In Search of a Vegan Christianity

If you were searching for an animal-friendly religion, Christianity probably wouldn’t be your first choice. You’d likely select Jainism, Buddhism or Hinduism. Of course, most people don’t choose a spiritual practice based on the degree it takes nonhumans into ethical consideration. Familiarity is an important factor.

As an animal activist, I’m somewhat lucky in this regard. My mother, who was raised Episcopalian and then turned to the United Church of Christ, regards Eknath Easwaran as her favorite spiritual writer. He’s a perennialist meditation teacher and vegetarian, who was sympathetic to animal rights.

So while there are other elements of my background that made embracing anti-speciesism a struggle, thankfully, when it came to religion, I had a resource that made it considerably less difficult than it might have been. I’m the world’s most distracted and impatient meditator, but I’m very grateful for this. Not everyone has such a resource.

Still, I’m culturally Christian and live in the United States, which is majority Christian. I’d like there to be a more animal-friendly Christianity both for my sake and for the sake of my cause. So I decided to ask some activists, scholars and theologians how they reconciled Christianity and animal ethics.

The Old Testament has some strong passages on the subject. For instance, the Garden of Eden, presumably God’s ideal, is depicted as a vegan paradise, in which everyone eats plants. Similarly, in the Book of Isaiah, God promises a future in which there is no killing, and even carnivorous animals consume straw.

Unfortunately, the gospels canonized in the New Testament have a more anthropocentric focus. It got me thinking. Is Christianity fundamentally limited in what it can offer animals if one believes Jesus was God and ate meat? In other words, does progressive Christian animal ethics either have to concede Jesus was human or insist he didn’t eat meat?

Thomas Jay Oord, director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology, appeared to suggest Jesus was flawed. “I think Jesus ate meat,” he said. “I don’t think Jesus had the attributes we think God has. God doesn’t need to eat anything! Jesus was human and he probably ate meat.”

The author of many books, Victoria Moran is also cofounder of the Compassion Consortium, an interfaith religious center for animal advocates. Based in New York City, the Consortium offers Sunday programs online, as well as other events, classes and services. She didn’t seem to consider Jesus divine.

“The orthodox, Pauline view would certainly interfere with one’s adoption of ethical dietary choices,” she said. “This is one of the reasons why I do not espouse this view. Many would say, ‘Then you’re not Christian.’ Okay, fine… To me, religion is to inspire, sustain, and uplift. I am far less interested in what Jesus the human being ate 2,000 years ago than I am about his teachings, which are eternal.”

Stephen Kaufman, chair of the Christian Vegetarian Association, noted there were elements of the New Testament that could be interpreted in an anti-speciesist way, such as Jesus’ opposition to animal sacrifice. Still, Kaufman came across as somewhat conflicted, acknowledging that, in his reading, the canonical gospels didn’t portray Jesus as inordinately concerned with nonhumans.

“The only time the NT describes Jesus eating meat is in Luke’s Gospel, when he demonstrates that he has risen in the flesh by eating a piece of fish,” Kaufman said. “Whether or not one believes that this account is historically accurate, it does present a difficulty for those who claim that the canonized NT unequivocally portrays Jesus as vegetarian.”

David Clough is a Methodist lay preacher, a professor of theological ethics at the University of Chester, and is a co-founder of CreatureKind. He didn’t answer my question specifically, but his effort to situate Jesus in a historical moment suggested Clough understood Jesus to be fallible or delivering a message specific to his time.

“My view is that there are strong faith-based reasons for twenty-first century Christians to adopt a vegan diet in contexts where there are readily available plant-based alternatives,” Clough said. “Jesus lived in first-century Palestine. He certainly ate fish and almost certainly ate meat. But that doesn’t resolve the question of what it would be ethical for modern Christians to eat.”

Matthew King, president of the Christian Animal Rights Association, struck a similar note. “From his human perspective, I think Jesus’ diet needs to be contextualized with the historical setting, food availability, convenience, and general state of the world,” King said. “From his divine perspective, Jesus, as God, would not need justification for what he ate because he created the animal in the first place. He has absolute rights over animals, whereas we, as humans, do not.”

John Ryder is a retired vicar and spokesperson for Christian Vegetarians and Vegans UK. “Jesus was a good Jew,” he told me. “It can safely be said that what Jesus didn’t contradict or correct about the Jews’ understanding of their own religion, he agreed with. Therefore, he accepted that God created humans to be vegan; the consumption of meat was only allowed, like divorce, to cope with sin.”Keith Akers wrote a fascinating book dealing with the present subject called The Lost Religion of Jesus. Basically, the argument is early Jewish Christianity was vegetarian, and it was Pauline, Gentile Christianity which wasn’t. Pauline, Gentile Christianity was the winning faction which assembled the New Testament, but as a Jew, Jesus’ actual teachings were most likely closer to those of the early Jewish Christians.

I don’t know nearly enough to have an informed opinion on the matter, but I found the book fascinating and much more persuasive than I thought it would be. When I emailed Akers, he agreed believing Jesus was God and believing Jesus ate meat was limiting on what traditional Christianity could offer animal ethics. Needless to say, his conception of Christianity didn’t accept these limitations.

I wondered how important the historical Jesus was to my interviewees’ perspective on Christianity and animal ethics. For instance, imagine there was some kind of archaeological evidence that proved Jesus not only wasn’t a vegetarian, but he didn’t believe animals deserved ethical consideration. Would that change their perspective on Christianity or animal ethics?

Oord was matter of fact. “It wouldn’t change my views,” he said. “My views about what Christians ought to do aren’t determined by archeological evidence.” Meanwhile, Moran didn’t respond to my hypothetical. Instead, she marveled at the historical evidence for large numbers of vegetarians among early Christians.

“Even Paul wrote about this, urging these vegetarian Christians to stop talking about their diet all the time and focus instead on what he was convinced were the more crucial issues,” Moran said. “This tells me that Jesus either suggested a cruelty-free diet or the love emanating from his life was so far-reaching that a remarkably high percentage of those who followed him in the first few centuries after his time on earth extended that love to other-than-human beings.”

Kaufman wanted to be clear he was only speaking for himself and he didn’t believe it was likely archeological evidence would prove anything about Jesus. “But let’s say that there was very strong evidence that Jesus didn’t believe that animals deserve ethical consideration,” he said. “Then, I would say that it appears that Jesus was not an inspired spiritual leader after all, and I would probably seek a different source for spiritual inspiration.”

Clough also avoided the question to a certain degree, noting Christian ethics draws from more than just the gospels. “If all of this textual inheritance was univocal in suggesting that non-human animals were of no moral account, there would be little prospect of building a Christian animal ethics,” he said. “Fortunately, this is by no means the case.”

King’s interest in animal rights and Christianity had always been intertwined. “If such evidence existed that Jesus believed animals did not deserve ethical consideration, and it was shown to be authentic, that would cause deep conflict for me,” he said. “It would be like someone finding evidence that Jesus thought vulnerable humans did not deserve ethical consideration.”

For Ryder, the historical Jesus was essential. “But one would have to show that Jesus repudiated Judaism and the Torah to show he didn’t believe animals deserved ethical consideration, which would mean he wasn’t the Messiah, or anything like what the New Testament shows him to be,” Ryder said.

My hypothetical wouldn’t have altered Akers feelings about animal ethics. “It would make adherence to Christianity quite inconvenient, and in much the same way that believing that Jesus is God and ate meat makes Christianity inconvenient for vegetarians,” he said. “You could probably come up with some new doctrines to get around it, but at some point the question would arise, why?”

After reading Akers’ book, I was curious whether my interviewees thought it would be possible or even desirable to create a modern church inspired by the Ebionites, an early vegetarian Christian sect. Outside of a few quotes preserved in the writing of their critics, the group’s texts were destroyed or lost.

Oord said he would like to be part of a church that prioritized vegetarianism, but there are many other factors and ideas that are also important to him. Moran replied that she would be fascinated by such a church, however, she believed Compassion Consortium was doing something like that already.

Kaufman thought a modern Ebionite church could be formed, but it probably wouldn’t be something he would take part in. “I’m not as interested in a small, relatively fringe movement,” he said. “Because my United Church of Christ congregation does not have any dogmas, I am free to question and explore Christian theology and practice without scandalizing members of my congregation.”

For his part, Clough supposed it was possible a new religious movement based on what’s known about the Ebionites could be established, but he would not support any church that made vegetarianism a condition of membership. A modern Ebionite church didn’t appeal to Ryder because the group didn’t view Jesus as God. King was also uninterested in a church that rejected mainstream Christian doctrines, however, he believed creating such a group was potentially feasible.

“Many church denominations have books added or subtracted from the protestant Bible and consider those added texts to be holy and inspired, like Mormonism and Swedenborgianism,” King said. “The Ebionites rejected much of the New Testament found in the Protestant Bible. It may be possible to create a document that reflects their beliefs even if it doesn’t exactly match its wording.”

Akers, on the other hand, would absolutely be interested in a modern Ebionite church. “I don’t think that texts are essential to a community, though having something written down is surely an asset,” he said. “The first followers of Jesus didn’t have written gospels at all for decades after Jesus left the planet. New texts can always be written.”

I knew that, historically, some Christians have created alternate versions of the gospels. For instance, both Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Jefferson did this, removing references to miracles in their versions. I wondered if my interviewees thought there was any benefit in creating a more animal-friendly version of the gospels.

Oord told me he’d prefer people recognize the Bible is the product of a particular time and place and is therefore limited. Moran didn’t think an alternate Bible was necessary either: “I personally don’t need to read a revised gospel to convince me that if the Father notices when a sparrow falls, what goes on at slaughterhouses is not beyond the scope of his knowledge and care.”

Kaufman said we needed more animal-friendly stories, which come from scriptures and the saints, but he wouldn’t be interested in an idiosyncratic Bible. Clough struck a similar note. “I’m not in favor of approaches to interpretation that seek to excise parts of the Bible,” he said. “Instead I recognize a responsibility to engage with this complex tradition of texts and deliberate with fellow Christians about how they should be interpreted.”

Ryder was also opposed to the idea. “To change the gospels in any sense would be to create heresy,” he said, adding, however, he would support an appropriately footnoted text. “I believe the Bible taken as a whole and correctly understood in its historical context shows veganism to be God’s will.”

King noted something like I was asking about had been done before, mentioning The Gospel of the Holy Twelve and The Essene Gospel of Peace. I’d never heard of these, but they were apparently modern creations fraudulently presented as ancient texts. This wasn’t exactly what I’d meant, but I was curious about them.

For his part, Akers wasn’t opposed to the creation of new texts, but he prioritized the formation of a like-minded spiritual group, among other things. “Online gatherings are better than nothing, but ideally these would be in-person gatherings in our local community,” he said. “The group could then evolve organically, if its members are truly committed and can engage with each other without preconceived notions.”

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town.