The following is a guest post written by my friend and former college roommate, Zak Weston. Zak’s been working in the area of food ethics, and I asked him to write up a post about why Christians should care about these issues. It’s an area in which I need to make some changes in my own life. He delivered this thought-provoking and challenging piece. I hope you enjoy.
The three or so decisions you make each day about what to eat are some of the most consequential choices you make in your life.
Author Wendell Berry notes that, “eating is an agricultural act.” That is, eating is more than just the satisfaction of appetite. Our plates are food’s final destination in a long supply chain that runs
- through a restaurant or grocery store,
- through food packing facilities,
- guided by the hands of food workers,
- often over thousands of miles via truck and train,
- through commodity processing facilities,
- all the way back to a farm.
This backstory is both daunting and empowering, because the food choices we make - what we eat, and who we buy it from - send economic signals through all corners of this supply chain.
As a part of a broken world, contemporary food production it is filled with injustice and often creates suffering. But, it does not have to be that way.
The Bible clearly calls Christians to work towards a just future, to work with the grain of the gospel, as it were, by participating in the redemptive work that God is doing in the world. One of the most needed areas for this redemption is the modern food system.
Most consumers assume that their meat comes from farms where animals graze and wander around green, pastoral landscapes. That could not be further from the truth.
The vast majority (>99%) of the more than 10 billion chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows slaughtered each year in the US for meat are raised on factory farms, industrial facilities often referred to as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
Built to maximize efficiency and profits, these farms are hell on earth for their inhabitants. Animals are overcrowded and prevented from moving freely or performing natural behaviors. Many never see sunlight or grass at any point in their lives, and are fed unnatural diets of subsidized feed crops such as corn and soybeans — enduring miserable lives that are cut short by slaughter.
To ensure that they reach slaughter weight quickly, chickens have been bred to feel constant hunger and eat constantly. Breeds that used to take 6 months to reach full size now regularly attain that weight in one month.
To put that growth in perspective, imagine a human baby reaching full physical maturity at age 3, instead of taking 18 years. As a consequence of this rapid growth, many chickens have an insufficient skeletal structure and are frequently crippled by bones that break under the stress of their unnaturally large weight.
All of this cruelty would be illegal if done to companion animals like dogs or horses, but it is regularly inflicted on billions of animals who have similar levels of intelligence and emotional complexity without a second thought.
Cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals experience a wide range of emotions, including curiosity, pleasure, pain, fear, joy, anger, sadness, playfulness and more. They most certainly have the capacity to suffer, and suffer they do, innumerable animals in unimaginable conditions.
In addition, animal agriculture comes with a hefty environmental price tag.
Meat production is resource-intensive: Producing one pound of feedlot beef takes an average of 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of topsoil and one gallon of gasoline.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation found that almost 80% of the planet’s total agricultural land is used for feeding or processing meat.
Globally, animal agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation system - all cars, trains, planes and ships - and is responsible for more emissions than any other economic sector.
The Grain of the Gospel: Eden, Shalom, and the World to Come
The current food system bears all the markings of a broken system, and is surely not what Christians should envision for a redeemed world. The gospel message is that creation was made good, it belongs to God, it is in a broken state, but God is at work redeeming the world and bringing about its complete reconciliation.
The Created World
In the original created order of Eden, all creatures lived peacefully in community, and God told humans to consume only plant-based foods:
“Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.” (Genesis 1.29–31)
Animals were not created to be food for humans or for each other, but to be companions:
“The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. [God] brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals” (Genesis 2.19-20)
In this context, the God-given “dominion” over animals implies a parent-child relationship, not a hunter-hunted dynamic. As this piece from PETA LAMBS puts it:
“God created humans in God’s image and according to God’s likeness and told humans to steward this new creation. And what is God’s likeness? Throughout the Scripture, God shows us mercy that we do not deserve, grace that we have not earned, and love that we cannot imagine. We are made in that likeness and are charged with reflecting those qualities to the whole of creation. Being made in the image of God is a call to caretaking, compassion, and mercy.”
Eden was a herbivorous world, filled with animals that were created to be companions with humans. Eating meat begins after human pride and greed allow brokenness into the world.
The Fallen World
In the new human-created order, Creation has been marred, good things have been repurposed for evil, blood is being shed, and instead of living in a peaceful community of God’s original design, humans are now violent toward animals and each other.
We can choose to live either with or against the grain of the gospel. Every time we eat meat, we necessarily participate in this fallen order and comply with the imperfections of this world. But, when we avoid killing other creatures, our efforts are directed away from brokenness and towards reversing the curse.
While the Fall is a part of our present reality, Christians are called to work towards reversing its effects, not accentuating them. The Fall is the way the world is, but Eden and Heaven are the way it should be, and it seems good for Christians to participate in building the fully redeemed world to come rather than deepening the effects of the Fall.
The Future World
Prophecies such as Isaiah 11.6–9 seem to foresee a return to this vegetarian world:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
The redeemed world to come, the kingdom that God is building on earth, is an herbivorous kingdom, free from death and suffering.
- God declares ownership of animals ( Psalm 50.10)
- God will protect all creatures (Isaiah 7.18-25), and they will all worship their Creator (Isaiah 43.20)
- Righteous people are mindful of the needs of animals (Proverbs 12:10)
- God makes a covenant with animals (Hosea 2.18)
- God did not necessarily desire animal sacrifices (Isaiah 1.11)
- The murder of an ox or a human are both described as wrong (Isaiah 66.3)
- God seems concerned for the welfare of both animals and people (Jonah 4.11)
- In the future, reconciled world, the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and a child will lead them. Hurt and destruction will pass away, and the lion will eat straw like the ox (Isaiah 11.3-9 and 65.25)
Is this a valid theological argument?
It is important to note that Christians should not always operate on the basis of the world to come in the midst of the world as it is. There will not be marriage in the world to come (Matt. 22.30), nor will people teach each other about God (Jer. 31:34), but these are both acceptable things to do in the present age.
Why should eating meat be any different?
With their roots going back beyond the Fall to God’s good creation, marriage and teaching about God are good things to do in the present, but will become unnecessary in the world to come. Eating meat, on the other hand, cannot be traced back beyond the Fall. It is an unneeded, negative act in the present and will be impossible in a fully redeemed world. We do not have the license to act violently in the present world just because the future perfect world is not yet fully realized.
When we eat meat-free diets, we are participating in the redemptive work that God is doing in the world, actualizing a future where humans and animals will live in community as nonviolent companions. Matthew C. Halteman summarizes it well:
“Caring for animals was the very first responsibility bestowed to humankind by God—our very first chance to practice the capacities of love, power, and mercy that accompany the divine image within us...Someone seeking to eat mindfully aspires to live toward the biblical ideal of shalom—the peaceful state of holistic flourishing that is portrayed first in Eden and last on the holy mountain of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a fully redeemed world.”
Reducing meat consumption has many benefits:
- Global poverty reduction: Food costs would decrease as less crops would be used for meat production and instead fed directly to humans
- Reduced animal suffering: Fewer animals would be bred and raised in terrible conditions
- Improved public health: Risks for cardiovascular disease and cancer - together responsible for 50% of U.S. deaths - would be reduced
- Healthier planet: Air & water pollution would be reduced and far fewer resources would be needed to produce our food
Eating is an agricultural, economic, and spiritual act.
Because we can eat either with or against the grain of the gospel, Christians need to see ethical food choices as everyday acts of virtue. Christians need to become food theologians, acquiring a moral imagination that sees animals as valuable co-heirs of the present and future world, and finding ways to look beyond the habits and comforts of our current food system to participate in a better, redeemed alternative.
Want to learn more?
If you are interested in reducing your meat consumption, there are numerous organizations that can guide you through the process of finding delicious, healthy, and inexpensive alternatives. The Christian Vegetarian Association and Mercy for Animals are two good places to start.
Zak Weston works for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to building a healthy, just, and sustainable food system. He can be reached at zak [.] weston [@] gmail.com.