Is It a Sin to Eat Meat? - An Excerpt from Vegangelical
Earlier this week, our blog introduced the three-tiered theological framework author Sarah Withrow King lays out to emphasize our responsibility as Christians to care for animals. In today’s excerpt from Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith, we will explore some of the hard questions she wrestled with before embracing a vegan lifestyle that we need to wrestle with ourselves.
While the decision is ultimately between you and God, the changes I suggest Christians ought to make are significant. When we have grown up accepting the current state of human-animal relations without interrogating the narrative that tells us animals are ours, the first steps can seem daunting. My initial reaction was to grow defensive, to assume that my actions were justified. What follows are some of the questions I wrestled with when I first began to examine my everyday choices related to animals in light of my Christian theological foundation.
I understand that Eden was vegan, but God clearly gave humans permission to eat animals after the flood, and the New Testament contains several verses indicating that all things are clean, it’s not what goes in your mouth that defiles you, and it’s okay to eat meat. Plus, Jesus ate fish, at the very least. So what gives there?
The underlying question is whether it’s a sin to eat meat. I look at sin as disobedience, that which separates us from God. Sin is also both personal and structural. In other words, there are personal acts of disobedience, but there are also sinful systems that perpetuate brokenness and evil.
The modern use and abuse of the created world is a system of deep brokenness and significant sin, and this includes the system that breeds, raises, and kills billions upon billions of sentient, God-created, God-loved creatures each year. Here’s how I’ve come to think about a few of the passages that often come up when I talk about a biblical basis for a vegan diet.
Genesis 9: The situation here is clearly far from ideal. God’s words to Noah are: “The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (vv. 2–3). Instead of the shalom, the peace and symbiosis of Eden, God describes here a new reality in which animals will fear humans, and in which humans will earn that fear through killing. This is not “good,” as in Genesis 1; it simply is the way it is now that humans have rejected God’s way. God goes on to say that God’s covenant is with all flesh on earth, a promise echoed in Hosea 2:18. Animals are part of the covenant of life with God, and they are among those waiting for redemption from the sin that humans brought into the world.
Acts 10:12–25 and 1 Timothy 4:1–5: Peter’s vision, the one in which God told him to “kill and eat,” greatly puzzled Peter. He took a few days to sort it out and eventually realized that what God was telling him through this vision was that the good news is for all, not just the Jews, and that he was called to fellowship with and preach the gospel to Gentiles, even to Roman soldiers.
The 1 Timothy passage refers to a particular teaching perhaps making the rounds among early Christians that elevated asceticism and made it into a kind of idol. I do not argue in favor of a vegan lifestyle out of idolatry. I don’t refuse to eat with meat eaters (and I hope no other vegan Christian does, either) or believe that killing animals for food is any worse than greed, laziness, pride, gossip, or any number of the sins I struggle with every day. Jesus said we are to love God and love others. Being vegan is the best way I know how to love the “others” of creation, both human and non.
I don’t know why Jesus ate fish (some scholars argue that he didn’t, but the majority do not), but I do know two things. First, the cultural and structural reality of meat-eating two thousand years ago was wildly different than that reality now. Second, Jesus led a radically inclusive life befriending the rejects, the outcasts . . . the most marginalized. It seems to me that many of us today (including me, including now) have failed to follow that clear example. We often ensconce ourselves in bubbles of homogeneity and like-us-ness.
Our treatment of animals betrays this bias. We may compartmentalize our service and compassion based on species or perceived utility. It’s why so many of us will eat KFC while crying over Bambi with our AKC-registered Labraschnoodle resting peacefully by our side. What we fail to see is that dogs, cats, pigs, and chickens all give us the opportunity for love and service, and we don’t need to sacrifice our humanness to honor their chicken-ness, pig-ness, cat-ness, or dog-ness. “We are who we are not because we are separate from the others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges.”
In this way, our relationship with God’s animals and with one another reflects the Trinitarian nature of God in the world. We are unique and related, mutually interdependent, and our true flourishing depends on the true flourishing of one another. Adopting a vegan diet and lifestyle is one of the easiest ways I have found to honor the gift of God’s creation and to follow the example of Jesus’ love for all.
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