Should Christians Be Vegan?

by David Clough

Why might Christians consider going vegan? There are four reasons that overlap with the reasons anyone else might give: concern for the environment, concern for animals, concern for human welfare, and the desire to adopt a more healthy diet. In addition, Christians might be inspired by long religious traditions of fasting from meat and other animal products. I’ll consider these reasons in turn below. Let’s start, though, with something more fundamental: why a Christian understanding of God and the world might provide specific motivation for going vegan.

Christians believe in that everything in the universe owes its existence to God. That’s what monotheism means: the God Christians worship is not just their God, or even the God of all humans, but the God of all creatures. Biblical texts celebrate the God who made all creatures and declared them good (Genesis 1), who made a world in which every creature has its own place (Psalm 104), who has compassion on and provides for every living thing (Psalm 145), and who in Jesus Christ acts to release the whole of creation from its groaning bondage (Romans 8) and to gather up and make peace between all things in heaven and earth (Colossians 1.20; Ephesians 1.10). Jesus reassured his followers by reminding them that not a single sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight (Luke 12.6). John describes God’s son coming to the earth because of God’s love for the world (John 3.16). God’s delight in and care for all God’s creatures means Christians have reason to delight in and care for them too, especially as humans are called to be images of God. Seeing the whole world as charged with God’s grandeur, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, is a fundamental aspect of a Christian vision of the world.

So Christians recognize the universe and all creatures in it as belonging to God, beloved by God, and cared for by God. Why might that make a difference for how they eat? Let’s return to the five reasons I noted above.

First, Christians might move towards a vegan diet in order to care for God's creation, the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions from a huge expansion in raising livestock is a significant cause of the climate catastrophe we are bringing about, which will have a devastating impact on humans and other animals. Reducing consumption of animal products is one of the quickest ways to reduce our carbon footprint. Industrial animal agriculture causes local environmental problems, too. Big intensive pig farms with their huge lagoons of excrement are horrible to live nearby, and so are disproportionately likely to be placed near poor communities, making their lives miserable.

Second, Christians might become vegan in order to enable fellow creatures to flourish, to praise God each in their particular way. The vast majority of farmed animals are raised in industrial systems that subject them to unnecessary suffering and impoverished lives in which they cannot thrive and glorify God. Most fish now come from intensive farmed environments, or if wild-caught, are subjected to unsustainable fishing practices and long drawn-out deaths. The large-scale production of dairy and eggs entails killing male animals surplus to requirements and female animals once their productivity declines. These are powerful reasons for adopting a vegan diet, rather than just a vegetarian one. Current production levels of animals for consumption inhibit the flourishing of wild animals as well as domesticated animals. By 2000, the biomass of domesticated animals exceeded that of all wild land mammals by 24 times. The biomass of domesticated chickens alone is nearly three times that of all wild birds. These shocking statistics show that humans are monopolizing the productive capacity of the earth in a way that leaves very little space for wild animals at all, which is part of what is driving their mass extinction.

Third, Christians might shift to a vegan diet in order to save the lives of fellow human creatures. The livestock industry threatens human food and water security, and those already suffering from deprivation are at greatest risk. Christians are explicitly directed to care for those with the greatest needs and the least resources. Currently, over a third of global cereal output goes to farmed animals and humans eating the animals receive only 8% of the calories that would be available if humans ate the cereals directly. Animal agriculture is also a very significant consumer of scarce global water supplies: producing 1 kg of beef requires 10 to 20 times the water required by producing the same calories from plant-based sources. While a vegan diet is not immediately practical in every part of the world (for Siberian pastoralists reliant on reindeer herds, for example), it is very clear that the global human population, as well as animals and the environment, would benefit from a transition towards using plant-based foods wherever possible.

Fourth, Christians might adopt a vegan diet in order to sustain the health and well-being of their families, friends, neighbours, and wider society. The unprecedentedly high levels of meat and other animal products consumed in developed nations directly damages human health (increased incidence of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and strokes). In addition, intensive farming practices contribute to both the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains and the risk of pandemics from zoonotic diseases such as swine and bird flu.

Finally, many Christians will be inspired by the long Christian traditions of fasting from meat and other animal products, on Fridays, during Lent, and at other times. Many Coptic Christians today observe fasts imposing a vegan diet for two-thirds of the year. The practice of not eating animal products can be understood as part of a penitential practice that redirects one’s focus away from selfish pleasure and towards God. Such traditions remind Christians of the limits that come with recognizing God as creator: animals belong to God, so humans must treat them with respect and can’t do whatever we want with them.

Christians often note arguments against vegetarianism or veganism, but these concerns do not end the conversation. Genesis 1 identifies human beings as uniquely images of God and grants them dominion over other animals, but the end of the chapter prescribes a vegan diet for humans, so this original dominion does not include permission to kill animals for food. In Genesis 9, following the flood, God allows humans to kill animals for food, but this does not justify modern patterns of raising animals in industrial systems in ways that are so clearly damaging for humans, animals, and the wider environment. Gospel accounts record Jesus as eating fish and offering fish to others (although, interestingly, he is not recorded as eating mammals or poultry), but whatever his practice, it does not justify eating the products of modern industrial animal agriculture. Some of these concerns suggest that would be implausible to claim that a vegan diet should be an absolute obligation for all Christians. They do not show that it is inappropriate to adopt a vegan diet as a response to the broad concerns noted above that relate to the modern context of raising animals for food where there are readily available alternative sources of nutrition.

It is important to note that veganism in a Christian context should never be presented as a moral utopia. Christians recognize a brokenness in our relationships with fellow creatures which cannot be overcome by adopting a particular dietary practice or by any other effort we can make. Vegan Christians should not make claims to moral superiority: they are sinners like everyone else. They are simply seeking to act as responsibly as they can in this aspect of the choices they make about what to eat. They should hope to learn from fellow Christians about better ways of living in other areas of their lives, just as they may hope that fellow Christians may be open to learning from their practice.

Concern for fellow humans, fellow animal creatures, and the environment are obligations for Christians, and so the impacts of modern industrialized animal agriculture should trouble all Christians. It’s important to realize that farmers are not the villains here: farmers are often pressured into systems of poor farmed animal welfare because of the popular desire for cheap animal products and the retailers' power to determine pricing for their own advantage. A Christian vision of delighting in God’s world and living responsibly among the fellow creatures God loves will be an inspiration to many Christians either to adopt a vegan diet, or to move in that direction by reducing their consumption of animal products and seeking out animal products raised to higher welfare standards than those offered within industrialized systems.

This article was originally posted on The Vegan Society’s website.

Undoing Domination, a Sermon

Sermon written and delivered by Michael Anthony Howard at Stanley Congregational Church, Chatham, NJ on July 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission. Listen to the sermon audio, download sermon notes, and access the sermon worksheet here.

IMAGE CREDIT: Die gelbe Kuh (The  Yellow Cow ), by Franz Marc (1911) [ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz_Marc-The_Yellow_Cow-1911.jpg ]

IMAGE CREDIT: Die gelbe Kuh (The Yellow Cow), by Franz Marc (1911) [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz_Marc-The_Yellow_Cow-1911.jpg]

The Logic of Domination

There are about 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone. It is amazing when you think about it. The Milky Way isn’t even very big. Every star has an approximate average of 1.6 planets. So, if you do the arithmetic, that’s 650 billion planets. The Earth is home to roughly 2 billion species of life. Some 70 to 90% of those species are bacteria. There might be a total of 40 million insect species. Yet, our science is just in its infancy. Some 10,000 species are discovered each year. To date, only about 1.5 million species have been described, and less than 1% of those are bacteria. Of those two billion species (or 1.5 million species we have named), almost 60 thousand are vertebrates, 5 thousand are mammals, and 350 are primates. Human beings are but one of them.

While the universe has been around for 13.772 billion years, we homo sapiens have only been around some 300,000 years. If my middle school math days serve me well, 13.772 billion minus 300,000 is still 13.772 billion — in other words, we’ve not been around long enough for our history to be within the order of significant digits.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many of us have been taught to think of our place in the world with an outrageous and unjust logic — the universe is ours and it exists for the taking.

But this logic doesn’t just stop with anthropocentrism. Let’s follow this logic down a little further. Of the 7.6 billion human beings on the planet, how many have access to clean drinking water, a healthy diet, good health care, a quality education, a living wage, etc? A little more than half of them are men. Of those 3.8 billion men, how many of us are white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, Christian, American? All of these characteristics are things that I share with most of our national leaders, almost all of our nation’s past presidents, and the richest man on the face of the earth. I find it curious and scary to believe that such a small portion of the world’s population has believed for so long that the world was made for them. But let us not be naïve, most of us humans think the same way about our relationship to the rest of Creation. Domination, see, comes in many forms.

This unjust logic of ours, our model of society, our understanding of the meaning of life, the way human beings have perceived themselves in relation to the rest of Creation — at least for the last four hundred years or so — has almost entirely shaped our way of life. It is hard to disagree with liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, when he described the modern human. Most of us live, he said, as if the most important thing in life is

to accumulate vast amounts of the means of life — material wealth, goods, and services — in order to enjoy our short journey on this planet. In achieving this purpose we are aided by science, which comprehends how the Earth functions, and technology, which acts upon it for human benefit. And this is to be done as speedily as possible. Hence, we strive for maximum profit with minimum investment in the shortest possible period of time. In this type of cultural practice, human beings are regarded as above things, making use of them for their own enjoyment, never as alongside things, members of a larger planetary and cosmic community. The ultimate result, which is only now becoming strikingly visible, is contained in an expression attributed to Gandhi: The Earth is sufficient for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed. [1]

In other words, our basic model for relating with each other — how we know what life is all about — is domination. When we see ourselves as being above rather than alongside, we operate within a framework — a logic — of domination.

The Dominion Argument

At Brookside Church, we’ve been wrestling lately with our ability to own up to the fact the Bible has been used to justify violence. When it comes to our interpretation of the world, our relationship to Creation, the way we think about salvation, and how we understand what it means to follow Jesus, the Bible can be both helpful and problematic. Last week, I pointed out how the gospel’s portray Jesus as skipping over problematic passages when he read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue. That way of reading scripture, which is commonly know as “cherry picking,” I asked us to consider thinking about it as “avoiding landmines.” I argued that if we are not careful with the way we read scripture, we will find that the body of Christ may actually lose body parts.

This morning, I want to draw your attention to a specific biblical landmine. This is one of the most commonly referenced passages when it comes to Creation, justice, and the role of Christianity in the world: Genesis 1. It’s not so much an entire passage or even a verse — really, it’s just one word: dominion.

This entire chapter is a beautiful and poetic description of God’s relationship with Creation. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that when it is read with the intent of asking what our relationship to Creation should be, Christians tend to narrow in on this one word. And this is specifically true when you talk about the relationship between human beings and other non-human animals. God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion…”

Dominion? “Didn’t God set human beings over Creation? Didn’t God give people dominion over animals and doesn’t that mean we can… [kill them, eat them, wear them, cage them, experiment with them, fill in the blank]?”

First off, the word dominion is repeated twice. That must mean it was important to the scribe or scribes that used it. But that should never, ever, trump what God said about Creation at every step along the way, “It is good.” For God to declare these things to be good, especially animal life, even before human beings existed, implies that they are valuable in their own right — that God delights in them. As Jewish scholar, Roberta Kalechofsky points out, “this substantiates the view that animals were regarded as integral subjects in their own right. God’s [expressed] delight in these creations…does not reflect a god who created animal life to be in bondage.” [2]

Carol J. Adams, arguably one of the most important feminist writers today and author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, wrote, “The more the word dominion is broken away from [the context of this poem of beloved relationship in] Genesis 1, the more likely it is that what one is defending is a broken relationship between humans and other animals and the world they inhabit.” [3]

Even more, what is interesting is that while the word radah, which we translate as dominion, is mentioned twice in verse 28, in the very following verse (Genesis 1:29), God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” In other words, whatever dominion humans have been granted over animals, it doesn’t involve eating them. Even more, if we’re going to be using this passage to understand our relationship with Creation, we must be constrained first and foremost by our reverence for the fact that God took delight in what God created. God said, “It is good.”

I mean, think about it.

“It is good,” so we are justified in separating a baby calf from its mother so we can have her milk. “It is good,” so it must be okay for us to cut off the beaks of chickens. “It is good,” so we can feel innocent when we pay someone to rip into their flesh in order to prepare our dinner, knowing that most of us would refuse to spill their blood if we had to do it ourselves. “It is good,” we think, because it is good for us human beings. That is the logic of domination.

If dominion doesn’t mean domination, what then does it mean?

Quoting again from Carol Adams:

It has been said that if kings and queens exercised dominion over their subjects the way human beings do over the other animals, kings and queens would have no subjects. So why is being in God’s image often interpreted in view of power, manipulation, and hegemony instead of compassion, mercy, and emptying unconditional love? We often anthropomorphize God as powerful, fierce, and angry (if not belligerent). When we are lording over others, using power — it is then that we are most likely to assert the image of God. Acts of unconditional love, suspensions of judgment, mercy for the weak, and kindness to animals get associated with a wishy-washy picture of who Jesus was, but are rarely discussed regarding God the Creator. [4]

The Impulse of Jesus

And here we come to the heart of the matter. Most of us have had our imagination of God shaped more by this logic of domination than by the teachings of Jesus. The Christian God as often taught by some Christians is a god of domination. He — and this god is always a he — could more easily be confused with the violent war gods of the Greeks or the Romans than with the teachings of Jesus. What if we approach the question christologically? What if we decided to ask what “dominion” might look like — our relationship to Creation and non-human animals — if we begin our thinking about God and humanity by learning from Jesus?

The central impulse at the heart of Jesus’ teachings was the proclamation of the Reign of God, or what Walter Wink called “God’s Domination-Free Order.” It was the creation of a new community, a new citizenship, based on a shared commitment to doing the will of God. This is what many of us have begun calling “The Beloved Community,” or the “Kin-dom.” Kin-dom, I think, helps point us to the truth that Jesus’ teachings challenge us not to see ourselves above Creation, but as alongside it as kindred earthlings. For followers of Jesus, this kin-dom teaching consisted of a twofold commitment to nonviolence and undoing that logic of domination. Walter Wink called it the Domination System: “An encompassing system characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, patriarchal gender relations, prejudiced racial or ethnic relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them.”
 [5]

Understood in this way, Jesus’ ministry was a radical critique of the logic domination, aimed at bringing healing to Creation by calling people to repentance and helping them discover what it means to be fully human.

The central teaching of the church is based on the idea of the incarnation — that somehow, in Jesus, God was revealed not to be above Creation, but alongside Creation. The central quest for communities of faith today is to recover for ourselves what Jesus unleashed, that original impulse at the heart of his teachings aimed at undoing the old order of domination and bringing about a new order of life and freedom. Only then will the church have what is needed to bring about positive change in people and all Creation.

I pray that this becomes our quest, that hear the voice of our still speaking God and take up our call — to learn to stand alongside Creation as kindred earthlings, following Jesus to undo the logic of domination.
 — Amen

Notes:

[1] Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), p. 2.

[2] Roberta Kalechofsky, “Hierarchy, Kinship, and Responsibility: The Jewish Relationship to the Animal World,” in A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, edited by Paul Waldau and Kimberly Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 97–98. Quoted in Carol J. Adams, “What About Dominion in Genesis?” In A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals (The Peaceable Kingdom Series Book 2) (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), p. 5.

[3] Carol J. Adams, “What About Dominion in Genesis?” p. 5.]

[4] Ibid., p 2.

[5] Walter Wink, The Human Being Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 270.

New Animal Welfare Standards for Organic Meat and Dairy Products Are Withdrawn. Now What?

by Lois Godfrey Wye

On January 19, 2017, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final rule imposing new requirements on suppliers of organic meats and dairy products. The new rule set certain standards for animal care, to “create[] greater consistency in organic livestock and poultry practice standards” and “to assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent and uniform standard.”[1] The effective date of the regulations was repeatedly delayed, however, and on March 13, 2018, the USDA announced it was withdrawing the rule. No new standards for animal care will be required for organic meat or dairy products. Why did the agency change its mind? And what does it mean for us, as Christians who care about how animals in our food supply are treated?

Sprinkles | Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals 

Sprinkles | Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals 

The Rule

First, let’s take a quick look at what the regulations would—and would not—have done. Kitty Block, Acting CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, summarized the requirements this way in her blog, A Humane Nation:

[The regulations] encompassed an array of housing, husbandry, and management standards, standards that consumers expect when they buy organic products. The rule prohibited cruel practices like “tail docking” of cattle and transporting animals too sick or injured to endure the journey. The rule also ensured that animals raised under the standard could not be tightly confined, and it set minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for egg-laying chickens. Importantly, the rule closed a loophole in current regulations that allow large poultry companies to skirt the law and use screened-in porches to satisfy “outdoor access” requirements.[2]

Gene Baur, of Farm Sanctuary, however, points out that even these protections were “minimal,” that many cruel practices would have been permitted, and “and ultimately, animals raised for organic certification, like other animals exploited for food, are treated more like commodities than like living feeling animals . . . The updated organic rule limits some of the abuses routinely endured by farm animals, but it still places commercial interests above ethical considerations.”[3]

What Happened?

So why are these improvements, minimal or otherwise, not going into effect? After the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the new administration wanted to review the rule, so it delayed the implementation date, and took public comment on whether or not the regulations should be withdrawn. Public comments overwhelmingly favored allowing the regulations to go into effect—by a margin of 63,000 comments supporting the rule to 50 comments opposing it[4]—but the USDA determined, after reexamining the statute under which the regulations had been issued, that it did not have legal authority to impose requirements regarding animal care.  Instead, the agency believes its authority is limited to restricting use of chemicals or synthetic substances in feed, nontherapeutic use of medications, and similar activities for organically-produced meats and dairy products. It also believes that the costs and benefits of the regulations had been inaccurately calculated and that the costs of the regulations outweighed the benefits.

In assessing the benefits of the regulation, the agency did not consider benefits to the animals themselves, which it called “speculative.”[5] The issue is addressed only in the context of economic benefits, and the agency observed that “it is uncertain that organic farmers and consumers would see positive impacts from implementation of the OLPP rule. The assertion that the OLPP final rule would result in economic benefits from healthier animals is not supported by information or research linking outdoor access on pasture or vegetation to improved economic outcomes for producers.”[6] Consideration of what may or may not be humane treatment does not appear to have entered into the calculus.

A Christian Response

It is, of course, heartbreaking to lose an opportunity for real improvement in the way at least some of the animals in our food system are treated. But, without debating the correctness of the agency’s decision, what does this mean for us, as Christians who care about animals? 

First, as Christians, we do not have the luxury of giving up hope. Writing this on Holy Saturday, I think of the words of Fr. James Martin, “We are called to the wait of the Christian, which is called hope. It is an active waiting; it knows that, even in the worst of situations, even in the darkest times, God is powerfully at work, even if we cannot see it clearly right now.”[7] Because hope is an “active waiting,” we can and must continue to work for change and to support animal welfare improvements whenever the opportunity presents itself. This is the work of caring for God’s creation and bringing God’s kingdom nearer.

Second, even as we continue to work for institutional change to benefit animals, both the rule and its roll back underscore the limitations of that process. As Gene Baur explained, the rule “still place[d] commercial interests above ethical considerations,” and the animals were still seen as commodities rather than living beings. While the rule would have meant definite improvement for some animals in the food system, they were limited changes for a limited number of animals. We cannot depend on Caesar to implement our ethics for us. Many organic farmers who supported this rule did so because of consumer demand for a reliable organic label that would provide assurance of certain standards.[8] This is a testament to the importance of personal choices in driving change. Our choices and our behavior matter—not just to us, but to those around us. We need to live our ethics. 

If we choose to eat meat or dairy products, we have to do the research to find suppliers who meet our ethical requirements. That means we need to know what food labels really mean—which can be a challenge, because they are often misleading.[9] It also means we need to look past the labels to find out whatever we can about the brand. We are responsible for our choices, and we cannot pass the implications of our actions on others.[10] 

It also means that—whether we choose to eat meat and dairy products or not—we have an opportunity for education. We can make sure that people who do so choose are aware that “organic” does not mean “humane,” and if they are concerned about animal welfare, they, too, need to understand labels and suppliers. There is a great deal of misunderstanding among consumers, and if we have lost an opportunity to see some industry-wide standards implemented and clarity in labeling, we have not lost the opportunity to continue to speak out to our friends, our families, and others to help them understand what labels mean—and what they do not mean. 

For Christians, loss is never defeat, and as we live in hope and gratitude, we will continue to seek ways to bring the Kingdom nearer.   

Cropped photo - me at WARL event.jpg

Lois Godfrey Wye has a Masters Degree in the Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary, where her studies focused on the intersection of animal welfare and Christian theology. She is an environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the Board of Directors of the Humane Rescue Alliance. She blogs (occasionally) at Dominion In The Image of God

References

[1] 82 Federal Register 7042 (Jan 19, 2017).  

[2] A Humane Nation, March 13, 2018.

[3] Farm Sanctuary, Compassionate Communities Campaign, Modest Organic Farm Animal Welfare Standards Draw Ire of Agribusiness, undated, https://ccc.farmsanctuary.org/organic-standards-draw-ire/.

[4] 83 Federal Register 10775 (March 13, 2018)

[5] 83 Federal Register 10779.  https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2018-05029/p-56

[6] Id.

[7] Father James Martin: Holy Saturday Teaches Us The Right Way to Wait, America, The Jesuit Review, April 15, 2017, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/04/15/father-james-martin-holy-saturday-teaches-christians-right-way-wait.

[8] 83 Federal Register 10779.

[9] The Animal Welfare Institute has this helpful guide.

[10] There is a confession of sin used in the Episcopal Church which asks forgiveness for “the evil done on our behalf.” Enriching our Worship, p. 56.  Reprinted here. https://www.facebook.com/stcolumbasmaine/posts/499669426761028 I cannot say this without thinking of animals on factory farms, fur farms, in labs or circuses, or other places so terrible for them for the supposed benefit of humans. 

Objections to a Christian Food Ethic Treating the Consumption of Animals

The following is an excerpt of a paper ("Consuming Animal Creatures: The Christian Ethics of Eating Animals") written and given by David Clough at the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics annual meeting and published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics. Read the full article

by David Clough

David Clough

David Clough

We are rightly sceptical about ethical arguments for radical positions, so before presenting arguments in favour of my position, let me consider three potentially fatal points that would quickly defeat the argument I am seeking to develop.

First, it seems unlikely that the vast majority of Christians today and in past generations could be in error in failing to recognise that their faith required abstention from most animal products. There is a strong and plausible argument from conservatism that should make us pause before accepting this judgement, and a parallel requirement on anyone advancing such a claim to provide an error theory explaining how things could have come to such a pass. My explanation for this is that the ways in which farmed animals are raised has changed radically and Christians, together with others, have been inattentive to these changes. I was shocked when I first came across the claim, not so long ago, that the first large-scale rearing of farmed animals exclusively for meat was in England in the late eighteenth century: up to that point meat was largely a by-product of keeping animals for other reasons, such as milk, eggs and wool. Meat was a cash-crop made possible by the Highland clearances in Scotland and the enclosures in England, displacing the largely arable agriculture of the poor, and, as Percy Bysshe Shelley noted in 1813, causing wastage of food productivity ‘absolutely incapable of calculation’.(1) The intensification of farmed animal production has developed over the past two hundred years since, but accelerated rapidly from the mid-twentieth century. Most farmed animals are now raised in ways that would be unrecognisable in comparison to conditions only a few decades ago. Broiler hens are a particularly extreme example: bred through intricate multi-generational programmes to reach slaughter weight at only 35 days old, their young legs unfit to support their unwieldy bodies, living the entirety of their lives in warehouses with artificial night and day, automated feeding and climate control, with human interaction restricted to a daily patrol to remove the dead, and finally stuffing them into crates for transport to slaughter. I still remember the experience of holding a straggly 16 day old hen in the midst of a huge broiler shed, surrounded by 26,000 of its fellows, with 23 similar sheds nearby, filled with the 600,000 birds that had been delivered together as day-old chicks two weeks previously. I had the strong sense that these animals were not being treated as animals, but as a crop, grown for harvest. The hen I held had only just lost its fluffy yellow chick feathers, yet was nearly halfway through its life. Pigs fare little better: most are also raised indoors in crowded conditions where farmers often resort to cutting off their tails to reduce the injuries from aggression and boredom that such intelligent and socially complex animals experience in such a monotonous environment.

Organic, free-range, family run chicken farm. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Organic, free-range, family run chicken farm. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

My point is that most of what now generates the need for radical changes in the Christian ethics of consuming animals is radical changes in farmed animal practice—changes which the farming industry has understandably not been active in publicising to consumers, and of which most consumers have therefore been unaware.

Therefore, the act of eating chicken today is different ethically from the act of our grandparents eating chicken, which they did much less frequently because before the invention of broiler hens chicken was a luxury compared with cheaper alternatives such as beef.(2) My position does not imply a retrospective judgement that our grandparents were wrong in eating farmed animals, but that the nature of the industry now is that we almost always are. It is also helpful to note that my position is also not a retrospective judgement in relation to what Jesus ate, which is commonly raised in discussions of Christian vegetarianism. Animals were not raised intensively in first-century Palestine, so my argument that intensively raised farmed animals should be off the table for Christians do not apply to Jesus’ dietary choices. In summary, I am arguing that the primary reason most Christians have not recognised the ethical problems associated with eating animal products is that farmed animal practice has changed comparatively recently and we have failed to attend to and appreciate the ethical implications of this change.

Rescued rooster. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Rescued rooster. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

A second potential way of defeating my argument that Christians should not consume products derived from farmed animals that have not been allowed to flourish as fellow creatures of God begins from New Testament teaching. ‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Mk 7:18-19). These scatological words of Jesus recorded by Mark and echoed by Matthew (Mt. 15:11, 16) seem to short-circuit any Christian food ethics, especially as Mark adds the parenthesis that in saying this Jesus declared all foods clean. Other New Testament passages echo this license to eat freely: Jesus allows his disciples to pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath and eat them (Mk 2:23- 24 and par.); Paul states that only those weak in conscience are concerned about eating meat offered to idols, and states that eating or not eating is irrelevant to our relationship to God (1 Cor. 8:4-8; cf. Rom. 14:2); and Peter receives a shocking vision in which he is told to kill and eat all kinds of animals, because God has made them all clean (Acts 10:9- 16). Clearly, the very particular context of early Christian communities negotiating their relationship with Jewish food practices is a crucial background here, and is inappropriate to determine Christian food ethics entirely within this context, but the texts do not encourage Christian attention to the ethics of eating. Given this early history, it is surprising that Christian monastic movements so often made stringent dietary demands of their members, and that traditions of fasting became so widespread, but the Reformation questioned this practice, with Luther reemphasising Paul’s position that neither eating nor fasting counts for anything,(3) and much more recently in 1966 Roman Catholic fasting requirements were relaxed.(4) All this seems an unpromising context for Christian attention to the ethics of what we eat.

What we consume, including what we take in through our mouths, has obvious and problematic impacts on other humans, on non-human animals, and on the wider environment.

Yet what we eat is of very clear and direct relevance for Christian ethics, as captured memorably in the title of Ron Sider’s 1978 book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.(5) What we consume, including what we take in through our mouths, has obvious and problematic impacts on other humans, on non-human animals, and on the wider environment. To take one example: we currently devote 78 per cent of all agricultural land to raising farmed animals, and feed more than one third of global cereal output to those animals.(6) Philosophers and theologians from Plato onwards have noted that raising animals for meat is an inefficient use of land, and it is abundantly clear that fewer people would go hungry and thirsty if the land were used to grow crops instead, where this is possible.(7) We may disagree about the ethical implications of this observation, but we cannot reasonably use the biblical passages cited above to deny its relevance for Christian ethics.

As the growing literature in this area confirms, twenty-first-century Christian ethics cannot therefore afford to leave food ethics beyond its range of concerns.(8) There is nothing wrong in eating an apple as such, but if food is scarce and eating it would be to take more than our share, then the decision to take and eat it is obviously an ethical one. Similarly, if the apple has been produced under conditions that fail to provide adequately for agricultural workers, or using pesticides that poison sources of water, or do other unwarranted damage to other animals or the environment, this wider context makes the decision to purchase and consume it relevant to ethics. In a Christian context what we eat is an ethical question because of the implications of our consumption for fellow creatures of God. This is the basis for a Christian ethics of food.

On dairy and veal farms, babies like this one are taken from their mothers within hours of birth and placed alone into small crates. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

On dairy and veal farms, babies like this one are taken from their mothers within hours of birth and placed alone into small crates. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

In this article, I want to focus on a particular part of this issue: the ethics of consuming animal products. Here we encounter a third possible defeater to the argument I announced. You may agree that Christian food ethics should properly take account of the implications of our consumption for our human neighbours, but deny that we should be concerned about the impacts on other animals. There are good theological foundations for such a lack of concern for animals. In Augustine’s discussion of the Decalogue prohibition of murder in The City of God, he notes that some people have said that the prohibition of killing should be extended to beasts and cattle, but that this would lead to a reductio ad absurdam because if it is unlawful to kill animals, why not plants as well? To avoid involving ‘ourselves in the foul error of the Manichees’, Augustine draws on the Greek idea of the soul as threefold: plants have a nutritive soul, animals have a sensitive soul in addition, but humans uniquely have a rational soul. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not refer to plants because they are not sensitive, and does not refer to animals because they have no society with us in reason, he argues, and because God has ordained that their deaths and lives may justly serve our use.(9) When Aquinas considers whether it is permissible to kill any living thing in the Summa theologica, he cites Augustine’s argument about animals being irrational, and adds Aristotle’s view in the Politics that plants were created for the sake of animals and animals for the sake of human beings.(10) Aquinas draws on Aristotle to argue that, just as some human races are ‘intended by nature for slavery’ so that it is just to go to war to enslave them, so we can see animals as naturally enslaved for the use of others.(11) Elsewhere in the Summa, Aquinas argues that animals are excluded from consideration in relation to both justice and charity.(12)

Christians have biblical and theological grounds for recognising animal creatures as different from plants, and these differences have implications for how we treat them

Let us agree to agree with Augustine and Aquinas that the Decalogue does not prohibit killing animals, and agree to disagree absolutely with Aristotle and Aquinas in their view that there are humans who are naturally ordered to be slaves to others. What should we make of the argumentation between these two points? First, while Augustine is right that killing animals is not prohibited here, he is wrong that we have no way of recognising the difference between killing animals and plants. As we shall see below, Christians have biblical and theological grounds for recognising animal creatures as different from plants, and these differences have implications for how we treat them. Our rejection of Aquinas’s analogy from races naturally destined to be slaves ought to lead us to question the analogous Aristotelian logic that plants were created for animals and animals for humans. Genesis 1, notably, provides no basis for such a claim: the creatures of each day are declared good in themselves without reference to their utility to any other creatures.(13) Genesis 1 gives humans dominion over other animals, but its specification of plants as food both for animals and humans suggests that this dominion does not include the taking of their lives, and the peaceable coexistence of humans with the animals in Genesis 2 strengthens the case for a dominion that does not involve killing. After the fateful events of Genesis 3, and after the flood God causes in eventual response, God gives permission for the first time for humans to eat other animals provided they do not consume their lifeblood (Gen. 9.3-4), but we might well follow Luther and many other theologians in interpreting this as a departure from the ideal of Genesis 1, especially in the light of prophetic visions of an end to animal sacrifice and the Messianic reign bringing peace between humans and animals, and Paul’s anticipation of the whole creation freed from its groaning bondage.(14) We should also question Augustine’s use of the criterion of reason to identify creatures we may and may not kill: there are human beings not capable of reason whom we rightly wish to protect, and we need to recognise that the abundant examples of animal reasoning offered in contemporary animal studies—such as the politicking of chimpanzees, the abstract logic of parrots, the innovative tool-fashioning of crows, and the ability of dolphins to parse grammar, to take a few of myriad possible examples—mean the Greek idea of a binary divide between humans and other animals on the basis of rationality is unsustainable.(15) The early fourteenth-century English commentary on the Ten Commandments, Dives and Pauper, seems preferable to Augustine and Aquinas’s discussions at this point. It notes that Genesis 9 must mean animals are excluded from the Decalogue prohibition on killing, but interprets not consuming animals with their blood as prohibiting cruelty, ‘For God that made all has care of all, and he shall take vengeance on all that misuse his creatures’.(16) Karl Barth, influenced by Albert Schweitzer’s vision of reverence for all life, recognised the serious ethical attention Christians need to give to fellow animal creatures, stating that animals belong to God, not to human beings, and that therefore any human treatment of other animals must be ‘careful, considerate, friendly and above all understanding’.(17) While Barth considers that this could include killing other animals for food, he judges that such killing could only be obedience to God where it is done under the pressure of necessity. Otherwise, Barth comments strikingly, such killing is nothing less than murder.(18) Augustine, Aquinas, the author of Dives and Pauper, and Barth are right to recognise that Genesis 9 is a strong argument against the idea that vegetarianism is a universal requirement for Christians, but their positions do not indicate that animals are of no moral account, and we are clearly not necessarily guilty of the ‘foul error of the Manichees’ in considering that Christians might have faith-based reasons to be concerned about their treatment of animals.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals

My judgement, then, is that there are no convincing fundamental objections to a Christian ethics of food, nor to thinking Christianly about the ethics of eating animals in particular. I will return to some more specific objections to my argument below, but in the next section I proceed with my positive argument for the position that Christians have strong faith-based reasons to avoid consuming animal products derived from animals that have not been allowed to flourish as fellow creatures of God.

You can read the full article by following this link. 

Footnotes:

1. Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006), p. 403; Shelley’s A Vindication of Natural Diet quoted by Stuart, pp. 405–406.

2. A. Godley and B. Williams, Democratizing Luxury and the Contentious ‘Invention of the Technological Chicken’in Britain, Business History Review (Reading: Centre for Institutional Performance, University of Reading, 2009), p. 1.

3. See, for example, Luther’s commentary on Gal. 6:15 in Lectures on Galations (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, eds Helmut T. Lehmann, and Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), vol. 27, p. 138).

4. In Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini he allowed local bishops to replace Friday fasts from meat with other forms of penance. Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini: On Fast and Abstinence (Rome: Vatican, 1966), ch. III.

5. Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997 [1978]).

6. David Clough, On Animals: Vol. II. Theological Ethics (London: T & T Clark/Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2017), ch. 2.

7. Stuart, Bloodless Revolution, p. 402, citing Plato’s Republic, 373d; Clough, On Animals II, ch. 2.

8. See, for example, Stephen H. Webb, Good Eating, The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001); Rachel Muers and David Grumett (eds), Eating and Believing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology (London: T   & T Clark, 2008); L. Shannon Jung, Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004); Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

9. Saint Augustine, The City of God, ed. R. V. G. Tasker, trans. John Healey (London: Dent & Sons, 1945), I.19.

10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Blackfriars, 1963), II-II, 64.1, citing Aristotle, Politics, trans. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998), I.8, 1256b.

11. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, 64.1.

12. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.2, qu. 102, a. 6; Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2.2, qu. 25, a. 3. It is important to note that there are other much more positive dimensions of Aquinas’s thought for engaging theologically with animals. For discussion of these, see Judith A. Barad, Aquinas on the Nature and Treatment of Animals (San Francisco, CA and London: International Scholars, 1995) and John Berkman, ‘Towards a Thomistic Theology of Animality’, in Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough (eds), Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals (London: SCM, 2009).

13. Gen. 1:4a, 10b, 12b, 18b, 21b, 25b.

14.  Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1–5, Luther’s Works, vol. I, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1958), p. 36; Isa. 1:11; 66:3; 11:6-9; 65:25-26; Rom. 8.19-22.

15. David Clough, On Animals: Vol. I. Systematic Theology (London: T & T Clark/Continuum, 2012), pp. 30, 69–70.

16. Priscilla Heath Barnum (ed.), Dives and Pauper (Oxford: Early English Text Society/Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 35 (my rendition in modern English).

17.  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. III/4, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. A. T. MacKay et al. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), p. 352.

18.  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4., pp. 354–55. As noted above, I am not arguing in this article for Christian vegetarianism or veganism, but Barth’s argument here seems to be the most promising starting point for such an argument, given that for most humans today, killing animals is not necessary to gain adequate nutrition.

CreatureKind First Christian Organization to Endorse "Prevent Cruelty California"

A coalition of animal protection organizations, veterinarians, and family farmers have come together in California to attempt to place a measure on the November 2018 ballot that would ban the sale of animal products in the state that were produced using intensive confinement. If the measure is brought to the ballot and passed, it would mean that hens who produce eggs sold in California would have one square foot of space (at least). And the sale of pig and cow flesh from animals who were kept in gestation or veal crates would be prohibited. 

CreatureKind was proud to be the first Christian organization to endorse this important effort. 

Of course, animal welfare reform can't stop at the cage door. Even optimal welfare farming has its shortfalls. 

But it seems clear to us that there's no room for battery cages, gestation crates, and veal crates in the good stewardship of God's creation. 

If you'd like to learn more about Prevent Cruelty California, please visit the coalition website: https://preventcrueltyca.com/

Prevent Cruelty California.png