Along with my five siblings, I was raised a vegetarian from the tender age of seven. I remember that once, my family of seven was invited to an event where we and other vegetarian families were interviewed. One interviewer asked if I had any meat-eating friends who tempted me to eat meat. I have friends and family who eat meat, and I love and respect them, but I’ve never felt that I am missing out or being persuaded to resume eating meat.
I became a committed vegetarian for various health reasons, but I soon found another reason to follow this diet. When I started doing various home repairs for a Hindu family in my teens, it became clear that my Christian vegetarian lifestyle was a positive witness, pleasantly shocking them into many conversations. It continues to impress my Indian and whole-food-buying customers even today. I have come to realize that my vegetarianism is a silent witness for many people who are not Christian.
In her journal article “Vegetarian as Evangelism,” Cristina Richie argues that Christians should consider becoming vegetarian to evangelize to Buddhists, Hindus, and the large group of non-religious people who are affirming vegetarianism today. Her article makes clear that among followers of the world’s major religions, followers of Jesus are the only ones who claim they can eat whatever they want. For example, Jewish people restrict their diets according to Old Testament rules that include vegetarianism at the beginning of creation, and Muslims reject consuming some meats for similar reasons. Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarian sympathetic, and many are strictly vegetarian for philosophical reasons.
Many non-religious individuals, especially environmentalists, also teach that eating meat—or at least some meat—is not an acceptable practice in light of today’s global environmental concerns. Given the growing number of non-Christian and non-religious vegetarians that they may associate with, Christians should consider making a greater commitment to similarly altering their diet. As Richie states,
These people perceive Christians who eat meat as detrimental to the environment, cruel to animals, and hastening the demise of their body. They are offended that a Christian who preaches stewardship could harm the environment through consuming factory farmed cows that are a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. They are appalled that a Christian who adheres to love and non-violence could kill a sentient chicken or sheep. And they are put off that Christians who claim that our physical bodies are “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19) would consume animal products that lead to heart disease, contribute to obesity and are highly processed.(“Vegetarian as Evangelism,” Presented to the Boston Theological Institute [BTI], 2010 Boston Changing Contours of World Mission and Christianity, November 2010, p. 32–33)
I want to convey to others the message of God’s welcome. I like to recall the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19, who was disliked and shunned by his own people due to his political position as the chief tax collector. Jesus, who always welcomes the other, approached him in a crowd and invited Himself to eat a meal at Zacchaeus’s house. I have often wondered how that public affirmation and dinner invitation made Zacchaeus feel. At that time, fellowship over meals distinguished insiders from outsiders, and tax collectors were definitely outsiders. But with Jesus, outsiders become insiders. Jesus encouraged a new realization, showing what God really thought about Zacchaeus. Regardless of how others viewed him, he was included in the eyes of Jesus. No one had ever treated Zacchaeus so kindly before, and his entire life changed as a result of being seated at the table with Jesus.
The meal Zacchaeus ate with Jesus was less about food laws and more about relating positively with others in a way that affirmed Scripture. The apostle Paul argued that if we desire to welcome all people, we should consider relinquishing our rights to eat what we believe is acceptable to eat in order to become more appealing in missions of love (1 Corinthians 8:13; 9:22). Given the traditions of my Jewish and Hindu friends and the sensitivity of my vegan friends who demand compassion for all creatures, they would be highly offended if I consumed factory-farmed pigs and cows while advocating and otherwise adhering to Biblical principles of love, mercy, and compassion. Christians may talk of love and compassion, but their actions often suggest a need for social or moral improvement.
In his commentary on Romans, theologian Sigve Tonstad distinguishes between “the weak” vegetarians and “the strong” meat eaters in Romans 14 in a highly relevant way: “Paul’s argument is not to hamstring the dietary commitment of ‘the weak‘ but to strengthen their hand. To the extent that the dietary reservations are anchored in the Old Testament. Paul lets Scripture arbitrate a way that strengthens their position” (Letter to the Romans: Paul among the Ecologists, 2016, p. 346–347). Tonstad goes on to define this strengthened position with respect to our present reality:
Will the person who is sensitized “by the mercies of God” be insensitive to the suffering of pigs, choosing to abstain not for reasons of ritual impurity but for reasons of compassion? A contemporary delineation of ‘the weak’ and ‘the strong’ might lead to the surprising conclusion that ‘the weak’ who do not eat are no longer identifiable as ‘rigid’ believers inclined to Jewish traditions, and ‘the strong’ who “believe in eating anything” are not Gentiles. Ethical and ecological realities have eradicated these characterizations as meaningful distinctions. ‘The weak,’ instead, in a sensitized ecological hermeneutic carried out within sight and sound of the modern factory farm, are the animals that are abused before they are eaten, and for preferences are better characterized with reference to health, ecological accounting, and compassion.(Letter to the Romans: Paul among the Ecologists, 2016, p. 354–355)
When one talks about vegetarianism and environmental issues, many believers detect spiritualistic stratagems of satanic origin. Christians may think their diet theology is stronger than that of one who eats only plants. However, because God wants us to welcome every nation, kindred, tongue, and people to Christ, one’s sensitivity by the mercies of God is strengthened when they abstain. I have found that many evangelistic programs are developed by committees and used as avenues to gain people’s religious acceptance rather than incorporate God’s compassionate communion. Churches like to run trendy programs to get people to join their main evangelistic series, but I have never heard one claim that Christians should adopt vegetarianism as an act of evangelism toward Buddhists, Hindus, environmentalists, and animal-loving vegans.
I will continue to respect the vegetarian voice in Scripture and will seek to convey my personal diet convictions in an authentic, winsome manner so that I do not wound or needlessly offend others. The heart of evangelism and mission should be love for the other, but those with a broader diet theology are often tempted to look down on those who restrict themselves by abstaining. They don’t see what the kingdom can gain by such purpose and strength of heart. I have seen what maintaining a vegetarian diet does for those who are not Christian; to leads to doors of communication being opened for those who are not Christian. I therefore do not want to suggest that eating in ways that are merciful and compassionate is non-essential or non-engaging for the follower of Jesus.
Craig Ashton Jr.