by James Morrison
James is a relatively recent graduate of the University of Auckland, who admits to an imprudent admiration of St Francis alongside a prodigious capacity for cognitive dissonance. He is currently researching the history of education law in New Zealand while contemplating matching words with deeds.
I am an amateur rather than a scholar of moral theology and the Bible, but I hope that by commenting on the relation of Christianity to veganism or vegetarianism, I can contribute to a more reasoned discussion of this topic than comes from some quarters whose enthusiasm can obscure accuracy.
The first point that I want to make has to do with ‘animal rights’ and ‘animal welfare’. Christianity does not support animal rights. It does support animal welfare. This may well disappoint the more hardcore vegans and vegetarians.
But the Bible and Christian tradition are unanimous in teaching that man has dominion over all the earth and is at the summit of the visible creation, being made in the image of God (Genesis 1.26-27) and of more value than the irrational creatures (see, for example, Matthew 12.12 and Luke 12.7). Jesus ate meat, the leading Apostles were fishermen, and none of them said a word against meat-eating. If you are looking for ‘deep ecology’, you might find it in Eastern religions or neo-paganism, but you won’t find it in the Christian revelation.
That said, I would suggest to those who may be scandalised at the non-revolutionary idea that Christianity favours animal welfare but not animal rights: they don’t need to try to turn history around or re-write the Bible. Their arguments about compassion towards animals, justice for human beings, human health, and ecology are important and are concerns that can be – and are – shared by Christians.
So my second point is that mercy, justice, solidarity with the poor, and stewardship of God’s creation are so integral to Christianity that these values are enough for Christians to make a prudential judgment in favour of abstaining from meat-eating (Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the arguments that a vegetarian or vegan diet shows more compassion to animals, makes it easier to feed the human race, and causes less damage to the environment, so I will take that as a given).
That, really, is the entire extent of the argument that I would like to make for now. It’s something that can be backed up abundantly with quotes from the Bible, as well as from Christian tradition.
But perhaps for now I can illustrate my point with St Francis of Assisi, possibly the best-loved saint of all time. It has been suggested, not only by the spiritual children of the 60s but even by The Tablet of London, that the Poverello was a pacifist, an ecologist and even a vegetarian. All the historical evidence points, of course, in the opposite direction: he criticised the Crusaders, but for the reason that their vice was an obstacle to victory; he loved nature, but in the most Theocentric – indeed Christocentric – manner imaginable; and his belief in the liberty of the Gospel meant than when he begged for food, he ate all that was set before him, and rejected monastic practices of abstinence from meat (yes, monks are vegetarians, but for reasons of penance, not of ethics).
But St Francis’ compassion and love for all creatures, even animals, meant that he would often redeem lambs who were being led to the slaughter and even gently removed the worms from the road and put them out of harm’s way. If he were among us today, he might just advocate a vegetarian or vegan diet. He might not agree with you on principles or theory. But I suspect everyone – even the animals – would be happy with the result.