Meat eating

In each edition of Pathways, we ask two Christians with different perspectives to explore a topical issue. The health and ecological benefits of veganism versus a carnivorous diet are being widely debated as the rain forests burn and global warming threatens our future. So, should we stop eating animals and embrace plant-based diets?

Katherine Phillips

Katherine Phillips is a librarian who lives in West Oxford.

There are as many reasons for eschewing meat and dairy as there are human beings. Most non-meat eaters I have met fall into one of two broad categories; those who describe themselves as vegan and those who eat a wholefoods plant-based diet.

Vegans makes lifestyle decisions as well as food choices to avoid cruelty to sentient life. They would avoid leather clothing and buy cleaning products and make-up involving less cruelty. The motivation for a plant-based diet is often a serious health scare so this group will avoid the high fat fake meat, cheese and mayonnaise which some vegans see as handy substitutes, and prefer minimal processing of food and cook without fat or oil. Both groups share desperate concerns about climate, sustainability and the urgent need to develop equitable delivery of food and other global resources.

“… what people believe is of secondary importance to what they do.”

I mostly follow a wholefoods plant-based diet though saying I am vegan can be a handy verbal shorthand. I sometimes eat off plan, usually in situations where to ask for something different or reject hospitality could be construed as rude, occasionally just due to my own bad planning. Sometimes it’s appropriate to explain my views, sometimes it’s not.

I have been trying to follow the McDougall Programme (John McDougall is an American plant-based doctor) for nine years but still struggle with chocolate. For some, cheese or bacon are Achilles’ heels. I wonder whether vegans deal with the cravings a bit better than those who are plant based simply because if you are doing it for the animals, then you will always love the animals.

We don’t always care for ourselves quite as much as we should.

How to connect this choice to my faith? The word faith makes me panic in the way Radio 4’s ‘Money Box’ does when the topic under discussion is crucial. What people believe is of secondary importance to what they do and I’m aware that forms of human expression such as the arts and languages give me a sense of something outside my solitary experiences, as do the times when I feel connected to nature. Attacks on nature and cruelty to sentient life feel very personal and highlight the importance of small steps to nurture rather than despoil our planet.

For me the ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ by St Francis of Assisi beautifully sums up the importance of the relationship between us and the world in which we live:

“Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day through whom You give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour … Praised be You my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.”

We have a duty to try to care for our Mother Earth. Future generations following where we have passed should not suffer as a result of our selfish choices.

The Garden of Self-Righteousness has never needed the manure of social media when it comes to the emotive subject of food: it’s always produced a bumper crop of finger-pointing. On both sides.

Sides? Absolutes? Sliding scale? Is sneaking the odd Big Mac ‘equal’ to a guy on television struggling his way through half a cow as some sort of macho challenge? Of course it’s not. Those displays of excess revolt me and I eat meat. I understand the arguments for veganism. But I don’t feel eating meat has made me Satan’s favourite redneck.

“… we’d do well to emulate the respect some other cultures give to animals.”

We have the luxury – and responsibility – of choice. I can’t, however, imagine anyone is busting to tell an Inuit who eats seal that they are wrong. There’s a whole load of other sensibilities that come into play. Does that mean they get a patronising, ethical sick note? It’s not the consumption of meat that’s questionable but our approach sometimes and we’d do well to emulate the respect some other cultures give to animals, both alive and dying.

So we look to the Bible for guidance. (Call me a coward but I’m giving Leviticus a miss.) In Exodus, we are told how to cook meat (barbecue okay, boiling not). And should Peter really resist a voice from heaven telling him to kill and eat (Acts 10)? In fact, there’s a whole maze of cloven hooves, etc. to negotiate, so I’m chickening (yes, you can eat those) out.

Then there’s the whole fish scenario, for example Jesus telling the disciples to cast their net on the other side, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, et al. The very fact Jesus’ disciples were fishermen should give us some indication of his views on eating fish.
Although that wasn’t in the North Sea and was long before there was any danger of our cod supplies running out.

Sure, fish in some people’s eyes are not in the same category as a cute little lamb, but is ‘cuteness’ part of the problem here?
Are we perhaps letting Disneyfication of the farmyard influence us? Take the ‘ugly’ blobfish: if it was fluffy and played Chopsticks on YouTube, raising money for its conservation wouldn’t be such a struggle.

Regarding animal sacrifice in the temple (surely related), it was what people did and Jesus never speaks against it, so we assume he was okay about it. He, however, offered himself instead as a sacrifice for all, for good: this has superseded any idea of ‘sacrificial’ customs on our part.

I know other omnivores who, like myself, love vegan food. It’s a matter of balance. The same goes for discussing it. When food (or any other cause) becomes a cudgel to smack others with, it’s maybe time to log off Twitter and go for a walk… perhaps in the countryside past those fields of nice cows and sheep…

Tom Bower

Tom Bower is the Assistant Education Officer at Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral and internationally published children’s author and illustrator.

Further reading encourages institutions to offer plant-based meals by default whenever they serve food. Diners can choose to add meat, encouraging everyone to make healthier, environmentally friendly choices. Its founder is David Clough, author of On Animals a two-volume engagement with Christianity in relation to animal welfare.

Two-part BBC World Service The Food Chain documentary gives the cases for and against eating meat.

  • “Clough’s work in On Animals is progressive and explorative … a new benchmark for the field.”

    Matthew Barton, University of Leeds, Theological Book Review

  • “From conscience to cholesterol…”

    These programmes explore how meat-eating fits, or doesn’t fit, into a healthy, ethical life.