Christian Ethical Vegetarianism: A Modest Proposal

Do Christians have moral obligations to animate creation? Many say no, citing the mandate to "have dominion" over all living things (Genesis 1:28) as reason enough to dismiss notions of animal welfare as a religious obligation. This verse is unambiguous, they argue, demonstrating that animals are a gift from God, available for human consumption whether as food, labor, entertainment or use in scientific research.

But is the language of Genesis so devoid of ambiguity? Some readers may happily embrace the instruction to "have dominion" but overlook the charge "Be fruitful and multiply" in the first half of the verse, perhaps using birth control without any qualm. Why is one imperative limited in scope, while the other universal and timeless? Who determines what laws remain in force, and which cease to apply? The same cynical respondent may also point out that the very next verse describes a plant-based diet, the first reference to food in the Bible (Genesis 1:29; the diet of 9:3 appears to be a concession for a sinful world, not an ideal state). If the "dominion" notion offers enduring permission to rule and consume, why is 1:29 not normative as well? My interest here is not interpretation of the priestly creation story. I merely want to show how the use of proof texts is a slippery business, inevitably involving omissions and selectivity. We cannot appeal to Genesis 1:28 as an easy answer to my opening question any more than we can read 1:29 as an obligatory menu. The Bible, however, is not silent on the subject of animal well-being.

A few admissions are in order before I proceed. Yes, I am aware the ancient Bible does not speak directly or simply to the ethical concerns of the modern world. Yes, I am aware that discourse about animal welfare is a relatively recent phenomenon, originating in part with objections to the use of animals in medical experimentation during the 19th-century vivisection debates. Yes, I acknowledge that I have a limited perspective as an urbanite who has spent little time on farms or in regions where hunting is a way of life. Yes, I am aware that it is a luxury to speak of ethical diets when many in our world go hungry. Yes, I am aware that sentimentality and the tendency to anthropomorphize can cloud objectivity. Yes, I am aware that many Christians view concern about the ethical treatment of animals as a misplaced priority because Jesus tells us clearly that people are worth far more than sparrows (Matthew 10:31; Luke 12:7). Yes, I am aware that animal meat is an essential food source for groups of people in some parts of the world (e.g., the Inuit in the Canadian arctic). Yes, I am aware that meat eating and animal sacrifice is integral to many indigenous cultures and religious communities. And yes, I am aware that arguments for animal rights often involve the assumption that humans are just another species, when the Bible indicates human beings have a unique status in creation (e.g., Genesis 1:26 cf. 1:24-25).

I should also be clear about my personal views on the issues at hand. I am an ethical vegetarian though originally chose to be so independent of theological reflection. Only later did I begin to think about animal compassion and diet in religious terms. I mention this because we must be cautious of asking the Bible to answer questions it does not address, or support convictions reached on other grounds. My initial interest in the subject and my choice of diet has much to do with a lack of confidence in the meat processing system, and its ability to provide consistently humane treatment of animals raised and slaughtered for food. Because of my biases, I approach the topic cautiously.

Though not mandated for Christians, a vegetarian diet does not conflict with any biblical teachings. Paul does not condemn those in the Roman church preferring to avoid meat (Romans 14:2, 21), though it was a fear of idols, not concern for animals, that motivated their choices. At the same time, though, the Bible does not speak often about human obligations to other species, it clearly does not condone cruelty to animals (see e.g., Proverbs 12:10), and there are Torah regulations apparently intent on alleviating undue distress for vulnerable creatures (consider e.g., Exodus 20:10; 23:5; Deuteronomy 22:4, 6-7, 10; 25:4). Is this reason enough for Christians to think carefully about their food choices? What troubles me is the ubiquity of meat in the diets of the developed world, and the enormity of the meat processing industry required to sustain them. Cruelty and inhumane treatment is inevitable in such a massive enterprise. I do not have clear answers to these questions but admit to a sense of dissonance when comparing the little Scripture says about animals with the eating habits and farming practices of the modern world.

Admittedly, most passages mentioning animals do not speak to ethical questions facing contemporary readers. References to the slaughter and consumption of animals in the Bible usually occur in relation to ritual activity, as is the case with Passover celebrations that require the consumption of a lamb (Exodus 12:3-10). The Bible also serves as witness to other belief systems that sacrificed animals (see e.g., Paul's words about meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13). Occasionally, the killing of animals proves something about human characters in stories. Samson burns 300 jackals or foxes alive in an act of revenge thus proving his strength over the Philistines (Judges 15:4-5); David kills bears and lions as evidence of his courage (1 Samuel 17:34-37); Elijah shows himself to be a true prophet of a superior God through a contest involving the death of two bulls (1 Kings 18:22-23). In other stories, meat eating provides evidence of prosperity and God's blessings, or indicates generosity and hospitality (e.g., Genesis 18:8).

There are references to devout individuals in the Bible choosing to refrain from eating meat, usually involving efforts to avoid ritual defilement (Daniel 1:5-16; Tobit 1:10-13; Judith 10:5; 12:2; Romans 14:2), and in other cases as an act of self-denial or a vow to God (e.g., Numbers 6:3; Judges 13:4, 7, 14). These, however, are exceptions to usual practices. Though some maintain Jesus was vegetarian, many more insist this was not the case. Meat eating was certainly not widespread in the Jewish world around the turn of the era. According to Ben Sira, writing in the second century before Christ, "The basic necessities of human life are water and fire and iron and salt and wheat flower and milk and honey, the blood of the grape and oil and clothing. All these are good for the godly, but for sinners they turn into evils" (Ecclesiasticus 39:26-27). The omission of meat from this list suggests many did not rely on it as a staple for their diet.

It deserves repeating that almost all references to meat eating in the Bible (and decisions to abstain from it) are associated with cultic activity and religious expression in some form or other. This is rarely true in the modern, developed world, and as a result there is little conscious thought about the animals killed for food, and no serious reflection on the sacredness of blood and death. My impression is that many Christians are cavalier in their attitude toward animal-based diets, quickly adopting the "dominion" language of the creation story (Genesis 1:26), and quickly dismissing language pointing to the solemnity of ritual, sacrificial death (e.g., Leviticus 16:1-34) and respect for the blood of living things (e.g., Leviticus 17:10-14). Meat eating becomes commonplace in an over-nourished, over-fed society. It is normative, a part of all meals. We eat for pleasure, not for religious purposes or subsistence or as an occasional luxury. This trivializing of sentient creation is theologically problematic, if Karl Barth is correct. He recommends Romans 8:18-19 be written "in letters of fire ... across every hunting lodge, abattoir and vivisection chamber," and maintains that the killing of animals is only possible "as a deeply reverential act of repentance, gratitude and praise on the part of the forgiven sinner" (Church Dogmatics).

There is little evidence of such reverence in contemporary Christianity, which by-and-large rarely considers moral obligations to animals. Our society breeds and slaughters far more animals for food than we actually need. The combination of a high demand for meat, and a concomitant loss of respect for animals, encourages tolerance for a meat-processing system that frequently takes the well-being of animals for granted. It does not take long on websites dedicated to these issues (see e.g., the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals), to discover that the realities of the factory farm and human treatment of animals in other settings are often horrific.

The Mishnah refers to making a fence for the Torah (Avot 1:1), a concept responding to the ambiguities of introducing ethical teachings to new contexts. What does it mean, for instance, to take the Lord's name in vain? What does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy? To avoid breaking the laws of God, the rabbis recommend limiting opportunities for doing so. If you do not want to use the divine name in vain, "build a fence" around that command and do not say that name at all. If you do not want to profane the Sabbath, "build a fence" around that command and expand the definition of what constitutes work. Do more than is asked in hope of doing what is asked. Here we have a useful model to consider with reference to religious obligations to non-human, sentient creation.

If we want to avoid cruelty and irreverent treatment of other living things, vegetarianism -- or at least limiting meat intake -- is a small step in that direction. By choosing not to eat animals, Christians build a hedge in an effort to avoid treating God's good creatures (Genesis 1:20-25) cruelly or frivolously.