Plant-based diets have skyrocketed in recent years, taking a fringe movement into the mainstream, but should Christians get their teeth into this new trend?
It was, probably, the first time lunch had been confessed in the traditionalist church to which I used to belong: “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” I said, in the awkward, self-conscious voice that always took over at this point in confession. I continued, solemnly: “I ate a cheese sandwich.”
It put the priest in a tricky position: he was partial to the odd cheese sandwich himself, not to mention lamb chops and bacon rolls. But what we concluded – after a discussion about ethics that went on for so long the rest of the confessional queue must have assumed I’d committed first-degree murder – transformed my animal-free diet from teenage rebellion to religious conviction. Veganism, he said, was a prompting of my conscience, formed by God.
From rebellion to religion
It certainly hadn’t started that way: when I abandoned a meat-eating diet, aged 16, it was because I was passionately in love with the vegan lead singer of the 1990s Australian rock sensation, Silverchair. As I grew up and started to learn more about industrial farming and the treatment of animals, a snap decision that began as an adjunct to my dyed blue hair and multiple piercings took on a moral significance of its own. Nevertheless, when I became a Christian, and learned to not “call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15), I anticipated that God might ask me to let veganism go, that it was part of my old identity; that I was trying to justify myself by picking veggie burgers over sausage rolls; and that freedom in Christ meant tucking into the occasional sushi.
But the more I prayed, the more convincing the case for veganism became; and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. When I first turned vegan, 17 years ago, I joined a small movement consigned to the dusty shelves of health food stores. Since then the number of vegans in the UK has exploded, from around 150,000 in 2006 to a staggering 3.5 million today (that’s 7% of the country). The extraordinary rise in the number of people following a diet that eschews all animal products – as well as meat and fish, cheese, eggs, milk and honey – is, in part, due to the wellness movement, whose UK cheerleader “Deliciously” Ella Woodward consistently tops recipe book charts. Veganism might be the fastest-growing lifestyle movement in the country, but it’s hard to stick to what – at first – appears to be a very restrictive diet.
Why go vegan?
The wellness and ‘clean eating’ movement does have a point: there is very good evidence to suggest that going vegan can have a transformative effect on your health – not because you live off matcha green tea and chia seeds, but for the very simple and common sense reason that you are eating more vitamin-rich fruit and vegetables and less processed meat. Our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). That doesn’t mean we should be obsessed with ‘clean eating’, but it does mean looking seriously at recent studies showing that eating red meat increases the likelihood of cancer and heart disease.
A Christian vegan doesn’t gloat over their cheddar-loving neighbour
A healthy vegan diet – done right – improves quality of life. Recent vegan converts often report higher energy levels, healthy weight loss, better sleep and clearer skin. Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton and ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek all credit a vegan diet with improving their performance; and try telling America’s top weightlifter, Olympian Kendrick Farris, that a vegan diet won’t make you strong. I’m no Olympian, but since turning vegan I have run six half marathons, deadlifted twice my own body weight and cycled around the world.
As well as having a positive impact on your own body, there’s substantial evidence to suggest that veganism is good for the environment. Meat and dairy farming – even in their least intensive forms – have a devastating effect on the environment. The impact of meat and dairy production across a number of categories – land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water and air pollution and freshwater withdrawals – is much, much worse than even the most unsustainable vegetable and cereal growth. Summing up his recent study on this, which was published in the journal Science, the University of Oxford’s Joseph Poore wrote: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”
Finally there’s the issue of animal abuse. Battery farming – which, as well as depriving hens of space and light, includes, in its worst incarnations, practices like forced malting by depriving birds of food and water for a week, and acutely painful debeaking (thankfully on the decline in Europe). Intensive dairy farms continue to use a zero-grazing model that traps cows inside for the duration of their lives; in August the RSPCA said it was considering legal action against a British wool farm after footage emerged of shearers punching, throwing and stamping on the necks of sheep.
For vegetarians who haven’t made the leap to veganism, there is the troubling issue of animal culling: male calves born onto dairy farms are sold off as veal. Dairy cattle past their prime have their throats slit and are sold as beef. A common – legal – way of disposing of male chicks born on an egg farm is to throw them, alive, into an industrial macerator. It’s possible to make more ethical choices – by buying organic, free-range eggs, for example – but this is easy when putting in your Ocado order, and much harder when you grab a sandwich from a petrol station in a hurry.
Didn’t Jesus eat fish?
If it is good for our health, the environment and animals, it seems to me that there is a divine harmony to veganism. But that is not to say that veganism and Christianity pair easily together. I discovered this as a theology undergraduate when at the termly faculty dinner I had to explain to the assembled dons, bishops and priests why I was tucking into a banana instead of sticky toffee pudding.
The chief Christian objection to veganism – even vegetarianism – is that Jesus ate fish. I don’t think there is definitive evidence that Jesus ate meat, but it seems very likely that he did. Add to that the passages in Genesis, where God gives Adam dominion over animals, and tells Noah: “Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you”, and you have a clear biblical mandate for eating meat. The early Christians certainly ate meat: Paul, in Romans, tells the Church: “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them” (14:2-3).
I struggled for a long time with the chasm that seemed to exist between my conscience and scripture. How could it be wrong to eat meat if Jesus ate meat? Finally another well-known Pauline saying pointed me towards a solution: “Everything is permitted, but everything isn’t beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23, CEB). The beauty of this was that it wasn’t just a tidy theological riposte: it saturated veganism with grace. One of the great problems with veganism is that it only works in certain contexts: even the most hardened PETA activist would struggle to prove that veganism is an appropriate lifestyle for Kazakh herdsmen or people who suffer from anaemia. But secular veganism clings to its own extreme, objective truth – consuming animal products is always wrong, everywhere.
Christian veganism, by contrast, is a life of graceful sacrifice; a way of living kingdom values. Eating animal products is not objectively sinful; but there are contexts where it isn’t beneficial. For example, when a doctor has told you a diet high in saturated fat will kill you. Or when industrial farming is destroying creation: individually, in the small animals it grinds up, and on a global scale. Yes, Jesus cooked a fish breakfast, but they were fish from the Sea of Galilee in the first Century, not the kind of industrial Pacific operation that has caused global marine populations to decline by 49 per cent over the course of a single generation. God gave humanity dominion over animals – before rhino were poached to the point of extinction. Noah was told he could eat anything that moved before anyone realised you could make pâté by overfeeding ducks to the point where their swollen livers make it hard for them to move.
Four films that might turn you vegan
This Netflix-produced feature film tells the story of a ‘super-piglet’, created as a potential solution to global hunger. In reviewing the film, Empire magazine commented: “Not since Babe has an adorable porker inspired such peculiar joy or unexpected heartache.” Watch it: Netflix
2. What the health
This follow up to the awardwinning documentary Cowspiracy accuses governments and health organisations of being complicit in overlooking diet as one of the leading causes of cancer today. Watch it: whatthehealthfilm.com
This BBC mockumentary by Simon Amstell is set in 2067 and is a scarily realistic imagining of a world where veganism has become the norm and we all regret our meat-eating past. Watch it: BBC iPlayer
4. Forks over knifes
Celebrities including Katy Perry and Ariana Grande have praised this documentary, which examines the claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us today, including cancer and heart disease, can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods. Watch it: forksoverknives.com
Legalism vs vocation
Christian veganism guards against the legalism that can so often emerge from ‘clean eating’. If you are eating clean, is everyone else dirty? The Christian who believes they are is confronted by Jesus asking his disciples: “Have ye here any meat?” (Luke 24:41, KJV). A Christian vegan doesn’t gloat over their cheddar-loving neighbour: they’re too busy trying to figure out how to fix a broken world. One of the most beautiful depictions of Jesus in art is of a shepherd carrying a stray lamb back on his shoulders; in this century, that lamb might never have had a chance to escape – millions of sheep and lambs are reared indoors and never even see pasture.
Veganism is, seen this way, a kind of vocation. God first spoke to me through a long-haired Australian rock star’s impassioned anthem about animal rights, but that commitment endured because of God’s grace. I thrive as a vegan: I have more energy, I’m a better cook and decades spent eating bananas instead of sticky toffee pudding has nurtured the spiritual fruit of self-control. Veganism was never a reason to despise God’s gifts, but a way to celebrate him in other things: a bowl of slow-cooked Indian dahl; Ma Po tofu drowned in Szechuan pepper oil; rich coconut ice cream; dark chocolate; a colourful salad. But I also know people for whom it wasn’t a vocation: friends who suffered fatigue and vitamin deficiencies, or who spent months miserably stealing chunks of cheese when no one was looking before they finally admitted it wasn’t a lifestyle for them. For a secular vegan, this is unmitigated failure. For me, it just means it wasn’t their call.
Jesus said: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth” (Matthew 15:11, ESV). It isn’t eating a bacon sandwich that matters, it’s what’s going on in your heart. If your conscience is crying out over climate change, battery farmed hens or with compassion for a friend whose health problems mean bacon is off the menu, God might be urging some dietary discernment. If he is calling you to try an animal-free diet, you can trust him to turn it into something beautiful; like he does with any sacrifice. But wherever you are on the journey – a hardcore vegan, a ponderous vegetarian, a flexitarian or a ‘reducetarian’ trying to eat less meat – the most important thing is to respect the call of those around you. And to remember, as I learned in the confessional after an unremarkable cheese sandwich worried my conscience, there is always grace.