Sometime around 2004, while Showbread was playing some hole in the wall venue near Salt Lake City, I stumbled upon a local PETA activist who had set up a booth near our merch table. A small tube TV was situated among the various leaflets and provocative keychains, and on its screen looped PETA’s infamous short film, Meet Your Meat. Like any normal human being, I was duly appalled. This was my first peek behind the curtain of the meat industry.
I did not stop eating meat.
If ever I recollected the haunting images from that twelve terrifying minutes, I felt very much like someone who did not want to participate in such horrors. But, as you may have guessed, those images became easier to suppress and to ignore and to forget altogether.
Now, say what you will about PETA (they’ve incurred their fair share of scrutiny and mounted their own defense), this is not an article about them. Activism, awareness, shock… they can each be effective in their respective ways, but what makes someone truly upend a dietary lifestyle?
For me, it was Jesus.
I side with scripture in refusing to make vegetarianism or veganism a dogmatic issue. I do not believe all followers of Jesus are unequivocally called to abstain from meat. I do not believe someone who has chosen to give up meat is any more or less righteous than someone who has not. I do believe, however, that beginning in Genesis, men and women are tasked by God himself to care for animals.
I became increasingly aware of God’s affection for animals throughout scripture. Each time I drove past a truck crowded with livestock or imagined the horrors transpiring within the walls of factory farms, I was plagued by an aching sensation, that voice whispered through gritted teeth: “This isn’t right.” I phased meat out of our grocery list (My wife Abi has been a vegetarian for eleven years) and began passing over meat options at parties and restaurants, but I had not given it up entirely. Why? Because meat tastes great. I liked hamburgers. I liked steak. The thought of never returning to Krystal frightened me.
One afternoon last year I stumbled upon a brief documentary, Eating Mercifully: Christian Perspectives on Factory Farming. I decided not to look away from the heinous parade of torture and cruelty (after all, I was funding it) and when the film had ended, I was fairly certain my flexitarian days had come to an end. I didn’t want to eat meat anymore. I didn’t want to buy products tested on animals. I didn’t want to wear clothes made from animals.
So I stopped.
I continued to develop my perspective by reading books like Andrew Linzey’s Animal Theology, and Why Animal Suffering Matters. I sat (and wept and cringed) through the notorious documentary Earthlings, whose images will never leave my mind and continue to solidify my conviction on a near-daily basis.
At the end of the day, many factors led to my decision to give up meat. But of them all, three continue to press toward the forefront of my mind.
1. The Glass Wall Argument
When I decided in 2010 to no longer support companies that utilize sweatshops, child labor, forced labor, etc., the strongest element of my conviction was the notion of a glass wall. If I could see into the factory, and see the employees being mistreated and exploited, would I hand over my money so willingly for a pair of jeans? If I could see, with my own eyes, the children made to sew them together, would I pay for the sneakers? I don’t think I would.
So what of the animals? Now that I have seen them skinned and slaughtered and disemboweled alive, seen them beaten, abused, driven insane, tortured, shrieking in agony, bludgeoned, mocked, sickly and rotting from neglect… can I funnel finances into the institutions responsible?
(There are institutions committed to offering animal products without mistreatment of said animals. I know of several folks who support these humane institutions exclusively, and theirs is—in my view—an admirable decision.)
The Glass Wall Argument leads me to the inevitable conclusion that when I buy meat and milk from factory farms, or leather from India, or products tested on animals, I look upon the atrocity of cruelty, abuse and neglect with an approving grin and reward the perpetrators with the funds to continue their monstrous work.
Followers of Jesus are not all called to vegetarianism, but they are all called to care for animals (Prov. 12:10). Given that there are ways around financially supporting institutions marked by cruelty and abuse (even without adopting vegetarianism), are we not responsible for taking any such given route?
3. Mercy and the Coming Kingdom
When I anticipate the day that death itself is destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26), when the animals live at peace with one another and with humans (Isaiah 11:6), it makes me happy to invite a glimpse of that approaching reality into my diet and my spending habits in the here and now.
I’m not required to do so. I’m not made more or less righteous by doing so. But I’ve decided to do so nonetheless.
God is all-powerful and yet chooses to be compassionate, gracious, and merciful. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth and exercises said authority by taking up the role of a servant (John 13:1-17). I can easily exert power over the animal kingdom and exploit it for my appetites. I’ve even been given a kind of permission to do so (within certain ethical boundaries). Instead, I haven chosen to be merciful.
PeTA: Meet Your Meat, Greg Boyd on God’s affection for animals throughout scripture, Documentary: Eating Mercifully: Christian Perspectives on Factory Farming, Andrew Linzey: Animal Theology and Why Animal Suffering Matters, Documentary: Earthlings, List of products tested on animals, 3 part essay from Greg Boyd on vegetarianism: one, two, and three.