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By David Briggs
In the biblical Book of Leviticus, the Lord is said to tell Moses, "You may eat any land animal that has divided hoofs and that also chews the cud." In the Gospel of Luke, the father celebrates the return of the prodigal son by ordering the slaughter of the fatted calf for a feast.
And in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus is said to have fed thousands gathered to hear him, fish was definitely a big part of the menu.
So you know it ain't easy being a Christian vegetarian, or to seek to convert meat-eaters to a dietary lifestyle that makes fewer demands on the environment and is sensitive to the feelings of other creatures in creation.
For the Cleveland-based international Christian Vegetarian Association http://www.christianveg.com, one place to start is in the beginning, in the first chapter of Genesis. There God is said to speak of an ideal world where grains and fruits are plentiful, and humans are to care for — rather than eat — animals.
Fast forward to today, in an era of factory farming that can cause great suffering for animals slaughtered and housed en masse. Some can make a strong case that Jesus would leave meat out of his diet, Christian vegetarians say.
"Christian love should apply to animals as well as humans," said Dr. Stephen Kaufman, a Northeast Ohio ophthalmologist who is co-chairman of the Christian Vegetarian Association. "Whatever dominion means, it's not tyranny. It's not cruelty."
The association was founded in 1999 to offer a Christian alternative to a movement that has tended to be dominated by secular people and people without much sympathy toward religion.
Unlike more radical groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Christian association tends to be more low-key and less confrontational, preferring education and persuasion over confrontation, the group's leaders said.
The association, which features a prominent international board of animal-rights theologians and activists, distributes literature and a video in which people say why vegetarianism is important to their faith and encourages churches to hold discussions on the moral issues involved in deciding which foods to eat.
Biblical evidence isn't real clear
Christian vegetarianism is not an easy sell.
On the left, secular vegetarians are often distrustful of religion, associating Christianity with the idea that humans have been given dominion over creation to exploit it for their own needs, rather than to care for the environment.
"In fact, Christianity demands such compassion," said Stephen Webb, co-chairman of the Christian Vegetarian Association and the author of On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals http://www.amazon.com/God-Dogs-Christian-Theology-Compassion/dp/0195152298.
Yet among religious folks, the many biblical references to animal sacrifice, the eating of meat and fish, and religious laws regarding the slaughter of animals make vegetarianism seem somewhat foreign to the faith.
The Bible does not provide definitive direction.
While some in the movement make the claim Jesus was a vegetarian, even leaders of the Christian Vegetarian Association say that is a difficult assertion to back up.
Fish was so plentiful in Galilee that some of it was exported, and it was a staple of the diet of many of the people Jesus associated with. The Gospel of Luke tells of fishermen choosing to become disciples after Jesus leads them to a catch so large "that their nets were beginning to break."
While only the rich would have had meat, it is unlikely when Jesus ate at a banquet or in the house of a wealthy person he would risk offending the host by not eating the food before him.
Where Christian vegetarians are making headway on the biblical front, however, is in their interpretation of Genesis that God intended a vegetarian diet described in the Garden of Eden.
In the creation account at the end of the first chapter of Genesis, God gives human beings power over the fish, the birds and all animals. But no creatures — neither animals nor humans — need to eat one another's flesh.
"I have provided all kinds of grain and all kinds of fruit for you to eat; but for all the wild animals and for all the birds I have provided grass and leafy plants for food," God is said to have proclaimed in Genesis 1:29.
Webb, a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College, said it is a key passage "bringing conservative Christians on board to the vegetarian movement."
The Christian Vegetarian Association also holds up several biblical passages showing God's concern for all of creation, from feeding the birds of the air to forgetting not one sparrow.
If you take away extremes, Webb said, "There's a broad consensus that the Bible does teach compassion for animals."
Vegetarianism as matter of faith
The question is not as much what Jesus did in the culture of his day as what Jesus would do today, proponents say.
In its booklet "Honoring God's Creation," the vegetarian association says justice concerns should prompt Christians to consider a change in what they eat.
For example, it says the greater costs and resources associated with raising animals for food decreases the amount of grain available for feeding the hungry and raises the cost of all food. In terms of the environment, the association says, "The typical meat-eater's diet can easily consume up to 14 times more water and 20 times more energy than that of a vegetarian."
The association also asks Christians to consider how sausage is made. Animals raised under factory farming conditions can "suffer greatly" from stressful crowding, barren environments, amputations without anesthesia and painful slaughtering methods, the group says.
"All things being equal, if we can avoid contributing to factory farming, if we can avoid contributing to the cruelties... the Bible would support such a position," Kaufman said.
Progress for Christian vegetarians is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It also can be measured in the decision of an individual to cut back on meat consumption or to buy only free- range meat or poultry.
When it comes to influencing what Christians eat, Kaufman said, "I'm hoping for them to say let's think about it. Let's talk about it. Let's make faith-based choices."
One member of the Christian Vegetarian Association who appreciates the group's respectful approach is the Rev. James Antal of Plymouth Church of Shaker Heights.
Antal said he does not proclaim vegetarianism from the pulpit. But he said he wants to be a witness in his own life to the "Christ-like" principles of compassion for all creation.
How people put those principles into practice in their food choices is their responsibility.
"For me," he said, "I'm going to be a vegetarian."
Originally published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
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