Thursday, May 6, 2010

A meat-free theology

This Sunday I was disturbed by the text from Acts 10:9-16 where Peter is told in a dream to "kill and eat" the animals shown to him. Some people use Peter’s dream as a sort justification for eating meat. Most people completely overlook the problem of violence against other living creatures. This is particularly problematic in our day with the advent of factory farming. It is cruelty at an industrial scale that Peter and Paul could not have imagined. The issue then was more about keeping oneself clean; whereas, the issues today are solidarity with the starving poor who cannot compete economically with livestock for the world’s grain, cruelty to animals treating them as mere commodities, and environmental degradation due to highly concentrated animal agriculture. In other words, the ethical shift has moved from self-concern about cleanness to concern for others. This puts the issue under the new command to love one another, not the old law about which Paul was rightly concerned. I contend that eating meat is no longer compatible with a non-violent view of the gospel.

Moreover, the history of non-violent Christianity goes back to many of the earliest believers who practiced vegetarianism. For instance, Augustine in his defense of meat eating acknowledged that Christians who abstained were too numerous to be counted. James the brother of Jesus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origin, John Chrysostom, Basil, and the Desert Fathers were among those who abstained from meat. Obviously this issue will not go away.

I also believe that it is spiritually relevant to be aware of what we consume. Paul was wrong about many things—slavery, women at home and in church, homosexuals and transgendered people—and I would argue that he was wrong about meat. He taught that believers should buy meat from the meat markets without troubling their conscience. While I do agree that meat eating is a matter of conscience, the idea of consumption without conscience is problematic morally and spiritually. It matters how the goods we consume and support with our purchasing power were produced. What do we say about consuming goods produced by slaves, children and other oppressed workers? Can we simply consume these things without a care in our head or tenderness of heart? This is bad spiritual practice. We cannot completely extricate ourselves from a global economy which still functions with taint of violence, degradation, and oppression, but it should at least trouble our conscience. Even for Paul, he should have been troubled by purchasing meat offered to idols. What business does a Christian have in financing and perpetuating animal sacrifice of any kind? Jesus put an end to that and all creation groans (Romans 8:19-23) for the new way made possible through Christ’s death and resurrection. It is out of expectant joy at the living reign of Jesus that we can put away the practices of death.

I do not see meat eating as having any place in the world to come. At our Lord’s table we will eat bread and wine as it was in the beginning, no meat for the Pascal Lamb has put an end to sacrifice. “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb…and they will not kill or harm on all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11) In Christ we are already a new creation. We can joyfully live meat free now in this world and the one to come.

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