It is helpful to remember, reading the Bible, that it was written by a variety of divinely inspired human authors, each part with a specific purpose, for a specific community, in a specific time period. The Christian Scriptures (New Testament) are the product of three centuries of intellectual and spiritual discussion and dissent among early Christians. The books were transcribed, again and again, over three centuries, often losing original meaning and taking on new meaning. Also, the texts which were finally chosen for inclusion in the Canon (the 27 books we now call the "New Testament") were picked in the fourth century, and there are a variety of texts written at the time (and earlier) that didn't make it into the Canon.
As Rev. Ernie Bringas explains in Going by the Book, "We do not possess, nor have we ever possessed, any of [the original writings of the Christian Scriptures]. They were lost or destroyed early on. What we do possess are copies of these books, most of them incomplete and several times removed from the originals " (p. 173). (For a further discussion of how scholars determine what is authentic teaching, please visit the Popular Question, "How can you use scripture to prove that Jesus was a vegetarian, while discounting scripture that disagrees with your assessment?")
While it is true that we don't have an unequivocal "Thou shalt not eat meat" commandment, Jesus' most famous saying, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy" certainly endorses the vegetarian diet and arguably requires it, considering what we know about slaughterhouses and factory farms. Can anyone imagine Jesus working in a slaughterhouse? Of course not.
The Garden of Eden, God's perfect world, was vegetarian (Gen. 1:29-30). Immediately, God calls this ideal and non-exploitative relationship "good" (Gen. 1:31). This is the one time when God makes such a statement. There follow many years of fallen humanity, when people held slaves, waged war, ate animals, and committed various other violent acts. Although there are passages in the Scriptures that endorse eating animals, war, slavery, polygamy, animal sacrifice, and other practices that most people find immoral, these passages are a representation of what existed as a part of fallen humanity, not of God's ideal plan or vision. Despite the fall, the prophets tell us to expect a new age, a return to Eden, God's peaceable kingdom, when even the lion will lie down with the lamb and there will be no bloodshed or violence at all, "for the Earth will be filled with the knowledge of God" (Isaiah 11).
Most of us would agree that harming a dog or cat is unethical--unChristian even. It is both rational and Biblically sound to suggest, then, that harming any living being, including cows, chickens, pigs, and fishes, is equally immoral. There will be no factory farms and slaughterhouses in heaven, and Christians, who all pray for God's will "on Earth as it is in heaven," should be trying to live as closely as possible to that vision now. There is so much violence in the world today, and solutions are generally complex and the issues debatable. On this one choice, though, the issue is plain: Do I support cruelty to animals, needless suffering, violence, and death? Or don't I?
Make no mistake about it, on today's factory farms, animals are dehorned, debeaked, and castrated without anesthesia. To maximize profits, they are crowded together in the least space possible and are genetically bred so that most suffer lameness, crippling leg deformities, or bone breaks, because their legs can't keep up with their scientifically enhanced bodies. Finally, they are trucked without food or water, through all weather extremes, to a frightening and hellish death.
Does God love animals, as Jesus says? Does God care about even the lowliest sparrow? Does God's covenant extend to all the animals on land, and the birds in the air, and the fish in the sea, as Genesis tells us? If so, what does it mean that we treat animals so cruelly, with so little thought to the fact that they, too, are beloved by God. For more information on the treatment of animals on factory farms, please visit PETA's vegetarian Web site. Eating animals, dairy products, or eggs simply can't be reconciled with Christian living.
The Nazarenes of Mount Carmel
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