The Church Potluck, Reimagined
by Lauren Lisa Ng
Macaroni salad, tuna casserole, deviled eggs, Stroganoff meatballs, cream cheese-layered gelatin dessert. Welcome, my friends, to the church potluck.
Sunday after Sunday, Christian congregations gather in their fellowship halls, loading their paper plates with generous offerings of food to warm the belly and feed the soul. It's a time to catch up with friends, discuss church business, and compliment the pastor's wife on her seven-layer bean dip.
But for me, it's a vegan wasteland.
This wasn't always the case – I used to be right there in line with them. In fact, I made a mean Sloppy Joe.
All of that changed the day I looked through an unfamiliar and terrifying lens and saw the world with a new set of eyes. I was 25 years into my journey as a Christian and two years into my seminary program. A visiting theology professor was always snacking on raw vegetables during class and as I looked down at the bag of Cheetos I was inhaling, I felt prompted to ask him about his motivation to eat so healthfully. Looking back, I can only attribute this prompting to the Holy Spirit gently leading me into a life of compassion in the name of Jesus Christ.
The professor told me that he was vegan – a term I'd never heard before. I went home, looked it up on the internet, and in minutes, found myself clicking play on PETA's video Meet Your Meat. I was vegan by the time it was over.
My daily life as a consumer underwent an immediate facelift. I donated my leather shoes and accessories, my wool, and my down. I swapped out my makeup and shampoo. I went to the store to buy agar agar, egg replacer, and soymilk.
But my daily life as a Christian changed more gradually. This was a theological transformation that uprooted my Biblical perspectives, challenged my Christology, and expanded my understanding of the powerful eschatological significance that resides inside the choices we make every day.
For Christians, compassion toward animals is generally a new concept. Sure, our faith community has its fair share of dog-lovers and the cat-obsessed, but take this love for domesticated pets and push it into the theological realm ("Do all dogs really go to heaven?") and we find ourselves all over the spectrum, unable to agree. It's then no surprise that when it comes to animals traditionally raised for human consumption, there are few Christians who would identify themselves as allies to the vegan movement.
But those who do identify as such are pushing the boundaries of the faith. They're laboring through study, dialogue, and consistent action to expand the Christian circle of compassion to include all creatures. And their numbers continue to grow. Academics who formally examine this intersection of food and faith have been known to call themselves "Animal Theologians." Their growing body of work seeks to present the global Church with compelling grounds to include animals in efforts for justice and peace without compromising Biblical truths or theological integrity.
As the Rev. Andrew Linzey, the father of the contemporary Animal Theology movement, has notably said, "Animals are God's creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God's sight…Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering."
If one chooses to engage in Scriptural debate over the issue of eating animals, there's the creation story in Genesis in which God designs humans to be herbivores [Genesis 1:28-30, NIV] (human consumption of meat does not occur until after the Fall), or the prophet Isaiah's vision of the Peaceable Kingdom to come, when "the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together…the infant will play near the cobra's den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper's nest…They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain." [Isaiah 11:6-9, NIV]
But Scriptural apologetics on the issue inevitably lead us to a discussion of Jesus himself, who is recorded as eating fish and even multiplying them to feed a crowd of thousands. What then?
It helps to remember that Jesus walked this earth in the context of a first-century Mediterranean fishing culture, not in a 21st-century global marketplace highly dependent upon cruel factory farming systems. It helps to remember that those in Jesus' time had limited choices when it came to nourishing themselves for survival, whereas many of us in this country enjoy a growing array of choices that are healthful, affordable, and cruelty-free. It helps to remember that the primary mission of Jesus Christ was to lead us to a life that promotes peace, justice, and love – a life that abhors violence and sets captives free.
Early on in my life as a vegan, I attended a potluck at the church where I served as pastoral intern. A lovely older gentleman who was a staunch supporter of my ministry giddily approached me as I walked through the doors of the fellowship hall: "I made you something you can eat! Don't know about the rest of the stuff here, but this pecan pie? It's 100% vegetarian!" He was as delighted by his gesture as I was. Later on, as a group of us sat together at the table eating our dessert, I dug into my slice of pecan pie and downed my first mouthful. "Delicious pie, absolutely delicious!" another churchgoer exclaimed to my friend, the baker. "What is in this crust? It's so perfectly flaky!" With a huge, proud grin, my dear friend replied, "Lard is the secret! Makes a perfect crust every time."
No one noticed as I graciously deposited my mouthful into my napkin. I smiled, tossed my plate when my friend wasn't looking and pledged to be more vigilant from that day on.
Christ's church is no different from the rest of the world when it comes to the issue of animal suffering – we have a lot to learn. But first we must be willing to see, to look through that terrifying lens and see with new eyes the tragic truth awaiting us on the other side. Once it's seen, my hope is that it will never be forgotten. And what we cannot forget – nor conscionably ignore – must, I pray, lead us to act.
Just this past weekend I attended another potluck for the Small Group that my husband and I are in with six other couples. We gather weekly to study the Bible, pray together, and serve as encouragers to one another on this journey of life. The potluck was an opportunity to gather with our kids in tow. It was an evening of fellowship, food, zip-lining, and Despicable Me 2 on the outdoor movie screen. Once the date of the potluck was on my calendar, I began planning what I'd bring so that my family would have something to eat; after years of attending church potlucks, I'm accustomed to bringing my own cooler filled with vegan food. But an email from the family hosting the potluck appeared in my inbox just as I was designing my alternate vegan menu. It read, "We will grill hot dogs, burgers, and something vegan."
Welcome, my friends, to the church potluck, reimagined.
One day at a time, one potluck at a time, and one opportunity for thoughtful dialogue at a time, the Spirit of God is stirring, and the people of God cannot help but be moved.
The Rev. Lauren Lisa Ng earned her Masters of Divinity from the American Baptist Seminary of the West/Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, completing her Masters thesis on the topic of Animal Theology: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals. She was ordained as a Minister of the Christian Gospel with the American Baptist Churches, USA in 2005. Lauren serves on the Board of Directors for the American Baptist Home Missions Societies, on the Board of Trustees for Bacone College in Muskogee, OK, and on the Advisory Team for American Baptist Women in Ministry. She's been married to her husband Daniel for 13 years, and together they have three children, ages 8, 6, and 3. Lauren is also the blogger behind One Happy Table, a vegan recipe blog.
This essay was originally posted at Our Hen House and appears here by kind permission of the author and Our Hen House.