Keith Akers is a vegetarian writer. First let’s briefly examine the background of some of Mr. Akers’ religious beliefs. He is drawn to several ideas of the Unity School of Christianity (which is not a Christian group, according to traditional notions of orthodox Christianity held by all the major Christian groups: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox). Here are some of his thoughts about this group, in his paper, “Unity and Early Christianity”:
Unity School of Christianity, a New Thought denomination initiated by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore around the beginning of the twentieth century, is important because it recovers three critical pieces of early Christianity, as reflected in Jewish Christian Ebionism . . . These elements are (1) vegetarianism, (2) the “Christhood of the believer,” (3) the priority of divine experience over written documents.
About the second aspect, he writes:
For Unity, it is the indwelling of the spirit of God that gives authority, and this indwelling is available to all. It is not something reserved for the unique, holy Son of God; it is for all believers. This same point of view can be found in early Christianity, among the Ebionites.
. . . There is an important corollary to this idea, which is the rejection of original sin. Unity, and indeed all New Thought churches, reject the idea of original sin — that we are somehow inherently sinful at birth.
. . . Borrowing from Luther’s terminology, I refer to the divine indwelling of Christ as “the Christhood of the believer” — everyone is his or her own Christ, reflecting Jesus’ own words, “the kingdom of God is within you.” The first Christians did not think that we needed to go through Jesus in order to get to God. After Jesus had left the earth, in the upper room at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came directly to all the believers. To the early Christians, the answer to the question of whether the Christ has come, or even whether or not Jesus is the Christ, is superfluous: the believer is the Christ.
This is not orthodox Christianity. It is not Christianity at all, and I am duty-bound to point this out (nothing personal against Mr. Akers). He himself recognizes this in his final paragraph:
We certainly shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Unity and Ebionism are completely in harmony. There are stylistic and other differences between Ebionite Christianity and Unity . . . Nevertheless, we have here an example of two movements — one ancient, another modern — which both grasped key elements of Jesus’ teachings which are conspicuously missing from most of modern Christianity.
With this general approach to religion in mind, let us move on to interaction with Mr. Akers’ thoughts on Jesus and vegetarianism. First, I will respond to various portions of his article, “Christian / Vegetarian Dialogue”. His words will be in blue.
[M]ost vegetarians, when confronted with the idea that Jesus at meat, will say something like this: “Jesus ate meat? Your Lord and Savior, who is God incarnate, ate meat? Why should we pay any further attention to this unethical religion?”
This illustrates the “non-negotiable” status of vegetarianism as an ethical absolute in that position (at least what might be construed as the “purist” position).
The heart of the vegetarian movement is the claim that it is wrong to eat animals killed for food. Once you stipulate that Jesus ate meat, further discussion between Christians and vegetarians on ethical issues is not impossible, but progress will be limited.
I agree with the second sentence.
What kind of basis do we have for ethical vegetarianism, if we stipulate in advance that Jesus ate meat? The answer I would give is simple: in practical terms, there is none; to condemn meat-eating is to condemn a meat-eating Jesus.
Consistency would seem to demand this, yes. And such a position obviously is a virtually impossible one for Christians to take: Jesus being sinless and the incarnate God.
There are ways you can consistently maintain both ethical vegetarianism and follow a meat-eating Jesus, but they are quite awkward and would have limited appeal. So let us examine, from various sources, possible arguments in favor of vegetarianism in spite of a meat-eating Jesus.
1. Different periods of history require different ethics . . .
. . . “Somehow, it was all right for Jesus to eat meat, but it’s not all right for us; somehow, we are ethically obligated to uphold a higher standard than Jesus did.” Who can fail to see that this is inconsistent?
Mr. Akers is thinking consistently, according to his own premises.
2. Killing animals is sometimes necessary . . .
[Mr. Akers makes some small concessions, then concludes]:
The question is not whether we can be perfect and avoid killing every tiny bug and insect; the question is whether not eating animals for food is a both desirable and a reasonable behavior to expect from us or from the Prince of Peace in a time when we do not have to eat animals for food.
So Jesus sinned once again . . .
3. The “Factory Farming” Gambit: Jesus may have eaten meat in the first century, but with the manifest cruelty involved in the modern factory farming system, it is wrong to eat meat today and Jesus would not eat meat today.
. . . But will it convince anyone to become vegetarian who thinks that Jesus ate meat? This appears to be a rationalization adopted by conservative Christian vegetarians after the fact, rather than a serious attempt at talking with Christians about factory farming. It makes Jesus a rather inconsistent moralist; meat-eating is all right, as long as it doesn’t cause too much suffering. This argument would legitimate most meat-eating throughout history.
. . . This position of course is possible, and it is certainly more enlightened than that of most meat-eaters, but it is not an ethical vegetarian view. It is a “reformist” point of view that vegetarians and animal rights advocates often ridicule . . . it’s hard to see how anyone who believes, and feels, that meat-eating is wrong is going to be persuaded to follow such an indecisive Jesus.
All of the above analysis, presupposes, of course, that meat-eating is absolutely wrong in the first place. But Christians (or anyone else) will want to know how one arrives at such a position; on what ethical and epistemological grounds?
4. For world hunger reasons, and the inefficiency of producing meat and other animal products, vegetarianism is necessary.
Here is another argument that lets Jesus off the hook for eating meat; presumably, the inefficiency of meat production was not a significant factor in the hunger of Jesus’ day. This is indeed an ethical argument, but it is about the ethics of our treating humans. In other words, we have no obligations towards the animals themselves, but we do have obligations toward humans, and because eating meat causes other humans to suffer (they are deprived of the grain fed to cattle), we should be vegetarians. By this logic, it is all right to kill a stray dog, but it is not all right to kill your neighbor’s dog. This isn’t a bad argument to use with people who have no compassion for animals; at least this way the dogs who have owners are safe. But an ethical vegetarian is one who sees our obligations to animals as extending at least as far as not killing them for food, regardless of the economic or other factors involved in meat production.
Again, these intermediate positions are deemed unacceptable and inconsistent with a “hard-core” or “purist” vegetarianism.
5. Jesus is fallible, so perhaps he did not see the vegetarian issue clearly, though we should follow him in other respects.
This argument, as far as I know, has never been made in public, though some people have suggested it to me privately. Such an argument, while it would satisfy most ethical vegetarians, essentially takes us out of Christianity. Here is a key ethical issue, central to our lives, and central to the lives of at least some of Jesus’ contemporaries and followers. Yet Jesus himself did not understand this issue. If we are to find spiritual role models, it will either have to be Christians who saw this issue more clearly than Christ, or it will be among non-Christians. To say that Jesus was wrong about a key ethical or social issue does not logically take us out of Christianity, but it does take us beyond Christianity for all practical purposes.
Mr. Akers is absolutely correct about how such arguments rule out Christianity, and he has maintained logical consistency throughout — as we would expect from a philosophy major (i.e., assuming the correctness of his initial premises). Vegetarianism is adopted with such conviction, that if Jesus rejected it, so much for Jesus.
Despite the arguments of some conservative vegetarian Christians, they remain largely uninterested in vegetarianism for ethical reasons, concentrating instead on the health aspects. One can also advance various reasons, such as mercy and compassion, to limit the worst abuses of meat consumption, but obviously mercy and compassion is inherently limited — it cannot be extended to the act of killing and eating an animal for food without changing conservative Christian theology. I wish them luck in their efforts. However, as a practical matter, ethical vegetarianism is incompatible with the orthodox view of a meat-eating Jesus.
I have met countless people in the vegetarian movement who were once Christians, or were raised as Christians, but upon becoming vegetarian found no place for themselves in the church they were raised in. They simply dropped out. They correctly perceived that their new beliefs were incompatible with the conservative Christianity which they knew. The vegetarian movement today is significantly secular, anti-religious, and anti-Christian.
Thanks for the honesty and drawing the inevitable stark contrast.
That element of vegetarianism which is interested in spiritual matters tends to be eclectic, open, tolerant, and progressive. The vegetarian subculture did not acquire this character either because of a deliberate program to exclude Christianity, nor by chance; this happened because people who are open, tolerant, and progressive in matters of food are usually also open, tolerant, and progressive about other matters as well.
I wonder how “progressive” and “tolerant” it is on the issue of abortion (child-killing, usually entailing child-torturing)?
Christianity is in ferment. The struggle to change society and the struggle to change Christianity are not two different and independent events; they are parallel and interrelated events. Everywhere, people are saying things that have not been questioned for centuries and that would have been unthinkable a century ago. The spectacular and steady popularity enjoyed by such progressive thinkers as Matthew Fox and John Shelby Spong is evidence that Christianity is changing.
Not at all; it is evidence that liberal Christians who reject historic, biblical Christianity are more numerous and currently fashionable according to the zeitgeist. That has no relation to the truthfulness or falsity of orthodox Christianity. Liberals and dissidents, like the poor, are always with us.
On the other hand, there is a strong conservative element within Christianity that wants to keep things the same.
Yes, truth has an annoying way of being quite “samey.” The laws of thermodynamics or of gravity don’t change according to the whims and fancies and trendy fads of a particular age. Neither do Christian doctrinal and theological truths.
. . . In the long run, this conservative element is clearly losing the battle . . .
Why didn’t they lose it centuries ago, then? Why is orthodox Christianity still here if there is this mythical, inexorable “progressive” direction of history? G. K. Chesterton has a great line about, “at least five times in history the Church has gone to the dogs, but in each case, the dog died.”
Efforts to promote vegetarianism within Christianity — if they are to be more than just “back door” efforts — must attack the problem at its source. Christianity has lost its way on countless issues: by making judgments on people whose lifestyles or religions are different, by advocating war and violence, by putting forward a primitive and hateful theology, and by ignoring consumerism in a rich and wasteful society. Vegetarianism cannot be separated from these other issues. If we are committed to Christian renewal, we must start with the practice and teaching of Jesus and must radically reinterpret the nature of Christianity.
Thanks to Mr. Akers for another clear statement of the inherent anti-Christian nature of this philosophy, complete with the inevitable “tolerant hatred” of Christian thought, assuming it is hateful because certain ethical distinctions are made, and some behaviors are deemed sinful. It’s okay to assume killing an animal is sinful, but how dare we say that homosexuality is!!! That must be hatred and could be no other . . . so suddenly (but not surprisingly, Mr. Akers becomes quite unreasonable (in terms of internal consistency — his premises already were unreasonable, in my opinion).
Now onto his article, “Was Jesus a Vegetarian?”:
Was Jesus a vegetarian? This issue is too complex to be answered with just a few Bible verses. In fact, it cannot be fully answered in a short article . . . The New Testament takes contradictory stands on this issue, sometimes seeming to condemn and sometimes seeming to support vegetarianism.
Ah, of course; so those terrible “conservative” Christians who came after the apostolic period obviously changed the Bible and perverted it into a contradictory document: half-enlightened and so-called “progressive,” and half-“fundamentalist” . . .
. . . The letters of Paul give clear evidence of a controversy over vegetarianism. Paul believes that it is not necessary to be a vegetarian in order to be a Christian.
Good. Jesus agrees, since He ate fish and lamb.
The Jewish Christians are alone in early Christianity in placing heavy emphasis on the rejection of animal sacrifice. Yet the historical Jesus was clearly opposed to animal sacrifice, as we can see from one of the key events in Jesus’ life — the last week of his life, leading up to his crucifixion. According to all of the gospels, Jesus went into the temple and disrupted the animal sacrifice business:
And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written: ‘my house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:12-13; parallels at Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17)
Who were the ones who bought and sold in the temple, and why were they selling pigeons? The animals which are being sold are sacrificial animals, and it is these dealers in animals whom Jesus is angry with. The primary practical effect of this confrontation was to disrupt the animal sacrifice business — chasing out the animals to be sacrificed, or those who were selling them to be sacrificed. “Cleansing the temple” was an act of animal liberation.
This is sheer nonsense. If Jesus had rejected the system of animal sacrifice, then He wouldn’t have observed the Passover, and Scripture tells us in several places that He did that (the Last Supper was a Passover meal). He wouldn’t have included in his parable of the prodigal son a reference to killing the “fatted calf” in order to celebrate the wayward son’s return (see my above-mentioned paper).
This is a classic example of an otherwise intelligent person becoming quite the special pleader and irrationalist when it comes to sensible Bible interpretation, committing massive eisegesis (i.e., reading into the text one’s preconceived notions rather than letting it speak for itself). “Fundamentalists” aren’t the only ones who engage in shoddy and specious hermeneutics. Those who disbelieve in the inspiration of the Bible do far worse.
Most of the rest of this article involves the usual higher critical arbitrary and by no means proven historical theories, culminating in the obligatory (but equally unproven) conclusion:
Later editors of the New Testament further distorted and confused Jesus’ views on animals.
Of course, all the evidence I have brought to the table (no pun intended) contrary to the position of “ethical vegetarianism” would be part of these cynical, self-serving distortions by these “later editors.” No one has any cogent, consistent method by which we determine such additions, of course, but that is unimportant; a mere trifle. The main thing is to have some means by which we can disagree with and “diss” any biblical passage that we don’t personally care for.
Jesus was undoubtedly vegetarian, since this was the original teaching of Jewish Christianity.
He was? I thought the question was so complex it couldn’t be dealt with in an article? Hmmmm…..
For Jesus, the law commands nonviolence; we are not to shed blood, whether the blood of humans in warfare or the blood of animals in meat consumption or animal sacrifice.
No matter how many texts to the contrary are produced . . .
Jesus risked and gave his life to disrupt the wicked and bloody animal sacrifices in the temple.
That’s one of the silliest claims about the Bible I have ever heard, which is really saying something, since I have seriously studied the Bible for over 23 years now.
But the religion of Jesus has been lost from modern Christianity.
So you say (and wish). Others think quite differently.
Thanks for the debate.
Photo credit: Miracle of the Bread and Fish, by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]