Before considering whether Christians should be vegetarians, let’s look a closely related question. Was Jesus Christ a vegetarian? The answer to one question does not automatically provide the correct answer to the other – for example, one could ask whether Jesus worked as a carpenter, celebrated Jewish holidays, and claimed to be the Son of God (He did, but that doesn’t mean Christians should do the same) – but in thinking through moral questions it’s certainly a good place to start.
According to the Gospels, Jesus ate fish (Luke 24:36-43), gave fish to others to eat (John 6:1-14), ate the Passover meal (Mark 14:12-26; it is implied that lamb was the main course), and told a parable (Luke 15:11-32) in which a calf is killed for a feast, without any trace of condemnation. While the first text is the only direct example of Jesus eating meat, the remaining text provide a strong circumstantial case that it wasn’t the only time He did so.
The proposition that Christ was a vegetarian is a minority view, but you can see arguments in favor of it here and here. Reaching this conclusion necessarily requires the view that the New Testament is not the whole story, and not a completely accurate story, of the life of Christ. It also implies that Paul corrupted the original teachings of Jesus and sent his own version of Christianity out into the world instead.
While I do agree that the canonical Gospels are not completely free from error (see here), I see them nonetheless (with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas) the earliest and most reliable descriptions of the life of Christ. This seems to be the mainstream view; if you’re curious start here and branch out. Similarly, while I don’t hold Paul’s writings to be inerrant either, and clearly he left his own personal mark on the development of the Christian faith, I see his message as for the most part in harmony with Jesus’s, and where we find something in Paul without an obvious parallel in the Gospels, I tend to take it as a valuable insight into early Christian beliefs rather than an innovation of Paul’s. For a further exploration of this, I recommend Garry Wills’s excellent book What Paul Meant.
So taking the New Testament as the primary source we have for the life of Jesus Christ, I think the evidence is pretty solidly in favor of His not having lived as a vegetarian. This is not necessarily a “green light” to unlimited meat consumption. It is important to emphasize that Christian moral teaching (when expressed properly) is not a rule-based system with a long list of “do’s and don’ts”. It is principles-based, centered around love (of God, and of one’s fellow man). Jesus sums it up as follows:
Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
Paul expresses the principle similarly:
For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
with John providing a link between the one-pronged and two-pronged expressions of the law of love:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
With this in mind, we can ask the question, “is eating meat consistent with love of God and love of neighbor?” And the answer very well might be situational. In 1st century Judaism, food was a means of separating Jews from Gentiles, good Jews from bad Jews, righteous people from sinners. The kosher dietary laws, first laid down in the books of Moses, had been expanded by the religious teachers over the centuries to ludicrous levels of complexity. Jesus critiqued this as follows:
One day some Pharisees and teachers of religious law arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples failed to follow the Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to—such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.”
Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’
For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.”
Then he said, “You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.”
Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. “All of you listen,” he said,“and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.”
Then Jesus went into a house to get away from the crowd, and his disciples asked him what he meant by the parable he had just used. “Don’t you understand either?” he asked. “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.)
There’s a lot of material to unpack here. The tendency to pick and choose a mix of Biblical commands and non-Biblical traditions, hypocritically, as a way of holding up one’s own moral superiority, is clearly still a problem today. Jesus starts out by picking an extreme example of a Biblical death penalty, in order to argue with the Pharisees on their own legalistic terms (Jesus isn’t endorsing this practice here; see John 8:2-11 for Jesus’s reaction to a real-life opportunity to apply Mosaic law). Then He goes on to state that food has nothing to do with purity of the heart.
Nonetheless, this idea of freedom in food choices would remain controversial in the early decades of Christianity. The epistles and the book of Acts lay bare a great deal of confusion among the apostles about what to retain from Jewish practice, on matters ranging from diet to circumcision. Peter is reported as having had a vision declaring all animals clean, an experience that apparently led him to offer fellowship to individual Gentiles like Cornelius, and also to side with Paul in the Jerusalem council where the issue came to a head. That Jesus’s teaching on this point needs to be clarified in a parenthetical (one that is unclear in the source manuscripts and thus in the English translations as well) further demonstrates how the relationship between early Christians and diet was complicated, and not resolved by Jesus during His ministry on Earth.
My own interpretation of this conundrum is that Jesus obeyed the Jewish law in its entirety, while undermining its binding force on others. I see this as an ancient example of the more recent principle of “only Nixon could go to China“. Jesus lived in a way that was above reproach, keeping even to what we might see as the sillier elements of Mosaic law, while also (through His teachings and purposeful outreach to sinners) laying the groundwork for us to live in freedom from rules, subject only to the principle of love.
Jesus would do this in other areas of His ministry besides food. The payment of the temple tax is one example. No one could claim Jesus was relaxing the burden of Jewish law just to make His own life easier. Perhaps this sinlessness of Christ had theological implications, touched upon in some Biblical verses, in terms of whatever might be going on between God and the devil regarding human souls, redemption, etc. Or perhaps it was just His way of restoring sanity to where man’s religious impulses had gone awry, while respecting the better impulses behind them.
Since the teaching around food in the New Testament was intimately connected with the relationship between Jew and Gentile, it can be difficult to apply it directly to our current situation. The principle demonstrated by Jesus and elaborated by Paul, to reach out to the “Gentile“, the “leper“, the “Samaritan“, the “adulteress“, the “little children“, the “tax collector” in our midst, may not apply literally to these groups anymore, but to whomever in our own lives we find ourselves tempted to treat dismissively. And the battleground might not be food, but something else. Perhaps if Jesus walked the earth today, He might be washing the feet of Muslims, or attending a gay wedding, or going to dinner with a disgraced businessman or politician, or visiting a reviled criminal in prison. Leading a good life oneself and sticking to one’s principles, while not judging or shunning others, is a delicate art. Jesus leaves us no hard-and-fast rules for how to do that, only the example of His character. Paul offers some thoughts here and here, in passages containing some of the most insightful ministry advice in the New Testament or anywhere else.
So all of what we read about food in the New Testament needs to be taken in that context. Jesus shouldn’t been seen as a vegetarian, but nor should He be seen as an eager carnivore. Jesus looks past the food itself and focuses on how to connect with other people. Were Jesus to show up for dinner at my house today, I don’t think He would fuss over whether the meal was certified organic, locally-sourced, and 100% vegan. Nor do I picture Him salivating over steaks, and bragging about His latest hunting trip. Instead I would expect Him to eat whatever we put in front of Him, pay equal attention to everyone present, and uplift our spirit with heart-to-heart conversation.
All of this background material still leaves the unanswered question, “is eating meat consistent with love of God and love of neighbor?” If Jesus won’t spell it out for modern readers as a rule, where do we get the answer? I think two concepts should be brought to bear on this question.
First, do animals have rights to life or not? Some philosophers claim that all other living things have the same moral rights as humans, and that “speciesism” is a moral disease on par with racism. Others claim that human beings, along with other living things, have no God-given rights, and no souls, but are simply collections of atoms brought together by chance, and that all moral sentiments are just biological survival tactics akin to tastes. Often, incongruously, one finds both a zealous passion for extensive protection of animal rights (usually with an exception for the human fetus) and hardcore, naturalistic atheism coexisting in the same mind.
I think a healthy Christian position on the issue recognizes that animal life has positive moral value, but less so than human beings. The true nature of the “animal soul” is, I think, permanently beyond our ability to understand; consciousness is impossible to put into anything resembling a normal scientific framework, as pointed out in Nagel’s famous musing about what it’s like to be a bat. Just as a human being looks, as viewed from the outside with scientific instruments, like nothing but a pile of molecules configured to survive in a certain evolutionary niche, not much different than a robot to someone so inclined, animals look much the same. The view of the human soul that one gets from the inside comes with a conscience that wonders whether animals experience something like what we do, or whether they are more like our computers.
For me, conscience tends to agree with the one brief comment of Jesus’s that sheds any insight on this question:
What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.
Taking all of this together, my view is that animals have some intrinsic moral value, higher than a plant but lower than a human. And therefore, all other things equal, plant food is morally preferable to animal food.
In Christ’s day, all other things were not equal. As discussed earlier, the whole issue of diet was entangled with deeper questions of what God wanted out of people, and issues of mutual respect and tolerance among human beings. And in those days, few people had the luxury of choosing a bespoke diet; more pressing was the question of whether one had enough to eat at all, and animals could be a critical source of calories and nutrition.
Today, however, the situation seems quite different, at least for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy a plentiful food supply, in countries where obesity is a far bigger problem than starvation. Switching to a diet that involves far less consumption of animal products than the typical American diet seems achievable without major health risks. While going 100% vegan might cause some health problems, or risk the kinds of self-righteous divisions among people that posed such a problem with the kosher laws in New Testament times, what about eating, say, 90% or 95% less meat? I think that would indeed be a good thing.
Not only would that be preferable on the grounds of the moral value of animals’ lives, but to the extent animals experience suffering while they are alive (which it seems likely to me that they do, based on biological similarities), it is clear that animal husbandry practices have become more inhumane in modern industrial countries than in the ancient world. Furthermore, meat has been shown to be a much more resource-intensive source of calories for human consumption than plant food. So in terms of both the direct cost of feeding all of humanity, and the indirect costs of environmental damage, meat (whether or not it is murder) is inefficient, and consumption of meat, in all but minimal quantities, is a form of self-indulgence.
This may seem strange, because a standard meat-heavy diet actually looks less expensive at the supermarket than a typical vegan diet. I think there are three things going on here. First, government policy tends to distort free-market pricing for agricultural products, both in terms of direct subsidies that are politicized and indirect costs that are not properly taxed. Second, in a society of mostly meat-eaters, making sure something is 100% vegan can impose additional costs in the production process, so products that are labeled as such probably do cost more to produce even if externalities were properly considered. Third, there seems to me (although I am having trouble finding statistics to bolster or reject this hypothesis) to be common socio-economic and philosophical connections between healthy and/or ethical food choices, a general interest in luxury products, and a distrust of big business.
So the typical product marketed to the vegetarian or vegan consumer – think açaí bowls, vegan brownies, certified organic salsa – is a boutique brand (without the efficiency advantages of a larger firm) targeting someone that feels proud of their choices, and perhaps entitled to go about them in the most luxurious way they can afford. So living this way certainly looks a lot more expensive than following a more traditional American diet, and it’s hard to believe these ethical decisions are actually good for the poor or the planet on net, even after all factors are considered.
So what really constitutes an “ethical” approach to eating in modern America? I think a combination of monetary cost and animal/plant content should be considered, with plant-based food given credit for both the ethical aspects of animal death/suffering and the unseen economic/environmental factors. Gun to head (and I am not claiming expertise on the myriad practical factors to consider), something like Ramen noodles might be among the most ethical food choices. Clearly they conserve maximum monetary resources that could be better used to feed, clothe, and heal the poor. Vegetable soups (perhaps with a non-vegetarian broth providing some nutritional balance) might be a similarly good choice. Kobe steaks at an expensive high-end steakhouse might be the worst choice. It’s not a simple problem when one factors in knock-on effects on one’s own health (Ramen noodles are high in sodium for example), and the attendant medical costs and lost productivity. But I think that even with the uncertainties, some comparisons will remain pretty clear.
So how am I doing on this front? Honestly, not very well. In my workplace for example, I probably eat more meat than anyone else. My diet, heavy on animal products and junk food, is not especially kind to my health, to animals, or to the environment. In terms of total food spending, I’m probably being more frugal and prudent than most people at my income level, but I still spend far more than my fair share in a planetary sense, or even a national one. So I would probably benefit more than anyone from re-reading my own blog post regularly, to remind myself how far I have left to go. I do eat less meat than I did a few years ago, but I am still taking baby steps in the grand scheme of things. I haven’t mustered the will power to make major changes in eating habits, just as in other areas of leading a moral life, my progress is slow.
When one really reflects on what a morally perfect person might be like in a modern context – hard-working, extremely charitable, courageous even should it come to the point of painful death, patient with and kind to everyone, forgiving everyone, judging no one, subsisting on Ramen noodles, etc. – one cannot help but feel a sense of unworthiness in comparison.
But the Good News of Christianity is that God loves us all, even with our sins and faults, and that Jesus understood our predicament and has, in some sense, dealt with it through His own courageous acts, for all eternity. The message of grace (which bears frequent repetition) is that, even though we will never be perfect enough to “earn” God’s favor, we can have it as a free gift, and all the good that we can do is just a loving response to that gift. The Gospel makes us cognizant of our falling short of perfection, not so that we beat ourselves up over it, but so that we cut our neighbors plenty of slack as well, and resolve to do better each day.