The God Squad: Eating meat isn't against the Bible

Question: I have the terrible suspicion that I'm a hypocrite. I'm an animal lover, but I eat meat. I don't eat the meat of young animals, like veal and lamb, but I do eat meat, fish and fowl, along with eggs. Is there anything in the Bible referring to the practice of eating meat, or to Christ's practice? Did he eat meat?

I'm aware that I'm seeking absolution for eating meat, but I do face a conflict. Although I would never hunt or fish, I eat animals that other people kill. Is killing and eating animals a crime in the eyes of God or Jesus? What would Jesus have said about this? P.S.: I contribute to many animal advocacy groups, especially to help farm animals and to ban dog racing, but this doesn't erase the guilt. — L., via snail mail from Boynton Beach, Fla.

Answer: Your morally sensitive e-mail touched my own hypocritical meat-eating heart (or should I say, stomach). I think every sensitive soul must realize that eating food that does not have to be killed first is spiritually and morally superior to killing animals for food.

We all should be eating as low down on the food chain as we can to reduce animal suffering, reduce factory farming of meat, prevent the leveling of the rain forests to plant grasslands for cheap beef, reduce the fat- and artery-clogging cholesterol in our bodies, and generally to honor God's creation by not killing it for lunch.

The Bible does indeed reinforce this vegetarian impulse of our higher souls. When God created Adam and Eve in Genesis, the only foods specified for their diet were fruits and vegetables: Genesis 1:29, "And God said: 'Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food.'"

The biblical permission to eat meat doesn't come until God's covenant with Noah after the flood in Genesis chapter 9:3-6: "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man's brother I will require the life of man. 'Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.'" (NKJV)

This passage makes clear the biblical belief that eating meat is, in God's eyes, a regrettable concession to human weakness, not a virtue. The connection between eating meat and murder of human beings in this passage is also instructive. It makes the case that seeing animal blood spilled can make us callous to the sight of human blood being spilled.

The New Testament is also filled with contradictory messages about vegetarianism. In an article, Keith Akers writes, "The New Testament takes contradictory stands on this issue, sometimes seeming to condemn and sometimes seeming to support vegetarianism. Jesus feeds bread and fish to the five thousand (Mark 6:34-44) -- seeming to approve of eating fish. But Jesus also speaks of compassion toward animals (Matthew 12:10-12, Luke 12:6-7, 13:15-16) — seeming to hint at vegetarianism."

Paul, however, seems more comfortable in supporting a carnivorous diet, "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience." (I Corinthians 10:25).

So what do we learn from all of this? Against the radical claims of some vegans that "meat is murder," we must dissent and affirm the radical difference between killing animals and killing people. Animals are blessed by God and urged to "be fruitful and multiply" but they are lower on the order of sanctity than people.

Vegetables and fruits and grains are, however, still lower on the sanctity scale and therefore eating them is spiritually preferable, if not actually commanded. Eat low on the food chain seems to be the combined wisdom of both God, Jesus, ethicists, environmentalists and nutritionists.

To those of you like me, who still eat meat, there's great wisdom in all of this. We learn that God's words to us are not directed only to saints. The genius of the Bible is that it gives us all ways to live a morally compromised life while urging us on to try every day to live lives of modestly higher virtue. Eating meat is OK, but we can do better. So my suggestion, and my present practice, is to try to eat less meat, fish and fowl (eggs are another matter).

The food writer Mark Bittman, of the New York Times, recently declared his practice as being, "a vegetarian until dinner." By not consuming animals during the day, we lower our carnivorous footprint dramatically while trying to find a healthy and morally sustainable way to eliminate it altogether. I'm presently on a high-protein, low-carb diet. This makes vegetarianism particularly challenging for me, but I am trying.

Finally, don't beat yourself up. You're not a hypocrite. You may not even be a sinner, but you are trying to do better. There's no shame in this. Go have a salad. I'll join you. Your diet may not be perfect, but your soul is in terrific shape.

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