I’ve been vegetarian for almost a decade, but I’ve never been militant about it. My reasons weren’t noble in the first place–I changed because the meat in the college cafeteria tasted bad. In the years since, I’ve created a coherent and sustained ethic of eating, but never a militant ethic.
I chose vegetarianism. The act itself is something that marks me as Christian–choosing an alternative to the mindless, normative structures of the powers and principalities. It is an act that, three times a day, marks me as “in the world but not of the world,” that encourages a conversation about what I believe, that invites people into a dialogue about what it means to let your values shape your life.
Maybe that sounds all too rosy and delusional, especially if you’ve read Acts 10:1-33 recently, about Peter’s conversion the other way–from a low-meat diet to Gentile carnivorousness. Peter’s transformation was sudden and striking:
“He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds to the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'”
Historically, Christians have taken this as an all-you-can-eat invitation to meat. In the 15th century, as Christians were rising to power in Spain, pork was served frequently in order to identify Jews and Muslims who had not converted to the Faith. Christians are the most meat-friendly of the Abrahamic faiths.
Our contemporary lives call for a reinterpretation of Acts 10. It’s easy to read this text as glutenous North Americans, not first-century Mediterraneans. The vision of meat is a spread; God reveals all the animals that were forbidden to Jews in the Levitical law. It’s not just pork, it’s everything from camels to octopi to eagles, ostriches, and bats. It also includes “whatever has many feet,” so enjoy your spiders, you Gentile carnivores. But let’s not be literalists. In the Mediterranean region in the first century–and Acts is all over the Mediterranean, from Jerusalem to Rome–there’s two likely options for the meat-eating habits of your average working class peasant.
Option A. It’s a fertile land and there’s not a lot of meat around; plus, meat is expensive and in order to raise a meat animal (with the exception of the spiders), you have to put in a significant amount of grass or of your own plant food. So you’re not eating meat more than once a week anyway. Option B. It’s arid, hot, and I envy you nothing. The only thing available to you is desert fare, which is rabbits (these are okay for Jews), camels, ostriches and bats. You eat meat three times a day because that’s what your habitat can sustain.
The New Testament does not advocate meat, it advocates an ethic of eating with the land and the poor of the land. Eat what is available to the least among you.
This is also the case in the second grand carnivore’s prooftext, in 1 Corinthians 8. Paul says, “Food will not bring us close to God.” Food is just food. Any good Mennonite will disagree with Paul on the grounds of Communion (and pfeffernusse, but mainly communion). But let’s let Paul’s flawed logic stand for now, and put him in context. Paul and the Corinthians aren’t concerned about the Gentile vs. Jews meat debate. They’re concerned about Christians vs. those damned polytheists and their temple offerings. The question is, “Can I eat meat at my friend’s house if it was offered to some god like Mars or Venus that’s really just a big rock in the sky?” If I eat the meat, isn’t that a way of “believing” in the god?
Paul says no, because you know in the heart that god isn’t anything but vapor. But, he said, your knowledge won’t convince the conservative Christian literalists:
“Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”
Paul is working between two extremes and, because this is the diverse Corinthian church, those are probably related to economics. On the one hand, there are those who absolutely won’t touch idol-meat. These are people with resources and access to other food. On the other hand, those who eat idol meat are probably the poorest of the congregation, who eat better when they’re served by their pagan friends. Paul is asking his congregation to discern, and to discern how to eat in solidarity (a) with the moralizing and (b) with the poor. This is the guiding ethic of our diet.The Protestant vision of MORE MEAT has no biblical grounding. Most Americans eat meat at a pace that is not biblical, not ethical, not healthy, and not sustainable. Even the USDA (not exactly the best gauge of healthy eating) recommends a daily meat intake of .21 pounds, while the average consumption is closer to .36 pounds.
How do we eat biblically? The New Testament diet is one of eating with the land and eating in solidarity. We must scale back; eat what our own land is capable of producing. What can you grow on your land? If you average by the arable land in the U.S., that’s 1.2 acres. That’s space for a cow (no calf), or 10 sow pigs (plus some piglets). That’s per year, mind you.
The New Testament doesn’t have a militant vegetarian ethic. Although this surface exegesis doesn’t suggest one, I think you could find one, because the New Testament does have a militant defense of the earth, and given what we’ve done to our earth in the last few years, a vegetarian diet is the least we can do. But if meat is to you what chocolate is to me, let’s reshape our vision of eating. The New Testament ethic is not far from the proverb: Eat simply, that others may simply eat.