Dr. Andy Alexis-Baker, author and lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago, speaks about the challenges of being a Christian vegan and how Christ’s message of peace can be expanded to include all creatures.
Tell us about yourself and your journey towards a more peaceable lifestyle
My journey toward a more peaceable lifestyle began after my conversion to Christianity from a rather turbulent young life in and out of jails and after my first encounters with arguments against war and violence from a theological perspective that entailed living as witnesses to God’s original and final vision for peace. Once I started down the road of peacemaking and encountered a few theological arguments, it just made sense to me to expand my vision to include other animals. I did not then and do not now think I had all the answers, but when I looked at how God calls people to live, I knew that the arc of my life had to bend toward justice, toward peace, toward compassion.
When I first stopped eating other animals my relatives didn’t know how to handle it. But slowly over time they began to accommodate me more, cooking things I could eat rather than making me pick around stuff at family gatherings. At this point, at least one of my family members decided to go vegetarian which is gratifying. Another went “vegetarian” for a few years after I showed him some videos, but that meant he ate peanut butter and potato chips for three years straight, which is technically vegan. But damn! Of course health problems arose. So there is a wisdom element to this in making sure to eat the wide bountiful variety of things available to us. A whole foods plant-based diet is the way to go when it comes to eating.
Is your veganism a theological decision?
My veganism is theological: we should be the peace we witness toward. We should witness to the coming but already here peaceable kingdom. I initially went vegan because of videos I watched that showed the horrible conditions of egg laying hens and the dairy industry. I realized then that these industries are bound up with death dealing, and I could not support it. As I thought more deeply about the issues, I then began to question whether we should be using animals at all in the ways we do. The film Earthlings lays all of this out nicely I think. I do not think one needs to be a Christian to be vegetarian or vegan and have good reasons. The Buddhist tendency to reduce the harm one does in life would work well, as does any tendency toward compassion, walking lightly through life and not harming others.
Have you had to face challenges from Christians who don’t share your concern for animals?
That depends on what you mean by a “challenge.” Intellectually I don’t think the vast majority of people can even make a good case for eating other animals because in the end it boils down to either “We have always done it is this way” or “I like it.” Neither of those make for compelling arguments, though the fact that they overrule more rational arguments shows the power of tradition and habit. The challenges people confront me with are rarely intellectual but on the level of social norms and personal preferences so I often have to try to show that these two things are not sufficient in themselves to make for a valid argument when it comes to the taking of or harming life. We can create new traditions and develop new habits. Or rather, we can make traditions and habits that have always been just under the surface predominate against the violent ones predominating now.
What is one of the most commonly asked question from sceptics and how do you answer it?
One of the most commonly asked questions from Christians is about Jesus’s interaction with fish in the Gospels. If Jesus Christ ate fish and fed fish to people, then this would seem an insurmountable obstacle to advocating for a vegan lifestyle. First, I wrote about this in A Faith Embracing All Creatures, so what I will do here is say something different or far more than I said there.
Jesus was Jewish. I think it is absolutely essential to remember this. Jewish law forbade eating most sea creatures through what we call a “fins-scales” criterion from Leviticus 11: if a sea creature does not have fins or scales, Jews are forbidden to touch or consume that creature. Given the fact that in ancient Israel, the currents were not yet changed by the modern canals, the actual availability of fish off the coast of the eastern Mediterranean was very limited, this meant that Jews hardly even ate fish at all. So “seafood” and “fish” are far too broad as concepts when thinking about what Jesus ate one time in the Gospel of Luke. So the first word about this has to be a limit with purpose: the purpose being to point people back to God’s intentions in Genesis of a general peace. So that means Jesus’s Jewishness is the decisive factor here.
Arguing from Jesus’s particularity as a Jewish person, however, is the opposite way to argue about this than many have been taking by pointing to the cosmic Christ. The cosmic Christ is the all-encompassing God who touches all living beings and redeems all things. It is a big-picture Christ. It is very helpful. But how we get there matters: working through Jesus’s particularity is absolutely essential if we are not to sacrifice individuals for the greater “system.” I have a manuscript in development that looks at Jesus’s particularity as a male, Jewish human and why those are important for animal theology. This fish question is just one small part of how we see this being important. Jesus’s fish eating was already circumscribed by the Torah and by a Jewish eschatological vision of creation-wide renewal.
Might the tide be starting to turn in regards to Christian perceptions of animals?
I doubt that the tide is turning within Christianity at large. In no way do I expect even the peace churches like the Mennonites, which I consider to be the cream of the crop of Christian churches in terms of peace and justice, to expand their peaceable vision to other animals.
The ideas of human superiority, dominion, and cultural issues and upbringing preclude it. When I teach about these issues in my introductory theology courses it is most often the non-Christians who take this stuff most seriously and make changes to their lives. That said, within academia there are more and more people working on these issues. I am glad for that. Academia does not represent normal Christian practices, however, and honestly, even within academia the numbers are not large enough to say that the tide has even turned here. For example, I was at an AAR presentation in which the speaker gave a rousing call for Methodists to take their tradition seriously on this issue. It was a brilliant presentation. But sitting in front of me were three men who were mocking the presentation the whole time. On the one hand I was heartened by the presenters’ passionate call. On the other, I saw the resistance to that call within that person’s own milieu of academic theology.
Are you optimistic about the future role of Christianity in tackling injustice towards animals?
Right now, Christianity has a role to play in convincing Christians to walk gently on this earth, but we are failing for the most part and time is not on our side any longer. At least that is my view. Hope can be an opiate of the masses, promising a better future without working for it. God doesn’t promise to save us from ourselves in the Bible. As Bill McKibbon has warned: “the future is bent toward heat unless we do something” and it is for Christians in the West to start acting decisively on these pressing issues of our time.