Vegan Christianity?

As I mentioned a few posts ago I have just finished the coursework involved in my Masters of Arts (Food Studies) course. The final essay I worked on involved retelling the history of a particular ‘food movement’, my lecturer suggested veganism. I am so glad she did – studying the growing interest in vegetarianism (focusing on a completely plant-based version) was very stimulating. Although the motivations behind choosing a vegetarian, or indeed vegan, diet often overlap, merging into one larger compulsion – the ideological positions that motivate the move are quite distinct. It was also interesting to note just how early our conversations around eschewing of meat products began – with Pythagoras in the sixth century BC! Porphyry (234-305 AD) is the first to suggest that perhaps meat isn’t enough; that use of milk, wool and honey by humans as also unjust. He did however, decide later that this more extreme position was not necessary. The earliest follower of a vegan diet seems to be Dr William Lambe (so many commentators enjoy that irony!) – although his completely plant-based diet was motivated by health alone. It was not until one of his patients, also following the diet, John Frank Newton, wrote Return to Nature that Lambe’s medical motivations were expanded to include ethical concerns; such as environmental benefits and alleviation of animal suffering. Percy Shelley (the famous English poet) later built on Newton’s work, drawing attention to humanitarian concerns for the human poor (hungry because grain was fed to ‘food animals’ for the wealthy, at their expense). I found it fascinating how similar early motivations for following a plant-based diet were to modern arguments for a similar lifestyle. Religion provides another powerfully motivating reason to follow a vegetable diet – Ancient Hindus, Buddhists and Jains all concerned with ahimsa (non-harm) and the purity it achieves for its followers. Western religions seem more motivated by the purity achieved by a life of acetistism and abstinence.

Most of the vegetarian/vegan discourse seems to occur between England and America – with perhaps a slightly higher focus on the connection between spiritual and physical health occurring in American circles. The influence of Sylvester Graham (think ‘crackers’) and John Kellogg continues in our shopping isles today. Both were heavily involved in church communities and made significant contributions to the development of modern-day nutrition. On the other hand – the history of vegetable diets also introduces us to people like Amos Bronson Alcott and Francis Newman (an Englishman in this case) who appeared to hold a Christian faith, as well as deep social concern for things like the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women and animal rights.

By no means do I want to deny any connection between spiritual and physical health; however, I found other aspects of vegan ideology more compelling. We are placed at an interesting time in the West, food choice is abundant, overwhelming and unguided. Unlike France, we are no longer led by a specific, prevailing food culture. We do not have a specified system of eating that provides the scaffold for our shopping, preparation and consumption. We are adrift in a sea of cafes, processed food, fast food outlets, petrol stations full of junk food, Coles and Woolworth stores, BBQs, gourmet farmers markets, kids parties, gourmet delis etc. and have no guiding compass. Veganism, while extreme, offers an elegant solution to our increasing concern for the atrocities of factory farming (for meat, milk and eggs), environmental sustainability (less animals for food requires less energy and less land), the hungry (1 in 9 across the planet) and eating healthily (less education and more information has led to increasing ambivalence on this issue). It is not hard to understand the modern attraction to plant-based diets.

As a Christian, I am very sympathetic. My lived life, enacted choices should demonstrate my concerns and values. I believe that as it’s Creator, God cares about the world; about its environments, its animals and its people. I do believe that God has a special relationship with people, His image bearers, and that this relationship calls us to care for His world, the environments, animals and other people, as He would. To steward well the world given to us as a gift. Perhaps less discussed is the principle of life-given-for-another God seems to have embedded deeply into the nature of His creation. Both physically (we need food and water to live) and spiritually (we needed Jesus to offer His life for ours) we are dependant on something or someone dying so that we can have life. As Christians we are then called to offer our own lives – our energy, time and love – back to God and for the good of others. We are called to ‘eat and be eaten’ as C. S. Lewis says. The physical and spiritual reality forces us to comprehend the interdependant complexity of life. Passover demands we watch the lamb killed, the blood splashed on the door frame, the meat shared, the people saved. John tells us that Jesus is that Lamb, slain for the sins of the world.

Does that mean that as Christians we have to eat meat? Like the Swedenborgian Bible Christian Church in vegetarian history who insisted on ovo-lacto vegetarianism because the Promise Land was ‘flowing with milk and honey’! I don’t think so. However, I do think that it gives us permission to consider (thoughtful) meat consumption appropriate within Christian practice. On the other hand we still must face the call to consume in line with our call to steward well. To treat the land, the animals and other people with dignity. In light of those concerns I outlined before; feeding the hungry, the cruel realities of factory farming and environmental sustainability in the face of devastating land degradation, I can understand why some Christians choose a vegetarian or even vegan diet. Our human systems developed to nourish, clothe and equip bear the signs of deep brokenness. The very clothes we wear and food we eat implicate us as part of the problem.

While far from having answers to this extensive systemic challenge, I was delighted to engage with an example of embodied expression of belief as I wrote this essay. I want to keep walking here, in the middle of the mess, despite my desire for neat solutions. I imagine that for my family, this will, at the very least, involve quantitatively less meat, and the need to seek out more ‘thoughtfully’ raised animal products. I hope that it also means many more conversations about how to live a life that demonstrates my deep concerns and cares.


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