Longing for the Divine

Digesting Mercy: Eating for Health, Animals and Earth

Things are definitely changing in our world. Vegetarianism has not only become a socially acceptable dietary choice, but due to soaring health crises and increased attention to how animals suffer in factory farms, it’s destined to become an increasingly hot topic. Adopting a plant-based diet not only benefits our overall health and longevity but also has a positive impact on the planet. Vegetarianism requires fewer resources and reduces both human and non-human suffering, promoting a more peaceful future. I think God is working along these lines, and we need to join in what He is doing in His world. The prospect of living longer in a cleaner, more peaceful environment is good reason to adopt a health-conscious lifestyle, but it does not seem to get believers excited. Many Christians today seem comfortable with eating meat from animals raised as a commodity to be counted, butchered, processed, transported and consumed.

In light of today’s increasing ecological and ethical concerns, I believe we should consider a multifaceted approach to eating Biblically. Pursuing personal health and longevity is only one aspect. Multiple approaches that go beyond the pursuit of healthy-looking bodies are needed for people to appreciate the beauty of the message. A healthy teenager with the full vigor of life will not readily respond to the claim that avoiding harmful substances prevents premature disease and death. Expert dietitian Suzanne Havala Hobbs has recognized that people who choose vegetarianism out of concern for their health are less likely to stay with it than those who do so for ethical reasons.

In addition to seeking lower cholesterol levels and increased longevity, we should focus on ethical considerations that make us more merciful and caring. Some may also benefit from considering broader ecological concerns because if we focus only on protecting our health and being ethical, the message will seem an expression of personal piety rather than a responsibility to care for the earth and judiciously conserve its resources. Not only our bodies but our communities, animals, and the entire planet must be kept healthy. We certainly can’t neglect caring for others while keeping ourselves healthy. Our care and relief must extend beyond ourselves to the suffering within the entire creation community. The health and well-being of creation is everyone’s business. Ecology matters, too.

I think there is a need to connect diet to a theological perspective that can integrate all these aspects. When we affirm Christ’s compassion-centered approach, all our thinking is done with kingdom-centered awareness, which allows the true beauty of God’s compassion to emerge. Such a love-embracing focus not only expresses the kind of being that God is but also shows others who we are becoming. The love that God has for the world does not stop at us but extends to ecological concerns by bestowing dignity and kindness to everyone and everything that suffers in God’s wider creation.

As long as followers of Jesus are drawn to find the “lowest common denominator” to get themselves saved, other important earthly duties will matter less, causing them to miss vital opportunities to fill their lives with meaning. What we eat is an important matter and should become an area for theological reflection and service toward others. I’m not necessarily suggesting that everyone should stop eating meat, but a believers ethic of mercy must extend to the boundaries of the mundane world. Reading through the Gospel of Luke, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jesus frequently ate with others. Evidently, for Jesus, eating meals was a theological practice. The meals themselves were central in expressing God’s overwhelming generosity and grace, which enact the counter-cultural message of the kingdom of God.

All of this should suggest that God cares about what and how we eat, but the question remains whether vegetarianism is a valid Christian concern. While we can all benefit from eating less meat and more fruits and veggies, some find it difficult to build a case for vegetarianism from the pages of Scripture. Eating meat is not sinful, for the Bible clearly allows it. If eating meat is consistent with Biblical principles, however, why would it be a problem? Perhaps I will discuss this in a future series of blog posts, but for now, I want to emphasize that God’s vision of a gracious and loving kingdom must be seen as a better way to address concerns about our health, the inhumane treatment of animals, and today’s environmental challenges. In this context, what we eat and why it matters is significant beyond maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. My goal is not to live for myself but through awareness of God’s love for the world. It’s not about conforming to societal health trends but about how diet choices can meaningfully and conscientiously express what God is up to in our world.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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