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Vegetarianism and the New Covenant

June 19, 2015

In the summer of 2014 I gave up my life as a carnivore. Vegetarianism has never had much traction for most Christians, including for me. In fact, I always thought vegetarians were a bit odd. But, hey, to each their own—after all, each of us has our own quirks. Nonetheless, in recent times I have come to see the issue more seriously than this—as a matter of holiness and discipleship.

I suspect Christian indifference to vegetarianism has arisen from three biblical texts in particular. First is Genesis 9:3, in which God says to Noah, after the flood, ‘Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as [at creation] I gave you the green plants [for food], I now give you [for food] every being that moves’. In effect, God only permitted eating of the green plants (vegetarianism) before the flood, but permitted carnivorism after the flood. Why God would make this change after the flood? The answer is unclear, but there it is.

Second, in Acts 10 we read the following story: ‘About noon the following day…Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat”’ (NIV).

Third, we have these words from Paul: ‘One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God’ (Romans 14:5-6). This verse certainly gives space for vegetarianism, but it equally gives space for carnivorism.

I’m no longer convinced, however, that the permissibility of unrestricted carnivorism is an appropriate implication of a canonical reading of scripture—that is, scripture in its totality. In fact, I now think there are good scriptural reasons to take vegetarianism seriously.

First, back to Genesis 9. This is conventionally called God’s covenant with Noah, but it is actually God’s covenant with Noah and the animals—‘every living creature’, to be precise. The covenant is this: God promises to never again wipe out virtually all life on Earth. In fact, five times in the chapter God reiterates that this divine covenant is with Noah and the animals. And yet Christians are for the most part completely unaware that God ever made a covenant with the animals. (I only noticed this recently myself.) It seems to me that if God considers the animals worthy of a covenant, then, as God’s stewards and guardians of creation, we should have a covenant with them too. Furthermore, new covenants are part of God’s ways. There are a number of new covenants recorded in the Old Testament, well prior to the New Covenant that comes with Jesus. It seems to me that if new covenants are possible with humans then a new covenant is also possible with the animals. If so, then what would this look like? Perhaps like this: that we refrain from eating them as much as possible, and, where we do eat them, or even cultivate them, that we cause them no suffering, either in how they are raised or killed.

This fits with several parts of scripture. For instance, it fits well with the shape of how Jesus lived the new covenant with people, for this extended not just to ‘spiritual egalitarianism’ (neither Jew nor Greek, etc.) but to pacifism as well. For instance, in the Galilee synagogue, where Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll, he leaves out the role Isaiah gives to God’s vengeance. When tested with money, he said ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’, thereby negating the Maccabean/Zealot tradition of violent resistance to Roman taxation. Various other examples exist in the Gospels of Jesus’ pacifism—at least towards violence that causes injury or death (overturning the moneychanger tables at the temple was certainly violent but it caused no one physical harm). Surely a natural extension of Jesus’ vision for pacifism extends to our stewardship of nature, including how we treat the animals.

Likewise, the vision of Paul and John for a new creation includes by implication—even if they didn’t mention it in their writings—ceasing where possible to kill animals, and certainly to avoid causing them suffering. We see part of this new creation vision as far back as Isaiah 11, the messianic-prophetic text about God’s eschaton-kingdom of peace: ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them’ (often misquoted as ‘the lion will lie down with the lamb’). This passage is held up by Christians as a vision of the future peace and reconciliation at the end of the ages ‘when God wins’. We hold up these three now-vegetarian predators—the wolf, the leopard, and the lion—as symbols of God’s new kingdom precisely because they have given up their animal-killing ways. So why do we hold up these beasts as symbols of God’s new kingdom, yet think that their example doesn’t apply to us? We know this is God’s vision of the new kingdom, so we are in no position to say ‘But it doesn’t apply to me, at least not yet’. It reminds me of Augustine’s comment, ‘Lord make me chaste—but not yet!’ The clear implication of Isaiah 11 is that non-violence towards animals is part of God’s vision for the new kingdom, so there appears no valid reason to hold off living in accordance with this as much as we can.

Is vegetarianism an absolute implication? Certainly not where there are mitigating circumstances—which there certainly can be. For instance, in some environments people do not have access to sufficient vegetation for survival, such as arctic peoples (Inuit, Yupik, Aleuts, and Sami, among others) or desert peoples (Bedouin, Tuareg, and Teda, among others). For such peoples, meat is a necessity. Then there is Peter’s experience in Acts 10, which can be seen as another example of mitigating circumstances, namely God’s desire to eliminate the purity laws. The purity laws were partly for health, and so in this regard were good. Yet they were also partly to demarcate the Jews from Gentiles, a principle which God gets rid of in the New Covenant. When God tells Peter to get up and eat, this is not a command to carnivorism but a command to break down some of the strongest walls in Jewish minds between Jews and Gentiles—their dietary laws. Furthermore, it was a vision, not a reality, so Peter did not actually eat the meat!

Further ethical reasons in favor of vegetarianism arise simply from our own age. Given our massive human population, our carnivore lifestyle is creating huge amounts of pollution—the extent of natural methane production from cows and pigs is now well known, as is the huge amount of energy that goes into their feed and transport, as is the hugely negative-return on calorie investment in raising them. This simply does not count as good stewardship of creation. Furthermore, many of our food production processes are inhumane. Periodically, secret cameras in factory farms show the inhumane treatment of animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. Each time the industry says they will clean themselves up, another such situation comes to public attention some time later. (Even as I write this, yet another Canadian case of factory farm animal-abuse is in the media.) Abusive practices will always happen simply because people are sinful. From another angle, it is well documented that much of the fish we get from South East Asia is produced by slaves kept captive on the fishing boats.

To reduce pollution, to reduce suffering of animals, and to reduce the suffering of exploited people—in short, to reflect God’s kingdom here on earth, God’s healing of the world, and God’s new covenant with creation—Christians should give very serious consideration to vegetarianism. We still follow Paul’s tone of mutual respect in those words quoted earlier:  ‘He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God’. Nonetheless, we can also suggest that scripture seems to have implications in a certain direction—which I would suggest it does when it comes to the stewardship which God has given us of the animal kingdom.

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Vinoth Ramachandra

IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement

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