmed meat at all costs. The ethical cost of the tortured animals is just too high, not to mention the health effects from animals pumped up with hormones and antibiotics. But I’ve come to the position that free-range animals are acceptable to eat, especially when I know the farmers and the animals themselves, and especially when I eat what they provide me with gratitude and mindfulness.

    I have deep respect for anyone who has ethical problems with eating meat. But to present factory farms and vegetarianism as the only two viable options is a false choice. One may not be able to get fresh produce at one’s farmer’s market in, say, February, but every place has local farmers that will sell meat at any time of the year. There may not be as many local farms as there once were, but they still exist, and they need our help to thrive again. Buying beef from them can be as important as buying strawberries.

  12. JUnrau

    Let’s see there’s a lot to respond to there.

    EMHS is a Mennonite high school in Virginia who I’m pretty sure has sent groups to China to hang out in Sichuan with people I knew. If she was then maybe I knew someone who’d met her or something.

    For me personally, I don’t really gain tonnes of pleasure cooking for myself. And there’s also the fact that anything I’d make would be nibbled and people would say “Very nice” and hate it. My friend who’s still out there cooks more than I do and it’s taken her a long time before any of her Chinese friends would give a grudging “Okay.” (It’s possible I’m exaggerating for effect here. If you’re reading this H, feel free to pipe up.)

    Most of the time in China if you go out to a meal you go out to a restaurant so there’s that. Bringing a dish along wouldn’t fly so well. I’m just saying. I wasn’t craving meat, but I was craving not having to fight a battle every time I wanted to put food in my mouth. I already had to do that every time I got full.

    Now on the “giving up my principles” thing. I’m not a vegetarian for health reasons or for “oh the poor animals” reasons or whatever. There is a bit of the “factory farms are creepy” vibe but I don’t eat wild eggs or anything. I’m basically a vegetarian because I can (and it’s cheaper than eating meat here).

    I’m not attached to eating meat, nor am I dogmatic about not eating meat. What I am all about is choosing battles. I’d rather my ridiculous foreigner things were based on things like my unconcern with making loads of money, and me being pretty sure the Dalai Lama doesn’t eat babies, or saying “Hey, maybe Japan shouldn’t be wiped off the face of the earth.”

    Whew. That was a lot. I haven’t actually had to defend my choices on this in forever. Hope I didn’t come off as a jerk. Didn’t mean to.

  13. Skylark

    Hi Archaic Futurist! Your post was really interesting, and it’s clear just how different Ohio and Seattle are. It’s truly an event for me to meet another vegetarian. For you, it’d be like saying, “Hey, I met a female today.” *chuckle*

    I don’t want to nit-pick, so I’ll just respond to this statement you made: “To present factory farms and vegetarianism as the only two viable options is a false choice.”

    And you’d be right. Unfortunately, eating meat only from “free range” or small-farm sources isn’t an attractive option for most people I know. They’ll be happy to buy mostly small-farm meat as long as it wasn’t much more expensive than the factory farm versions, and they don’t want to go out of their way to avoid factory-farmed meat. They want to sit down in a restaurant and order whatever sounds good to them. As most restaurant meat comes from factory farms, eating meat only from small-farm sources would mean essentially eating a vegetarian diet when in restaurants and other social settings. That’s a step most non-vegetarians I know aren’t willing to take.

    As for my personal ethics, I’m certainly glad for anything that reduces the suffering of animals. I hope some day we can eliminate it completely.

    JUnrau, you didn’t come across as a jerk. It’s clear that you have a lot less invested in your diet choices than I do in mine. I certainly hear you on picking battles. As exhausted as I was with the cultural and language differences of Spain in the week before I moved in with my host family, I didn’t have much energy left to insist on vegetarian food. China would certainly be more so, as you have said.

    I will take exception to your statement “oh the poor animals,” in which I think you were attempting to summarize the anti-cruelty to animals position. You may not have meant it this way, but I infer from that phrasing that you think it’s overly emotional, trite or ridiculous to care about what animals experience. Sure, some people seem only to care about animals that are cute widdle mammals, but I’m just as opposed to torturing a catfish as I am a cat or a cow.

  14. ArchaicFuturist

    Also not wanting to nitpick, but: “Unfortunately, eating meat only from ‘free range’ or small-farm sources isn’t an attractive option for most people I know. They’ll be happy to buy mostly small-farm meat as long as it wasn’t much more expensive than the factory farm versions, and they don’t want to go out of their way to avoid factory-farmed meat.” Sure. But it seems like it would be a much easier step for people eating factory-farmed meat to switch to sometimes-more-expensive, local, less-cruelty meat than to go cold turkey (now there’s a bizarre figure of speech in this context) and eat exclusively vegetarian.

    Also, there simply isn’t any way to ever totally eliminate animal suffering, even if ever single human being were to go vegetarian. We’ve still got sharks and praying mantids and leopards and pitcher plants that are going to chow down on whatever animal they happen to prefer. I know there’s the whole “lion lying down with the lamb” thing, but I tend to view that as a metaphor for human-to-human relationships than a broader biological vision.

  15. Skylark

    ArchaicFuturist said: “Sure. But it seems like it would be a much easier step for people eating factory-farmed meat to switch to sometimes-more-expensive, local, less-cruelty meat than to go cold turkey (now there’s a bizarre figure of speech in this context) and eat exclusively vegetarian.”

    I dunno. I don’t hear many people getting excited about less-cruelty meat options. I tend to see when someone starts caring about cruelty, then they don’t want to be part of it at all. Some do rave about local meats, but that’s mainly from an anti-hormones perspective.

    Don’t get me wrong–I’m glad when anyone does anything, however small, to reduce the pain and suffering another living creature feels. Even if it’s just going without factory-farmed flesh for one meal, that’s something. If someone finds his/her ethics and aims best served by eating meat only when it comes from local, less-cruel sources, I applaud that person. I do think that person is more likely than an all-out vegetarian to be inconsistent in applying that ethic because of the social drawbacks–like I said before, it’d mean eating meatlessly in most social settings, and that’s not for the faint of heart. Since you advocate this way of eating, perhaps you could share from your experience.

    You also said: “There simply isn’t any way to ever totally eliminate animal suffering, even if ever single human being were to go vegetarian. We’ve still got sharks and praying mantids and leopards and pitcher plants that are going to chow down on whatever animal they happen to prefer. I know there’s the whole “lion lying down with the lamb” thing, but I tend to view that as a metaphor for human-to-human relationships than a broader biological vision.”

    What a lovely little defeatist vision you have. Call me an idealist if you will, but I’d also like to eliminate war, poverty, racism, and a host of other bad things. I’m not happy with present conditions and am shooting for something I view as better. We may never completely erradicate any of this, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try to do my part to stop it.

    As a side note, according to those who believe in a literal Garden of Eden, animals once didn’t eat each other. Certainly not any more ridiculous to believe it could happen again.

  16. lukelm

    I wouldn’t dismiss the local-grown meat option so quickly, or at least not outrightly. My family (my parents and my older sister/husband/kids who live next door) would be one example of people who have changed from buying supermarket meat to eating meat from animals they grow themselves (and to a lot of organic vegetables they grow themselves.) Of course, living on a farm makes this a lot easier to do… but they’re also doing a lot of selling to friends and church/community people. Shameless plug: my sister actually just wrote a sunday school study curriculum about food justice to go along with the new Simply in Season Mennonite cookbook based on local/fresh philosophy:

    The animals, after living their happy small-farm lives, still get shot in the head so we can consume their carcasses for protein, of course.

    I don’t cook meat for myself. But, personally, I feel better eating the sausage when I go home to Ohio than I do eating the produce from the supermarket that came from God-knows-where and was picked by God-knows-whom.

  17. Skylark

    Luke, I didn’t think I was being dismissive of locally-raised meat, at least not after Archaic Futurist brought it up. It’s not where I find myself. I still respect those who are there. In one sense, I’m glad just to have people putting thought into what they eat and how it affect others, whether they come to the same conclusions as me or not. Too many people just eat what tastes good and is convenient/traditional. For me, the pain and suffering concerns weigh in as more important than locally-grown/raised, but I find the two conflict far less than some might think.

    Have you heard of the 100-mile diet? Plug it into a search engine, and I’m sure you’ll find the website of a family who decided for a year not to eat anything that was grown/raised further than 100 miles from where they live. It was a really interesting challenge, and I think they’re still doing it several years later.

    Oh, as a side note, vegetarians have no trouble eating enough protein. :-)

  18. ArchaicFuturist

    “What a lovely little defeatist vision you have. Call me an idealist if you will, but I’d also like to eliminate war, poverty, racism, and a host of other bad things.”

    I’d say the difference here is that war, poverty, racism, and so on are all human-created ills, therefore liable to be changed by humans — and on this I’m far more idealistic than the evidence probably warrants. But predation has been around for a couple of billion years (six-and-a-half thousand, if you go the biblical literalist route to Genesis), and it is distinctly not human-created. I simply don’t see a cheetah killing a gazelle as evil. I don’t see the act of a predator killing its prey as beautiful, necessarily, but I do find it beautiful the way predatory populations maintain the health and vigor of the overall populations they prey upon. The extermination of wolves and cougars in the eastern US has led to an explosion of the white-tailed deer population to such an extent that deer starve to death every winter because there are just too many of them for the land to support. Many predators are supremely beautiful, and an integral part of that beauty is that they are designed (either by natural selection or directly by God, take your pick) to hunt.

    If people stopped slaughtering each other, we would still be people. If cheetahs stopped hunting and settled down to eat … I dunno, Boca Burgers? … they wouldn’t be cheetahs anymore, and the world would be a sadder place.

    What’s that Saint Francis prayer? The one on all the fridge magnets and Hallmark cards? Something like, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It seems pretty clear to me that all the human social ills are at least potentially within the realms of things I — and we — can change, but predation is not. I’m still working on the courage bit for the first part, but I’m pretty serene about the second.

  19. Ron

    In contrast to modern Christianity, many early followers of Jesus were vegetarians. The Ebionites were early Jewish Christians and were opposed to animal sacrifices and were vegetarian. See the website
    Augustine, while not vegetarian himself and while vehemently arguing against the idea that Christians must be vegetarians, nevertheless stated that those Christians who “abstain both from flesh and from wine” are “without number” (On the Morals of the Catholic Church 33). His “heretical” Manichean opponents were entirely vegetarian. But the Christian vegetarians to whom Augustine is referring were clearly orthodox, indicating a widespread acceptance of vegetarianism both among heretics and the orthodox.
    Many leaders of the early church were vegetarian. Eusebius says that James the brother of Jesus was a vegetarian, and in fact was evidently raised as a vegetarian (Ecclesiastical History 2.23). Eusebius also states (Proof of the Gospel 3.5) that all the apostles abstained from meat and wine. Other famous early Christians who were vegetarian, based on statements made by them or about them, included Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Arnobius, Tertullian, and Jerome.
    There was a dispute in early Christianity as to whether it was required to be a vegetarian in order to be a Christian. Paul speaks of this dispute several times. In 1 Corinthians 8:13, he states, “therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall”. In the ancient world, meat was sacrificed to gods. In Jewish areas, it was sacrificed to the Jewish God and in gentile areas, to the gentile gods. The Jerusalem Christians were opposed even to the meat sacrificed to Jehovah, but when they heard that in the gentile areas the meat was sacrificed to the Roman gods, they felt that allowing Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols was going too far. This was a big issue at the Council of Jerusalem, where the following compromise was given in a letter to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:
    “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” Acts 15:29. Note that this was an exception and compromise made for gentile believers, not for Jewish believers.
    It is interesting to note that Christianity has been totally transformed to the point that now many of the aspects of early Christianity- communalism, non-violence, mysticism, simple living, and vegetarianism are considered by most modern American Christians to be some sort of far-out hippy thing and anti-Christian. With the merging of church and state, the church became corrupted and transformed from being a counter-culture movement to being an oppressive bureaucracy, concerned with keeping the status quo, rather than with the original teachings.
    Just to be clear, I am not making the argument that you have to become a vegetarian to be a Christian.
    I have opted to become a vegetarian for many reasons- for the environment, for my health and for reasons of compassion. I feel that these are all consistent with Jesus’ teachings. I don’t want to approach this in a legalistic way, but I feel that this diet does the least amount of harm to the environment, to my health, to the health of animals.

  20. Nevin

    Interesting post, Skylark, and some interesting responses. I grew up loving to eat meat, and, in fact, I still do love to eat meat. I simply enjoy the taste of it. However, a couple of years ago I started to think more about some of these issues, and made a conscious decision to eat less meat. I succeeded in giving it up for all of Lent last year. I am not now a vegetarian, but I’d at least like to think that I’m no longer a thoughtless carnivore. My basic policy right now is to avoid eating meat as much as I can (although I don’t always succeed), but to not refuse it if it’s offered to me (depending on the context, at least–almost certainly not if it would be culturally inappropriate), or if it’s going to go to waste if it’s not eaten. My situation is sort of complicated right now because I’m getting nearly all my food from my college dining hall, and vegetarian options are sometimes hard to find. Never mind the fact that much of the food gets thrown away anyway, and it probably doesn’t make much of a difference whether or not I eat the meat that is there (if it’s going to get thrown away at the end of the day anyway). I’d say that I usually end up eating meat in our dining hall a couple times a week (often when a friend of mine who I’m eating with does not finish the meat he or she is eating and will throw it away if no one eats it, and I’m still hungry–maybe it’s just a way for me to justify it, but I feel less guilty eating that meat in that case).

    I don’t know that I go as far as you, Skylark, in my thoughts on the ethics of killing animals. I absolutely agree about meat farming, and that is one of the main reasons I am quasi-pseudo-vegetarian. The other big issue for me is that vegetarianism is a lot more sustainable than eating meat. So many resources are wasted by meat farming that it seems to me that it’s hard to be a good environmentalist without at least considering vegetarianism. The fact that once I’m cooking for myself buying lentils and beans is a lot cheaper than buying meat definitely doesn’t hurt either. (After all, I am a Mennonite! I’m not sure I go as far as saying that killing animals is in itself wrong, though, for many of the reasons ArchaicFuturist put forward. My girlfriend, for example, hunts, and I don’t condemn her for it. I certainly don’t think it’s something I could ever do myself, but as you observed, there’s a difference between an animal living a full life in the wild and then getting shot, and being raised in a restrictive environment on a farm and then slaughtered. The former is really not that different from what happens in the wild whether or not humans get involved. You observe that those who believe in a literal Garden of Eden believe that animals didn’t originally eat each other (and, you might have mentioned, that God did not give humans animals for food until after the Fall), but, as you know, I do not believe in a literal Eden, and it certainly seems that the food chain is one of those things inscribed in life itself, for better or for worse. Whether or not God is directly responsible for this is one of those sticky issues I’m not quite sure of at this time. But I certainly at least have sympathy for the view ArchaicFuturist takes, that something would be lost if carnivores ceased to be carnivores. The fact that I don’t believe in the separate creation of humans then raises all sorts of annoying philosophical questions, such as how I can be a pacifist and yet not a total vegetarian if, according to my understanding of how human life came about, we are not fundamentally different than animals, however different we are in certain features. But that issue is well beyond the scope of this topic. Another issue is that even if I believe that historically the first chapters of Genesis did not take place, there is still the whole idea (one Brian Hamilton and I have both used in previous discussions) that the Garden of Eden represents the ideal for which we should strive, even if that ideal is not historically real. And one of the characteristics of that idyllic Garden is that human beings do not eat meat. Lions laying down with lambs, whether in Eden or in Isaiah, I can read as allegorical for humans living in peace, but humans not being given meat for food until after the Fall seems a little more straightforward.

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