The Biblical Case for Vegan Living (Abridged)
The Bible is not a handbook for vegan living, but I think it points Christ-following people, particularly Christ-following people from privileged contexts, in that direction.
What is vegan living?
Vegan means much more than diet, what we eat and drink. Vegan products aren’t tested on animals or contain ingredients or components that are derived from animals. My wardrobe is vegan, because it is free from wool, leather, fur, down, and silk. I steer clear of eating products with animal ingredients, including milk, meat, and eggs. Our family’s dogs and cats are rescued from shelters because we don’t view animals as products or commodities to be bought and sold. And we won’t support businesses that profit from captive, abused animals, so we avoid SeaWorld, rodeos, Ringling Brothers’ Circus, and the like.
Many vegans will say that the essence of vegan living is making choices that reduce suffering whenever possible.
What about human problems?
When we reduce animal suffering, we reduce human suffering. When we refuse to pay for someone to abuse or kill an animal, we are sparing both the animal and the human. One old adage says, “When you teach a child to be kind to a mouse, you do as much for the child as you do for the mouse.” We are not separate from creation. We are part of God’s design, blessed to be made in the image of God, and charged with protecting creation and reflecting the glory of God throughout the whole earth.
I live in a major city. Evidence of brokenness is everywhere, from the women who walk screaming down my street at 3 am after a night of being prostituted, to the children whose parents hit them in the drugstore lobby, to the wealthy developer with an addiction to pain pills and pornography, to the maimed feral cats roaming alleys, to the mountains of garbage piled in vacant lots and on abandoned porches. The anger, pain, and frustration are palpable. Extravagance and elegance on one side of the river, gritty poverty on the other, struggle on both.
It’s tempting for some of us, maybe even easy, when we live surrounded by death and decay, to start to view the world and its inhabitants as “out there,” different from us. We need to protect ourselves, because the pain and suffering would overwhelm any compassionate soul. Jesus saw systemic inequality, state-sanctioned brutality, and a complicit and corrupt religious establishment. But Jesus never failed to see and respond to individuals. Time and time again, Jesus demonstrated the transformative power of seeing a member of the community of creation as a brother, not an other. And I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus used animals to tell these stories. A single lost sheep is pursued and rescued, not written off as the cost of doing business. People put a pittance of a price tag on sparrows, but Jesus said God knows when even one falls to the ground. Jesus looked across one of his own cities and cried out that he longed to gather its inhabitants as a hen gathers her beloved chicks.
Loving an “other” is risky business and it can be habit forming. Learning about how animals are raised and killed for food opened my eyes to the dangers faced by the humans who work on farms and in slaughterhouses: astonishing rates of on-the-job injury, increased risk of chronic disease, horrific working conditions, low pay, and more. I also learned that animal agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, and that my eating and consumption habits impacted people half a world away who would feel the consequences of climate change long before and in more profound and life-altering ways than I ever will. Listening to a disgraced football player describe his violent and stressful childhood helped me understand the spiritual sickness that might lead one to maim, torture, and kill another living being and clarified for me that the remedy to this deep suffering won’t be found in any act that further separates humans from God, creation, or one another. Instead, we release our created-for-community selves to the leading of the Holy Spirit, which is moving towards reconciliation, wholeness, and healing. We remember that we humans are a part of the whole creation groaning, and we act in that awareness, knowing that we are even now participating in Christ’s work to build the new city “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
The biblical case for vegan living
Vegan is a word coined in the mid 1940s, so you won’t find it in the Bible, and though some scholars argue the case vehemently, I am thoroughly unconvinced that Jesus followed a strictly plant-based diet during his time on earth.
This is an abridged case for vegan living based on the biblical narrative:
- Genesis 1 describes the world as it is supposed to work. No sin, no suffering. Humans are caretakers of creation, and God tells us and animals to eat plants. Only plants. Not each other.
- Sin: Sin destroys this symbiotic harmony, this well-functioning and perfectly balanced eco-system. Humans and animals fear one another. Fear always leads to violence, when those who fear do not turn to God. Killing enters in.
- Humans perfect the art of “othering.” Instead of practicing dominion, they simply dominate. They enslave one another and abuse other created animals. They hoard land and property. They learn to protect “me, myself, and mine” instead of the whole community of creation.
- Prophets give us hope that there’s a better way, a kingdom of God, not a human one. They point to a time where there won’t be any more hurting or killing, when each will have what they need to prosper, and when power isn’t abused.
- Jesus, God-enfleshed, shows us how to do life together. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, retrieve the lost sheep, heal the sick, give hope to the hopeless. Love everybody. Take only what you need and share the rest. Trust God to provide and FEAR NOT. Put down your swords. Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, promised by the prophets. Jesus born on earth brings the kingdom here, to this place and this time. His life is a demonstration of how to live in peace, how to connect person-to-person, body-to-body. His body and blood mark a new covenant between God and God’s creation, a promise that while the kingdom is not yet fully realized, it is here.
- The in-between time. The already-but-not-yet. The Holy Spirit guides us, and we are a part of the whole creation in bondage to decay groaning for freedom. When that freedom is fully realized, when the kingdom comes to fullness, we know we’ll see the end of war, poverty, violence, death, suffering, racism, cynicism, individualism. We know we’ll gather together with the whole of creation to worship our Creator, Sustainer, Provider. Will we then sit down to a meal of fried chicken and roast beef? Will the feast in the new city be life-affirming or life-taking? The prophets are clear: The lion and the lamb will lie down together, and a little child shall lead them. God’s covenant is with the whole creation.
- So shouldn’t we who are able, we who are Christ’s hands and feet on earth, we who are the community of God…shouldn’t we start to make choices now that reflect that coming reality? Why wouldn’t we begin to look at animals as partners in creation, as brothers and sisters, as creatures God has called us to protect, rather than as dinner and a show?
But what about…?
Here are some common reactions from folks who balk at the words “Christian” and “vegan” appearing in the same sentence: God’s words to Noah in Genesis 9; God’s demand for animal sacrifice in the Hebrew scriptures; Jesus probably ate fish and lamb; Jesus declared all foods clean; Jesus sent demons into pigs and said people were more valuable than sparrows. In the coming weeks, we’ll address those objections and I hope you’ll engage with us as we explore these issues together. Add your thoughts to the comments section here and on those future articles. And go in peace.