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By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
Food is a major theme throughout the Bible, and the diverse stories and pronouncements seem to give contradictory messages about what kinds of foods we should eat. Should we be vegan as prescribed in Genesis 1:29-30 and Isaiah 11:6-9? Should we adhere to the kosher restrictions articulated in Deuteronomy 14 and Leviticus 11? Are all foods acceptable, as indicated in Genesis 9 and Peter’s dream in Acts 10?
Genesis 1 and Isaiah 11 describe ideal states – at the beginning of time and at the end of time – in which no individual hurts another. We should seek to live according to this ideal, even if we can’t avoid causing some harm in this imperfect, “fallen” world. Genesis 9 describes a very imperfect man, Noah, trying to live in a world in which plant foods have been devastated by the Flood. He was given permission to eat, but this in no way is an imperative to us. Indeed, the Bible has many examples in which God gives people permission to do undesirable things. 1 Samuel 8 describes God giving the Hebrews the king they request, even though God has warned that the king will be a tyrant. Even more to the point is Matthew 19:8, in which Jesus says, “for your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Similarly, from the beginning killing and eating animals was not so, but humanity’s hardness of heart was evidently responsible for God’s giving humanity permission to eat animals.
Regarding Acts 10, I refer people to our site, where we discuss how this story is about welcoming Gentiles to the Christian faith and not about diet.
While there are different instructions about diet, relating in large part to different circumstances in which those instructions were given, the Christian call to mercy and compassion is, in my opinion, unequivocal. There is no mercy or compassion in factory farming, and nearly all animal agriculture involves exploitation and nearly all involves abuse.
The price we pay for failing to heed the Bible’s call to minimize harm to God’s animals and God’s earth is huge. We know that the Western diet contributes greatly to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, certain cancers and other diseases. Though we are to care for our bodies, the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), most Christians suffer the same diseases as their non-Christian brethren who share the unhealthy diet that most Christians eat. We often pray for God’s healing, yet so many Christians put toxic foods in their bodies – foods heavily laden with saturated fats, hormones, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and foods lacking fiber, phytonutrients, and the many other healthful components of plant foods. How does God respond? Evidently, God has given us permission to suffer the consequences of our own poor choices.
The growing environmental crisis is a consequence of humanity’s placing its own desires above the needs of God’s Creation. And among the most harmful activities has been animal agriculture, which contributes greatly to global warming, pollution, and depletion of scarce, non-renewal resources.
Many people are concerned about violence, but it appears that the principle concern is not violence per se but rather violence directed toward them and those they love. While most people would prefer that farmed animals not suffer so much, few people care enough about the extreme violence of factory farming to simply choose to eat other foods. Well, we reap what we sow, and if we as a society sow violence, we will reap violence.
Jesus prayed “Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven,” and Revelation 21:4 reminds us that in heaven there is no killing. It is a mockery of faith to claim that, because God has given us permission to fail to live up to this ideal, we should abandon this ideal altogether.
Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D. is Chair of The Christian Vegetarian Association.
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