The Fellowship of Life
The ethics of meat-eating
by Hugh Montefiore
From the Church Times of 25 May 1990:
I have known John Selwyn Gummer since his student days at Cambridge, and I have to admit that I have often strongly (though I hope politely) disagreed with him. I do so now about his views on vegetarianism and eating meat. When I have argued in the past with Evangelicals I found that it was useless to start from my own premises: I usually said (and it sometimes nettled them): "Why don't you read your Bible?" Although John Selwyn Gummer is hardly an Evangelical, I would like courteously to offer him the same well-meaning advice.
Not myself being a member of the International Meat Traders' Association, I was not present at Butcher's Hall when Mr Gummer recently spoke there, but according to the Church Times Mr Gummer is reported to have said: "The Bible tells us that we are masters of the fowls of the air and beasts of the field and we very properly eat them." Vegetarianism, he said strangely, is "an unnatural practice". Surely feeding sheep offal to herbivores (as once permitted by Mr Gummer), thus causing Mad Cow disease, was the real "unnatural practice"?
According to the scriptures mankind has an affinity with God, and we are made "in God's image". This involves us being given dominion over all living things, but that does not mean that we can do what we like with them.
As for eating meat, according to Genesis I, animals are to eat grass, while man is to eat grains and fruit. In other words unfallen man is a vegetarian. As at the start, so at the end. Isaiah tells us that in the last days "the cow and the bear shall feed, their young lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox...They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain." Vegetarianism, according to the scriptures, far from being "unnatural", belongs to both the Garden of Eden and Paradise Regained. Eating flesh is a mark of Paradise Lost. After the wickedness which caused the flood, Noah is told: "Every moving thing that moves shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, so I give you everything." And the result of eating flesh? "The fear and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, all birds of the air, everything that creeps, all the fish of the sea..." That actually happens.
Not being a biblical fundamentalist, I certainly do not believe that meat-eating is due to wickedness. It is part of our nature. Humans evolved from primates who lived in trees (where they ate nuts and fruits) and then came down to the plains (where they ate animals); and the entail of our past is still with us. Nor is meat bad for us in modest quantities. At the same time, modern methods of farming can be cruel (did you know that battery hens often arrive to be stunned with broken bones, because they cannot take proper exercise?); and I find it very offensive to feed up animals just so as to eat them. I myself believe - but I'm sure most readers will not - that the best thing that could result from Mad Cow disease would be that world beef production should cease. An ox consumes ten times as much grain as a human, and for the last three years the growing world population has outstripped world food production. Cattle worldwide produce huge quantities of methane gas from their digestive tracts which contribute considerably to the warming of the planet. My guess is that over the next century beef-eating, pace Mr Gummer, will be gradually phased out.
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