I was raised a vegetarian from the tender age of seven. I have four other brothers and sisters who were also raised vegetarian. When the five of us filed into a pew at our local church, people would comment on how healthy and vibrant we looked. We were quite a spectacle because we were the only vegetarians in church, perhaps the only ones in our small town, practically celebrities. At potluck meals, people would gather around, watching us on the buffet line to see if we would bypass semi-vegetarian dishes that on occasion included some turkey. People’s curiosity got the best of them, and they asked the pastor for his opinion. After all, the pastor had preached from the pulpit that one couldn’t be healthy without eating meat, especially liver. The pastor advised the curious churchgoers to not follow the plant-eating example, for it would not be long before these vibrant-looking children, deprived of nutrient-dense meats, would display symptoms of deficiency. He claimed we would likely die of malnutrition from such a disastrous diet.
Needless to say, not only did I survive but my body has benefited tremendously over the years from this lifestyle choice. Among the many health benefits, I received relief from the life-threatening asthma that had plagued me as a young child. It was after reading the Bible that my father became convinced to make this dietary change. After cutting dairy from our family diet, trips to the emergency room to control my asthma attacks decreased. Later, as a young man, I became the main cook in our award-winning family-operated vegetarian restaurant in downtown Boston. One memorable highlight of this role was working with Chef Ron Pickarski, who won the only medal in the first vegetarian category at the 1996 World Culinary Olympics. Ron placed vegetarian cuisine on the gourmet scene, which has had a lasting impact on my passion for vegetarianism. I learned that it is important to be gourmet because God wants us to give only our best.
I was amazed when the local chapter of the Vegetarian Society asked if their members could visit our restaurant to hear the biblical reasons for adopting a vegetarian diet. We scheduled our local pastor to speak while we prepared the meal that would follow. Many people attended the event, eagerly awaiting the theological perspective on vegetarianism, but the pastor did not show up for the presentation. I remember the embarrassment of having to announce that the meeting was canceled because the pastor was a no-show. He tried to make it up to us later, but I suspect that one reason for his absence that day is that many believers don’t know how to relate to modern environmentalists or their concerns about animal rights and therefore choose to avoid the subject altogether. I guess a group of secular vegetarians interested in the Biblical view of vegetarianism was not important enough to solicit pastoral attention. Such disinterest among those of my theological persuasion has bothered me over the years. There are so many honest folks truly interested in expanding beyond the typical health-food mindset.
During my forty years as a happily committed vegetarian, I’ve faced a constant barrage of criticism from fellow Christians for my dietary choices. You might expect such opposition to come from my secular associations, but no, my fellow believers have been the predominant source of scorn. I am not complaining, for these criticisms have never discouraged me but rather led me to form my own values, adding a depth of significance to my food choices. Over the years, I’ve had opportunities to meet a variety of people with whom I could learn and share reasons for adopting a vegetarian diet, which has helped me strengthen my perspective and commitment. I have learned that there are many other people who care about this issue.
I think the worthiest point to consider is how our food choices reflect our beliefs about life and God. I certainly do not consider vegetarianism to be a Christian doctrine or a test of one’s orthodoxy. We must never become judgmental or sanctimonious about our food choices, but our personal eating habits should serve higher ends than appeasing our stomachs or pursuing some self-serving health practice (Philippians 3:19). Our diet choices should contribute to being loving persons; if they don’t, there is something wrong with them.
On the very first page of the Bible, we learn that what we eat matters (Genesis 2:16-17). Allowing our personal dietary choices to become rule-based, however, promotes a feeling of superiority over others. I have come to realize that many people have a negative response to vegetarianism for this very reason. They seem to be pushing back against an egocentric emphasis on the morality of not eating animals. Morality is certainly not found in “eating” one’s way to health but rather in the kind of people we become through our choices. What and how we eat is a silent witness about what we value as people.
I believe that a broader and more balanced approach is needed to save vegetarianism from its self-righteousness and it’s tendency to be neglected. Ideally, what and how we eat should promote God’s love for others throughout the entire community of creation.
Craig Ashton Jr.