Vegan? Vegetarian? Flexitarian? Compassionate Carnivory?

Recently I came across this quotation from the novelist and essayist (and, I believe, genius) Marilynne Robinson, given in a 2008 interview with the Paris Review:

“I’m generally a vegetarian of the ovo-lacto type, minus the ovo, yet I’m keenly aware of the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian. When he visited Mussolini in Italy he rejected the state dinner. He didn’t drink or smoke. I hold him up as an example of how an aversion virtue can be a negative sign.”

What I think Ms. Robinson is getting at is that certain virtues trump other virtues: you don’t get ethical points for being a vegetarian if strict adherence to vegetarianism means you’re going to seriously snub someone. I tend to agree: I don’t like to eat factory-farmed meat, and will avoid it if I can do so politely, but generally eat what is put in front of me if rejecting it means rejecting someone’s hospitality.

(On the other hand, when it comes to factory-farmed ground beef, I’m willing to risk being perceived as a little rude on behalf of my kids; the scary strain of e.coli can wreak tragic havoc on small bodies.)

I strongly respect people who, for various reasons, take a stricter approach to ethically-motivated dietary preferences, and take on projects like vegan Thanksgiving side dishes for my aunt and her partner with delight. It’s fun to figure out how to swap out animal-based ingredients and still make something delicious. (Sweet Potato Casserole WORKS with coconut milk, I am telling you!)

And, though I am pretty much omnivorous these days (thanks largely to living in a place where the meat is NOT factory farmed and I can afford it), I have had very long stretches of vegetarianism and near-vegetarianism. But I think the case for eating LESS and BETTER meat is pretty strong.

For all that, though, to the extent that I will ever speculate about what, exactly, God’s kingdom in its complete perfection looks like–which isn’t much–I do feel pretty sure that it is wholly nonviolent, and, yes, that we’ll all be happily vegetarian, if not vegan.

But that’s not a present reality, or one that is even feasible or optimal for certain people in the world. Inuit people traditionally take almost ALL their calories from animals, and there’s not really another sustainable, affordable option. People living on tight budgets get protein from government cheese and SPAM.

How do we think through these issues theologically and biblically? I have some ideas, which I’ve shared elsewhere on this blog (for example, here) and which I’ve written about in this piece at the (truly lovely) indie online magazine, Catapult.

(And, of course, in my book.)

You may also like:

“There’s Really No Such Thing As Eating Guilt Free”

“From Vegetarianism to Fasting” (by Steve Thorngate at the Christian Century)

On Paper Towels and Bacon and Veganism” (by Katherine Willis Pershey at Any Day A Beautiful Change)


We Don’t Approve of Bull-Baiting, Dogfighting, or Public Executions…

…and so I don’t think we approve of…

Chickens being occasionally decapitated by the automatic feeding cart, then rotting away in their cages.

Chickens getting their necks stuck in the bars of their cages and dying because they can’t get them out and no one comes to help.

Workers must blast exhaust fans and run in to do a job quickly because “it’s physically hard to breathe because of the ammonia” fumes rising from the manure pits below the barns.

Conveyor belts transporting 4.5 million eggs a day–destined for places like Shop-Rite–are thick with flies, mice, and poop.

it’s just that we don’t know that this is happening…

The Humane Society of the United States recently ran an undercover investigation of Kreider Farms, finding these acts of cruelty that go against the industry standards promoted by groups like United Egg Producers, who, last year, joined with the Humane Society to support new federal standards providing more space for laying hens–a move Kreider has not supported.

In a great op-ed last week, Nicholas Kristof (one of my favorite journalists) writes:

For those who are wavering, think for a moment about the arc of empathy. Centuries ago, we humans amused ourselves by seeing other people executed or tortured. Until modern times, we considered it sport to see animals die horrible deaths. Now our sensibilities have evolved so that there is an outcry when animals are abused — unless it happens out of sight on farms.

Look, you don’t need to love chickens enough to want to hug them to realize that if God notices the death of each little sparrow, God certainly sees the suffering of the chickens who die so that we can have cheap eggs.

It isn’t only about how much we love animals. It’s about what kind of people we are going to be.

No one thinks what Michael Vick did to all those poor dogs is okay.

Chickens might be less emotionally affecting than dogs, but they’re still God’s creatures.

Why not make a brief, polite phone call to your U.S. Representative and urge them to co-sponsor H.R. 3798? Then, make a brief, polite call to your two U.S. senators to support this legislation when it’s introduced in the Senate. Look up your legislators’ phone numbers here.

“The righteous know the needs of their animals,
but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” (Prov. 12:10)

Please don’t think this is only for crazy chicken-huggers. Take a minute to watch the video, maybe read Kristof’s op-ed, and think of the arc of empathy:

what kind of people do we want to be?

what kind of people are we made to be?

Lenctening Days

No, that’s not a typo.

Recently I learned that the word “Lent” {today–Ash Wednesday–is the first day of Lent} comes from the Old English ‘lencten,’ which sounds a lot like “lengthen” and, not incidentally, was the Old English word for Spring–that time when the days, well, lengthen.

Despite the admiration I’ve always had for traditional Lenten disciplines, this time of year–when I forget to start dinner on time because the growing evening light tricks me, when I’m drawn from sleep by the unexpected brightness of the morning sun–this time of year tends to make me a bit giddy. Meditating on dust returning to dust seems opposite to how I feel when Spring is, well, lenctening. Springing.

But maybe that’s reasonable. Lent is the season where deadness springs to life: snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils cautiously raise their green and brilliant heads, stoic strawberry leaves unfold and tentatively sent out runners, tired, swollen goats bend to release their burdens in bringing forth light-footed young.

At this time everything in nature seems to be stretching and yawning awake after a long sleep, lively after months of sluggish drowsing.

Maybe Lent serves as a counterpoint to all this; a reminder that even as the grass “flourishes and is renewed” in the morning, “in the evening it fades and withers.” That God alone is everlasting.

It’s a sobering thought, but somehow, a joyful one. And so I hope this Lent not to curtail or cut back but to lencten: to take joy and satisfaction in God and in God’s gift of each lengthening, springing, light-filled moment.

Overly cute bunny gnawing a strawberry leaf. I can't help myself.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
   so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
   and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
   and prosper for us the work of our hands.

Psalm 90, NRSV

Is it a Sin to Eat Meat?

I have a piece up this week at RELEVANT magazine–a review of What is the Mission of the Church?–and couldn’t help but notice this article, “How Faith Connects to Food,” with the tagline: “is it a sin to eat meat?”The author, Jennifer Dykes Henson, doesn’t come out and say that eating meat’s a sin, but she does say that Jesus, if he were walking the earth today, wouldn’t eat meat. Her arguments for vegetarianism–animal cruelty, environmental sustainability, and world hunger, are pretty simplistic, even though there are elements of truth in each argument. To tell the truth, the article reads very much like something I might have written 5 or 6 years ago, when I was first becoming aware of the various ethical issues surrounding food. At that time, to eat or not eat meat seemed like the biggest question–and almost the only question–to ask with respect to the ethics of eating. For periods of time since, I and my family have eaten much as vegetarians do. But we still do eat some meat. (I wrote about why–and how–here.) One reason we do is that we’d rather spend some money toward supporting meat that’s raised responsibly and ‘vote’ for that kind of meat, so to speak. What’s often left out of pro-vegetarian arguments is that conscientious carnivory–choosing meat that has been raised on pasture and humanely–escapes many of the problems cited as reasons to eschew meat. For example:

1. Pastured meat makes use of land that is unsuited for crop-planting and turns it into usable food. This point is especially important when one considers the needs of people living where the land is largely non-arable–

2. At the same time that cattle, goats, and other ruminants convert grass and weeds to meat, they enrich the ground. They are good for the environment.(Read Heifer International’s answer to vegetarian/vegan concerns with respect to people in the developing world.) Henson’s declaration that we ought to simply feed the grain destined for animal feed to starving people really, really misses the mark.

3. Meat raised on pasture is good for you. Not only is it less likely to contain antibiotics and hormones, it’s also got high levels of those important Omega-3s, B-12, and the kind of fat that’s actually good for you. Henson’s right that overeating meat–especially factory farmed meat–isn’t so great. But moderate meat consumption is not unhealthy. (Nina Planck–herself a former vegan–did much to convince me on this point in her book Real Food.)But I think the part that annoyed me most about Henson’s article (like the last food article on RELEVANT that annoyed me) is the sanctimonious, ascetic, and guilt-based tone that reads like “Eat for health ‘because your body is a temple’ “; avoid meat so as to not “live to please your stomach” but instead, to care for “starving children and tortured animals.”

Gee–who wants to contribute to children starving and animals being tortured? No one! But I just can’t see how this kind of guilt trip will motivate anyone to eat with joy–and I think that’s really important. There is no perfection in any kind of diet–and no matter who you are and what kind of choices you make, you–like me–are living from mystery. The food we eat–even when it’s less than ideal–is a gift of God for which we can give thanks.

Should we choose food that’s raised and prepared in ways that speak clearly of God’s goodness and kindness and love for Creation? Absolutely! But we have a better chance of doing that when we’re motivated from a place of gratitude–not guilt.

{You might also like to read Grace and A Steak Dinner or The Last Last Meal}