Whenever people ask me why I am vegan, I can't even begin to answer coherently. So many reasons - from the logical to the emotional to the spiritual - come rushing in. In a split second, countless ecological statistics, snuck-photos of factory-farmed animals, quotations from great philosophers/philanthropists, and intimate religious experiences flash through my mind. I end up just saying shyly, "oh there are various reasons."
However, there is a single biblical verse that might begin to get at the core of why I no longer feel I have the right to use and abuse animals. It's in an apocalyptic segment in Matthew's gospel. There is a vision of the "eschaton" or "end of time." A large group of people is being rewarded for having! helped "the king." The people are puzzled at their luck, since they'd never met or heard of this king, let alone helped him. But the king answers "as you did it to one of the least of these ... you did it to me."
Now, who are "the least" in modern North America? If you know anything about intensive farming and the pharmaceutical/cosmetic industries, you know the very lowest of the low are the animals - able to feel pain, fear, and (in some cases) boredom and despair - yet treated strictly as machines for the personal whim of humans. The fact that every meatless meal I eat, and every cosmetic that I put back on the shelf because it doesn't have the "not tested on animals" label, are gifts not only to my body, not only to individual animals, not only to our soil, water, and air, but to "the king" is profound.
This idea that if I want to give a gift to God, all I have to do is seek out "the least of these" is profound in two ways: First, it is profoundly frightening to think of the extravagant, militant, and boastful ways North American Christians often "help" God. Second, it is profoundly touching to imagine a God who deliberately identifies with the lowest of the low. How can this insight not humble us and change our smallest habits, out of gratitude?