Sunday, 05 September 2010
Technically my diet is ovo-lacto-vegetarian. I eat eggs and drink milk, but eat no form of meat, including poultry or fish. It has been over two years since I have eaten any meat. But I avoid the term 'vegetarian,' because vegetarianism isn't a philosophy to which I subscribe. Rather, I choose to avoid eating meat as a concrete manifestation of my acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as lord. But how does that work, when most Christians, both throughout history and today are quite enthusiastic meat-eaters.
Certainly, they are within their rights to. The Bible speaks to meat eating at a few different points, always emphasizing that eating meat is permissible for Christians. To argue for a form of Christian vegetarianism, as I do, cannot mean to argue that eating meat is a sin. Rather, Christian vegetarianism may be seen as a high point of discipleship, a discipline to which some are called even as many ignore or reject it as a calling. So the question becomes, why do I feel called to abstain from eating meat?
First, the most fundamental task for anyone who claims to follow Jesus is to live as though Jesus is lord. The Bible describes what society was like before human rebellion and what it will be like after Christ's victory is manifested, and in both descriptions the eating of meat is notably absent. In Genesis, Adam and Eve live peaceably with the animals, but are given vegetation and fruit and every green thing to eat, and it is not until Genesis 9, after the flood, that God gives permission to eat meat. And the prophets envision God's future by observing that the lion will lay down with the lamb, the wolf with the goat, and "the lion will eat hay like the ox." Vegetarianism in the Bible is thus a sort of shorthand for the peaceableness between humanity and creation only present when "the right God is worshiped rightly", whereas in this time between the times creation is characterized by strife and violence. Life requires death to continue living, but this isn't how it was meant to be.
So while Christians (and all people from a Christian perspective) are free to eat meat, as a natural consequence of the world's fallenness, I don't see why a Christian who is capable would not find it a joy to participate already in the restoration that creation yearns for.
But there's more. A second reason that I do not eat meat is the state of American industrial farming in general. This is a reason that intrudes more on each Christian, that is to say, it's not something Christians can feel free to simply ignore, because all Christians are called to be good stewards, and industrial farming systems are great for creating profit but absolutely inhumane. The Bible is absolutely clear that the welfare of animals matters to God, which means that Christians have no choice but to take stock of their complicity in systems abusive to animals. I don't feel the need to belabor the point, but even if the individual does not feel called to a meat-free lifestyle, Christian communities can (I would argue must) pay attention to their food, and consider alternative sources. Naturally this might include purchasing free-range meat or joining co-ops of local, non-industrial farmers. There are other, more radical, possibilities.
A third reason comes in far behind the first two. But any decision I can make (growing my own vegetables, riding a bike, shopping from local vendors) that can remove me from the thrall of large, faceless corporations has to be a good thing. Of course, there are large faceless corporations who stand to make a profit on vegetarianism as well, such as Morningstar Farms and PETA, so some care is called for all the same.
A fourth reason is the idea of a bridge across time. Many Christian saints and leaders have felt called to various forms of vegetarianism, beginning with James the brother of Jesus, on through the Desert Fathers, the Benedictines, St. Francis of Assisi, John Wesley (who listed it among his means of grace) and Thomas Merton. There is no consistent line of vegetarianism in Christian tradition, but it does spill over into human time from time to time. Not unlike the Kingdom of God.
These are the main reasons I don't eat meat, and I would encourage you (if you are a Christian) to rethink the practice of eating meat.
Do you or don't you eat meat? Are your decisions based on scripture or own your own personally held beliefs? Do you think the Bible gives some guidance in this area, or is it up to personal preference?