When veganism took possession of my diet, it seemed like one of the least Christian of the spirits haunting my lifestyle choices. By the time I got around to this particular life challenge, I had already partaken of an assortment of other philosophical traumas, mostly religious in flavor.
I had, for instance, worried a great deal about impoverished sick, starving, and unevangelized people in the unnamed backwaters of the world (but probably in Africa). Buying myself food in restaurants seemed a questionable use of God’s funds. For that matter, did I love my faceless and emaciated global neighbour as myself if I bought garlic powder or oregano to titillate my senses? And what was jelly, but an indulgence of the flesh? One week I attempted to live on peanut butter sandwiches alone. If Christ died for me, the least I could do was give up the jelly of opulence for the sake of others. This quandary and its companions are the subject of another story. I bring it up here in hopes of displaying how God has been redeeming that neurotic thread in my spirituality. Given what came before it, veganism was a relatively easy choice.
I had just moved into a housing co-op, meaning I shared a large house, chores, and dinners with over two dozen new friends. Among these were several earth-loving vegetarians and a vegan philosophy student who cared about animals. I took a weekly slot as house cook, and set into the task of producing that which was both vegan and delectable. My contempt for oregano was a private matter, and had mostly passed after the week of peanut butter and bread.
The vegan was an atheist whose concern for creatures was, like his other leanings, unsentimental, even-handed and vaguely militant. I love philosophical conversation and he didn’t mind bringing in religion. So we enjoyed regular discussions and debates, in which he typically had the upper hand.
He showed me the animal rights propaganda about all the suffering creatures in factory farms. I don’t like such heavy-handed approaches to persuasion, but I saw no good reason not to take the matter seriously. I prayerfully weighed out the ethical piles on each side. On the one hand, in favor of veganism, it seemed our animal farming practices cause extensive suffering. They also produce considerable quantities of greenhouse gases and other insults to the planet. Exchanging meat for beans and their kin would be cheaper (thus playing to my earlier concern for starving Africans) and, I assumed, healthier. The beans would also lead to gaseous insults against the world, but this point failed to enter my ethical calculations.
On the other hand, giving up animal products might be unpleasant, an objection of little to no ethical weight. It also might inconvenience various hosts, friends, and my mother. Being gracious to such people did have ethical weight. But then, if that was all that was keeping me, I could make exceptions in those situations. I cared nothing at all for the notion of dietary purity. Becoming vegan was to be a convenient way of orienting what kind of world I would vote for with my dollars; implications for food intake were incidental. On the whole, then, there wasn’t much of a contest, except for the argument between reason and fleshy inertia, the sense of entitlement to keep habits one enjoys and continue being normal.
This was 2006, before veganism was much of a thing. Yes indeed, I was vegan before vegan was cool. I hasten to point out, however, that in most matters I had (and have) a well-established track record of being a fashion laggard. Typically by the time I gave up wearing some article from my perennially outdated wardrobe, stocked almost entirely by gifts from mom and various older relatives, it was a good sign that whatever it was was about to come back into style. I was in my late 20’s before I went on my first date. But that was partly because I handled that distant, scintillating hope of a relationship with a woman sort of like I treated oregano.
Actually, there was a matter that gave me pause as I considered transition into veganism. I knew only two Christian vegetarians, no Christian vegans, and was kind of being converted to the diet by an atheist, who regarded the Bible as “speciesist”. If this was appropriate for Christians, why was nobody doing it? Did my atheist friend have a leg up on the Holy Spirit? Was my concern for animal welfare properly Christian?
At the time, I reasoned that there at least weren’t Christian reasons not to make the transition, and it fit with my goal of developing thoughtful, authentic relationships with my housemates and being a witness to Christ in that context. And so I dove into the plant-based life. Years later, I learned that there was a stronger biblical case to be made for it than I had imagined.
A Theology of Hopeful Creation Care
A person’s sense of who and what they are is reflected in how they live. In Genesis 1 humans are made in God’s image and told to rule over creation. The language implies we are God’s representatives over creation, meant to rule on God’s behalf. As representative rulers we ought to remember, as in Psalm 145:9, that “The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.”
As I understand Genesis 2, Adam and Eve (humanity) are given the work of priests caring for God’s sacred garden. Humans are to relate to creation in a way that draws out its potential for beauty so as to help each little thing glorify God. I believe this calls for a tender attentiveness to creation which our chicken hordes laying us eggs in our chicken dungeons don’t seem to be receiving.
Judging from Romans 8:19-22, the gospel is good news for the whole created order. God will liberate creation from its bondage to decay. Its status is like a woman groaning in childbirth: creation’s tortured existence is not futile; it bears the hope of new life that is already on its way. So I expect the goodness of the news extends in some way to bored de-beaked chickens, endangered mollusks, and obscure Amazonian bromeliads. Jesus’ resurrection is an achievement having cosmic implications of hope. I’m not sure whether that means God will resurrect the roadkill you pass on your way to work and the spider you squished this morning. But who knows? When the Lord makes everything new, the old order of things will pass away. The way Christians treat creation should show we’re in league with the coming hope.
Theology in Practice: Veganism as Creative Discipleship
I believe Jesus leads the church into some creative space concerning how she engages with the world. Different cultural landscapes call for different moves. As my understanding of the gospel has grown, I’ve perceived a clearer role for veganism as a means of obeying and pointing to Jesus in our context.
We are citizens of heaven on earth. The Christian community is to embody the presence of God’s kingdom, responding to the world’s conditions as God’s salt and light. I am persuaded that much of the darkness in our society, including among Christians, comes in the form of greed and idolatrous hedonism that creep into our lifestyles and ways of thinking. We assume we should milk what we can and spend as we like, as if we were mainly citizens of the mall, devotees of capitalist consumerism rather than Christ. Humans, animals, and ecosystems are all suffering as a result.
As disciples of the Author of Life, we should oppose our society’s destructive patterns of consumption, with creativity and grace. I see veganism as a disciplined way to openly resist the degradation of God’s creation. But the battle is more than saying “no” to worldliness; we should say “yes” to God’s world by artfully celebrating creation. A mean curry is part of my arsenal. Others, such as groups like A Rocha, exhibit Christian care for creation in further ways. Distinctive lifestyles that joyfully affirm and protect God’s creation show off hope for the world. By supplementing our words with such living and the sacrifices it entails we can proclaim God’s victory over sin and death.
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