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a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973

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Animal Worship

From The Vegetarian of September/October 1990:

When Food Minister John Gummer castigated vegetarians, he was echoing centuries of Christian teaching of human dominance of animals. Jennifer Britt talks to two clergymen who believe differently.

Was Jesus Christ a vegetarian?

'Maybe' sums up the answer from the man who is described as the leading theologian dealing with the issues of animal rights. Dr Andrew Linzey, Chaplain at the University of Essex and the Director of the Centre for Theological Studies, is taking a long, hard look at a theory which at one time he dismissed. Ultimately, winning Jesus for the Vegetarian Society is not essential for Linzey's argument. Christ was not some kind of 'know-all-superman', whose historical life we have to copy in every detail, says the theologian. "But I don't give up on the possibility, in the light of my recent research, that Jesus was a vegetarian." In fact, Linzey will review the evidence in his latest book, still at word-processing stage, Jesus and Animals.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would leave us in no doubt that Jesus ate fish. However, says Linzey, there is another tradition about Jesus, found in what are known as the Essene gospels in which he is much more pro-animal and certainly a vegetarian. Traced back to the third century after Christ, these gospels possibly contain genuine historical reminiscence. Linzey also sees significant signs, if not of vegetarianism, then on a value put on the lives of animals, in the mainstream biblical account of the life of Christ: for example, the oxen at the manger, and the donkey which carried Jesus into Jerusalem before the crucifixion.

Weightier evidence is Christ's abstinence from animal sacrifice, says Linzey; a revolutionary stance at a time when the practice was prevalent. Then there's the story of Jesus throwing out the people who buy and sell in the temple. "What do they buy and sell? asks Linzey. "Well, it's not candy-floss and guidebooks. It's animals for sacrifice. Could this be the first act of animal liberation?" Biblical texts will not win the argument either way, says Linzey. But many vegetarians may feel an unworthy sense of triumph when he affirms that the passage in Genesis about man having dominion over creatures, which John Gummer alighted upon to justify why we "quite properly eat animals", is the single, clearest piece of scripture supporting vegetarianism, as it records God giving people grain and fruit.

The question of what the Bible says on the issue and whether Christ was a vegetarian are not new. In a previous book, Linzey recounts how many years ago the Methodist minister, Dr Donald Soper, in reply to just this poser, said that no, Jesus wasn't vegetarian, but if he were alive today he probably would be. Three decades later, and now a socialist life peer, Lord Soper still holds this view. As a child of his time, he says, Jesus would have eaten flesh. "It's the spirit of Jesus that we have to look to...In the world that he knew his attitude was one of non-violence, non-violent care, certainly not the rapacity of a meat market." A pacifist, Lord Soper who is president of the League against Cruel Sports, extends his guiding principle of non-violence to the animal world.

He came to vegetarianism through a moral objection to the treatment of animals in the production of meat. "I didn't begin by thinking of the relation of Christianity to vegetarianism, but I began by thinking of the relation of Christianity to politics and economics. I've come to see now that there is a very close correlation between the way that we treat animals and the way in which we ought to treat one another, and I think that one of the gateways into a better treatment of our fellow human beings is to know how better to treat the animal creation." Now heading towards his 88th birthday, Lord Soper is still active in leading worship, continues to mount his open air soapbox at Tower Hill and Hyde Park Corner, and now and again contributes to House of Lords debates.

Andrew Linzey, after 20 or so years as a vegetarian, has become vegan because he felt increasingly uncomfortable about eating the by-products of slaughter. He describes himself, though, as a non-fussy vegan...not of the school that would enquire in a restaurant whether his vegetable pie had been cooked in a pan previously used for meat.

But, he's outspoken about self-righteous vegans and vegetarians. He wears plastic shoes, but acknowledges that the material would have been tested for toxicity on animals, and realises that even growing vegetable food will entail shooting rabbits to clear the land. "Some people almost want a personal purity, which is very like what some religious people want as well...it becomes a religion in the worst sense," he says. Andrew Linzey's four young vegetarian children, although free to eat meat away from home, are as zealous as they come, with the habit of commenting loudly and unfavourably during shopping trips on other people's taste for dead animals.

By the age of 19, Andrew Linzey had joined the RSPCA Council as part of a new breed of supporters in the days when the Society still backed hunting.

Animal rights, although important, were still a secondary concern for the young Andrew Linzey, in contrast to his conviction today that the struggle of humans to learn to live at peace with the rest of the world is the moral issue of our time. "I believe at the heart of the animal rights movement is an appreciation - not just a reverence for life - of the worth of other living creatures; that they exist in their own right for the glory of God. They don't exist for us."

On a practical level, he argues that now we know that humans do not have to kill to live, we have a moral obligation to gradually move away from animal exploitation and that includes dismantling the whole apparatus of vivisection: "Although I think we have gained from experiments on animals, I think it's foolish to pretend otherwise," he says.

Anyone looking for the definitive Christian view on animal rights is bound for disappointment. Talking to two Christians, you find divergence on various points. On the keeping of pets, for instance, Lord Soper sees a place for companion animals, as long as they are allowed to live their own lives, but Andrew Linzey is sceptical. Both men make a clear distinction between proper use and exploitation of animals: "I think there is a place for an animal as a servant, but there is no place for an animal as a slave and there is certainly no place for an animal merely to provide pleasure," says Lord Soper. Andrew Linzey sadly observes that, "Everywhere we seem to change the possibility of use into abuse." In the Church he sees definite rays of light. In the animal-valuing tradition of St Francis, people like the Anglican priest Arthur Broome who founded the RSPCA, and Henry Clubb, a founder member of the Vegetarian Society who later became a pastor, are making headway.

He's been overwhelmed by support in the debate over hunting on church land. The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the World Council of Churches have to varying degrees acknowledged the need for a more caring, respectful relationship with the natural world. Moving to the Jewish faith, the new Chief Rabbi from 1991, Jonathan Sacks, is vegetarian. Andrew Linzey, who admires the 'marvellous' Buddhist ideals of not killing, but regrets that they have not always been put into practice, says that in Christian tradition the hierarchical view of men as just below the angels, women lower down and animals lower still has bedevilled our view of creation. The assumption that animals are without souls has also left the way wide open for abuse.

Says Lord Soper: "You are sometimes asked whether when you die you'll meet your cat again in heaven, and the answer is, if you loved it, I think, yes."

Reproduced with the kind permission of the Vegetarian Society: www.vegsoc.org

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