I get a lot of people asking why I would choose to limit what I could eat by eating no animal products, especially because I am gluten intolerant, which already cuts out a lot of comfort food and restaurant options. I think this question shows something fundamental about the way in which we view food, and what our rights are. I grew up in a small rural town in Mozambique. As the children of expatriate workers, my sisters and I were of course hugely privileged in comparison to most of our friends, children of local subsistence farmers, or employees of the area’s only industry, a sugar mill. I remember my sister and I used to go for sleepovers at our respective best friends’ houses, and we would boast about who was having the best meal for dinner. The highlight of the day was invariably beans and rice.
Why am I telling you this? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I’ve started and stopped this blog post multiple times. I describe myself as ‚vegan‘, but I’m aware that for some people prefer the less politically-loaded ‚plant-based‘; some don’t want to hear about changing what they have for dinner, while others are desperate for recipes and inspiration. It’s hard to take myself back to the moment, four years ago now, when I pretty much stopped eating meat overnight (after holding out all through sixth form that I was a die-hard meat-eater and no snowflake). And while I value the influences that brought me to that decision, my attitudes are always developing and changing, and I think it’s important to keep an open mind – though my basic principles haven’t changed.
First of all, what is veganism? The word ‚vegan‘ was coined way back in 1944 by Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society, as a reaction against vegetarians who ate dairy products. To clarify, the meat and dairy industries are linked; to keep dairy cows in milk, for instance, they are kept in a cycle of insemination and birthing calves, the males of which are often taken from their mothers and slaughtered for veal. Refraining from eating meat, then, doesn’t preclude not supporting the meat industry. People pursuing a vegan lifestyle, then, avoid using animal products of any description.
The Bible doesn’t tell us whether we should or should or shouldn’t eat meat; neither does it say that we should not use animals at all. However, it is clear about the kind of world that God creates: in the garden of Eden, living things peacefully coexist, and Adam and Eve nourish themselves with plants. When God tells Adam and Eve to name the animals and to have dominion over the earth, this is in the sense of stewardship, not exploitation, and we have multiple examples throughout the Bible of God’s kindness to all living things, and how we can learn from this; in the New Testament, God uses animals to describe how much he cares for us as his children: he feeds us like the sparrows, and Jesus is described as our shepherd. Finally, in Revelation, we read that in heaven, the lion will lie down with the lamb. When God commands the Israelites to make sacrifices to atone for their sin, it foreshadows Jesus, God himself, giving himself as the ultimate sacrifice. This not only put an end to the practice of sacrifice, but reminds us of just how significant the blood shed in the Old Testament is. Each animal life was meant to symbolise great value and remind us that we need God’s forgiveness in order to live in relationship with him, just as we can now, through Jesus.
Having said that there is no direct dictum to avoid eating meat or animal products, in the modern world, especially living in the West, there are multiple social reasons to choose a plant-based lifestyle. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, whilst also directly affecting the world’s most vulnerable people. Deforestation of the Amazon to make room for grazing cattle, or for growing soy to export as cattle feed elsewhere in the world, directly affects drought regions in African countries, which in turn causes unrest which can exacerbate or lead to war.
By contrast, in Europe, we are privileged to have access to health-care and a balanced diet that need not rely on animal products at all. Did you know that a bowl of rice, beans and kale supplies all of the amino acids you need for your body to absorb full protein? It’s not about limiting what we eat, though, as being aware of how what we eat affects others. Once I found out the environmental and social impacts of a reckless over consumption of animal products, it was hard to eat them with an easy conscience.
There are multiple health benefits to a plant-based diet, of course, but that’s something I won’t go into here. It’s also important to note that not everyone is in a position to go ‚vegan‘ due to a particular health condition, and for those facing eating disorders, limiting what you eating any way can be hugely triggering, although for some, choosing to follow a ‚diet‘ based on compassion can also be a way to eat that reminds them to have compassion on themselves. As I’ve said, the most important thing is to think. Be aware. Consider. Pray. Be grateful for what you have and choose to invest, both financially and spiritually, in life and in loving others.
As Christians, we can often come across as lagging far behind in social justice movements, especially when it comes to the environment. Maybe sometimes we are so aware of our freedom that we are careless about the sensitivities of others. My heart breaks the people I’m friends with who see the beauty and preciousness of creation, a beauty that we as Christians know comes from God and that draws us closer to him, and who cannot comprehend how Christians who believe in a loving and compassionate God can also turn a blind eye to the suffering in that creation, with apparently no more logic than that if we don’t do the killing ourselves we are not responsible for it, or that our tastes and gratification are more important than the lives of others, whether human or animal.
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul talks about the fact that because of Jesus, we no longer live under the law, but under grace. There’s this incredible verse that changed how I thought about the kingdom of God and helped me align my grief about the suffering in the world with a faith that God cares and wants to bring change. „We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time“; „For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed“. We live in a fallen world, and so killing and suffering are not things we can expect to go away – but God does care, and I believe that as we step into our identity as His children, he sets us free to love and care for his creation and its inhabitants. For me, that means not financially supporting the meat industry by buying and consuming animal products, among many other things. I think this is an unbelievably exciting and freeing journey of compassion that we can all set out on in our own way as we grow in awareness of the impact of our actions.
Nyasha Mbewe | 4th year @ Johns