Christianity and Vegetarianism
by Rondi Elliott, ellio009@mc.duke.edu

Spiritual and Religious Traditions vis-a-vis Vegetarianism

It had long been an enigma to me as a Christian why my family and my church could be so compassionate toward humans, and yet support societal norms which visibly contributed to animal suffering. I never heard anything to indicate that the way we regard our non-human brothers and sisters deserved a compassionate look. So when I began to study theology, I hoped that I would find in the scriptures confirmation for my vegetarianism and animal rights activism. I was not disappointed, and I also found contemporary theologians with supporting theses. I would like to share with my fellow TVSers some things that may help you to understand how vegetarianism and compassion to non-human animals is in fact confirmed, not negated, by themes that thread their way in Judeo-Christian teaching.

The Old Testament is very specific when it comes to what "God said" that we should eat. In the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis I, there is a clear mandate in 1:29: "Behold, I have given you every tree with seed in its fruit; this you shall have for food." This was God's intent in the Garden of Eden, but, humans being imperfect, things changed. It would seem that later, after the flood, God gives permission to Noah and his descendants to eat flesh: "every moving thing ... shall be food for you. As I gave you green plants, I now give you everything." How could God say that? But if we read on, "for the shedding of lifeblood, I will surely require a reckoning" (Genesis 9:2-5). What seems to be the point is that if we unnecessarily kill an animal, we will be accountable to our Creator. Of course, we now know that eating flesh is by no means necessary for human health; in fact, there is much evidence that it is, in fact, unhealthy to stray from a plant-based diet!

In the New Testament, Jesus did not give clear directives about diet, but neither did He give guidance about many other important issues. Since Jesus seemed so often to speak obliquely, we are challenged to study not so much the specific words, but the themes often repeated in His teachings. Prominent among these are repentance, the kingdom of God, loving one's neighbor, and "becoming as servant to the least".

Undoubtedly, we must repent for centuries of animal abuse. In the kingdom of God, non-violence to humans and animals will prevail. DNA research confirms that animals are indeed our neighbors, and who could be the least among us than those who have no voice (that we can understand)? It also seems significant that Christ, in His dying, became known as "The Paschal Lamb." Then, the ritual Jewish meal always contained a dead animal - a Paschal (Passover) lamb. Isn't it interesting that Jesus gave us bread and wine -- grain and fruit -- to eat thenceforth in remembrance of Him?

I know that mainstream western religions seem slow to embrace the non-violent lifestyle which we vegetarians try to live. But we must be cognizant that the churches move slowly because they take seriously their important role as the guardians of tradition. As seminaries graduate more and more scholars researching environmental and animal-related issues, I believe we will see change. Treating animals compassionately (and this includes not eating them) certainly seems consistent with the will of God for ALL of His created beings.

From The Gospel of the Holy Twelve, trans. by G.J. Ouseley:

"The fruit of the trees and the seeds and of the herbs alone do I partake, and these are changed by the spirit into my flesh and blood. Of these alone and their like shall ye eat who believe in me and are my disciples; for of these, in the spirit, come life and health and healing unto man."

"Not by shedding innocent blood, but by living a righteous life shall ye find the peace of God .... Blessed are they who keep this law; for God is manifested in all creatures. All creatures live in God, and God is hid in them..."

{SIDEBAR} Spiritual and Religious Traditions vis-a-vis Vegetarianism

In future Grapevine issues, we will explore the relationship of religions like Jainism and Buddhism to vegetarianism. We have a potluck scheduled this fall with the Jain Study Center of NC. In early March, we have a potluck with the Kadampa Tibetan Buddhist Center; Dr. Robbie Watkins, Center Director, offers this introduction:

Kadampa Center is an organization devoted to the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism as taught in the Gelugpa tradition. We are part of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a worldwide organization of over eighty city and retreat centers, monasteries, publishing houses, hospices, and healing centers. We sponsor a full spiritual program, including visiting teachers from around the world, biweekly meditation and discussion sessions, and regular retreats. As in all Buddhist traditions, we place tremendous emphasis on the development of compassion for all living beings, and are interested both in making compassion a real force in our lives, and having our actions be a reflection of this compassion.