Thursday, March 15, 2012

THE RACE: Why I Became A Vegan (Part 3 of 4): Faith-Based Beliefs

How, if at all, does your faith or belief in something greater, influence your food choices? What do faith and food choices have to do with a blog about endurance? Well, to get through any endurance event, you need to have faith in yourself, which usually comes from a faith in something larger.  The same holds true for getting through life's challenges. But faith isn't just reserved for the big things. True faith permeates all aspects of your life whether you realize it or not. It even permeates your food choices and how you think about (or don't think about) where your food comes from. And as you know, your food choices are important for your endurance (i.e., your health) both on and off the race course.  So faith, food, and endurance have more in common than you think.

This third part of the four-part series focuses on the "religious" reasons behind veganism (because the first two topics on animal welfare and health just weren't weighty enough!).  I put "religious" in quotes because while I consider myself a Christian, I'm a fairly baby Christian.  I'm not much of a church-goer and know as much about the bible as I know about quantum physics.  But I'm a believer - even though I don't have all the details figured out.  I guess maybe that's the true essence of faith...

So when it comes to matters of faith (a word I prefer over "religion"), I usually turn to my good friend, Lois Godfrey Wye.  Lois is pursuing a Masters of Theological Studies ("MTS") at Wesley Theological Seminary in D.C.  Part of her hope for this degree is to bring about a greater awareness of the ways in which animal welfare is an important aspect of how we live our lives in faith.  Because I lack the in-depth understanding that someone like Lois possesses, my faith-based response to why I became a vegan often is stated simply as:  "I think that God entrusted us to care for all living creatures and I don't believe that God put animals on earth just for us to eat. I believe that it is egotistical and delusional to assign a value or worth to something or someone based on its usefulness to us.  I think that all living beings have their own intrinsic value apart from whatever self-serving value humans wish to assign."

That explanation, however, is pretty cursory without much to back it up.  So for this one, I've turned it over to Lois to provide a guest post with a more thorough examination of faith and veganism...Here are her thoughts:

Veganism and Faith: by Lois Godfrey Wye

I’m often asked what animals have to do with faith.  The answer is “everything.” How we treat those utterly dependent on our mercy speaks volumes about who we are. 

In the Judeo-Christian tradition[1] we look to Scripture to tell us who we are and who we ought to be.  Scripture tells us that humans are uniquely created in the image of God and are given dominion over all the animals. (Gen. 1:26-28)  This has often been taken to mean that we are given a free hand to treat animals as we like, without regard for their well being, because they are “only animals;” they have no souls, no feelings, and no value apart from economic value.  I believe a closer look at what Scripture has to say about dominion and power, as well as what it has to say about animals, compels a different result.  Scripture also has a great deal to say about our relationships with food. For me, a faithful reading of Scripture requires a diet based on compassion and mercy.  At a minimum, I believe it means a diet mindful of quantity of animal products consumed and most importantly, the source of those animal products.[2] 

Our creation in the image of God and our “dominion” over animals are closely linked:  “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  Gen. 1:26.  What it means to be created in the “image of God” has been interpreted in a variety of ways, often connected with the human ability to think or create or build.  Today, Old Testament scholars generally agree that our human uniqueness in the image of God is not a statement of our greatness, but of our responsibilities.  We are to serve as God’s representatives and to reflect His character into the world.  As Bruce Birch puts it, “God’s resolve to create in the divine image is coupled with a commissioning to have dominion. . . . It is as representative (image) of God that we are given capacity for power in the world.”[3]

So we must ask ourselves: how would God have us exercise our power?  To answer that, we must take into account: (1) how God exercises His power, since that is the character we are tasked with reflecting; (2) what Scripture has to say generally about the exercise of power; and (3) what Scripture has to say about God’s view of animals.  Each of these perspectives leads to the same conclusion:  we are called to exercise our power, including our power over our fellow creatures of God, with compassion and mercy. 

First, it is the foundation of faith that God exercises His dominion over us with mercy and compassion, particularly for those without resources.  God is the One to whom we turn when we are truly in need: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from Him.  He is my rock and my salvation . . . pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”  Psalm 62:5, 8.  Second, Scripture consistently teaches that power is answerable to God and is to be exercised with mercy for the powerless and with justice.  “He has shown you, O man, what is good.  And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  Micah 6:8.  “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required.”  Luke 12:48.  The prophets in particular have a great deal to say about God’s views of those who exploit the weak and powerless for personal gain.    

Finally, God loves the animals.  He cares about their happiness and well-being.  He created them and called them “good.”  Genesis 1:20-24.  He covenants with them.  Genesis 9:9-17; Hosea 2:18.  He knows them all and he feeds them.  Psalms 50, 104.  He cares when they are harmed by human sin.  Jonah 4:11.  He includes animals in the Sabbath commandment so that they, too, may have a day of rest.  Exodus 23:12.  And, while Scripture does say that humans are “worth” more than animals, still, the animals matter to God and are not forgotten.  Matthew 10:29-31. 

But didn’t God give us the animals to eat?  Yes and no.  In the Garden of Eden, humans were vegans.  Genesis 1:29-30.  It was only after the flood, as a concession to human weakness, that God allowed humans to eat animals.  Genesis 9: 1-9.  And that permission came both at a price and with responsibility.  The price was the loss of relationship between humans and animals, as “the fear and dread” of humans came over the animals.  The responsibility was to recognize and honor that our meat came at the cost of a life given by God, shown in the requirement that we not eat the animals’ blood.       

I do not believe that Genesis is a literal and historical account of the prehistory of the world.  I do believe, however, that Genesis is true - that is, it tells theological truths about the ordering of creation and our place in it.  That scriptural account is very far from where we are today.  In factory farms, the lives of animals are not respected.  They are viewed only as economic units - not as living creatures belonging to God - and they generally live lives of unbroken misery.  How, in this setting, can “everything that has breath praise the Lord”?  Psalm 150.  In view of that, I believe it is wrong to give these systems economic support, and I believe it is wrong to partake of the products of the suffering they create. 

But in 1 Corinthians 8, doesn’t Paul say that there is nothing necessarily wrong with eating meat, even meat sacrificed to idols?  The point Paul was making was that what matters is not the food itself, but how what we eat affects others in our community.  For the Corinthians, the question was whether eating food sacrificed to idols would lead “weaker” Christians back to pagan rites.  For us today the question is whether eating meat will suggest to others that cruelty to animals is acceptable to God.  Our meat is not sacrificed to Greco-Roman idols, but it is sacrificed to the modern idols of personal convenience, lowest out-of-pocket cost at the market, and catering to the whims of our pallets. 

Nor is this a small matter.  The story of the Fall is centered on food (Genesis 3); food is closely connected with the Hebrews’ struggles to trust God in the desert (Exodus 16, Numbers 11); many of the laws in the Old Testament involve food (for example, Leviticus 11); the early church had struggles with food (for example, 1 Corinthians 8), and the heavenly banquet is the metaphor many of us use for the life to come.  Gluttony, vanity, pride, greed, and other sins can be closely connected with food.  Finally, for both Jews and Christians, a meal is at the heart of our central acts of worship and remembrance:  the Passover and the Eucharist. 

As a people of faith, we must think carefully about our food choices.  I do not mean that being a "good Christian" requires a vegan diet.  Each of us must consider these issues prayerfully and make choices that are right for us.  But people of faith are not given the option of hiding our faces from the harsh realities of factory farming and the implications of our participation in that system for ourselves, our communities, the animals, and the planet.  Nor can we disregard the fact that even humanely raised meat comes at the cost of a life loved by God.  For me, abstaining from meat and most dairy products is one way I can live as though the kingdom of God is, indeed, at hand.  And while humanely raised animals are at least respected as living creatures and allowed to be the creatures they were created to be during their lifetime, I choose not to eat them because I understand each chicken, cow, or pig, as a unique individual, just like a cat or a dog, and I believe that is the way God sees them, too.  Most importantly, I believe that choosing not to eat animals is a compassionate exercise of power, and as such is a means of living into the image of God.  

Thank you, Lois!!  For the rest of you:  how, if at all, does faith enter into how and what you eat? 

[1] My own faith is Christian and that is the perspective from which I speak.  However, the Christian Scriptures include the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), and to that extent Christians and Jews have a shared faith and tradition.   

[2] I call myself “nearly vegan.” I choose a vegan diet whenever I can do so without causing problems for others, such as those who are graciously entertaining me and have no idea what to feed a vegan, but can manage a vegetarian meal.  Also, from time to time I will share a vegetarian meal with my husband, who is an omnivore.  I also buy and cook meat for my husband, but am particular about its source.

[3] Birch, Bruce C. Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life. Louisville: West Minster/John Knox Press, 1991, pp. 88-89.  Another good book, specifically addressing animals and theology is Andrew Linzey’s Why Animal Suffering Matters, Oxford University Press, 2009.  Andrew Linzey is probably the foremost writer on the subject of animals and theology.  


mindy @ just a one girl revolution. said...

This post was fascinating - as a Christian and vegetarian (who sometimes toys with the idea of veganism), I've never really thought about how the two are related. This gave me a LOT to think about!

Carilyn said...

Great post! So much to think about and I loved hearing it from your perspective, as well as Lois'.

Jen said...

This was a great post. I shared it with a few people. Thanks to you and Lois.

Life Through Endurance said...

Mindy, Carilyn, and Jen...thanks SO much for your comments and support and, Jen, especially for circulating. This was a very important post to both Lois and me and even if it makes one person think, that means the world to us!

And FYI, Mindy - on my blog to do list is a blog on steps to become a vegan, so stay tuned if you're interested...

Thanks, all rock!!

Ben DeVries said...

This is an eloquent post, and from a valued friend. Thank you for writing this, Lois, and for being willing to share her thoughts, Life Through Endurance - best wishes, Ben (Not One Sparrow, a Christian voice for animals)

Life Through Endurance said...

Hi Ben, thanks so much for your post. I made sure that Lois saw it. We both really appreciate you reading it. I'm very fortunate to have a friend like her who can explain these weighty topics so eloquently...