Eat Vegan, Save the World?

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

golden wheat field and sunny day

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.”

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).

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2 Responses

  1. Jim Welch says:

    My wife is a rebel adventist. Those folks eat healthy. Many are vegetarians. There is one side of the coin where Adventists eat for health reasons. The other side of the coin is they go veg because they believe that is more pleasing to God. In other words, they selectively hold on to old covenant teachings.

    The above was free info, no need to leave a quarter at the door on the way out.

    There is a bent in all of us that is very very scary. It is the bent for people to save themselves. That can be manifested in so many ways.

    It is no wonder that the gospel has become “Bad News for Modern Man”. Believe on the Lord Jesus, and go and make disciples. It is that simple.

  2. James Warner says:

    I have come to believe that the purpose of the Cross was to bring about the reconciliation of ALL things on heaven and earth unto Himself through the Cross (my paraphrase of Col. 1:20). I believe we should be living out the Reconciliationk – “On Earthing” as it is in Heaven. The Reconciliation is ultimately a restoration of Eden in a community living in vibrant harmony – Shalom. That is the Peace of Jesus “not as the world gives”. Collectively becoming like Him, the Second Adam, is the saving message to the world.
    Consequently, seeking to live lightly upon the earth, while imperfect, is an act of love for our neighbor and loving what God, Himself, loves. God so loved the Cosmos, that He gave His only Son.
    But we will fail, as with all other acts of obedience. Therefore, we need the ongoing Grace of Jesus to pick us up and set our feet back on the Way of the Shalom Community.

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