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)


Every Twelve Seconds: Animal Suffering and Normalized Violence

On Monday I wrote about the horrific conditions for laying hens, which reminded me of this Opinionator piece by Mark Bittman from a few weeks back.

He draws attention to this new book by Timothy Pachirat, out from Yale University Press–Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight.

Perhaps the cover says more than the title:

From the Yale Press description:

This is an account of industrialized killing from a participant’s point of view. The author, political scientist Timothy Pachirat, was employed undercover for five months in a Great Plains slaughterhouse where 2,500 cattle were killed per day—one every twelve seconds.

Working in the cooler as a liver hanger, in the chutes as a cattle driver, and on the kill floor as a food-safety quality-control worker, Pachirat experienced firsthand the realities of the work of killing in modern society. He uses those experiences to explore not only the slaughter industry but also how, as a society, we facilitate violent labor and hide away that which is too repugnant to contemplate.

I’m really intrigued by the phrase in the subtitle: “the politics of sight.”

I would rather not see the sweatshop workers sewing my jeans.

I would rather not see the landfills filled with the crap I’ve thrown away.

I would rather not see how the people who pick the grapes I eat are treated.

What other things would we prefer be invisible? How does relying on invisibility contribute to an increasingly violent and less empathetic world?

{Then there’s that lunatic farmer somewhere in Virginia who has an open-air slaughterhouse…huh. Got nothing to hide, I guess.}