Author's note: I was invited to write an article on the ethical and spiritual character to vegan practice by Timbrel: Women in Conversation with God Together, the magazine of Mennonite Women USA. The following is an edited version of what was published in the spring 2015 issue.
The wolf shall lie with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain
for all the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
-- Isaiah 11:6, 9 (New Revised Standard)
I do it for the animals.
On the surface, this appears to be a simple answer to a fairly straightforward question: why are you vegan? Yet my commitment to veganism is influenced by my understanding about God, the place of people in creation, the purpose of other animals and the nature of the “good news,” as well as how I read the Bible. It is also tied to my identity as a Black Anabaptist woman who works at undoing oppression. These lenses have led me to see other animals in ways that conflict with the dominant logic of our day, which is itself shaped by various values, beliefs and theologies.
Although veganism is widely recognized as a type of diet, the practice is much broader than that. Vegans are plant-based eaters who also abstain from using animal flesh and other byproducts in our clothing, personal care items and other consumer goods. We use products that are not tested on animals, avoid exploitative sports and activities like rodeos, hunting and circuses, and advocate for an end to intimate and systemic violence against animals. More than an eating habit, veganism is best understood as a comprehensive attempt to live compassionately and justly with other creatures, regardless of their species.
My own journey toward veganism began at Wake Up Weekend, a gathering to raise awareness about the distressing plight of animals within industrial farming. Throughout the event, I listened as presenters described the torturous conditions on “factory farms” and explained their attempts to rescue, rehabilitate, and campaign in support of farmed animals in the face of ridicule, violence and even imprisonment. The most difficult and transforming moment came when I watched footage of hens, cows, calves, sheep and others as they languished in filthy stalls and dark cages; were dragged, kicked, beaten and otherwise abused by workers; and were brutally slaughtered and dismembered by human hands and man-made machines. The magnitude and sheer routineness of the violence was astounding. But it was hearing the animals’ unrelenting screams—sounds akin to humans in anguish—that overwhelmed me with empathy. In the months after the event, I was compelled to change from being a comfortably ignorant pescatarian to a full-fledged vegan. I truly had no other choice.
In many ways, this conversion story is not unique. People around the world from all walks of life have chosen veganism after discovering how the vast majority of farmed animals—more than 9 billion last year in the U.S. alone and more than 70 billion worldwide*—make it to their plates. Yet, the fact that I made my transition while I was a seminary student profoundly shaped the kind of vegan I am today.
Being in seminary allowed me to have sustained theological and ethical reflection on the cruelty I had witnessed. Moreover, it was studying in an Anabaptist learning community that forms Christ-followers to pursue God’s shalom that affected how I reflected. It was there I was able to nurture my emotional knowledge about other animal suffering with critical thinking and Biblical engagement. It was in that context I asked hard questions about status quo “human-animal” relationships, the ways people justify this power arrangement, and the devastating implications of leaving this situation unchallenged.
As I continue exploring these concerns, I have made several discoveries that have encouraged me to be vegan as a spiritual and ethical discipline. Two of them are especially worth noting in light of the connection between who we eat, what we do to other animals more broadly, and efforts to resist injustice.
One of my epiphanies was that liberating other animals from human domination and violence is essential to the task of pursuing peace and justice among human beings. Take the issue of militarism. How many war resisters realize that the U.S. military conducts experiments on hundreds of thousands of nonhuman animals annually, or that it routinely uses live animals in gruesome, antiquated trauma trainings, or that it has been training dolphins, sea lions and killer whales for defensive purposes? How many people concerned with immigration issues are aware that factory farms and slaughterhouses target undocumented workers, refugees and other immigrants on the economic margins to work under grueling, degrading and inhumane conditions?
Many people are working to dismantle patriarchy and white supremacy. But how many of them have explored the intersections between the way people rationalize using and abusing other animals, and the way they rationalized using and abusing women and African-descended peoples? Then there’s the issue of climate change. How many ecological activists are paying serious attention to the fact that “livestock production” is a top contributor to “the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global,”** that 33% of the planet’s total arable land is used to grow feed for farmed animals, and that life in our oceans is threatened due to global overfishing? The common criticism that caring for other animals distracts us from addressing human needs couldn’t be more wrong. Violence against other animals is intricately tied to many supposedly human issues, from intimate partner abuse to civil unrest over natural resources.
My other epiphany is that including other animals in our sphere of concern not only transforms the way we see other animals: it also upends common understandings about humanity and God. First, I realized that humans are not as exceptional as we believe. Instead, humans and other animals have complex social lives, intelligence, language and other gifts, making many of our differences a matter of degrees. Scripture also presents other animals as living souls, moral agents, role models, messengers of God, worshippers, recipients of God’s covenant, and subjects of God’s care and concern. Other animals also challenge our theological categories. For example, Christians often speak about salvation as something Jesus offers to human beings. Yet, in overcoming sin and death, Jesus also repeals the sacrificial system. Surely this is good news, not only to the poor, the widow and the captive, but also to the goat, sheep and dove! ***
In Isaiah 11:6-9, the prophet describes an extraordinary peace in which all animals, human and nonhuman, predators and prey, are reconciled. No one lives in animosity towards another. No one destroys. Furthermore, this new arrangement flows out of knowing the Lord fully, “as the waters cover the sea.” To be clear, I am not suggesting that either the book of Isaiah or the Bible as a whole is a vegan tract. Like its treatment of women, slaves and other marginalized communities, the place of other animals in Scripture is mixed. Yet I do believe that veganism can be a legitimate expression of the cosmic vision to which Isaiah points.
Why am I vegan? I choose it as a daily sign of deep boundary crossing love for God’s creation. I choose it to resist the harrowing violence that annihilates the defenseless. I choose it in hope that all relationships will be transformed by the love and mercy of God. I do it for all the animals. Human and nonhuman alike.
* Statistics available at A Well Fed World website, http://awfw.org/factory-farms/
** Steinfeld, Henning and others. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization for the United Nations, 2006, p xx.
** Other passages for consideration include Genesis 1-2, Jonah 3, Numbers 22:21-38; Proverbs 6:6-11 and 30:24-28, Psalm 104, Job 38-41 and Hebrews 10-11. For a more extensive treatment see my essay “Doesn’t the Bible say that humans are more important than animals?” in A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Other Animals. Edited by Andy Alexis-Baker and Tripp York. (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2012).
Nekeisha Alayna Alexis is an occasional writer and speaker with wide-ranging interests related to human and other animal liberation, and our intersecting oppressions. She is also co-founder and co-organizer of Jesus Radicals. Explore her random and rambling mindstate at criticalanimal.tumblr.com and everydayoppression.tumblr.com
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