The Biblical Case for Vegan Living (Abridged)

by Sarah Withrow King

breath-chickensThe 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.

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12 Responses

  1. Mark buchanan says:

    Something in your thought process seems misguided to me – but you judge yourself. Jesus commanded us to preach the good news – that He is the way to peace and deliverance from all that’s bad. To me Your message loudly screams about diet food and don’t hurt animals. Let’s Get clear on what’s important. Can I have Jesus and eat bacon ? Or is the bacon keeping me on the outside. Are you making the gate narrower than Jesus did? Or is the gate more about entering the vegan fold that Christ fold. To me Your message is kinda mixed. How can one get into the kingdom and whose kingdom is it anyway? Jesus made some rules about who was welcome to his kingdom. I think he loves pork eaters and chicken killers, as much as he does seed eaters. We are all going to be at the marriage feast of the lamb if we take him . So let’s not mix his message by adding our spin to it .

    • Sarah King says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Mark. Can you point me to the language that you feel communicates that those who kill and/or eat animals are “outside the fold”? The creation is God’s, and we are charged with its protection, to cultivate the earth in such a way that life can not only be sustained but also flourish. The kingdom is for all who come through Jesus, who showed us how to live into its lavish and abundant promises of life.

  2. Elizabeth Jacobelly says:

    Thanks for posting. Looking forward to reading more artucle from you.

  3. Jillian says:

    I am not advocating meat eating as ritual or flagellation, (Christ only asked us to take bread as a reminder of his sacrifice) but I wonder if refusing to kill (to survive, this side of heaven) is to put ourselves above the reality that our spiritual rescue in Christ was ugly.
    I noticed you described veganism as a responsibility of the wealthy. I wonder if it is also the luxury of the rich (eg. pea based protein isolate). It is beyond my knowing, but I am fascinated about generations of thousands of poor Hindis who have lived primarily as vegetarians. Is there, per capita, a greater incidence of functional health problems as a result of B12 /other deficiency?

    At the zoo, recently, I noticed many animals, essentially plant eaters, occasionally supplemented their diet with meat eg. Hippos stealing carcasses from crocs.

    Maybe it just comes down to where you err on your ‘now but not yet’ kingdom thinking – either in some denial about living in muck, or some blindness to the healing fingers of God…

    • Sarah King says:

      Since I have never been in the position of having to either kill an animal for sustenance or die, I can’t say for sure how I’d handle that situation. But for too many people, the current reality is that they can live healthfully and sustainably on plant-based or majority plant-based diets but refuse to, out of personal preference or habit. That choice, to eat meat (when it is a choice), has three very problematic consequences in my view: 1) the unnecessary death of an animal created and beloved by God; 2) the unfair use of resources (since for many of us, eating plants uses less water, grain, and land than eating animals); and 3) the folks who are most negatively impacted by pollution are the poor, and animal agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gasses, and creates huge amounts of air and water pollution. As Paul says, all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. I think one of our challenges as we wade through the muck is seeing the healing possibilities available to us. I know I ate meat for years and years simply because I didn’t realize there was any other way to live. Thank you for thinking about this issue, and in a way that provides room for the complexities of this world.

      • Jillian says:

        Yes, fair point, I can see that the perfect need not be the enemy of the good for millions of first world consumers. Yes, there is fatalism in the hearts of conservative Christians, as though life only begins on The Last Day. I am guilty of not charging my own life with more Kingdom hope and vigour.

        (Aside: GK Chesterton writes, “It is constantly assured, especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb, the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is – Can the lion lay down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved.” (Orthodoxy, p. 142)

        I consciously killed a wombat to prevent human (motor vehicle accident) fatality. I was in grief over its ravaged beauty for months, and being unable to erase the event, I have not yet washed the bloody monument from my car. I came face to face with my depravity in that moment – there is a killer in me, not just a passive, ignorant supermarket customer. Same with my immediate acceptance of a pig sacrifice for a heart valve for my son – there was no question I would choose the life of my son over the life of the animal. Being a killer up close and personal has made me deeply respectful and grateful for life, for bittersweet reality. It reminds me I was bought at a gruesome price. It fills me with adoration for the bloodied, risen, warrior Lamb, and humility for what I am without Him.

  4. Katherine says:

    I would like to add the vision that God showed Peter on the rooftop when he was praying and he saw a large sheet filled with all kinds of unclean animals and said rise Peter, kill and eat. I know this was symbolic of God’s acceptance of the gentiles, but if God was so against us eating animals then why use them in this context. Also there is a scripture where God said everything that moves shall be food for you. I think that was old testament. The first one is new testament after Jesus rose from the dead. I am vegan now, but still have these questions about what God really feels/thinks about it. Obviously he isn’t pleased with animal cruelty because there are lots of scriptures about animal welfare. But does that mean he is against harvesting the service of animals such as pit ponies or horses and carriages etc. Do animals want to be used in the service of man as a noble employment when in some noble cause? I don’t know.

    • Sarah King says:

      Great questions, and I have good answers! Watch this space. (You’re thinking of Genesis 9, btw). In the meantime, one really lovely description/vision of human/animal relationships can actually be found in The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. Check it out, if you can.

  5. Kathy Dunn says:

    Hi Sarah, toward the end of the article you said you are thoroughly unconvinced that Jesus followed a plant-based diet. I’m curious as to why you think this? For many reasons, the main one is I’d like to be more clear on how to advocate with others for animals on this subject. Thank you!

    • Sarah King says:

      Hi Kathy! I’ll say first that I haven’t done the kind of in-depth research on this particular question that others have. That lack of research is, in part, because of time and in part because it’s not where my interests lie…lay? lie? … Anyway. The main reason I haven’t delved into the topic is that most of me thinks the question of whether or not Jesus ate animals in his time on earth is irrelevant to whether or not I ought to eat animals today. The reality today is so vastly different, it’s comparing apples to oranges. In my experience, the vast majority of Christians that I talk to would have a hard time believing that Jesus followed a plant-based diet, but they can and do acknowledge that there are very compelling, very biblically-based reasons for Christians to not eat animals. So portraying Jesus as a plant-based eater, or calling him a vegan, seems too likely to add a stumbling block where none need exist.

      I still have to wrestle with the taking of a life or the consumption of a life already taken, and I’m working through that. But for advocacy, I prefer to approach the question of whether people ought to eat meat today from a place that doesn’t rely on Jesus’ earthly diet. I think I talk about this in more depth in one of my books… 😉

  6. Thank you Sarah. I agree completely on the irrelevancy of the question when comparing the two cultures and the times we live in to theirs. I like you, do wrestle with the same question you do, and for the reason of the vision of the God we see in Jesus, I tend to fall on the side of him not eating meat. It flies in the face of the revelation of the God we see through Jesus. I really do want to research this more; I’d like to do research using ancient Hebrew interpretations, trying to understand what the original authors were truly saying from within the perspective of their culture; that requires me learning a lot more about the ancient Hebrew culture, and of course time is an issue for all of us (sigh)! Thanks for your reply, appreciate you!

  1. October 19, 2015

    […] Animal suffering matters. But what is our duty as God’s image-bearers in response to their suffering? […]

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