by Sarah Withrow King
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
2 Corinthians 5:17-19
My Facebook feed was aflutter last week when news broke of a new study out of Oxford that concluded that, “Transitioning toward more plant-based diets that are in line with standard dietary guidelines could reduce global mortality by 6-10% and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29-70%.” Reuters summed the study up nicely: “By eating less meat and more fruit and vegetables, the world could avoid several million deaths per year by 2050, cut planet-warming emissions substantially, and save billions of dollars annually in healthcare costs and climate damage.”
- Time: How a Vegetarian Diet Could Help Save the Planet
- Reuters: A vegetarian world would be healthier, cooler and richer: scientists
- Fox News: Global adoption of vegan diet could save 8 million lives by 2050, says study
- Ecorazzi: National Academy of Sciences estimates that veganism can save the world
- Sunday World: Can a vegetarian diet save the world?
As an ardent advocate of plant-based diets, both for human and animal reasons, I should have been thrilled by these headlines. I did think it was cool that the study brought together disparate reasons folks have for reducing or eliminating their consumption of animals: human rights and hunger, human health, climate change, economics, etc. And even though the study made no mention of cruelty to animals in animal-food-producing systems, I get that humans are sometimes a selfish lot and need human-centered reasons for changing longstanding behaviors.
But something didn’t settle well. And not just the underlying assumption that less weight equals more health.
I think it was the juxtaposition of “save” language during the most holy, heartbreaking, and triumphant week in the Christian calendar. Plant-based diets can decrease our chances of developing heart disease, cancer, or stroke. Plant-based diets can dramatically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, slow soil erosion, improve air and water quality in farming communities, and reduce toxic runoff into our water supply. Plant-based diets do reduce suffering. Plant-based diets do use less land, water, and grain to produce food, which means that we can make more food for more people using fewer resources.
But plant-based diets do not save the world. That’s a Jesus thing. Saving the world has already been accomplished, through the triumph of life over death, through the resurrection of Jesus after a brutal public murder.
I’m not just being cranky about semantics here. We thought we knew better than God in the Garden of Eden, and it didn’t turn out well for us. We’ve been chasing development and industry and economic growth, and it has often hurt the poorest and most marginalized among us. We’ve set out to conquer and rule the earth, and we’re starting to realize the consequences of reckless and greedy use of the land.
Would a global shift towards plant-based diets help alleviate pain and brokenness and suffering? Yes. Do I hope we all eat more plants and fewer animals? Absolutely.
But as the church, our job isn’t to save the world. Our job is to stop, to look for the reconciling work of Christ, and to join that—to pray “thy kindgom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We ought to look at how we act in the world and ask ourselves if our actions reflect our values. Look at the human and animal creatures around us and ask if we are imaging God well to them—and if we’re not, ask how we can repent and restore what is broken. We should ask ourselves if the way we treat nonhuman animals allows them to glorify their Creator—our Creator—by flourishing. We should ask if the way we treat other human animals allows them to glorify the Creator by flourishing. And even after we seek, listen, and make some changes, we should absolutely continue to consider the connections between our Christian faith and the ways we treat our fellow animal creatures.
Let’s not fool ourselves, though. We have duties and obligations, and we have power that we are charged to use wisely, but only Jesus can save the world. Indeed, he already has. The question for us is: Will we receive that salvation and act on it by taking on the ministry of reconciliation and living into Christ’s new creation?
Sarah Withrow King is the Deputy Director of the Sider Center, the co-director of CreatureKind, and the author of two books, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology. (Wipf & Stock) and Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan).