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Christianity and Vegetarianism

Christianity and the animal kingdom have not enjoyed a very good relationship over the centuries. In fact the majority of Christian thinking in this area has lead to the infliction of much suffering on animals to this day. In this article I intend to put my own perspectives on the moral reasons why Christianity and the care for animals should go hand in hand. What I understand today is the synthesis of all my readings on, and experiences of this magnificent animal Kingdom. I believe it is imperative that Christianity enlarge its understanding of service to include service to all of Creation and not just the human race. Acknowledgement of the biblical links to compassion for animals would, I hope, go a long way to achieving a mood of service towards animals among Christians that has been mostly lacking throughout its history. This issue has been chosen above many other valid violations of rights in the world for two main reasons. Firstly, the number of animals suffering from human violence is staggering - in 2003 the number of animals killed in the USA for food exceeded 10 billion animals. Secondly, The extent of the suffering and violence these animals have to endure is barbaric. Those who doubt this, I would encourage to visit the killing floor of a slaughterhouse, a battery chicken or pig farm or take a ride on a train/truck/ship transporting the animals to their death. The abuse is massive and barbaric, it pervades our society yet in general is hidden from our view. The good news is that an effective means of opposing much of this violence is very simple and legal - it is in the power of our weekly shopping.

In the biblical story of creation, whatever God created he/she pronounced as good. The animals and man were created on the same day and God gave all creatures a vegetarian diet - “All green plants I give for food to the wild animals, to all the birds of the air and to ... every living creature.” (Gen 1. 30). Humans were singled out for special status as the caretaker of God’s Kingdom - to have dominion over a creation that had been made and pronounced good. Humankind was forbidden to kill the animals for food in light of the diet that was given in Genesis 1:29 - “Throughout the earth I give you all plants that bear seed and every tree that bears fruit with seed: they shall be yours for food”. The writers of Genesis was describing a wonderful existence, heaven on earth if you like. There is not a hint of violence among the creatures. The question I would like to ask is how did we get from paradise to a society that supports the massive animal exploitation industry that exists today. Christian theology has justified this terrible industry which includes the rearing of animals in foul-smelling, over-crowded factory farms; the mechanised slaughter of millions of creatures each day for food; crass and cruel experiments on hapless victims and splendid wild beasts having body parts smashed by bullets from the hunter’s gun. The voices of churches, with the exception of a few individuals, have been deafeningly silent on these issues. In fact history shows us that the churches have aided and abetted this massive ungodly violence and it’s associated cruelties.

Let us take a look at the history behind this shameful state of affairs. In the Old Testament, things start to go wrong after the departure from the Garden of Eden. Before too long, wickedness and killing is occurring regularly on earth:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them’ (Gen. 6. 11-14)

The word that strikes me here is violence. In the beginning there was no violence and when violence appears, God would rather put an end to all flesh than to see violence. Here it is clear that our Creator rejects violence. What a contrast to the millions of religionists who involve themselves in violence against humans and/or animals. Yet despite these strong feelings from God, it seems he relents and allows the corrupted world to go on. The Lord goes on to make a huge concession on the dietary regulations of humankind.

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is it’s blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it of man.’ (Gen 9.1-5)

The rub here for the contented Christian/Jewish omnivore is the fact that this concession does not allow the eating of blood. How can you eat any part of an animal without eating any of it’s blood? Actually it is virtually impossible. Andrew Linzey attempts to clarify this strange position:

What was previously forbidden can now - in the circumstances - be allowed. You may kill for food. But you may kill only on the understanding that you remember that the life you kill is not your own. As you kill what is not your own - either animal or human life - so you need to remember that for every life you kill you are personally accountable to God. (Linzey, 128)

So we have Yahweh making concessions to mankind's violent ways, yet the sacredness of life is still held. In fact, Yahweh confirms his/her special relationship with all creatures when in making a covenant with Noah on behalf of all people he/she also includes every living creature in this covenant (Gen 9. 8-18). In fact, Yahweh repeats this covenant six times and the creatures are included every time and god left the rainbow to be a reminder ox the covenant between “myself and the earth”. Unfortunately, humankind continued in its’ violent ways. The Old Testament, from this point on, is littered with examples of people straying from God’s laws and a wrathful God giving orders to massacre whole villages - men, women, children and animals. The temples are set up with laws that required the bloody sacrifice of innocent animals for the atonement of the sins of the people. Is this the same God that created a Garden of Eden, was saddened by the outbreaks of violence that occurred and prohibited killing in the commandments brought down by Moses? I doubt it. It seems that many parts of the Old Testament are written by people who had a need to have a tribal God, a God who would be strongly in favour of them and strongly opposed to other tribes. Yet we can at least say the Old Testament is telling us that by now violence had become commonplace in the Middle East. For the Israelites violence had even been instituted into its laws and customs, supposedly by the same God who was appalled by violence. For the vast majority, the sacredness of all life had been well and truly lost. Yet the view of the ideal Heavenly Kingdom is a reoccurring theme of the Old Testament. A number of biblical writers and the law of Moses talk of compassion for the foreigner, the poor, the widow and love for one’s neighbour. The killing that was now thought to be justifiable in the present age was also seen by biblical writers to be temporary. There would come a time when such killing was unnecessary, the Messianic Age. Isaiah writes of this time of universal peace between all creatures:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11.6-9).

Obviously the world is a long way from this ideal, but one simple thing we can do to help it come about is to adopt a vegetarian diet . The fact that Christians are not prepared to take steps in this direction leads me to think that either they aren’t serious about building a better world or have been profoundly mislead. Christianity has a history of cruelty to both the human and non-human world yet some huge gains have been made in the area of human rights. The animal kingdom has been given the benefit of very little, if any, consideration of rights by the churches and it is worth looking briefly at some of the influences behind this fact. Central figures in Christianity’s formative theology were contemptuous of affording any merciful considerations to God’s non human creatures. St.Augustine, for example, pronounced that since beasts lacked reason, they had no rights and we need not concern ourselves with their suffering. Despite the fact that many Christian saints spoke out for the creatures, the doctrines of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas prevailed. Their ideas, inherited not from the bible but from Greek philosophers, have been termed “teleological anthropocentrism” (Wise, 13) - meaning that everything in nature had only one purpose and that purpose was to be used by humans. Animals were irrational creatures and we had no moral responsibility towards them. These heartless intellectual posits were pursued by Descartes who stated that animals were in fact machines that did not feel pain and that any screams made by an animal whilst a scientist cut open its stomach could be likened to the noise a piece of metal makes when it is struck by a hammer. Descartes views took hold with horrific consequences for animals subjected to experimentation in the new industrial age. A number of courageous individuals opposed this madness such as Voltaire questioning the vivisector:

You discover in it (the creature) all the same organs of feeling that are in yourself. Answer me, machinist, has nature arranged all the means of feeling in this animal so that it may not feel? (Voltaire, quoted in Birch, Eakin and McDaniel,59)

Today we still find the destructive doctrines of Augustine and Aquinas in Christian and scientific circles. The Catholic Dictionary of Moral Theology,1962, confidently proclaims ‘Zoophilists often lose sight of the end for which animals irrational creatures were created by God for the service and use of man... In fact, Catholic moral doctrine teaches that animals have no right on the part of man’. This theology contradicts the Genesis story and has nothing in common with the teachings of Jesus.. Fortunately many theologians are now rejecting this outdated philosophy stolen from the Greeks, but these dangerous ideas are deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.

I will now turn to the issue of Jesus Christ. Christians often raise the point that Jesus was not a vegetarian as a reason for their persistence in eating meat. Andrew Linzey deals comprehensively with this issue in his book Animal Theology. He gives four possible answers to this argument and I will summarise them here.

1) The canonical Gospels are mistaken and have been meddled with to make it seem that Jesus ate meat. However implausible this seems, there has always been a tradition that Jesus did not eat meat. We know that on the issue of divorce Jesus quoted Genesis and stated that the original ideal was the best. It would therefore be inconsistent of him to reject the ideal diet given in Genesis and accept meat-eating in any but exceptional circumstances. Many early Christians were vegetarian such as Saint Peter, Basil the Great, Origen and Tertullian - was Jesus their inspiration?.

2) Jesus was not perfect in every way and got it wrong at times. This view is contrary to Christian doctrine but does have Biblical passages to support it: (“Why do you call me good. No one is good but God alone.” Jesus crying out ‘My God, My God! Why have you deserted me’ implies that Jesus was not seeing clearly at this point in time). 3) The killing of fish is not as morally significant as the killing of animals.

4) There is a place for eating fish if there is a real need for it, possibly in first century Palestine.

I think all of these answers are possible. Yet the argument that I would like to focus on is a simple matter of the human heart. The great Russian author and Christian Leo Tolstoy writes: “It may be suggested by some books that it is not a sin to kill an animal, but it is written in our own hearts - more clearly than in any book - that we should take pity on animals in the same way as we do on humans.” The idea of the Prince of Peace openly defying the commandments of Genesis on humanity’s ideal diet and participating in the bloody slaughter of our Creator’s animals is obviously contradictory. This is not the Jesus that I or Leo Tolstoy know. Jesus would be appalled by appalled by the mechanised factory farming and slaughter industries of the 20th century. It is scandalous that churches don’t think all this suffering (over 10 billion animals were slaughtered for food in the US in 2003) is worth speaking out against and that they continue to patronise this violent industry. Jesus tells us that there should be no end to our doing good, yet the majority of Christians limit Christ’s love and goodness to the human species. James Thompson puts it:

As a priest of the worldwide Anglican communion I openly accuse each one of its branches of falsely portraying the love, mercy and compassion of God by making them far too the leaders of each major denomination I would equally say: ‘You take the God of the Bible and by your theology you shrink Him and His love as only embracing humanity! My God is concerned about the beasts of the field and the birds of the air (Psalm 50:10-11), whereas you have limited His love and all embracing compassion to your own motley species’...So lacking in vital moral issues has Christendom become that it’s not been unknown to tuck into veal at a religious retreat, or crack open battery eggs while an extract from some devotional work or the bible itself is being read. (Quoted in Hall, 17)

James Thomson sums up my experience of modern Christianity’s attitude to animal care and the title of his book says it all: Retreat from Responsibility. What provides me with hope is people like James Thomson and the flexibility of the Christian tradition which has shown that it is prepared to take aboard new understandings of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately these changes occur too slowly for many activists and they take their spiritual passions elsewhere. I admire the courage of the ‘voices in the wilderness’ who speak out on this issue and at this point I will quote some of these people to help encourage anybody who reads this article to gradually take the meat out of their diet:

Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.

Albert Einstein

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 men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men. Saint Francis of Assisi

St Francis is making the link between violence perpetrated on animals and the violence committed by one human being against another. This connection can be found in many traditions, such as the American Indians who warned white man that what happens to the beasts eventually happens to man and the Hindu tradition which pronounces that the killing of animals on a mass scale leads to the inevitability of war. Also, connections are being made in the legal system in the U.S., where it is being found that most people who commit violent crimes against humans have a history of violence or cruelty towards animals.

How much effort it will take for us to get men to understand the words of Jesus, ‘Blessed are the merciful,’ and to bring them to the realisation that their responsibility includes all creatures.

Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.

Albert Schweitzer

People often say that humans have always eaten animals as if this is a justification for continuing the practice. According to this logic, we should not try to prevent people from murdering other people, since this has also been done since the earliest of times.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

We consume the carcasses of creatures of like appetites, passions and organs as our own, and fill the slaughterhouses daily with screams of pain and fear.

Robert Louis Stevenson

I have come to the startling conclusion that a reduction in meat eating may well be the most potent single act we can take to halt the destruction of our environment and preserve our precious natural resources. (Robbins,14)

John Robbins

It is a great delusion to suppose that flesh-meat of any kind is essential to health. Considerably more than three parts of the work in the world is done by men who never taste anything but vegetable, farinaceous food, and that of the simplest kind. There are more strength-producing properties in wholemeal flour, peas, beans, lentils, oatmeal, roots, and other vegetables of the same class, than there are beef or mutton, poultry or fish, or animal food of any description whatever.

Orders and Regulations of the Officers of the Salvation Army. (Quoted in Hall, 35)

Here we find support for the vegetarian diet in an unexpected quarter that wholeheartedly endorses the meatless diet from a nutritional standpoint. It is a fact that the founders of many Christian groups were vegetarian, such as William Booth of the Salvation Army, John Wesley who founded the Methodist Church and Ellen White from the Seventh Day Adventists. It is interesting to note that most members of the ‘Salvos’ today are not even aware that this practice was clearly spelt out by the founder. That the diet of these leaders could be so easily forgotten gives me another reason to speculate that it is possible that Jesus was a vegetarian after all.

St Isaac the Syrian, one of the early Church mystics, is asked the question ‘What is a charitable heart?’ His reply, if taken seriously by Christians would change the planet:

It is a heart which is burning with love for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts...for all creatures. He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes being filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion which seizes his heart; a heart which is softened and can no longer bear to see or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain being inflicted upon a creature. That is why such a man never ceases to pray for the animals....(He is) ... moved by the infinite pity which reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united with God. (Quoted in Linzey, 56)

Father Zossima’s advice in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov shows us the way that we should be in the world if we are to bring the Kingdom of Heaven onto this planet:

Love all God's creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals. Love the plants, love everything. If you love everything you will perceive the divine mystery in things. And once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it ceaselessly more and more every day. And you will come to love the whole world with an abiding, universal love. (Quoted in Linzey, 70)

This perspective is a long way from the Christian view that has for so long predominated. A view that holds that only the human species has any value in the eyes of God, that animals were put here for our use and we need not concern ourselves with their suffering or feel guilt when we are the cause of that suffering. This view which springs from Greek philosophy has been aided by a terribly mistaken interpretation of man’s dominion over the rest of creation as stated in Genesis. The church leaders decided that instead of a dominion of love, compassion, gentleness, encouragement and humility, it would opt for a kingship of cruelty, terror, tyranny and violence. This is in direct contrast to the teachings of Christ, who came as a servant king and taught that the master should be the one who serves. Humans have been commissioned as the servant species, the creature created in the image of God who has the ability to serve the weak, the voiceless, the oppressed and those unprotected by law. We harm our spirituality if we draw the line of our compassion at the human species. Right here and now we can serve the animals by refusing to buy the products of the animal exploitation industry: the slaughter houses and the factory farms which degrade the goodness of God’s creation and make a mockery of Christian compassion.

Unfortunately, this article cannot answer directly every objection to the case I have put forward for Christian vegetarianism. I encourage people who are interested to research this issue further. I must acknowledge my debt to the reverend Andrew Linzey of the Anglican church for helping to clarify my ideas on this subject. It must also be noted that I have not even touched on the health problems and environmental destruction that are caused by the meat industry. This destruction includes massive landclearing, soil loss, incredible water use, pollution of waterways - the list goes on. Roughly 75% of grain and grass foods grown in the USA are fed to stock while around seventy million people around the world will starve in one year. It is my sincere hope that Christianity will move away from it’s unhealthy, destructive anthropocentrism towards a more wholistic view of the beautiful creation. The planet and it’s inhabitants are crying out for loving human beings to restore our torn and hurting world. How much more quickly this will be achieved when this great religion gets in touch with the compassionate roots of it’s teachings.

Works Cited

Birch, C.; Eakin, W.; McDaniel, J. B. Liberating Life New York: Orbis Books, 1991.
Hall, R. Vegetarian Yearbook
Linzey, A. Animal Theology London: SCM Press, 1994.
Robbins, J. Diet for a New World New York: Avon Books, 1992.
Wise,S. M., Rattling the Cage -Toward Legal Rights for Animals New York: Perseus Books, 2000.
Other quotations from the Animal Rights Resource Site:

By Peter Milne(Click for profile) (author. ph. (07) 3411 5244 or

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