By James Van Alstine
Vegetarianism is not clearly commanded, directly, by the Bible. At no point is Jesus quoted as saying, “To follow me you must leave off the eating of flesh.” In the absence of a definitive ban on the eating of flesh, is the practice of a vegetarian diet a topic that should be taken up by Christians and Christian churches?
Many social norms of generations past are now considered contrary to Christian faith. Over the centuries, such now-abhorred practices were tolerated and practiced by Christians. As some Christians and progressive elements of society questioned such practices, those who wished to continue them sought justification in the Bible. Among these social justice issues are slavery, rape of women captives of war and capital punishment. Contemporary Christians now clearly reject all these, yet the Bible does not formally condemn them.
In each of these cases Christians determined that it was a matter of Christian justice to pursue social progress even if the Bible does not clearly condemn a specific practice. Why? In short they saw it as their calling to follow the path of compassion and peace that Jesus offers. There are but a handful of words attributed to Jesus and the first of his followers. Clearly, most of the ethical and moral dilemmas modern people confront are not directly addressed by scripture. Therefore, we must examine the example of Jesus and constantly ask, “What would Jesus do?”
With the passage of time, issues once overlooked became a part of Christian social teaching. The twentieth century brought considerable advancements in the treatment of workers, race relations and the status of women; all of these reforms were driven by a call to Christian justice. Today, other issues are emerging as new frontiers in Christian ethics. Among them are biomedical/genetic issues, homosexuality, environmentalism and animal rights.
Emerging knowledge of the intelligence and emotional complexity of animals raises questions regarding what constitutes a just relationship between animals and humans. Modern factory farming processes provide images that stand in stark, undeniable conflict with a Christian ideal of the Good Shepherd practicing responsible stewardship. As animal rights proponents build an increasingly powerful case against animal agriculture’s impact on the environment, human health, and animal welfare, it is becoming increasingly clear that this topic has a place in the social justice considerations of Christians.