The Vegan Option

September 8, 2019

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson, using Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Philemon 1-23 at Evensong on Sunday 8th September 2019, the 12th after Trinity.

Congratulations Girl Choristers on starting the new year. Particular congratulations to those who have been ‘dubbed’ this evening: those specifically named.

We look forward to enjoying the worship you offer to God as you sing.

Parents of choristers, we thank you for the commitment you are also making to the ministry of the cathedral, in organising aspects of your lives around the cathedral diary. My own children have this year attained the status of being adults so we are well into the realms of helping them take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. I’m a firm believer in pushing them out of the nest so that they can stand on their own two feet, but I know I’m likely to regret that when Sue and I get the lonely feeling of being empty-nesters.

Over the past couple of years we have loved seeing our kids grow into adults. One thing we didn’t expect was how much both of them challenge us about what we eat. Girls in the choir, I don’t know if this is true for you, but my kids think we shouldn’t be eating as much meat as we do. Like many people I know, we have been cutting down on the amount of meat we eat, and I do keeping asking myself, ‘Why?’

The most compelling argument for me about eating no meat is about fairness. It’s not fair that richer people like us eat meat, which requires much more land to produce animal food, than if we all simply ate food from plants. As the world population grows we need more and more land to sustain current patterns of food consumption. Forests are being burnt down, as we see in Brazil, in part so that we can produce more food for ourselves and for animals to eat. Food for everyone in the world is easily sustainable if we eat less meat.

The emotionally charged argument about the amount of violence we do to animals is one we would perhaps rather ignore. Few of us have been to an abattoir to watch the stressed animals herded out of a truck and killed. Live animals are transported for days often without food and sufficient water and many die en route. Few of us have been to meat processing factories to understand what happens between seeing a lovely cow in a field and a prime bit of rump steak in Sainsbury’s. Who sees the thousands of live male chicks that are fed into mincing machines every day? The vegan option forces us to consider the wellbeing of all the animals that are part of our food industry.

The argument about health is more related to our own self-interest. Processed meat is a carcinogen of the same class as asbestos and smoking. Why would you eat it? All red meats are a class 2 carcinogen. Thousands of people die every year in this country because we don’t eat well. Vegetable and fruit diets properly balanced, give you all your body needs, and you aren’t affected by the antibiotics given to animals, which reduce the human response to antibiotics.

We tend to eat what we used to eat out of habit. Changing our habits of eating isn’t easy.

On Thursday evening we had four guests to stay for the night so I was talking with my daughter about what to give them to eat. For a nice meal for old friends I hadn’t seen for a long time, I wanted to treat them, and couldn’t really anticipate not giving them meat. But my daughter insisted we should give them a vegetable only meal… so we did, and it raised lots of conversation around the table.

So, why should we change our eating habits? All the arguments above are good arguments. But what if God also has something to say about it?

In the garden of Eden God commands the man and woman to eat the plants of the field (Gen 1:29). Even after the fall the same command is repeated (Gen 3:18). Could it be that this ideal remains the best option for humanity and the rest of creation in the 21st century?

The reading from Jeremiah is a warning that the people of Israel have sinned against the Lord. If they don’t change their evil ways then they will face God’s judgement. The metaphor of people being like a lump of clay moulded by the hands of God is relevant for us. If we turn from doing wrong, God can shape us into something better. The whole message of the gospel is that change is possible. We don’t have to, nor should we continue colluding in food consumption that is bad for us, bad for animals and bad for the planet. ‘Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.’ Our habits of the past do not need to bind us for the future.

Onesimus, the slave who ran away from Philemon to the apostle Paul, also amended his ways. The letter to Philemon is a letter of apology and recommendation. Yes, Paul admits, Onesimus should not have run away and treated his master as he did. Yes, Philemon has the right to punish him. But Paul pleads on Onesimus’ behalf, entreating Philemon to accept that Onesimus is a changed man.

Are we going to change?

This week my wife was telling me that she sat next to a vegan on a train. This woman was persuasive, to say the least, about why everyone should eat nothing produced by animals. She was energetically proselytising about it, like the kind of evangelical Christian that you dread sitting next to on an eight hour flight. But why not? If the arguments are compelling, if vegan eating is the best thing then why not tell people about it?

Perhaps leading by example is best the policy. I remember having lunch at the university up the hill one day, delighting in the variety and taste of the vegetarian lunch they were offering. It was fantastic. Good on the university for leading by example. By comparison the church has been slow to champion a cause that is founded in the perfection of God’s creation.

One friend in the food industry told me that within a few years sitting down to tuck into a steak will be as socially unacceptable as lighting up a cigarette when you’re a guest in someone’s house. There is a generational change happening. The girls in the choir are likely to have very different eating habits to those of us for whom meat and two vegd is the definition of a square meal.

Could it also be that God is shaping humanity according to his will, returning us to the Paradise of the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve ate no animals, only the plants of the field? We have sinned. We have abused creation. We have a food industry that divorces us from our relationship with other created beings and the planet. And slowly, we are recognising the responsibilities we have not just to our fellow human beings around the world, but that having dominion over other living beings means caring for them. So, may we turn now, from our evil way, and amend our ways and our doings, as Jeremiah encourages us.

May God change us. May he remould us and shape us according to his purposes. Amen.

Note: references to sources can be found in The Plant-based Diet: A Christian Option? by Mia Smith available at grovebooks.co.uk.