should we all be vegetarians?

A question that I tackled on my recent Christian Ethics exam revolved around a biblical view of food production and consumption. It is an interesting topic, and I thought I would post some of my study notes.

In Christian theology, there is no intrinsic or visible superiority of humans over animals but for the Word of God spoken specifically to humankind, making human behavior towards the animal beholden to that Word.

Initially, humans and animals constitute a single group to whom plants have been given for food, but humans are given priority over animals in that they are invited first to the table. The original relationship is inherently a non-violent one as all living beings, under the original created order, are meant to eat plants. There is no basis for humans to harm animals, or vice versa. In fact, the naming process displays a special relatedness between humans and animals as Adam expresses an attentive consideration to the particularities of the animals before him. There exists, then, a special relationship between humans and animals, with humans being set apart as the creatures to whom God speaks directly.

Noah, however, is given permission to eat animals, but under certain conditions wherein he and his descendants are to be reminded that killing is always a serious matter. There is to be an understanding that the post-fall situation does not correspond with an original order, nor does it reflect a final one. The killing of animals is allowed in order to remind humankind of the seriousness of the state of sin and a promise of its reconciliation; it is to be seen as a concession that will end and is to be taken seriously as we consider that it is only in relation to our sin that permission is given to kill and eat animals.

The killing of animals is meant to be undertaken within a certain tone of sacrifice and worship, a reminder that we live in a world that does not correspond with the way that things are meant to be. Essentially, the killing of animals is meant to be an act that causes us to a) pause and consider why it is that this has been allowed by God, and b) point us backwards and forwards to the way that things are meant to be.

However, when we begin to kill mechanically as opposed to sacrificially, the divinely mandated human / animal relationship, even in this concessionary form, is lost. While permission has been granted for humans to eat meat, we are not meant to renounce fellowship with animals through a mechanized system of death. Exploitation occurs when when the attitude of worship, sacrifice and relatedness involved in this process is lost, putting us at odds with the Word that God has spoken and continues to speak on this matter.

So, what does this all mean in terms of food production and consumption today? Obviously this had huge implications in terms of everything from factory farming and fast food to purchasing meat from the grocery story and even hunting for sport. It seems to me that the best way to go about eating meat would be to raise our own chickens and cows and have to go about the business of killing them ourselves so that we would understand the seriousness of it all. This would heighten a sense of relatedness to the animal that quite simply does not exist the further we are removed from the process of food production. While this is not possible for most city dwellers, this at least has to inform the way that we shop for food and our propensity to support fast food chains. While vegetarianism is not to be seen as a universal rule in kight of the concession made to Noah and the reality of Christian freedom, we must consider the pre-lapsarian and eschatological witness of plants being given to both humans and animals for food and reclaim the sense of worship and sacrifice that is meant to accompany the killing and eating of animals.

At the very least, I think this should reframe the practice of saying grace before a meal. Instead of an empty ‘rub a dub dub thanks for the grub’, I believe this is meant to be a time to pause and consider not only God’s provision of food on the table, but the reality of the hope that we have that all things will be made right.

    • John M
    • June 11th, 2009

    challenging thoughts, Ian.

    I would say though the (admittedly) difficult suggestion of having everyone raise and kill their own chickens still has a flaw: desensitization. As a kid who grew up with chickens getting “Highlandered” it is incredibly intense at first, but the more you’re around it, the less shocking it is.

    But the issue you raise … Read Moreis one definitely worth talking about, especially since my initial reaction is to avoid it and plead ignorance. But is there any NT support for the vegan/serious meat side? All i can think of on the topic is 1 Cor.’s “meat and idols” discussion.

    • John,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The idea of desensitization did cross my mind as well, and I can see how it could become a less traumatic experience over time. At the same time, I don’t think the ‘shock’ factor is really what this is all about. It’s about the relationship between humans and animals, and, for example, actually having to take a chicken in your hands and do the business yourself. Even if you can handle the actual task, there’s a sense of the seriousness that can only come with personal contact with another living being.

      I too please ignorance to this issue apart from the brief time I spent studying this exam question. As the course was based on the doctrine of creation, I looked mostly at a Genesis account, with the qualification that we do have Christian freedom to eat meat and that I believe Jesus himself ate meat.

      Again, it’s not the act of eating meat, but the way that we go about producing, purchasing and consuming our food.

  1. Great post, Ian. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I really appreciate seeing an informed and thoughtful Christian perspective on the issue. Your conclusion is helpful in that it strikes a balance between the two extremes (both unsatisfying) to which my thinking has often been confined – militant veganism/vegetarianism of a solely humanist bent on one hand, and the complete acceptance of factory farming/mechanized killing as unproblematic on the other (the latter seems to characterize much of mainstream Christian thought on food and animals, at least the evangelical thought I was raised on as a kid).

    “There is to be an understanding that the post-fall situation does not correspond with an original order, nor does it reflect a final one.” Provocative statement, and also something I’ve been thinking about lately, having been surrounded here in Ontario with more Reformed/neo-Calvinist thought which encourages creativity, cultural engagement, and culture-making — all of which I like, although sometimes this seems contrary to my Anabaptist leanings (a la Yoder). I guess I’m trying to find a middle ground between engagement with culture/society/the accepted order, and an Anabaptist critique and separation from that accepted order.
    Hmm…as an untrained non-theologian I might be swinging above my weight class here…hopefully at least some of this makes sense!

    Hope the thesis is going well.


    • Thanks Jon. I appreciate your thoughts. I am not an expert in this area by any means, so any input is helpful.

      There is no doubt in my mind that Christians need to be engaged in the present realities of our world and think through issues that, up to this point, have given unsatisfying options. We are to embody a different way of going about our daily lives, and I think this is an overlooked but important issue, especially in our Western culture. Like Hauerwas and Willimon say in their great book, we are not meant to make the gospel relevant to the world, but the world relevant to the gospel.

      Thanks for the well wishes.

  2. Good stuff.

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