>Christian Reasons for Vegetarianism: Part IV

Posted: 11/10/2009 in Christian living, environment, food


This is the end of perfect virtue for all alike-that, even while still desiring it, we should approach with restraint the food that we are obliged to eat in order to sustain our lives.
-John Cassian ”The Institutes”

Welcome to the fourth and final blog on Christian reasons for Vegetarianism.

Let me remind (admit to?) everyone that I am not a vegetarian, will likely never be one, but nonetheless like finding ways to cut back on my meat consumption. I don’t believe in prescribing vegetarianism as a kind of dogmatic rule for all Christians, but I hope everything I write here will challenge all those reading to examine their consciences on the matter. One way or another, I feel Christians should follow the advice of John Cassian, who is quoted above.

In the second part of these blogs, I wrote about things Christians believe in: fasting, greed, concern for the poor, and the environment. In the third, I described some realities of food production and the finite nature of what we can grow and produce. In this blog, I will finally put them together and offer some practical ideas of practices Christians can take up, if they feel so compelled.

The Environment

Many Christians I know drink water out of reusable aluminum bottles, recycle their soda cans, and even drive a Prius. We all do this because we are well aware of the impact our garbage and our gas have on the planet, which we regard as God’s creation to be cared for. We do this even knowing that the problem is “to big” for a few of us to solve. Regardless of what industries might do, we know that our individual “footprints” on the earth can be lessened.

Eating habits are a nice extension to the things just mentioned. Food is usually not high on the list of environmental concerns, but it is there. Growing meat requires a significant amount of resources. In my state of California, that means fresh drinking water for cattle in addition to the water that was already used to grow crops. Also, even though cars come first to mind, the raising of cattle produces significant amount methane into the atmosphere.


Imagine giving up on meat one or two days a week consistently. What might someone learn by going through this simple process when combined with prayer and personal reflection?

One thing that someone might learn is that meat is a luxury. Now, I know that term comes off as rather strong. It needs explanation. I do not mean luxury in the common sense of “something that everybody wants, but few people have” like a Rolex watch or Lexus SUV. I mean it the sense that eating meat is non essential to human well being. It does not meet any of our basic physical needs like nourishment, shelter or clothing. Likewise, it is not needed for any of our higher needs such as our need for good relationships, aesthetic and artistic needs, intellectual needs, spiritual needs etc. Neither (except in very special cases) does it meet our need of economic survival in a society such as ours.

This definition of luxury is broad. Most things we labor for in our society would probably be luxurious and most people have them regardless of their economic standing. However, would this perhaps not be something that God might want to teach Christians in affluent nations? Ecclesiastes reminds us of how seeking things, including food, does not make us happy. It is one thing to read about it and learn it, but the Holy Spirit also teaches us when we take up certain habits. The simple truth: “we have too much in America” is not something that is easily learned by book reading alone.

Overcoming Greed

People like Christian anti-debt advocate David Ramsey and many other financial gurus offer a profound piece of wisdom: eat beans and rice until you meet certain financial goals, like paying off debt. What is the connection here? The idea is that meat is usually more expensive than beans and other vegetables. In fact, the price of meat is kept artificially low though government subsidies for crops that serve as food for cattle or other industry. If it were not for these subsidies*, the price of meat would be so much that I am fairly certain most people would be de facto vegetarians.

Bottom line is this: the less we spend on meat, the more we have to either be financially stable ourselves or to simply have more to give away to those in need.

Keeping the World’s Poor in Mind

Most of us can think of a meal-time prayer -usually before a large amount of food at family time- in which someone asks God to “help us to remember those who have less.” All Christians want to keep the world’s poor in mind, but why not pick a more practical way to do it? In other words, why not eat like the poor of the world every once in awhile?

Obviously, I do not mean do not eat at all. But why not have a (as one Christian called her nights in) a “poverty night”? Instead of inviting friends over for a barbeque, why not take one of the simpler vegetarian recipes from the Mennonite inspired More-With-Less Cookbook? Eating like those who don’t have meat will surely help us to remember those who don’t have what we have. Another popular classic on this subject is Diet For A Small Planet, which details out eating habits from several perspectives.


Hopefully, by now the idea of eating meat is something on everyone’s mind. Again, I don’t think that vegetarianism is a kind of mandate for all Christians. I do think, though, that our eating habits need to be on our consciences. The ecological realities and the spiritual practices that Christians accept, really do make this an issue that cannot be ignored.

*To be clear, I am not opposed to government subsidies for food per se. It is important to keep the cost of food whenever possible. The question is: does it have to be in favor of the meat industry? There are other issues worth considering. For instance, given that meat is not a biological necessity, is also an inefficient expenditure of resources, is it reasonable to provide food-stamps for chicken and steak?

  1. Q says:

    >I really take issue with your statement that meat is a luxury. The implication I'm drawing from your statement is that meat provides no nutritional value and therefore isn't a necessity. I don't know how else to say it except that that is blatantly false. Any food individual food could be considered a luxury on that basis because I could find nourishment from any other particular individual food item. My assumption is you're arguing that because we can get protein and other nutrients from other food products, meat is the luxury. But I can just as easily argue that carrots are a luxury because I can get the same vitamins and nutrients from bell peppers, or soy is a luxury because I can get the same nutrients from spinach. It's an arbitrary distinction that doesn't hold up. Unless you can prove that meat has no nutritional value or that it's nutritional value is outweighed by its ill-effects (like junk food or lettuce), you can't say that meat is a luxury. And I don't think you can honestly argue that the nutritional value of meat is outweighed by its ill-effects or that it has no nutritional value. In fact, I believe there are studies that show that vegetarians and vegans are often malnourished precisely because they have eliminated meat from their diet. (I need to check with one of my friends to find out where she got that info; she stopped being a vegetarian when she found out she was malnourished for that reason, though she still lays off red meat).It would be more appropriate to argue, based on what you've already presented, that we over-indulge in meat and should fast from it because of our our reliance upon it. But to fast from it because it's a luxury is a stretch.And while I sympathize with the argument of being in solidarity with the poor, I don't think that you're example is actually practical. I have a hard time believing that because I stopped eating meat a couple times a week that I have made someone else's life, particularly someone less fortunate than me, better. A better practice would be abstaining from eating and instead giving that meal to someone else, i.e. actually sharing a meal once or twice a week with someone who is poor. This isn't really a reaction against your post; it's more a reaction against those who think that what they do in the privacy of their homes on an irregular basis will somehow have a substantial impact on the world, which may be why I myself am not and will never be a vegetarian. But we can have that conversation some other time.However, I do think there is something important to the spiritual discipline of fasting. And while I don't agree with your reasoning behind fasting from meat in this particular instance, I do think it is a valuable practice with meat precisely because our country is addicted to meat. We over-indulge it rather than eating meat with moderation, and particularly red meat. In that sense I think it can be an important discipline. I would still take issue with your titles though, because you're not actually advocating for vegetarianism, but fasting. At least as I see it.I hope this doesn't sound like I'm attacking with you. I just think that your argument for meat as a luxury isn't founded or supportable.

  2. Jin-roh says:

    >Wow Jeff. Could you tell me what you really think? ;-)I imagine that there will be other responses to this note. I will probably answer all "objections" in another blog.Thanks for the post!

  3. Q says:

    >=) Perhaps I got a little carried away. 😉

  4. >This is something I've tried to do in my own life, especially after living in India for a while. I like meat. I eat meat. But I've found I really don't need it, and certainly not every day. I've also found that I can make use of animal products that are less expensive (for me and for the environment) like eggs and dairy to supplement vegetable protein sources.Jeff, I'm not sure my understanding of luxury is the same as yours. Going back to the example of a Rolex, consider this: Everyone whose livelihood depends on being at a certain place at a certain time "needs" (in some sense of that word) to have a way of telling time. A cheap watch from Wal-Mart or the clock on the cell phone I already own would be adequate. But I could also buy a Rolex. I don't think there are any ill effects associated with Rolex ownership (unless you count a possible adverse effect on my credit card balance).Similarly, if I am at the grocery store, I am looking for nourishment. A bag of rice, some lentils, and some vegetables would suffice. But I could also buy some ground beef. Once again, no ill effects, except that I've spent more money than necessary.So meat is a "luxury" in that it is a more expensive source of protein.Since Joel is not advocating becoming a vegetarian, it's probably moot, but usually if a vegetarian or vegan is malnourished, it's because s/he is not properly combining protein sources to get complete proteins. This is due to a lack of education, not an inherent problem with that particular diet. It would be akin to someone getting trichinosis from improperly cooked pork. In fact, the cost of meat drives a very large portion of the world's population to live predominantly on vegetable protein sources.If you still need an ill effect of meat consumption, however, consider this: producing a pound of beef requires 12.9 pounds of grain (according to Joel's data). On top of that, a certain amount of land and water must be dedicated to beef production, which then cannot be used to grow grain. Grain becomes more scarce, more expensive. Someone in another part of the world is unable to afford enough grain (and meat is completely out of the question) for himself or his family. So I don't bear the ill effects of that hamburger, but someone does.Will my eating less meat, or even becoming a vegetarian or vegan help that individual? No. Of course not. Does that let me off the hook for my share of the problem, though?

  5. Q says:

    >I understand the luxury argument; I was taking issue with the way Joel defined luxury. If it is a money issue, then yes, one could argue that meat is a luxury (though I would still argue that it is not). But to say that meat is non-essential is where I take issue. Meat is still an essential food group in the food pyramid, yes? It was when I checked recently (as five minutes ago). That's my biggest problem.

  6. Jin-roh says:

    >That was Alexander posting, just in case there was any confusion.

  7. >my Mom has the "More With Less" cookbook. 🙂 we used it all the time, especially in Taiwan. She vegetarian, actually, but always cooked meat for us, just not everyday.

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