Ed. note: The Hebrew and Greek fonts did not reproduce correctly
REFLECTIONS OF A CHRISTIAN VEGAN
By David Blaine Cable, Ph.D.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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