There is no Christian equivalent to Kosher or Halal when it comes to food. As far as our faith is concerned, nothing is off-limits; nothing about what we eat sets us apart as Christians. Or does it? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what exactly it is that does identify us as Christians.
I have an uncomfortable feeling that if you asked 100 people in the street what makes Christians different, a good chunk of them might say “it’s their attitude towards women, gay couples, abortion, sex”. Generally, people think of us as a pretty traditional bunch, which I find bonkers, since I see Jesus as one of the most radical, counter-cultural and forward-thinking people that’s ever lived. But that’s probably a topic for another blog, if not a whole thesis.
I’d guess that not one in that 100 would say anything about our dietary habits. But the choices we make about what we eat directly reflect and impact how we treat other people, how much we value the environment and the quality of life we think animals deserve. In short, our relationship with creation: the planet and everybody on it. I believe how we value those relationships is what defines us as Christians, and I long for this to be something that others know is the mark of a Christian. If you agree, what we eat suddenly becomes massively important.
Bible passages have long been used to explain why it’s fine for Christians to eat anything: “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Genesis 9:3-4).
Jesus seems to confirm it in Mark (and I love the frustration in his voice here – reassuring for those like me who occasionally feel a little frustrated): “Are you being willfully stupid? Don’t you see that what you swallow can’t contaminate you?” (Mark 7:18-19, from the Message).
Jesus would have eaten lamb at Passover, and we know he ate at least the odd fish supper. So how can I suggest that there’s something un-Christian about eating meat?
Mass meat production is, in one way or another, responsible for deforestation in the Amazon and elsewhere, enormous greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, loss of biodiversity and soil erosion. It takes more water, more energy and more food to make a kilo of meat than it does to make a kilo of grain. To divert resources to meat production while 870 million people around the world are going hungry, means eating meat is a bit like saying ‘my taste is more important than your very existence’.
We’ve built a demand for cheap meat so high that we’ve created animals that can’t even naturally reproduce – we’ve turned them into fast-growing meat machines and changed their genetics to meet our requirements. We keep them in incomprehensibly bad conditions and then kill them on a production line that necessitates such speed that cruelty is common place.
All of this leads me to think that we’ve persuaded ourselves that humans are so important that we can do whatever we like to the environment and other animals. I don’t think this is what God intended when he gave us dominion over the whole earth (Genesis 1:28).
Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this article – after all, Romans 14 points out that: “None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters”. Perhaps it’s arrogant of me to try and persuade you that my opinion is even worth hearing. But something else in that same chapter from Romans spurs me on:
“Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is” (13-14).
Climate change is making life much more difficult than it already is for poor communities around the world. If my meat eating contributes to that, then to me it seems pretty obvious that I shouldn’t be eating meat.
You can read other articles in the ‘Can you be a Christian and…’ series here.