Vegetarianism: should it be just a personal matter?
I was twelve years old when I made the decision to become a vegetarian. It was 1972 and I grew up in a single-parent family that lived on a council estate, so it wasn’t exactly a common choice to make. My mother listened. She did once try to ignore my choice by serving me up a corned beef salad with boiled potatoes, a choice she knew I liked. But I ate around the meat and left it entirely intact on the plate. She never tried again.
I wasn’t sure whether that was out of respect for my choice or because of her extremely tight budget: she was a school cleaner and we scraped by on her tiny income and benefits. I suspect it was a little of both, though.
As a child my mother had gone hungry and also been made to eat some things she didn’t like. And as a result, my sister and I were never forced to eat anything and never sent to bed hungry. My choice wasn’t because I was on any kind of crusade, nor was it part of a wider lifestyle manifesto. It was simply that I no longer wanted to eat animals: they were my friends and I related to them more easily than many of the human beings in my life. I simply couldn’t countenance the killing and eating of my friends.
Nothing has changed for me in the intervening years; I’m still vegetarian and I still consider animals my friends and equals on this planet. I still, also, am not on a crusade to convert others to vegetarianism. Like my faith, I see it as something intensely personal that can only be embraced by an individual from her or his own choice. If my commitment and the meals I offer as hospitality inspire others to tread the same path, then I am honoured – just as I am if someone chooses to embrace faith because I inspire them through my lifestyle and ministry.
As a twelve-year-old child, I didn’t situate my choice to be a vegetarian in the Christian faith. I already knew my Bible well enough to know that this was a pretty pointless exercise. I could play ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ with Bible texts. But that wouldn’t cancel out all those that endorsed not only the killing and eating of animals, but the classification of some as unclean and encouraging the sacrifice of animals as payment for human sin. By the time I became a vegetarian, I had made the decision that most of these texts were irrelevant in the twentieth century, and that the interpretation of the rest of them were suspect and biased in favour of a human arrogance I found unpalatable.
As an adult I have found animal-loving, vegetarian kindred spirits, hidden in amongst the familiar Bible narratives. As a result of the more familiar interpretations of our scriptures and the focus upon mainstream themes, these passages are easy to miss. Some years ago, during an ecumenical Lent course, I found myself leading a Bible study on the first chapter of Genesis. After we’d read the first of the two creation stories in Genesis, I asked the group what particular characteristic we’d learned about the community from whom this story came. It took a few minutes, with a handful of suggestions being made, but soon someone saw it: ‘They were vegetarian!’ she exclaimed. It’s easy to miss, in amongst all the other detail in the story:
It’s too easy to write off the people of ancient times as primitive and unsophisticated in their thought processes, but the truth is that we are really no different; the same yearnings and dreams of peace, justice and an idealist concept of a balanced world which were expressed centuries ago are also given voice by modern day vegetarians. This passage from Isaiah is one of the most well-known, carrying a palpable yearning in its poetry:
Founded in relationship
Although my decision to become a vegetarian wasn’t based upon biblical learning, it was absolutely founded in my spirituality and in my relationship with God, the giver and lover of all life. I can’t remember how I heard of St Francis, growing up in a very typical Anglican parish of the time, with few adornments and no mention of saints. Somehow he had entered my consciousness and captured my imagination as the saint who loved animals and called them his brothers and sisters. I loved him passionately and as a small child I wrote him a letter asking him for the gift of being able to talk to the animals. I must have recently seen the film Dr Dolittle!
I still think that it is largely in the wisdom of such communities as the Franciscans that we can find a spiritual interpretation of scripture to help us with our attitude to other species and to the wellbeing of our planet. While not all Franciscans today are vegetarian, there is still a focus on conscientious consumption and a respect and love of all creatures that is present in their rule of life.
Some monastic orders such as the Carthusians and Cistercians do still follow a strict vegetarian diet. As well as coming from the rule of life of religious communities, these choices have a link with asceticism: the doctrine that a person can attain a high spiritual and moral state by practising self-denial. The understanding of the place of asceticism in our modern life is somewhat tame in comparison to some medieval practices, but our keeping of the season of Lent is a simple illustration of how we still include it in our lives. Many abstain from certain foods, be that crisps, alcohol or the favourite choice of chocolate throughout Lent. It’s a time of reining in our over-consumption and resisting a sense of being sated. Accompanied by spiritual reading, study groups and prayer, this time can be used fruitfully in the quest of spiritual growth.
A further challenge
This year, the challenge was laid down to become vegan for Lent. A twelve-year-old girl, Genesis Butler, has led this campaign, and even urged Pope Francis to consider it. This story resonated so strongly with me: another twelve-year-old girl and another Francis. This campaign isn’t only about animals being farmed and killed for human food, but the desperate plight of our planet and the need for drastic action before it’s too late.
It’s not a new problem, we’ve been ignoring it for many years. I remember a pilgrimage to Germany with a group of young people in 1989. On the drive down to the monastery we passed so many acres of grains and, aghast, I commented to our host about the restrictions on growing such crops in the UK as part of the Common Agricultural Policy. He explained that these crops were for animal feed across Europe. When we arrived, we were taken to see their exhibition on the ills of wide-scale animal farming and the damage to the environment being done. Some thirty years later, the rest of the world seems to be waking up to this truth. This was the first time that my concerns over animal farming were given a modern religious context, the first time that I found environmentalism to be central to the life of a Christian community.
Some years ago, I was chatting to a scientist friend. He was describing the plight of the planet and said of the human race, ‘We are a cancer on the planet’. It’s not doctrinally mainstream to say such things as the Church prefers to use such phrases as ‘the crown of all creation’ of humans in its liturgy. I always avoid that Eucharistic Prayer personally, as it is too easy to misinterpret it as a justification of our wastefulness and misappropriation of other species, our greed and exploitation. Nor are we the pinnacle of evolution, as anthropology and genetics have shown that we are members of a family of species, the joint inhabitants of our world.
My personal Christian path is steeped in the Celtic traditions where God is seen as present in all creation. Akin to the teaching of St Francis, the early Celtic Christians held all life as sacred. St David of Wales lived a frugal, vegetarian life and encouraged his followers to do the same. What on earth would Francis and David have made of our modern, consumerist societies where factory farming and over-consumption lead to the waste of precious animal lives without a care or a prayer? The Celtic Christian way of life is one of seeking balance – balance between heart and mind, body and brain, the earth and sky, the elements, the seasons.
In times of utmost peril, when mortality rates were so much higher than in our time, they held onto this essential balance that is at the core of our planet and our lives. In a profligate society, we have lost sight of this crucial balance; we have failed to see what is truly important in amongst the overwhelming choice, and the whole of creation is suffering as a result. St Paul was aware of this tension and straining in his day, have we become so sated we need a period of abstinence to experience in our time what he knew?
There is a video on the internet that tells of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the USA. It shows how the presence of the wolves addresses the environmental issues caused by their absence, and brings back balance to the habitat. Sadly, the current administration is considering giving permission to kill the wolves.
So, amidst the concern and campaigning to save the planet, I find myself as a lifelong vegetarian in a new environment surrounded by a significant increase in the numbers of vegetarians and vegans. The strength in numbers has resulted in more choice in shops and eateries, less stigma and an increase in influence. Having spent most of my life on the dietary margins, sometimes subjected to unsolicited and offensive behaviour from meat eaters who have felt intimidated by my menu choices, I am now part of a larger group in society that seems to have spontaneously grown up around me.
The reasons people have made this choice may differ slightly from the one I made back in 1972, but we’re all singing roughly from the same hymn sheet. Talking of hymn sheets, the Church seems to be on the back foot here, playing catch-up.
Pope Francis may have considered the challenge to be vegan for Lent – perhaps it will catch on with other church leaders in 2020.