A while back, I began considering my diet as a way to practice my spiritual beliefs, and as I weighed what would be right for me, I came up against so much inner turmoil. As a southern gal, I grew up going to church and enjoying various get-togethers with other parishioners over BBQ dinners and Sunday brunches of eggs with grits. It all seemed lovely and warm at the time, so I struggled many years later with the question of how eating meat, dairy, and eggs could be ill-advised when so many (good) people do it daily and with gusto. If longstanding faith traditions hold that eating animals is acceptable, why in the world was I questioning those traditions?
And yet, especially after watching behind-the-scenes video of what happens to animals as they become our food, I remained troubled, on a spiritual level, at the thought of eating them. These are the questions that kept gnawing at me: If I am someone who wants peace in the world, how can I make peace with my part in the system of institutionalized cruelty and misery toward animals? How could I feel peaceful inside if I continued to collude with this bringing of suffering? The more I meditated on it, things began to clarify in my mind: Choosing to move away from eating animals is not just about my physical health, it's about the wellbeing of all creatures of this planet. It's a vital part of an awake and aware spiritual practice as well. It's not just that I don't want to contribute to the suffering of animals; my choice to move away from eating animal products would also allow me to become more the person I want to be.
Back to the traditions, though: How could a religion that has endured for thousands of years not have reflected on so fundamental a question as how we relate to these fellow creatures? Animals are so totally in our power, after all, and isn't spirituality in part a matter of how we choose to treat the powerless?
I decided to do some searching -- both soul searching and researching the Christian tradition to find out what's really suggested about the question of eating animals.
The first thing that became clear was that the question of whether it's ethical for humans to eat animals has indeed been considered. It seems that spiritual leaders throughout the ages have grappled with the contradictions inherent in following and advocating a peaceful, humane existence while killing and eating animals. For Christians and Jews the dilemma is so central that it's addressed in the very first chapter of the first book of the bible, Genesis, preceding even the Ten Commandments! It says that the first thing God does after creating humans is call humanity to steward the earth and its creatures, but the second thing God does is declare, "See, I have given you every plant-yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food." (Genesis 1:29-30) A clear call for vegetarianism, it would seem.
Aaron Gross, Ph.D., professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego and who holds graduate degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of California, explained to me that, "One of the most striking things one discovers in comparative religion is that the potential moral danger of meat eating is a major theme across religious traditions. Eating meat is often condemned and, if not, it is surrounded by cautions and restrictions as is the case in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Mircea Eliade, arguably the most influential scholar of religion in the 20th century, in fact argued that the ancient hunter's sympathy for the animals he killed was one of the origins of religion itself."
Eating animals, it seems, has never been taken lightly.
And today, it appears that Christian theologians are rediscovering the links between our dietary and spiritual choices. Many are arguing that vegetarianism is the diet most compatible with Christian values like mercy and compassion. Anglican priest and Oxford professor Andrew Linzey, Ph.D., argues that "to stand with Jesus is to ... honor life for the sake of the Lord of life ... to stand for Jesus is to stand for active compassion for the weak, against the principle that might is right." For Linzey, this means Christians should be vegetarian.
Theologians like Linzey, I learned, are part of a long tradition of meat abstainers that stretches back to the origins of Christian faith. The Desert Fathers, 4th-century Christian saints, abstained from meat. The 1,500-year-old "Rule of Benedict," a pillar of monastic spiritual practice, severely restricts meat eating. Under the influence of this rule many contemporary monastic orders, especially in Eastern Christianity, are vegetarian to this day.
Some later Christian leaders were semi-vegetarians, like St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), who avoided meat as best they could. Others, like the founder of Methodist Christianity, John Wesley (1703-1791), were fulltime vegetarians. Many more were vegetarian for limited periods. Still today there is a vibrant Catholic tradition of giving up some or all meat for Lent, the period before Easter.
While contemporary Christian vegetarianism is usually rooted in ethical concerns about the abuse of creation, historically Christians who chose not to eat flesh also saw their diet as a path to greater spirituality and increased sanctity.
I was delighted to learn about this rich tradition of incorporating vegetarian diets into spiritual practice, but I admit that it first surprised me. It certainly is not something most Christians in America know about. If you do some searching like I did, though -- even simply by searching "Christianity and vegetarianism" on the Internet -- it's easy to see just how important the idea of peace between all creatures has been in the Christian moral imagination. In fact, you don't need to look any farther than the first 30 lines of the Bible: Jewish and Christian biblical interpreters have agreed for millennia that Genesis 1:29-30 -- the verse I quoted at the beginning of this article -- showed that the ideal spiritual diet was meat free. The vision was of a world where humans did not eat animals but instead lived on the gifts of food growing on trees and in the ground. According to the biblical narrative, it was only after the fall that humans started eating animals, the ideal being to strive to return to the original perfection. In sync with that is the prophet Isaiah describing the messianic era in which the world is again made perfect, declaring that "[t]he wolf shall live with the lamb ... and the lion shall eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 11:6-7). Given this, it makes perfect sense that today more Christians are questioning the rightness of eating meat and are turning toward vegetarianism.
The endorsement of vegetarianism in the first chapter of Genesis is sometimes ignored by Christians who like to emphasize that by the ninth chapter human beings have been given permission to eat meat. So I decided to look into how that "permission" to eat animals is portrayed in the Bible.
One thing all commentators seem to agree on is that the late tolerance of meat eating doesn't mean that God just "made a mistake" and realized that slaughterhouses were actually a good idea. A long history of Christian and Jewish commentators have taught that granting permission to eat meat is portrayed in the bible as a concession to human weakness. In the very same biblical verses where permission to eat meat is given, all humanity is required to drain blood, an ancient symbol of life, from the animals. At first draining the blood from animals -- still practiced in virtually all slaughterhouses today -- just seemed bizarre to me, but scholars have deciphered its meaning: namely, to remind human beings that meat eating was not part of God's original plan, and that we need to remember to have "reverence for life," symbolized by draining away the blood before eating. Rather than giving humans carte blanche to eat meat, the Bible saddles the practice with restrictions such as this.
And if eating meat even from animals raised back in the good old days before intensive confinement and industrial slaughterhouses wasn't easily endorsed, I have to wonder what that would suggest about our own day where animals suffer miserable lives on factory farms and painful deaths in industrial slaughterhouses?
In sum: What would Jesus think of a factory farm? It's one thing to concede meat eating is temporarily tolerable to ancient herders, but when all you have to do is order something different from a menu or reach for a different part of the supermarket shelf, wouldn't the Christian thing be to choose the more peaceful option? Things were becoming clearer for me... Everything the churches I attended taught about the life of Jesus -- his love for creation, mercy, compassion, and special concern for the powerless -- led me to think he would never have accepted a diet that contributed to the suffering I've seen animals go through on those videos. At the end of the day, I don't see how the ultimate Good Shepherd, the Prince of Peace, could be okay with a lifestyle that promotes misery for billions of creatures per year. Maybe Jesus wasn't a strict vegetarian 2,000 years ago, but there sure is something to the idea that he would be today.
As for spiritual practice, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul calls on the community to "pray ceaselessly." It occurs to me that he probably didn't mean that we should constantly have our heads bowed, murmuring prayers necessarily, but rather that we should live as if we are constantly trying to be the people we are guided to be. Since eating is so central to our lives, it seems to me that eating consciously can be the foundation of our conscious life. It can be our way of praying ceaselessly.
I'm reminded of the reflections of the Jesuit priest John Dear, who explains that, "today Jesus ... would want us to change every aspect of our lives, to seek complete physical, spiritual, emotional, and ethical wholeness ... So, when we sit down to eat ... we should also choose to adhere to his life of compassion and nonviolence by maintaining a vegetarian diet." He adds that, "we know that as we practice mercy to one another and to all God's creatures, we too shall receive mercy and blessings, as Jesus promised in the Beatitudes."
The Christian teaching of compassion for animals was especially emphasized by St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis not only spoke eloquently about compassion for animals but also taught that kindness to animals is good spiritually and promotes peace among humans. "Not to hurt our humble brethren, the animals, is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission: to be of service to them whenever they require it. If you have people who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity you will have people who will deal likewise with other people."
And so I faced a kind of spiritual choice. I could press the images of those animals in fear and pain from my mind and pretend that the violence I was supporting by eating animal products was someone else's responsibility. Or I could begin to align my diet with my beliefs and principles, thus becoming more the person I want to be. In this manner, moving away from a diet of animal products has become a living spiritual exercise to cultivate compassion, and I'm glad for the daily opportunity.