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The Peaceable Kingdom - Reflections of A Christian Vegan

Ed. note: The Hebrew and Greek fonts did not reproduce correctly

REFLECTIONS OF A CHRISTIAN VEGAN
 
By David Blaine Cable, Ph.D.
 
 
I
 
On the first Sunday of each month, our local church has a 'pot luck' meal following morning worship.  At the first few of these my wife and I attended, other members were curious to know why I avoided the dishes that clearly exhibited animal products.  The serving line at a congregational meal is not, in my judgment, an appropriate place for one to present a theological dissertation on the reasons she or he avoids eating dead animals, so I responded to each query as briefly as possible:  'I prefer not to kill or allow to be killed anything that has feelings.'
 
Years earlier, my reason for adopting the cruelty-free lifestyle was no more complicated than that.  I was incapable of understanding for myself or of explaining to others how my pathos for non-human animals related to my Christian faith.  Yet both influenced my life so profoundly that my holding them as unrelated commitments disturbed my inner peace.  This was the irony:  that although I felt that I had both peace with God and a modicum of peace with non-human animals, my unfamiliarity with the relationship between the two prevented me from having peace with myself.
 
In my efforts to find this relationship, I began by examining the term, 'peace,' which my two commitments had in common.  I knew that the Bible, which is the primary authority for both me and many other Christians, says a lot about peace and its synonymous concept, 'reconciliation.'  Yet I had never taken the time to ascertain whether there are Biblical texts that use these concepts in a cosmic rather than in a narrowly anthropological sense.  Every translation of the Bible is, to some degree, an interpretation of the ideas the authors intended to convey.  The more I conducted my research devoid of the typical translators' or interpreters' (or readers') presuppositions, the more I discovered that key texts define reconciliation as including both human and non-human creatures, and therefore provide a model for our relationships with more than just our species.
 
Admittedly this also is an interpretation.  I don't claim to have uncovered an inspired truth that the majority of Christians have overlooked ("ignored" perhaps, but certainly not "overlooked") for millennia.  My goal, rather, is to show that the vegan lifestyle is consistent with everything that the authors of Scripture reveal about peace, or reconciliation.  To do this, I will examine from a slightly different perspective that doctrine which deals with the ultimate reconciliation, and which many Biblical scholars consider to be the central theme of Scripture:  the Kingdom of God.  If what I say here encourages some omnivorous Christians to choose the vegan lifestyle, Creation will experience a bit more fully the blessing of reconciliation revealed in Scripture.  If not, I might at least help Christians who already are vegans to feel more at peace with themselves at the next congregational dinner.
 
       
II
 
We live in a world where broken relationships are the norm.  Historically, Christians have acknowledged that this initially was not the case.  Scripture affirms that God created all things good, including humanity, in a state of absolute harmony.  The first man, Adam, chose to do what seemed best to himself rather than to maintain the order that God had established, resulting not only in the alienation of himself and his posterity from God, but also in the shattering of the perfect peace that existed throughout Creation.  The alienating effect of Adam's wrong choice extends throughout history.  Like our first parents, we prefer setting our own course instead of following the one God offers.  Our bad choices, however, cause more than the human species to suffer.
 
One of the relationships lost as a result of what Christians know as the 'Fall' of Adam is the peace the first humans enjoyed with other sentient creatures.  Although God gave Adam 'dominion' over the beasts, there is no evidence in the context  (Gen. 1:26) that this act of grace carried with it the right to exploit them unconditionally.  Because Adam bore the image of his loving Creator, who had proclaimed all things 'good,' there is every reason for us to believe that Adam's dominion was purely benevolent.  One piece of corroborating evidence is that God gave the first couple a vegan diet (Gen. 1:29-30).  Another is that they required no clothing, leather or otherwise (Gen. 2:25).
 
This changed after Adam's disobedience.  Creation in its entirety fell out of equilibrium.  Most important for our present theme, humans and animals became estranged.  To Noah and his family, God said, 'The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every foul of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all fish. . . .  Every moving thing that liveth shall be food for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things' (Gen. 9.2-3).  That God waited several generations before granting this right for humans to be carnivores, I like to think was a reluctant concession to our fallen species.  Logically this must be viewed as an extension of the curse described in Genesis 3:14-19, since it contrasts with relationships prior to the Fall.
 
There were, of course, other negative consequences that seem to impinge more closely on the strictly human condition, although these also have ramifications that cause alienation far beyond our species:  disease, crime, poverty, etc.  Human problems capture our attention more quickly than the suffering we inflict on non-human creatures.  Most of our problem-solving efforts we direct towards helping ourselves.  It is most obvious when we suffer from self-destructive behaviors, that we have an almost instinctive desire to recreate things as they were prior to the Fall.  Our motives for this wishful thinking are different, but our goal squares with the will of God, who intended Eden as a perpetual Paradise.
 
Although it would be interesting to delve into the Biblical reasons why the consolidated efforts of our species continue to fail in reversing what one man, Adam, caused, it is more expedient to develop our theme more directly and positively by observing that, according to Scripture, God has worked and continues to work to bring about the restoration of all things to their pristine purity.  That God would direct history towards his own objective is an amazing idea to many, scandalous to some, and certainly contrary to any secular understanding of history.  Yet an appreciation of the Biblical model of history is essential to Christians who want more than a hygienic or an ethical justification for their veganism.  Let us see why veganism is not an ideal made passe by the loss of our original goodness, but rather remains a valid way for us to show that the Kingdom of God is in us today, even as Jesus indicated.
 
 
III
 
The Hebrew and subsequently the Christian affirmation that the world, and therefore history, had a beginning rejected the classical notion that physical things are eternal.  This latter view, taught by Heraclitus and others and accepted throughout the pagan world, also held that history moves in cycles, eternally repeating itself at regular intervals.  Based on its understanding of divine promises in the Old Testament, the early Church rejected this cyclical model of history, the idea of 'eternal return,' in favor of one far less cynical, which we will now examine.
 
We can begin to construct a mental picture of the Biblical, and therefore the traditionally Christian, model of history by imagining a perfect circle.  If we select the point at the top of that circle and trace a route around its circumference, we ultimately will return to where we started.  This is the way the writers of Scripture viewed the events of history:  not as forming an endless spiral, but as arcs along the circumference of a single temporal circle that began in Paradise and will end in Paradise.  The name of the first Paradise is Eden; and the name of the second, the Kingdom of God.
 
This circular model of history contrasts with yet another, more modern one:  the linear model of the eighteenth-century philosopher Giambattista Vico, which compares historical events to points plotted on a straight line, the ends of which extend indefinitely.  Understandably this view is popular with contemporary secular thinkers.  There are attempts to defend it theologically also; but the circular view of history is so prominent in the Bible that persons who choose to maintain their ties to Christianity might be embarrassed to ignore it.
 
 Christians typically believe that after the events relating to Eden and the Fall, the rest of the Bible is an account of the temporal steps that God has taken and continues to take to restore the broken relationships that exist.  Historically, the Church has acknowledged that God's chief agent in accomplishing this is the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  It is beyond the scope of the present paper for me to deal with how the Messiah, the Christ, will establish the New Eden, that is the Kingdom of God.  My aim, rather, is to show the nature and the scope of the relationships God wills for his creatures, and how our understanding the will of God in this matter can and should affect the behavior of rational beings who are able to comprehend that the willful infliction of pain and death alienates rather than reconciles.
 
Just as God previewed with the first couple the consequences of disobedience, we might expect that he has previewed with fallen humanity key events that he has decreed will culminate in the future Kingdom.  Although it is often difficult to validate empirically that specific Old Testament passages anticipate the Messiah, one of the earliest texts that unequivocally has this validation is in the twelfth chapter of Genesis.  There, God indicates that Abraham, who lived eighteen hundred years before Christ, would provide an indispensable arc on the historical circle that proceeds towards the Peaceable Kingdom.
 
 
IV
 
More precisely, God spoke to Abraham:  'I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing.  And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee; and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed' (Gen. 12:2-3).  Paul provides the verification that this is a foretelling of the coming Messiah when he states that 'the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles through faith, preached before the Gospel unto Abraham, saying, in thee shall all nations be blessed' (Gal. 3:8).
 
Typically the understanding of the unilateral covenant that God made with Abraham is that the promised blessing is solely for the benefit of our species:  that is, it allegedly deals only with personal salvation.  In light of the broken condition of Creation in its entirety, any thoughtful Christian might sense that, notwithstanding the seminal importance of humans receiving the promised blessing, a closer look at this covenant shows that it does not mandate the typical, narrow interpretation to the exclusion of a broader one.  As entities created in the image of God, we are by divine decree the agents charged with extending the promised blessing beyond ourselves, just as the physical descendents of Abraham were charged with extending that blessing beyond themselves.   Paul, therefore, observed that God has committed to us 'the ministry of reconciliation' (II Cor. 5:18-19).
 
When we read the word, hj*P*v=m! 'families,' in the preceding text, we unfortunately are inclined to think only in terms of human relationships.  In English, however, the word often is used to refer to non-human families, even inanimate families.  The Hebrew term that appears in English translations as 'families' or 'nations' can also mean 'species,' 'kinds,' 'sorts,' etc., terms that do not require a human referent.  Since we are dealing here not merely with a corrupted species in need of blessing, but also with a corrupted cosmos, we are not doing violence to the text by suggesting that God intends entities other than humanity to enjoy the promised blessing, each in its own way.
 
I am alleging that, from the time of the call of Abrham, God's people had only a partial view of their mission, replacing the broader, lexical definition of those who would receive the blessing, with a definition that stipulated the blessing as being confined to members of their own species.  Further reading in the Old Testament and in ecclesiastical history will provide evidence that redefining the words of God has been a common occurrence among those who claim devotion to Him.  Each of these instances has resulted in suffering, although none has resulted in suffering as extensive as the one we currently are considering.   
 
If we accept this broader understanding, which the text permits and which I will demonstrate that circumstances favor, it follows that any abuse by humans--created in the image of God, with the ability to think and to make ethical decisions--of other creatures, whether sentient or not, constitutes a willful denial of the blessing of the peaceful relationships that the Fall destroyed.  It follows that believers who are committed to being agents of reconciliation rather than acting contrary to the ends towards which God is directing history find reason here to acknowledge the vegan lifestyle, which does no harm to sentient things, as being in full accord with Christian ideals.
 
The objection that Gen. 26:4 contradicts this interpretation is without merit.  There, God reconfirms with Isaac the Abrahamic Covenant, but uses a different word, yy@oG 'people,' to refer to those who will be blessed.  Again, however, the translation derives from a speciesist presupposition.  Proverbs 30:25-26 refers to ants and conies by the same term, for example; and Zephania writes about nations of beasts, ywg)- oty+j ^- lK* (2:14).  Even if the interpreter ignores such texts, insisting that the covenant-renewal passage above refers exclusively to humans (which we believe is not the case) the passage would logically focus on the segment of creation, humanity, which God will use to extend the blessing of reconciliation throughout the cosmos.  The forthcoming paragraphs on Paul will deal further with the same model.
 
 
V
 
The Abrahamic covenant as it is described in Genesis is consistent with the view that the promised blessing of restoration is for Creation as a whole; but is this also true regarding Paul's allusion to it?  When the Apostle states that God promised that Abraham would be a blessing to the 'nations,' is he clearing away all ambiguity from the Old Testament text to show us that God intended the blessing solely for our species?  Throughout Scripture, the word e;qnoj refers to nations comprised of humans, although Acts 17:26 (unless Luke is being redundant) suggests the term might have use in contexts dealing with non-humans.  Is this, however, a sufficient reason for us to posit that Paul is using the term here in an unconventional sense?
 
We might observe that the New Testament deals with events that were so unprecedented that it was necessary for the authors to use language in unconventional ways in order to communicate about them meaningfully.  (Consider, for example, how they applied the word avna,stasij, 'resurrection,' to Jesus in a unique way.)  Since there is no direct evidence that the word e;qnoj has non-human referents in other Biblical texts, however, it would be arbitrary for me to claim that it does here.  There is a more effective way to deal with this issue.
 
Paul uses e;qnoj in this instance rather than a more comprehensive term like ko,smoj because his context, which deals with justification by faith, demands it.  '. . . They which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham,' he writes, with reference to the only segment of Creation from which faith is required as the condition for reconciliation.  Paul is not disagreeing with Genesis; he is, rather, focusing his attention to a narrower aspect of reconciliation, the single species to which he has given the mission of working towards the cosmic reconciliation which God promised to Abraham and which Moses and the Prophets anticipated.  Significantly, there are instances where Paul is less focused.
 
In his letter to the Colossians we read concerning Christ, 'It pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell; and, having made peace by the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things to himself . . . , whether things in earth or things in heaven' (1:19-20).  The context of these verses supports the view that pa,vnta, 'all things,' refers to the totality of Creation.  In the preceding four verses Paul uses this word five times in that sense; there is no cogent reason why he should create ambiguity by unexpectedly changing the referent in the next two verses.
 
Paul gives further focus to this theme in his letter to the Ephesians (1.7-10), where he states that God's plan 'for the fullness of times,' is to unify 'all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth.'  The Greek verb, avnakefalaio,w, is unambiguous regarding the type of unity that God has determined for his Kingdom.  It will be a recapitulation:  that is, a restoration of the relationships that existed among all creatures (ta, pa,nta) prior to the Fall.  It is obvious that most Christians assume, incorrectly, that God's plan for the future has nothing to do with their present behavior. 
 
However, that the blessing of reconciliation promised to Abraham and confirmed by Paul applies to Creation as a whole, not to our species alone, places on us a unique ethical responsibility.  Because we are rational beings, able to make creative changes in our environment as no other creature can, we are able to choose either to be agents of reconciliation or to pursue goals that are not in accord with the divine will.  For Christians, the choice ought to be clear.  We remember the words of Paul in II Corinthians 5:18-19, that God has committed specifically to his Church the ministry of reconciliation.
 
From the texts we have reviewed, we can affirm that Christians need to conduct this 'ministry of reconciliation' on different levels.  Basic to the complete picture is our being reconciled to God by our faith in the Christ.  Once we have found our peace with God, all our other relationships change as well.  Most Christians have no difficulty in understanding that their being reconciled with God causes them to seek reconciliation with their fellow humans as well.  Often, however, either as a result of dietary conditioning, or speciesism (most Christians are not racists, but they are still speciesists), or other cultural pretexts, it is problematic for them to extend their efforts at reconciliation to include other sentient beings, or to the environment as a whole.  Yet, Paul laments that all 'creation groaneth and travaileth in pain . . .' (Rom. 8:22).  That vegan Christians attempt to extend their ministry of reconciliation to include non-humans is, therefore, consistent with their faith in Christ. 
 
Of course, we realize that even when Christians finally--belatedly--decide to become agents of reconciliation in the fullest sense, members of our species never will succeed in establishing  God's Kingdom.  God alone will create that time of absolute peace and harmony that completes the circle of history.  That Scripture challenges the Church to strive for a goal that God alone can achieve suggests that, regardless of our acknowledged inability to measure up to the divine expectations, we have the obligation to work towards reflecting the peace of the Kingdom in all our relationships.  How can anyone who willfully persists in causing or allowing the infliction of pain and death on sentient creatures take that obligation seriously?  I assert they cannot.
 
 
VI
 
Most Christians are aware of the times when Jesus spoke positively about God the Father's care for animals.  While those occasions increase the comfort level of us who seek Biblical support for our commitment to the rights of animals, there are a couple of passages describing actions of Jesus that could (mistakenly, I believe) have the opposite effect.  Why would Jesus grant demons, whom he had just cast out of humans, entry to a herd of swine (Mat. 8:28-34 et. al.); and why did he, appearing in the same form that he will have in the Kingdom, eat a piece of fish (Lke. 24:41-43)?  These events are significant, but not because they provide evidence tending to invalidate the theme of this paper.
 
Jesus did not place the demons into the swine.  He gave the demons permission, upon which they acted to produce the unfortunate results recorded by the Gospel writers.  Clearly, this incident does not depart from the way God normally relates to his rational creatures:  Jesus, as God, gave the demons the ability to choose what they would do next.  That he knew beforehand the course their evil natures would follow, does not make him responsible for the ill that resulted to the swine, any more than God is to blame for our misuse of the freedom he has given us.
 
The passage regarding the fish is a bit more difficult.  I would like to think that Jesus created the piece of fish out of nothing, as he did on a grander scale at the feeding of the five thousand; but there is no textual evidence for this.  There is, however, evidence that Jesus requested food, regardless of the kind, to prove to the Apostles that he was no mere apparition, that he has a physical form.  There is nothing in this unique incident that suggests Jesus was setting a dietary precedent that would be at odds with everything else we know about the relationships that will exist among all creatures at the advent of the Kingdom.  Rather, his point was to demonstrate the reality of his resurrection.
 
John Calvin observed, in effect, that the ways of God are so much higher than our ways that He must 'lisp' to communicate with us.  The circular view of history that I have presented in this paper illustrates that the fullness of a particular revelation often evolves rather than occurs at a single point in time.  Similarly, the theological ramifications of Scriptural statements sometimes take centuries for us to begin to appreciate.  Paul did little if anything to condemn slavery directly; yet the church has grown to understand that slavery is contrary to Christian principles.  Jesus followed the dietary practices of his day by eating the fish that his followers gave him.  Eating bread would have proved his point just as effectively. But with the subsequent revelation that Christ came to reconcile 'all things' there is nothing in the account of the risen Christ eating fish which can justify the dietary practices of omnivores.
 
There is even less ambiguity in the statement of Jesus, 'The Kingdom of God is within you' (Luke 17:21).  Historically, Christians have understood this to mean'correctly'that believers have a relationship with God that ensures them a place in the renewed Creation described in the last chapter of Revelation.  There is, however, more to the statement than that.  Although the authors of the New Testament teach (according to my understanding) that we are justified by faith alone, our faith will express itself in our attempting to establish redemptive relationships in the present world by our obedience to God's commandments.  Most Christians would agree that, regardless of our sincerity, we can only approach obedience to the moral Law as a limit what we never will reach completely in this life.   
  
At this point you might observe'again correctly'that the behavior vegans attempt to display towards all sentient beings is not demanded by the Law of God.  If sin is defined by our breaking a commandment of God, therefore, it follows that killing an animal is not a sin.  For me, however, and I suspect for many Christians who either are vegans or who are considering that lifestyle, the significant question is not, 'Am I sinning if I kill an animal, or allow it to be killed on my behalf?' but rather, 'Is the deprivation and the suffering I create by such behavior a rejection of the perfect peace that all creatures will share when the world finally is made new by the power of God?'  If veganism has nothing to do with Christian morals, it unequivocally has something to do with Christian ethics.  Doing our best to be reconciled with all sentient beings in the present world is an important way for us to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is in us, now.
 
 
VII
 
One might wonder:  'If the vegan lifestyle is consistent with Christianity inasmuch as it exemplifies the relationships that will exist among all creatures in the coming Kingdom, if it is a major way for us to show that the Kingdom is 'in us' even now, why has it not been more prominent among believers?'  The history of God's people shows that they never are on their best behavior before God.  Never.  Think of how often the Biblical prophets needed to remind the Israelites of their calling, and how often Jesus corrected the misapprehensions of his closest followers.  Most of the New Testament letters were written to deal with believers' variances from the Apostolic teachings.   And the church continues to address selected issues in its attempts to keep believers faithful to the divine standards. . . .  If the Church has been so busy ministering to the human species that it has overlooked its responsibility to the rest of Creation, that is one of many ways that its mission is being truncated.
 
Nevertheless, there always has been a remnant within the Church who, for theological reasons often akin to those I have mentioned in this paper, have adopted the cruelty-free lifestyle, beginning with Fathers such as Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Jerome. . . .  The propriety of their behavior in this matter seems never to have been challenged.  That more believers did not follow their example is due, in part, to the increasing secularization of the Church following Constantine's Edict of Toleration in 313 AD.  Another factor during that period was doctrinal controversies, which resulted in orthodox beliefs but often also, ironically, in unorthodox behaviors.  
 
The Church has taken four millennia to make substantial progress in overcoming racism.  It would not be surprising if it would require the same length of time to condemn the horrors of speciesism.  It is a tragic judgment on the Church that other religions have more reverence for the totality of life than do the rank and file of Christians, especially since a case for such reverence can be made from the documents that the Church holds as authoritative.  But this is not the first occasion when God has tried to discipline his people by unlikely means.  
 
Again, here are the words of Paul, that 'it pleased the Father that in Christ all the fullness of God should dwell bodily, to reconcile to himself all things, whether in heaven or on earth, making peace by the blood of his cross. . . .  God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us, but committing to us the ministry of reconciliation.'  If the Kingdom of God is in us now, as Jesus affirmed it is, we mock that Kingdom by not doing our best to be agents of reconciliation in all our relationships.  It is not irrational for one to posit that the cruelty-free lifestyle, including veganism, is more than consistent with our faith; it is an integral part of our fulfilling the Christian mission.
 
 
Johnstown, Pa., 17 May 2011 

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