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Chapter 17

WAS JESUS A VEGETARIAN?

Was Jesus vegetarian? Indeed, we have ample reason to believe that God's plan for creation included vegetarian diets for not just humans, but all animals as well. As theologian Karl Barth wrote:

"Whether or not we find it practicable and desirable,
the diet assigned to men and beasts by God the Creator is
vegetarian."

Man was explicitly created to "till the ground" (Genesis 2: 5). In Genesis 1: 29, God prescribes a specifically vegan eating regime, reiterated after the Fall (Genesis 3: 18-19). Only after the flood did God endorse eating flesh-foods (Genesis 9: 3), and then more as a concession than a recommendation (see Deuternomy 12: 20)

The once and future ideal of universal vegetarianism remains clear. Isaiah tells us that: "when the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord,... the lion shall eat straw like the ox," and "they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain" (Isaiah 11: 6-9; 65: 25).

This is symbolized, as we saw in Chapter 3, in God's preference of Jacob the farmer, with his red lentil soup, over Jacob's older brother, Esau, the mighty hunter who relished savory game. Another case in point is found in Daniel Chapter 1, which could pass for a vegetarian tract. (see Chapter 5)

Nevertheless, contending that Jesus was vegetarian is spurious. True, in the first-century middle east, common people were mainly vegetarian, but of necessity -- not conviction. It's safe to infer that the same would apply to Jesus' diet. Even today in that region, the average Lebanese eats only 12 lb. of meat per year, versus 202 lb. for Canadians and 225 lb. for Americans. Meat-eating in first-century Palestine was a luxury, reserved for special feasts (eg: Jesus' parable of the fatted calf), or when entertaining.

However, a lot of fish was consumed, and it's significant that Jesus' first disciples were fishermen. He fed the multitude with five loaves and "two small fishes." Twice Jesus led the fishermen-disciples to (or miraculously caused) great catches of fish. He ate fish at least once after His resurrection (Luke 24: 42-43), and perhaps a second time (John 21: 9-13). He makes positive reference to eating fish and eggs in Luke 11: 11-12.

As a Jew, Jesus would scrupulously observe Passover, as indeed He did the night of His betrayal. Slaughtering and eating lamb was essential to the Passover ritual. But note that Jesus designated bread to represent His body at the Last Supper, and that most of His food-related metaphors are to grain and bread.

So while we may be certain that Jesus was not vegetarian in any sort of doctrinaire or systematic sense, can a case be made for adopting a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet as part of one's Christian ethic today? I think so, as long as we avoid attempting to enlist Jesus into our agenda, rather than doing our best to make sure we are part of His.

Meat contains about 35 times as much pesticide residue as grains and cereals, and about 20 times as much radioactive material. Residues of some 600 different chemicals are potentially present in supermarket meat -- only 10 percent of them monitored (inadequately) by governments. Virtually all feedlot cattle are treated with medications like antibiotics (9 million tons of which are used annually in livestock feed in the U.S. alone) and/or synthetic sex hormones. Routine subtherapeutic agricultural use of antibiotics has been linked to evolving drug-resistant disease bacteria like the so-called "flesh-eating" Streptococcus A variant of media notoriety last spring, and the meningococcus strain that terrorizes teenagers, cost Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard his leg, and took the life of Muppeteer Jim Henson.

Adverse health consequences of eating diets high in saturated fats and protein are well documented. A massive study on 88,751 women by Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard, U, found that daily meat consumption increased one's risk of colon cancer by 2.5 times. Another large study published this year in the British Medical Journal reported that vegetarians are 40 percent less likely to die of cancer and 25 percent less likely to die of heart disease than meat-eaters.

Meat, poultry, and dairy food production is an environmental scourge. It takes 5,400 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. Rice, considered a "water intensive" grain crop, requires only 25 gallons of water per pound produced. One 20,000 head feedlot produces as much solid waste as a city of 320,000. Ninety-five percent of U.S. agricultural land is devoted to animal food production, One-third of raw materials used for all purposes in the U.S. go toward meat, dairy, and egg production, compared to just five percent used for grain, vegetable, and fruit production.

Perhaps the most compelling ethical issue associated with meat-eating is world hunger. Francis Moore Lappé (Diet For A Small Planet) points out that anytime we sit down with an 8 oz. steak, we should imagine 40 or 50 people with empty bowls watching us eat it. For the "feed cost" of our single meat serving, each bowl could be filled with a full cup of cereal grain. Forty percent of world grain production (79% in North America) is fed to livestock. If everyone ate a grain and legume based diet, there would be enough food at present rates of production to feed six billion people (current world pop. -- c. 5.6 billion). Once modest amounts of eggs, poultry, and meat are included, only 805 of the present population could be fed.. At current North American nutrition recommendations, only 50% of people would eat adequately. Today, about 20% of the world's people go to bed hungry, while the less than 5% who live in North America eat 30% of the world's meat and 50% of its milk.

I am unmoved by the emotional sentimentalism of most animal-rights rhetoric, but treatment of cattle and fowl in feedlot and factory-style poultry operations is disgusting and cruel exploitation of our fellow-creatures, with only economic efficiency to recommend it.

So while Jesus wasn't a vegetarian 2000 years ago, when there were only about 100 million people alive on earth, I think it is reasonable to speculate that He probably would be today with 56 times that many passengers on spaceship earth. It's hard to justify meat and dairy production and consumption at present North American levels as being even remotely in accord with Divine Will.


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