The Revd John Ryder reflects upon his lifelong love of animals, biblical understanding of God’s purposes for the world and commitment to a vegan diet.
Traditional Christianity, a love of animals, an interest in food and sustainable nutrition were all part of my growing up. Later I started putting these values together, and when I married my wife Brenda and we both became vegetarian. With study and reflection we became increasingly aware of the suffering of creatures in both the egg and the dairy industry, and we have been vegan for about 8 years now.
I was aware of the sentience, sensitivity and suffering of animals from childhood, as Brenda had been; we both think it absurd and contrary to observable fact to think otherwise. This knowledge has grown through our further contact with animals and through study, notably KING SOLOMON’S RING by Konrad Lorenz, a psychology textbook at university (very well researched, and hilariously funny) and more recently “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals are?” by Frans B. M. De Waal (an easy read providing plenty of up-to-date research and ammunition).
Studying the Bible made it even more plain to me why Jews and Christians should not eat meat. I am not a fundamentalist, in what I say about the Bible I merely follow the story as it unfolds, looking at the thread of our relationship with our fellow-creatures and the rest of the created order.
When the Pharisees questioned Jesus on divorce (Matthew 19:3ff) saying that it was allowed by the law of Moses, Jesus replied that divorce was only allowed due to the sin of mankind, that this was not so in the beginning, and quoted the creation narrative. He thus pointed to God’s original plan for creation, to which we should turn for our standard of normality. The results of the Fall are everywhere, but to the believer they should never be regarded as normative.
So to start at the beginning, at the accounts of creation in Genesis, we find a clear moral code, which includes not only the indissolubility of marriage and the necessity of obedience to God; but, even earlier, almost as part of the definition of who and what we are, the diet given to humans. This diet is fruitarian, and all our fellow animals are to be herbivores.
And so it was until sin entered the world. (Looking further on, at Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom of God in chapter 11, when sin is no more, all creation will again eat without killing.)
Immediately after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden due to their disobedience, humans start to kill: not only animals but their fellow humans too.
The next significant incident in the story is the Flood. The killing and eating of animals is but one element of how far the world had fallen from the violence-and-death-free paradise of creation. All of nature, especially humankind, had fallen. Intervention was necessary, which is the ‘why’ of the flood and the new agreement with those who survived. The final remedy would only come with the Incarnation and the Cross; in the meantime containment was needed. The rule of never consuming flesh (as in Eden) was no longer practicable or enforceable due to the sin of man, so the new covenant with Noah (and therefore with all mankind) did two things to contain, to limit this sin: the prohibition of cannibalism and rules to minimise the suffering of animals slaughtered for food – rules which were the most humane of any culture until very recent times.
But what of the Biblical command to sacrifice? In the letter to the Hebrews (9:22) it says that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness. Sacrifice of your most valuable assets – livestock – became standard: as holocaust, communion offerings, and above all as sin offerings. It was the way to give to God, to be in communion with Him through a shared meal, and obtain forgiveness from Him. All these, like the offering of Isaac, were but the foreshadowing of the Sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. God only asked of us – and of our fellow-creatures – what he was willing to do himself for us in the fullness of time.
And the fulness of time has come in Jesus. Because of His sacrifice other ritual sacrifices are no longer necessary; and through His grace we can hope to be restored, not to the naïveté, but to the harmony of creation.
What the Bible has to say about God’s purpose for Creation in the beginning, and what things will again be like at the end of time, is perfectly clear. In between I know the majority accepted the eating of meat. They also accepted the practice of slavery. I am sure one day Christians will be as ashamed of the former as they are now of the latter.
The overall impression I get from the Bible is that God loves and wishes to save the world, and not just the humans in it. We are part of the created order, not superior beings living on but separate from it, with permission to use (not abuse) it.
Knowing the degree to which animals experience fear and pain, can anticipate and remember it, I could not face a God of love (or myself) if I was part of the cause of that suffering by using or consuming animals as products. It might be argued that animal products were needed for food or clothing in times past. They are certainly not needed today.
The Book of Genesis was written thousands of years before global warming, and the difficulty of feeding an ever growing population, yet the diet it sets out is seen as a necessary part of the solution to both these problems by scientists who are not necessarily Christian, and who did not start out as vegetarian.
It is also worth noting that HIV, SARS, and now Covid-19 (to name just a few) all passed into humans because they ate animals.
Which should make everyone think about the inspiration behind the first chapters of Genesis, written thousands of years before anyone was aware of any of this. And having thought, hopefully to adjust their diet accordingly.
The Revd John Ryder is a retired vicar, formerly of All Saints, Godshill, Isle of Wight and spokesperson for Christian Vegetarians and Vegans UK