The following article is by Marcello Newall MLitt, MA.
I realize that in writing this I am placing myself outside of our society’s two-party politics and the other brittle and transient human categories we are generally presented with, and expected to neatly fit within. But as a Christian, and a vegan of over 6 years, it is something I’m quite used to. Followers of Christ ultimately belong to a different city (Heb. 11:10), a future one, the word for city coming from the ancient Greek Polis and from which we get our term “politics.” Likewise, the apostle Paul talked of our true citizenship being in heaven (Phil. 3:20): Christians are never fully at home in the present political systems of this age.
Let me say from the start that I believe, even more so in the wake of Covid-19, that veganism has a lot going for it. The way human beings presently treat animals is nothing short of atrocious and has been at the origin of the majority of recent pandemics, ranging from Avian flu and Swine flu, to SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, and even possibly Covid-19. While it’s easy to blame the hideous conditions in which exotic animals are kept in Chinese wet markets and the deadening heartlessness with which they are killed for spurious cures in traditional Chinese medicine, in the West we have our fair share of cruelty too. On factory farms, from which roughly 90% of the world’s animal foods derive from and 99% of America’s, billions of animals are often crammed into tiny filthy sheds where they wallow and thrash until their short, tormented, and diseased lives are ended without mercy in a slaughterhouse. The whole spectrum of the West’s favorite “food” animals are treated this way in CAFOs whether it’s pigs in gestation crates so small they can’t turn over, chickens raised by the thousands in artificially lit and crowded warehouses, or cows which live on concrete and are forced to endlessly produce unnaturally large amounts of milk through repeated impregnations. I could go on by talking about the fur industry, or animal experimentation on primates, dogs, and cats, or the thousand other torments we humans inflict on animals, but I think everyone by now is most likely aware of these tragic realities going on around us.
While space does not permit deep exegetical explorations of the subject, from a purely biblical standpoint veganism also seems to approximate more closely, and witness to, God’s ideal world of non-violence in Genesis (Gen. 1:29; Matt. 19:8), and that resurrection and future of peace and harmony the apostles and Hebrew prophets envisaged for the world in which the lion would dwell with the lamb (Isa. 11:6-9; Rom. 8:19-21; Rev. 21:1-5). Likewise, in Scripture Christ himself underlined God’s loving care for even the smallest sparrow (Luke 12:6), and the moral necessity of helping an animal in distress even if this meant breaking the letter of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:11, Luke 14:5). In a similar way, the apostle Paul talked of how some Christians abstained from certain foods in order to honor the Lord, and the need to give glory to God through one’s food choices (Rom. 14:6; 1 Cor. 8:13, 1 Cor. 10:31). Ultimately, in this concern towards innocent animals I see but one facet of the face of the Crucified God whose outstretched arms are open to the suffering of the world.
As a Christian my veganism is not derived from some utopian pipe dream of equality between animals and humans: Animals do not need to be elevated to human status — as God’s unique image bearers — for us to have compassion on them; a simple appeal to Christian principles like mercy, justice, and love is more than sufficient. My dog does not have to be my equal in order to show him compassion, or not to eat him. In this sense, I’m simply a classical vegan, one who bases his understanding of the term on its original definition, i.e. seeking to avoid unnecessary animal suffering and cruelty as far as is practicable in our fallen world. Veganism also seems to make sense in other ways ranging from its major benefits for the environment, use of resources, treatment of workers, and human health. Finally, reducing our dependence on industrial animal products can help to mitigate the risks of antibiotic resistance, and more pointedly minimize the kind of pandemic which is currently plaguing the world with Covid-19.
But while veganism as the basic idea of not harming animals unnecessarily makes sense to me, there are aspects of the movement which I find deeply troubling. There are those obvious things that clearly aren’t beneficial, these go from certain aggressive stunts by the movement, to the unhelpfulness of using words like “murder,” “rape,” or “holocaust” in regard to animal agriculture which seems to simply bewilder people; but what is truly concerning is the position many in it take regarding abortion. To say many vegans on the issue of abortion are inconsistent is an understatement. Being indignant for the cruelty in chicks shred alive in the industrial egg industry only makes sense if we are also horrified by the violence involved in the killing of defenseless unborns. The concept that it is wrong to kill one’s own baby, and that they appear to suffer at a much earlier date than the 24- week milestone we’ve been spoon-fed should be fairly obvious, but sadly has been confirmed even by scientists which were until recently supporting abortion as painless for the unborn up until that point. The evident evil of abortion on demand, like cruelty to animals, is one of those moral truths ingrained in the human conscience, and the similar dynamics of the two evils — and some of my reasoning — have already been articulated by able writers like Matthew Scully. Sadly, the disconnect in the animal protection movement in regard to this is both deeply tragic as it is ironic.
The contemporary vegan movement was always destined to encounter ethical problems from the moment it severed itself from its earlier Judeo-Christian roots, and ethical realism more generally. Whereas the 19th-century vegetarian societies of the UK and America, like the SPCA co-founded by William Wilberforce, were partially established by both Christians and Jews, the contemporary vegan movement — which was first created in the mid 1940s — in the 1970s chose to adopt the moral philosopher Peter Singer as one of its main leaders. Singer, whom some have called “professor death,” had attempted to build a case for mercy towards animals on the particularly flimsy foundations of a myopic utilitarian philosophy. In a grotesque zero-sum game, Singer’s philosophy often ended up pitting human life against animal life with the favoring of the creature which was more “self-aware,” and based on his calculus of utilitarian pain and pleasure infanticide is morally acceptable when a new-born has a serious disability. In a truly horrific turn, what had started as a movement for life was now being linked to the killing of infants.
And yet alternatives did exist. At about the time of Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975, the Rev. Andrew Linzey was already theorizing the concept of animals being worthy of compassion and respect not based on a voluntaristic set of arbitrary laws but on the basis of them being creatures of God, which are loved by him. This compassion was grounded in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, and more generally in that moral framework which God has engraved in the human heart and conscience, and which tells us that mercy is preferable to cruelty, and justice to selfishness. Furthermore, it was part of an overall concern for the weak and disenfranchised, in particular children, and the infirm. Tragically, much of the vegan movement was instead co-opted into the West’s Nietzschean quest, and death march, towards a world devoid of God, and in 1999 Singer got his chair in philosophy at Princeton.
Christianity in its most noble expressions, much like the Jewish tradition it derives from, has always taught that God is interested in the whole of human behavior and life. Peter in his epistle underlined how we should be holy in all we do (1 Pet. 1:15). The gospel writers didn’t seem to accept a pick and choose morality. While dualistic forms of thought in the ancient world, like proto-Gnosticism, believed that the body could be either ascetically starved and harshly mortified, or permitted every form of indulgence and immorality as this was indifferent to the inner spirit, the Christian message underlined that all parts of our lives are important to God. In Christian theology this view has found expression in various movements, and in particular in a completely pro-life vision where Christians seek compassion, love, and justice in all areas of their lives. While adherents differ in their exact understanding of individual topics, this perspective finds its theorists in Protestantism and evangelicalism (for example, Ron Sider), Catholicism (Bernardin and his “seamless garment” but generally in Catholic Social Teaching), and is also part of the Eastern Orthodox Church and was expressed in its recent Social Ethos statement (For the Life of the World, 2020).
A basic idea the vegan movement promotes insistently is that one should desist from self-serving choices and a lifestyle that results in violence and the death of innocent victims. The vegan movement while preaching this very message in regard to non-human creatures remains for the most part silent when the same contemporary lifestyle, and its resulting choices, engenders violence against innocent babies. And yet vegans should be familiar with the use of obfuscatory and euphemistic language which masks underlying violence, whether this be “processing plant” to designate a slaughterhouse, or “fetus” to signify babies. The same goes for a definition of “choice” which denotes not serving others in love (Gal. 5:13), and seeking of the Good and being conformed to it, but rather expresses a libertarian understanding of freedom as the unbridled projection of the will. Anyone accustomed to their din can hear the same echoes of cruelty ringing in words which deny the clear suffering of God’s creatures, both human and animal. Surely Christians whose hearts perceive the injustice and agony of the Crucifixion should be able to hear the cries of both.
Thank you for reading and following our blog. We pray you are blessed by it and will share it with others. ~Marcello