I remarked earlier that our Orthodox fast is almost vegan. About half the week's diet is free from all animal flesh and the other half is pesceterian. Many Orthodox Christians consume shellfish throughout the fast, reasoning that they are animals without a backbone, but we're choosing to refrain from shellfish on the non-fish days.
I've written about veganism and the new food movements at Year of Plenty here and here. I'm not vegan but I am interested in vegan perspectives on food and diet, especially those that arise from Christians convictions. It may surprise some to learn that there are several Christian arguments for veganism.
Some make the case that such dietary choices should be driven by a concern for the welfare of animals that is part of the call to a stewardship of creation. The Faith Outreach arm of the Humane Society of the U.S. is an example of this perspective. Last month they invited Nancy and I to participate in a gathering of Christian leaders in Washington D.C.. We learned about the work of the Humane Society to address animal cruelty and heard professors, activists, and authors make the case that Christian faith compells us to engage issues of animal welfare. Here's a short video from Wayne and Christine who led our gathering in D.C. speaking to a group of Christians in Portland at the Q Conference:
While they don't directly advocate for a vegan diet they argue that Christian faith calls Christians to care for animals which means that problematic practices like factory farming compel a Christian response. I appreciate the generous and grace-filled way that they engage the issues. I think they would say that a vegan diet is ideal with regards to animale welfare, but their goal is not to make everyone a vegan. Rather they advocate for people to make meaningful steps in that direction, and every small step people make is a victory for animal welfare.
PETA on the other hand has a "Go vegan or bust" approach. Their issues page states boldly that "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any way." No exceptions. No room for compromise. And they argue that this is the proper Christian perspective.
Last year I spoke with Bruce Friedrich, V.P. at PETA, about their letter to the translators of the NIV Bible asking them to refer to animals as "he" or "she" instead of "it." Bruce explained that his Christian faith, especially influenced by the writing of Anglican priest Andrew Linzey, is actually what compelled him to conclude that veganism is the logical option if someone is going to let their Christian faith inform their dietary decisions. The only concession he was willing to make is that eggs acquired from hens treated as companion animals might be OK, but I had the feeling that from his perspective even that was dubious.
Unlike the Humane Society approach which couches Christian dietary choices in the wider context of the stewardship of creation, Friedrich's approach is based on the foundational assumption that animals are "sentient beings" who can suffer, meaning that not only can they experience pain but that they "they experience mental pain, including fear, foreboding, anticipation, stress, trauma, and terror." (See Linzey)
The PETA approach is based on a modern logical argument, a kind of dietary fundamentalism that leaves me unconvinced. I'm suspicious of fundamentalisms in general, and this is no exception.
The other common Christian argument for veganism is the Biblical argument which is spelled out by Kasey Minnis today at the This Dish Is Veg site. She highlights many compelling themes in the Bible including compassion, and the apparent vegetarian diet in the Garden of Eden, but her strongest argument is that the vision of God's future for creation is free from the consumption of animals. She cites Isaiah 11:6-9, which I read on Sunday as part of our Advent worship:
The wolf will live with the lamb,the leopard will lie down with the goat,the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear,their young will lie down together,and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 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 destroyon all my holy mountain
She also mentions the vision of God's future in Revelation 21:4 where "death will be no more."
Minnis sums up by saying:
In a world without death, where even the animals will cease to kill, will humans continue to eat the flesh of peaceful animals? Will the animals’ outcry and pain go unnoticed by a compassionate God? No, these promises for the future indicate a return to God’s original intent for mankind - to live in peace with the animals, surviving and thriving on a plant-based diet.
So if God's future kingdom is a peaceful kingdom where animals don't eat other animals, and where there is no more death, then shouldn't we live into that future today by choosing a vegan diet?
This argument intrigues me more than PETAs, but it tends to do with the Bible what Linzey does with the sentient being argument, reducing the debate down to a few non-negotiable fundamentals, in this case scriptures, and based on those fundamentals concludes that there is only one true option. From my perspective, the Bible and life is just more complicated than that and am unconvinced by the Biblical argument for veganism.
My favorite approach is actually the one that we are currently experiencing with the Orthodox Nativity fast. It is based on a historic Christian community practice born out of a desire for communion with God. It isn't a logical argument for veganism, it's an approach to food that is embedded in a practice of spiritual formation. If Christians are longing for faith guidance on food choices my hunch is that it's in these kind of traditions that we'll find our way through the complex maze of today's food debates.
Given the rich history of Christian advocacy of animal welfare by people like William Wilberforce and St. Francis, I count the kind of animal welfare promoted by the Humane Society as one of those traditions.