The Fellowship of Life
by Simon Lister
We vegetarians number three and a half million throughout Britain. Our
society's first meeting was 37 years earlier than that of the Fabian
Society, and we were 126 old before the National Association of Catering
Butchers could light a single candle on its birthday cake. Last week was
our 150th anniversary and new members are being attracted at the rate of
over 2,000 each week.
Much has been written in the national press about this anniversary,
not all of it complimentary. One article said that all vegetarians were
liars while the Daily Mail, under the banner "The hypocrisy of being
vegetarian", suggested we would be on safer moral ground if we ate our
pets. It is no coincidence that London's most famous vegetarian
restaurant parodies our status by calling itself Cranks. As any
vegetarian will tell you, suspicion of our motives among the meat eating
community is widespread.
About once a month I get asked the question, "So why don't you eat
meat?", and I find myself having to justify my fragile, incomplete
ethical principles to people I have no history of intimacy with. Few
other groups endure this sort of public scrutiny on such a regular
basis. Imagine going to a party where the host asks, "So why are you
such a lousy Christian?" The meat eaters' great fear is that the
vegetarian across the dinner table really does enjoy the unique
privilege of being able to cast the first stone - looking for chinks in
our moral armour, questioning our commitment, is the best way of getting
their revenge in first.
I certainly don't see myself as a crank. I have been a vegetarian
since I was 11 years old when, on holiday, I saw a Greek butcher at
work. I have eaten nut cutlets (our supposed staple dish) only twice in
17 years and I enjoy a wide and varied diet that hardly ever
necessitates scavenging for berries in the woodland around the flat
where I live. I am fit and don't have to lie in a darkened room after
climbing the stairs. Despite being a vegetarian throughout puberty, I
have astounded the medical profession by growing to 6'3" and I weigh in
at the chunkier end of 13 stone.
I mention these facts to help break down the prejudice that divides
our two camps. Vegetarians are not all sallow-faced deviants with a
slender grasp on life, just as I am sure most meat eaters aren't aroused
to a feeding frenzy by the sight of a rare steak or a plate of seafood.
Although many are quick to dismiss us, the 150th anniversary of the
Vegetarian Society shows that we do have our legitimate place in
The Vegetarian Society, formed in 1847, was the natural consequence
of half a century of agitation for a vegetarian movement. Nurtured by
Free Church Temperence, abstinence from meat eating was advanced as a
principle by, among others, the Bible Christian Church of Salford. It
was one of their congregation, James Brotherton MP, who later became
president. Over the next 100 years, the society became more coherent,
pooled its resources and established itself throughout Europe.
These initiatives developed not from the muses of a collection of
eccentrics, but from a strongly argued Christian apologetic.
Vegetarianism has always been present in aspects of Hindu and Buddhist
thought, with religious communities practising vegetarianism as an
integral part of their commitment.
The place of vegetarianism within Christianity, however, has often
been overlooked. The first words of God to man in Genesis include, "See,
I give you all the seed-bearing plants that are upon the whole earth,
and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this shall be your food." A
theme that runs throughout the creation narrative is the parity given to
all creatures and the goodness of non-human life. Even after the flood
God tells Noah that his covenant is established with "every living thing
that is found on the earth".
In the New Testament, the gospels are not so helpful to our cause.
Jesus was a man of his time: that is the point. We know he was not a
So why be a vegetarian if Christ wasn't? If it showed us anything, Jesus's public ministry illustrated an ethic that commands every aspect of our lives, where we are given moral opportunities to reject evil, including the sin of cruelty. I don't eat meat because I believe that animals are more than the components of a profligate, intensive farming culture.
Our ability to make moral choices is a gift; to be unthinking, and in
this instance to deny the extravagent cruelty of factory farming, is a
rejection of that gift. Like a political party in power for too long,
our decision-making has in this area become arrogant; it is a false
consensus. We have abused our stewardship of the earth and conveniently
erased the concept of the dignity of all living creatures as a gift from
Perhaps it is this that causes the suspicion with which meat eaters
often view us. Perhaps we remind them of a moral opportunity that they
have so far missed but which they are capable of grasping if they really
want to. Next time I see the familiar question coming, I'll get in there
first by enquiring, "So why do you still eat meat?"
© Redemptorist Publications 1997
The above article originally appeared in The Tablet dated 18 October
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