This week on Ecclesio, five seminarians, representing five PC(USA) seminaries, will be sharing reflections on scripture and society, putting sacred texts and present-day societal issues in conversation with one another in poignant and powerful ways. We hope you will read something that speaks a (challenging, affirming, transformative) word of truth to you.
What’s (not) on the table?
1 Corinthians 10:23-27, 31
23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, 26 for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.” 27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience…
31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
Three and a half years ago on a plane to Managua, Nicaragua, I began reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer; this captivating narrative about the state of the modern-day food system was so persuasive that upon finishing the book, I decided I needed to experiment with vegetarianism. A few weeks and many bowls of rice and beans later, I had committed to a vegetarian diet, somewhat on a whim. For the first year or so (which also happened to be my senior year of college… cut me some slack!), I was a terrible vegetarian: I replaced poultry and fish with cheese… and cheese… and more cheese (and a beer here and there). Essentially, giving up meat was an easy excuse to eat more queso. But as time went on, I learned to love and crave avocados and sweet potatoes, zucchini and spinach, black bean burgers and falafel with hummus.
Despite the learning curve, I’ve persevered in my commitment to keep meat out of my kitchen and my stomach, and I’ve grown into what that looks like and means to me. While I was initially persuaded by ethical arguments pertaining to environmentalism and animal rights paired with general curiosity, I’ve only recently begun to think about my vegetarianism through a theological lens.
In embracing an embodied Christian faith, it is appropriate to concede that what we consume is inherently connected to our spirituality. For as much conversation as we have around appropriate consumption of media and pop culture, it is surprising how little dialogue occurs around choices we make in literal, physical consumption of food. Discussions of this type are often dismissed as melodramatic, partially due to pervasive stereotypes of what it means to be a vegetarian or vegan. The most common question I am asked about my diet is, “don’t you miss eating bacon?” (Answer: No, I never liked it in the first place). People often presume (due to the common belief that meat is a necessary part of a healthy diet) that I must struggle to get enough nutrients or must be constantly fatigued. In fact, I feel healthier than ever before! It is frustrating, and frankly frightening how many people view the vegetarian lifestyle as illegitimate. Being conscientious about food choices is a spiritual discipline that deserves consideration, particularly because of its biblical roots.
Throughout scripture, there is much discussion around the sacredness of food and how to glorify God in the act of eating and sharing meals. Many of these conversations deal with the nature of animal sacrifice, table fellowship, and purity. This particular excerpt re: food in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians would’ve been shocking in its original context, as it contradicts kosher laws by encouraging listeners to engage with the world rather than drawing inward to avoid contamination. As Richard Alan Young notes in Is God a Vegetarian? Paul was “trying to work through the food problems his readers faced that sprang from gnostic dualism, Jewish dietary laws, and pagan sacrifices.” Thus, Paul relaxes traditional food boundaries in order to make evangelism easier.
While Paul encourages freedom of conscience, we have to wonder what he might say in the face of the modern-day food system. Perhaps we have allowed freedom of conscience too much say in what we consume. People in 1st century Palestine had no need for labels like “locally-sourced,” “sustainably produced,” “cage free,” or “organic;” the food system was inherently localized and free from industrialization. In contrast, the factory farming system that dominates the market today is one of oppression that feeds off of consumerism and the demand for convenience. It is no longer safe to let the question of conscience go unasked; therefore, I contend with vs. 25. We must raise questions about what is sold in the meat market! What God has created good (vs. 26) is swiftly being distorted by systemic mechanization that has turned animals into products rather than living, breathing beings. In this system, the dominion given to humanity (Gen. 1:26) has been perverted into total domination and exploitation of the living world.
So, what exactly is the impact of cheap meat produced in factory farms? What does this domination entail both for us as consumers and for God’s good creation?
- First and foremost, these forms of meat production can be both dangerous and unhealthy: the use of antibiotics on animals, paired with crowded and dirty conditions leads to an increased risk of infection and antibiotic resistance for animals and humans alike.
- Animals are treated inhumanely throughout the process, but particularly in slaughterhouses, where abuse and cruelty are commonplace.
- The status quo of production contributes detrimentally to climate change (as well as deforestation and soil erosion): “According to the UN, the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector-cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships-combined.”
- The system contributes to world hunger by creating a resource void, as “most commercial livestock is raised on feed grain, and it takes up to eight pounds of grain to make one pound of meat.”
And now for the really bad news: amidst all the best attempts to avoid factory-farmed meat, it’s nearly impossible: factory farms produce “99.9 percent of chickens raised for meat, 97 percent of laying hens, 99 percent of turkeys, 95 percent of pigs, and 78 percent of cattle” in the U.S.
So what are we to do in the face of all of this information? How do we respond faithfully to a corrupt and oppressive system?
“do everything for the glory of God”
This is a matter of good stewardship. As Christians, we have an obligation to care for the earth and all who dwell in it. We must exercise our conscience in making decisions that contribute to the well-being of creation, so that God might be glorified.
As Paul notes in vs. 24, we have an obligation to keep in mind the needs of others prior to our own advantage. What would it look like if this extended to our day-to-day diet choices? How would your choices change if you first considered the needs of the planet, the poor, and the animals? How might this more closely align with the peaceable Kin-dom of God?
My conscience, as well as my theological understanding of creation and stewardship, has led me to believe strongly in vegetarianism as a spiritual practice. What does your conscience say to you?
For more information on issues of food justice/vegetarianism, see the following resources:
- A Rented Kitchen, delicious (vegetarian) recipes from a PC(USA) seminarian: http://arentedkitchen.com/
- Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
- Food, Inc. documentary http://www.takepart.com/foodinc
- Is God a Vegetarian? Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights by Richard A. Young
- Presbyterian Hunger Program: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/hunger/food-and-faith/
Jessie Light is a second year (middler) MDiv student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary where she enjoys serving on worship committee and working with UKirk at the University of Texas. Prior to starting to APTS, Jessie interned at Village Presbyterian in Prairie Village, KS where she explored youth ministry, social justice advocacy, and pastoral care. Jessie also takes credit for the “Shut Up and Dance” energizer made popular at the 2015 Montreat Youth Conference, and is an active advocacy member of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.
 Richard A. Young, Is God a Vegetarian? Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights (Chicago: Open Court, 1999)
 Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., 2010)