The violence you have done to Lebanon [cedar trees] will overwhelm you, and your destruction of animals will terrify you. For you have shed human blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.Habakkuk 2:17, NIV
For centuries, Protestants have championed Martin Luther’s legacy of justification by grace through faith, not works. Habakkuk is the prophetic context from which Paul speaks in Romans of the right-making initiative that comes from God, yet it is often proclaimed from weekly pulpits in unbalanced ways that fail to connect to God’s work of justifying and righting all creation. The reformers did not define faith’s relationship to non-human creation as they did its relationship to personal justification. They should have connected God’s faithfulness and redemption to the full created world, to the stewardship of the earth, and to the treatment of animals.
For years, I have wondered why Christians hold undefined and sketchy notions that excuse their moral laxity toward environmentalism, animal welfare, and vegetarianism. These notions are explored in Sandra Richer’s book Stewards of Eden, which describes how the increasing politics of Christianity is pushing people out where animals and environmental concerns do not fit. If you are pro-life, your politics prevent you from being pro-environment. If you are concerned for animal suffering and for the environment it is assumed that you are not pro-life. In other words moral and ethical concerns have been taken over by politics in the sense of taking sides. Somehow, Christians have forgotten that we should first and foremost be seekers of the Kingdom of God and that our alliances and value systems should not be embedded in partisan politics.
Christianity has taught us to affirm the sanctity of life, yet the church seems to apply sacredness only to the prenatal life of the unborn. We should certainly care about the unborn, but we should also care about other life—animals and even the earth itself. We should support and consecrate human life without rejecting the sanctity of God’s community of creation. Yale Professor Shelly Kagan states that “it seems to me to be true both that animals count for less than people and yet, for all that, that they still count sufficiently that there is simply no justification whatsoever for anything close to current practices” (“For Hierarchy in Animal Ethics,” Journal of Practical Ethics, 2018, Vol. 6(1) p. 6).
Many Christians claim that they are under grace and at liberty to eat whatever they desire. To accomplish what matters most—the salvation of souls—they aggressively dominate the earth’s resources. This, however, is not the way Christianity teaches us to live. Instead of seeking resolutions to problems and loving their enemies, so many Christians have become preoccupied with the right to bear arms and wage war—destroying not only lives but millions of acres of land, economically crippling regions, and leaving widows and orphans starving after stripping them of their land and natural resources. Christianity teaches us to reject legalism, yet Christians look to the legal system to enforce their views of morality. Christianity teaches us to rely on freedom and grace instead of law, yet grace is used as an excuse to avoid health-conscious, ethical concern for the environment—and yes, even as an excuse for animal exploitation. When my fellow Christians learn that I am a vegetarian, they don’t want me to tell them about it because of grace. Grace is a very important concept for Christians. I am all in favor of grace, but I think we must recapture its true meaning. There is much more to grace than unmerited favor. Grace is also about finding favor in the sight of others (Exodus 33:17; Esther 2:17; Luke 2:52). It is not true that God’s grace has no relationship to a life showing grace. Christians forget God’s gracious mercies for His creation when they downplay the wisdom of Old Testament laws, instead seeing animals as bacon sizzling in pans or hamburgers roasting on grills. When we don’t see the impact of our economic life on the planet or experience the cruelty happening behind the scenes, it is easy to become indifferent to the world around us. Perhaps it’s time that we put sacrifice and service back into grace.
In the past, some conservative churches have prohibited alcohol or various foods, teaching that following Jesus requires higher lifestyle reforms as outward signs of personal commitment. It is a general Christian belief that life and being precede action (John 3:7). God desires transformation rather than to impose a bunch of rules upon us. While rules are not transformative, they remain as signposts to remind us that we are set apart for greater glory. God’s mercy and grace precede inner transformation and yet become the very fabric woven into our ways of being and living (Romans 5:8). Concern for the world around us should be part of our gratitude, an attitude lacking in today’s world. The sacrificial love of God should inform our decisions and regulate what we do. It would be tragic if God’s grace and mercy toward us received no response. In his commentary on Romans, Sigve K. Tonstad expresses that “‘by the mercies of God,’ a believer’s ethic of mercy must in the twenty-first century extend to seed, to land, and to the suffering of non-human creatures as a matter of utmost urgency” (The Letter to the Romans, 2017, p. 308). How well are we reaching the world in compassionate and healing ways? How can we participate and follow in God’s work of grace and mercy?
We are not called to confess our beliefs and demand our moral outlook be honored but to extend God’s mercy and be more faithful in our yielding to Him. It seems to me that if Paul were alive today, he would adapt his letter to the Romans to our contemporary situation, the customs and concerns that run contrary to the grace and mercies of God. I would not consider vegetarianism a universal rule, but conditioned by ones location. While changing one’s diet may be impractical in certain cases or even financially infeasible for the poor struggling to survive, in many industrialized countries, animal farming is detrimental to the environment and cruel to both animal and human life. When we “do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:27), we can be assured that every act of kindness and mercy will be remembered in the life to come.
Speaking from my own experience as a vegetarian, I have found that when I encounter non-religious vegetarians who rarely hear about the gospel, my vegetarianism creates a meaningful context that makes my Christianity appealing to them. Many secular people are put off by Christians who choose to consume animal products and remain silent about animal cruelty. Secular vegetarians and animal rights activists are often surprised or even shocked to meet a vegetarian follower of Jesus who cares about animals and environmental stewardship. I have found that my commitment to vegetarianism has been a witness to many people who would not darken the door of a church.
The kind of ethic and health reform God desires comes from something higher than self-centered reasons to pursue a cause or personal piety in seeking lower cholesterol levels. In a small story tucked away in 1 Kings, God provides Elijah with a diet of bread instead of meat before he is sent on his pilgrimage to receive divine help in a sacred place where God’s glory passed by (1 Kings 19:5–8). Might this suggest that we should abstain from flesh before seeking God’s face in worship and prayer, especially when considering the return of Jesus?
It has been noted that the eating of meat should lessen as we approach the coming kingdom and that the original diet is best designed to help prepare people for the anticipated perfect Kingdom of God. This may be important when considering our final call of mercy to our world, but those who interpret such dietary practices as authoritarian tend to see them as just another rule to follow to feel more “translation worthy” than others. I do not want to highlight the flaws of this idea at the expense of developing a more helpful approach, but I will mention that connecting the nature of sin with the gut has a long history with many of the early saints. Pushing food dogma to the center of one’s spiritual life, however, does not necessarily make us more open to God. Such dietary philosophies do very little earthly good in today’s world and can’t rightly prepare people for the coming of our Lord. Such perfectionistic ideals will only drive a wedge between our global mission and an already fragmented world.
So, how can this generation find meaning and have a positive impact? The appeal to this generation is based in courageous mercy and compassion, and it’s the job of the Christian gospel to encourage these virtues and get beyond the politics. Any true reform is contingent on spiritual reformation. Christianity emphasizes growth in holiness and overcoming the sin of the heart, yet many individuals striving to overcome have forgotten the sin that infiltrates our systems and institutions. Have we forgotten that Christians were among the first active crusaders against slavery, that some of the earliest abolitionists looked forward to the second coming of Jesus? That they were the founders of orphanages and advocates for vegetarianism and temperance? Hospitals and health care can trace their roots to Christianity, but what about earth management and animal and flora care? Christians should also advocate for these, for all are related to worshiping the Creator (Revelation 14:6). Have we forgotten the message of our first parents to exercise loving dominion over the earth, “to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, NIV)?
I am a firm believer that Jesus’ methods alone bring success. I believe that His methods of spiritual revolution live on, but they are not commonly employed by Christians today. Christianity is not just a set of beliefs but a moral calling to find our first love, so we can make the character of God’s love known and believable in a broken and bruised world. What a witness it would be to the world if those who worshipped God stood up to bring awareness that this is His creation and show that “God is working for many of the same goals celebrated in the heath, vegetarian, and animal rights movements and has given us hope of their coming to pass through the risen Christ.” (Richard Young, Is God a Vegetarian, 1999, p.111).
Amid moral degradation, suffering, sickness, and environmental tragedy, the last generation is called to participate in the redemption that all creation is yearning for (Romans 8:22–23). I realize that Christianity is off-putting for many who turn to vegetarianism for health, ethical, or environmental reasons. These people tend to associate traditional Christianity with the right side of politics that has become unconcerned with the environment and animals. This association turns them off and makes them feel unwelcome as promoters of creation. How can we get beyond the politics and self interest and become more grounded in the biblical concepts of environmental stewardship, holistic redemption and mercy for the creation community? What about the first instructions given from God to tend the garden?
I am reminded of a story Jesus tells that demonstrates the difference between professing to obey and actually obeying. A father asks his older son to tend his vineyard. The son replies that he will not but later changes his mind and goes. The father also asks his younger son to work in the vineyard, and says he will but does not. Jesus asks the religious leaders, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They respond, “The first.” Jesus replies, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31, NKJV).
The question is: what kind of followers are we? Do we merely profess to believe and obey God while remaining lazy, never getting around to living morally by tending to our father’s vineyard? Or are we like the son who says “no,” resisting and abandoning much of Christianity’s teachings but finally having a heart to listen and obey our father’s will? Christians should want to be followers of Jesus more than anything, but perhaps there is a third option we have not considered—being a son who both says “yes” and shows concern by working in God’s vineyard. If we do this, I think it will make an enormous difference.
Craig Ashton Jr.