Originally published in 2016
Should Christians be Vegetarian?
Last week, my church put on its annual Lessons & Carols service, an Advent celebration that includes nine Bible readings and nine carols that anticipate the coming of Christ at Christmas. Though a lot of Americans think we’re already celebrating Christmas (It’s December! Pass the eggnog! Play festive music!) in churches that use the traditional Christian calendar and follow the liturgy, we are in what’s often termed a mini-Lent, preparing our hearts and minds for the miraculous incarnation of Jesus.
As such, the lessons in the Lessons & Carols service, and, in fact, all of the Sunday Bible readings throughout Advent, draw heavily upon the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible, the ones early Christians used to confirm that Jesus was the Messiah they’d been waiting for.
I was particularly struck by the second half of the reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 11: 1–3a; 4a; 6–9 to be exact), because it speaks of an ideal future that includes a totally transformed food chain:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
Kosher Food Law
Notably, however, Kosher food law as it pertains to meat does seem to approach a sort of empathy toward the animals’ feelings (Deuteronomy 14:21b, Exodus 34:26b, Exodus 23:19b):
It is apparent that the writer of Isaiah was moved by the violence of the predator-prey relationship and felt that a restoration of the world would include total abstinence from killing and eating meat. The text stands out, because, while the Bible often talks about eating – Kosher food law, ritual sacrifice, manna in the desert, the Last Supper, Peter’s vision of unclean animals, the feeding of the 5,000 – most of those conversations have more to do with God and humans than with the animals themselves. In this text, the animals are vegetarians.
You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.
But what does this mean? According to chabad.org, there are a few Rabbinic interpretations, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll highlight the one that pertains to this discussion:
“…it is cruel to cook a baby in the very milk that was intended to nourish it.”
I first learned about this interpretation from a Jewish professor who gave a presentation in my Food Ethics class. It’s compelling, because it challenges the widespread idea that the animals we eat don’t deserve to be recognized as sentient beings that experience pain and sorrow. Keeping Kosher is no easy feat – it requires extra appliances, extra dinnerware, lots of pre-planning, and careful consideration – all in the name of honoring God, but with the side effect of forcing adherents to understand what they’re eating and why. In fact, I know a Jewish couple who decided to keep a vegetarian kitchen because it’s much easier to follow Kosher food law if you eliminate meat from your home altogether. The Jewish professor was a pescatarian for similar reasons (fish aren’t categorized as “meat” in the Kosher food tradition).
It should also be noted that Adam and Eve were presumably vegetarians before the Fall. They were not required to till the ground or produce their own food until after their eyes were opened to good and evil, and to moral ambiguity. God made clothing of animal skins for them only after they became aware – and ashamed – of their nudity.
The Bible then, seems internally consistent as it pertains to the ideal of a flattening of the predator-prey hierarchy. It is considerably less consistent on any point that specifically talks about what humans should be eating.
Perhaps the most compelling case for meat eating is found in Acts 10:9-16:
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
This passage seems to completely override Kosher food tradition when read at face value. But it should be noted that the passage has layered meanings. In the early church, converts from Judaism often insisted that converts from other traditions be circumcised before they could fully enter the Christian community. The vision is very likely an attempt to show these Christian Jews that God accepted the uncircumcised into his community – no painful procedure was required for new converts. Adult circumcision would have been a significant barrier to conversion, particularly in a pre-pain killer era, so there are good reasons to read the passage this way.
The other potential context for the vision’s commands may have something to do with temple sacrifice. In Jewish tradition, an animal sacrifice was periodically made at the temple and, depending on the type of offering it was, portions of the animal would be eaten by the offerer and his family. Some scholars suggest that meat offered sacrificially would have been the main event for meat consumption in the life of Jewish adherents into the early Common Era (and that, in fact, it was unlawful in early Israelite practice to kill an animal outside of temple sacrifice). If this is true, it means that there wasn’t a strong food tradition around meat outside of temple sacrifice and thus, when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE, meat consumption dropped off.
Christianity did away with the necessity of animal sacrifice altogether, which means that early Christians may have been largely vegetarians or vegans. The vision gives Christians permission to eat anything, but it doesn’t mean they would have had access to much meat, and certainly not on the scale we have today.
So, what does this mean for contemporary Christians?
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
According to the above passage (Luke 17:20-21) the Kingdom of God is already here, but it isn’t completed yet. I reflect on this passage often, because it reminds Christians that we have a part to play in restoring the earth, in making it good. The Kingdom of God is both present and future, and we can do our part to extend grace, to build bridges, and to love one another so that glimpses of that future Kingdom are apparent. We can offer tangible, everyday hope. The passage reminds us that the work is ongoing.
But what does that mean for the Isaiah passage? If an ideal world means total pacifism, even as it pertains to the animals, what responsibility do we have to usher that in now? We can’t turn lions into vegetarians – even domesticated cats need meat – but maybe we have a hard choice to make in our own lives.
Undoubtedly, the world is a violent place, and the daily violence that occurs for the sake of survival is perhaps the hardest to grapple with, because it’s built into the natural order. But humans are an anomaly in some ways. Not only are we omnivores, and thus capable of enjoying a more varied diet, we’re also incredibly aware of our options.
And in the US and other industrialized nations, we have greater access to food than our predecessors. We can eat anything we want, and we seem to be choosing meat.
So, the big question: should Christians be vegetarians?
Yes, and no.
The fact of the matter is it’s not totally clear. What is clear, to me at least, is that we should envision as the ideal a world where no violence occurs, even if it’s not yet achievable. That means considerably reducing our meat consumption, ensuring that the meat industry is well regulated and takes animal welfare into account, thinking long and hard about the meat we do choose to eat, and seeing animals as fellow creatures on this complicated planet.
Just because the New Testament does not make it morally wrong, or sinful, to eat meat doesn’t mean that God calls it good. The Bible makes a compelling case to moving toward vegetarianism even if we don’t fully embrace it.
I don’t totally rule out meat consumption because I know that some people, whether due to food access or culture or due to specific nutritional needs, benefit from eating meat. I think we need to be aware of the shortcomings of our bodies as they’ve evolved in relation to meat consumption, and not shun those who thoughtfully consume meat. But we must come to terms with the fact that animals with feelings, relationships, and individual personalities must die if we want to eat meat.
As in matters of war, child bearing, and end-of-life care, eating meat is a life or death decision that must bear weight.
From the Isaiah passage, we can also extrapolate a larger calling to pacifism. In order to live out the Kingdom of God, we need to ask hard questions about the death penalty, the prison system, war, and military occupation. We also need to seek to build systems that reduce drug-related and domestic violence, abortion, hate crimes, and suicide. We need to build communities and systems that offer access to care, preventative services, economic empowerment, hope, and restorative justice.
Nothing is cut and dried. We are all going to make moral choices based on a unique combination of life experiences. But I think the Bible, at the very least, calls Christians to serious work toward an all-encompassing peace, and that includes thinking long and hard about our meat consumption.
Food for thought this Holiday season.
This piece doesn’t even get into issues of environmental stewardship or a discussion of the Eucharistic feast. It also doesn’t attempt to respond to non-religious ethical arguments about meat consumption. Maybe I’ll get into that at a later date.