Here’s a good lecture on our relationship to animals from a Christian perspective by Matthew Halteman, a Calvin College philosopher. He also contributes to a blog on these themes here.
Prof. Halteman conceptualizes “compassionate eating” as a Christian discipline, which he defines as a repetitive daily practice undertaken to narrow the gap between who we are and who we should be. In terms of diet, compassionate eating is a holistic approach to eating that is sensitive to human, animal, and environmental concerns. Halteman says that there are a continuum of responses to the issue of factory farming, from eating humanely raised meat, to vegetarianism, to veganism, but the baseline is opposition to a system of food production that causes extreme animal suffering, degrades the environment, and fosters inequity and exploitation. While his own preferred position is a vegan one, there’s no reason that anyone can’t take incremental steps toward more compassionate eating without committing to a wholesale vegan lifestyle. (The talk was originally given on Ash Wednesday, and he suggest restricting animal products during Lent as a start.)
While making more responsible choices doesn’t extricate us from responsibility for all the ills that our system of industrial agriculture contributes to, it can be a “symbolic commitment to seeking authenticity in imitation of Christ as a witness, agent, and evidence of the coming kingdom.” This stance helps us, he thinks, to avoid self-righteousness and a kind of moral utopianism that thinks that we can fix all the ills of a fallen world. That said, he thinks that being more intentional about our food choices can have many practical beneficial effects, like improving our personal health, connecting us with those who produce our food (by, e.g. patronizing farmers’ markets), increasing our sense of compassion for all sentient creatures, etc.
3 thoughts on “Compassionate eating as Christian discipleship”
Can you explain to me the basis behind veganism? I don’t understand what conceivable ethical objection to moderate use of dairy products there could be from any of the points of view raised.
I think that for many vegans the issue has to do with the way the dairy and egg industries abuse animals, in both their direct (treatment of dairy cows and laying chickens) and incidental effects (for instance, male offspring of dairy cows usually end up as veal calves and male offspring of egg laying hens are usually immediately killed):
(I’m not vouching for all the information in those links, just providing them as examples of these kinds of arguments.)
I think there’s at least some merit to these kinds of arguments, and personally try to use “cage free” or “humane” eggs, etc. (though there are questions about how effective the various labeling regimes are).
But then there are vegans who go even further and claim that pretty much any use of animals for human purposes is ipso facto exploitation, and, therefore, wrong (other things being equal). This, in my view, is a much tougher argument to make since it drills down to some very fundamental presuppositions about our relationship to non-human animals. But still, IMO, interesting to think about.
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