Sunday, February 10, 2013

Giving Up Meat for Lent

Like most of you who grew up as Baptists or other “low church” Protestants, I heard almost nothing about Lent as a boy and for a long time I had no interest in observing Lent. And I am still not particularly fond of the “church year” with its annual emphasis on observing both Advent and Lent.
Nevertheless, for many years now I have made some conscious effort to observe Lent—and for many years now I have given up sweets for Lent. I have done this largely for health reasons, that is, as a way to lower my body weight, which always seems to be a little more than it should be.
But this year I am considering something that I have never thought of doing before: giving up eating meat for Lent. In fact, I am thinking about doing this as a test to see if I could become a vegetarian.
As a farm boy, raising and selling cattle and hogs was the major source of our family’s income, so eating beef and pork (as well as chicken) was a normal practice, one that was never questioned.
But recently I have become friends with a man who is an atheist—and a vegetarian, largely for ethical reasons it seems. I have also recently listened to “Honoring God’s Creation,” YouTube videos produced by the Christian Vegetarian Association.
I have been particularly impressed with the “arguments” of John Dear, a Jesuit priest whom I have long admired because of his advocacy for world peace. Dear (b. 1959) became a vegetarian in his early 20s, and he argues persuasively for such an eating lifestyle in Christianity and Vegetarianism (1990), which is summarized here.
People become vegetarians for different reasons. Some eschew (don’t chew!) meat for health reasons. I am not convinced, though, that a vegetarian diet is necessarily a healthier one (depending maybe on how much red meat is consumed), and I am not considering giving up meat because of health concerns.
Many seem to choose vegetarianism because of “animal rights.” When I hear what Dear says about that, I can’t dismiss that argument completely. But I am not yet convinced that there is intrinsically anything wrong with humans eating animals.
In the past some theologians (Kierkegaard, Barth) have emphasized the “infinite qualitative difference” between God and humans. Infinite or not, isn’t there a similar qualitative difference between humans and the animal world? Do some (or most?) of those who speak of “animal rights” do so because they have a Darwinian worldview that sees humans only as highly developed animals that are not qualitatively different from other animals?
The most important argument for me is the one related to world hunger. For some reason, that appeal for vegetarianism seemed to be more prevalent in the 1970s than now, but it was a central emphasis of Frances Moore Lappé’s influential book Diet for a Small Planet. (By the time the 20th anniversary edition was published in 1991, it had already sold nearly 3,000,000 copies.)
The use of land and grain to produce meat, especially beef, is highly questionable in a world where many people don’t have enough to eat. According to the oft-quoted statistic, it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef.
Giving up meat (becoming a vegetarian) doesn’t automatically mean that grain used for producing meat will suddenly become available to those who don’t have enough to eat. But maybe giving up meat (for Lent, or altogether) is a symbolic step in the right direction.


  1. I applaud you, Leroy, for your effort at temporary vegetarianism and hope it is a rewarding experience for you. I, too, find that argument about resources and potentially world peace a fairly convincing argument for vegetarianism.

    The only thing I would wish to disagree with is some elements in the paragraph regarding God, humans, animals, and Darwin. One does not have to have a "Darwinian worldview" to accept evolution as a reality. That human beings are on a continuum of biological relationship with other animals is scientifically indisputable at the moment. And that doesn't exclude the possibility of radical qualitative difference; qualitative and quantitative differences are not independent of each other. A classroom of 30 students is a rather qualitative different social relationship than that of a married couple by themselves in a room of their home.

    I'm guessing, too, that the ethicists arguing against eating animals would say you've betrayed your species-ism with the phrase "more highly developed animals." Human consciousness is a remarkable human development, and even the Buddhists and Hindus, who believe all sentient beings have a "soul" (although that's not quite how they say it), think it's a spectacular leap to be a human being. I'm not one to make many generalizations or specifications regarding the differences between humans and other animals, especially because the animal kingdom is so radically diverse, but there are those who would raise questions on pretty good empirical grounds about how "highly developed" we are vis-a-vis other animals. In any case, when the Hebrew book of Genesis has God proclaim that creation is "good," animals were not excluded.

    BTW, I'm going to steal the idea of your post for a column of mine someday. :) Blessings, my friend, and hope to see you soon.

    1. Anton, thanks for your thoughtful response, as always.

      As you know, I don't reject the factuality of biological evolution. But I do question whether a "Darwinian worldview" understands the nature of humans correctly. Just like in so many areas, I think: science explains many things but it does not explain everything.

      The Creation that God declared "good" included the vegetable world also, so the goodness of God's creation cannot be used as an argument against eating meat.

      Also, regarding "more highly developed animals," there are certainly indications that some atrocities committed by humans are worse than anything done in the non-human animal world. But being "highly developed" means being able to excel in doing evil as well as in doing good. Both the good and evil done by humans are surely more highly developed than anything we see in the rest of the animal kingdom.

      And somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps relevant to this discussion, I have sometimes said that when I see animals protesting the violation of their rights (as many human groups have), I will become more interested in advocating for those rights. (And the Chick-fil-A ads don't count!)

  2. Leroy,

    I really do not care to take any issue with the arguments for vegitarianism or to argue the biblical reasons for or against. Certainly we could eat less meat and be healthier and also live more economically.

    I will challenge you to question one quoted statistic that it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef. If that is true then it takes 16000 pounds of grain to produce a 1,000 pound animal ready for slaughter. that would be 286 bushels of corn which at the current cost of corn would be $2,000. There are other feed, medical, and labor cost involved in producing that animal and I am not sure how much that would add to the cost but it would mean that the farmer at the current price of cattle is losing a tremendous amount of money. enough so that we would not have to worry about cutting back on meat because no farmer would be producing it. I might refer you to this link

    I might also make an opposite argument when it comes to land usage and the raising of beef. For instance much of the land in N. Missouri where you are from is more suited to grazing than to growing crops or vegetables to say nothing of the distance from the markets for at least the vegetable crops. that argument becomes even greater as one moves west into Nebraska and Wyoming where the lack of water and perhaps the quailty of the land is not conducive to growing crops but is quite suited for grazing cattle and other ruminant animals. Which could lead us to another discussion regarding the usage of grains for feeding ruminant livestock as opposed to using more forage crops to finishing animals. This would mean a different quality of meat but less expensive and perhaps a partial solution to the world food supply.

    Not really wanting to quibble but just presenting another side of the argument.

    1. Brent, I appreciate you writing and presenting "another side of the argument."

      Certainly the beef we raised on our farm in north Missouri did not use 16 pounds of grain for each pound of beef produced, for we raised only pasture-fed cattle. (We did feed a lot of corn to our hogs, however.)

      The 16 to 1 ratio is not for the full weight of the cow, but for the amount of edible beef produced from the grain consumed. You certainly don't get 1,000 pounds of beef from a 1,000 pound animal.

      The 16 to 1 ratio, that has been so widely quoted, comes from p. 70 of the 20th anniversary edition of Diet for a Small Planet, information that was taken from the USDA, Economic Research Service.

  3. Dan O'Reagan, an old friend and former missionary colleague in Japan but a new addition to my Thinking Friends mailing list, writes,

    "The last words of the link is 'giving up meat for lent.' If I had a blog, it would be, 'giving up me for lent.' It is I (me), that God wants. Not just my appetite, but all of me."

    1. Dan, thanks for sharing this. I thought it was clever removing the "at" from "meat" to make an important point.

      But how do you suggest doing that in practice? And why is that something that you would do only at Lent (rather than all the time)?

      As I understand it, giving up something enjoyable for Lent is a way to remind oneself (each time that that sweet or meat or whatever is given up) about what Jesus gave up (his life) for us.

      Thus, giving up something for Lent might have some selfish motivation (like losing weight), but the spiritual motivation is to think about Jesus and his life and death for our sakes.

  4. A Thinking Friend in Kentucky send these comments by e-mail:

    "Reading Schuesler's "Fast Food America" almost made a vegetarian of me, Leroy. My daughter and her family are vegetarians and seem to thrive on the diets they eat. But I haven't quite succeeded in making the switch. Perhaps I should try it out during Lent."

    1. The title of this book seems to be "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" (2003) and is by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser. The book, which I have not read, examines the local and global influence of the United States fast food industry.

      I hate to admit this, but one of the hardest things for me in giving up meat will likely be not eating hamburgers (or similar sandwiches) from fast food restaurants. I don't do that a lot, but I enjoy it when I do.

  5. Comments from a Thinking Friend in California:

    "I have discussed with several pastors and nutritionists this subject.

    "Without exception the pastors have All agreed that we should be eating meat according to the Bible . . . .

    "The nutritionists and Natural medical people I have talked with agree that a strict vegetarian diet is Not the most healthy and recommend certain supplements, along with that diet.

    "It has also been reported that if we could eliminate the poor raising of crops and the fraud and corruption in this industry, we could easily feed the entire planet with a proper diet of the right kind of food.

    "So I devote my time on sharing the Gospel and less on matters of what we put in our mouth. Jesus said that it isn`t what goes in our mouth that is important, but what comes out of our mouth.

    "I share this with humility and Not in a judgmental manner, and hope it is accepted with the Love in which it is sent."

    1. Just a few quick comments in reply:

      I am not sure eating grain-fed beef was much of an option in Bible times.

      Last week at a doctor's appointment (about what turned out to be a matter of no concern) I asked my doctor about giving up beef; he had nothing at all negative to say about it.

      I can't do much about how crops are raised or about the fraud and corruption in the industry; I can do something about my own eating habits. And while what we eat may not be (is not) as important as some other things, that does not mean it has no importance or significance.

  6. Canadian Thinking Friend Glen Davis shares the following significant comments:

    "In recent years I have been challenged to stop GIVING UP things for lent (which I often did for selfish motives) and start "TAKING UP" things that could make more of a difference in our hurting world: e.g. write to my political representative on an issue of environmental justice; sign a petition on human rights; visit a senior; take a donation to the food bank; serve a meal at a downtown mission; call a hurting friend or relative; write a letter of encouragement and prayer support to Palestinian Christians; go shopping and buy only those things that are produced within a hundred miles of my home; etc, etc.

    "I think that Christians could make a much greater difference in this world if we would all TAKE UP something for Lent!"

    1. Glen, as usual, you make an important point. But I would quibble with you only in the following manner.

      The things you suggest we TAKE UP for Lent are things we should be doing all the time, shouldn't we? Why just take them up for Lent? And then should be feel that it is OK to not take them up any more after Lent?

      On the other hand, the things we GIVE UP for Lent, such as sweets, are not necessarily things we should give up permanently. (Although, as I indicated, I am considering doing that with meat.)

      Giving up something we enjoy for the period of Lent means that each time we do so, we remember what Jesus has given up for us (as I wrote in a reply above). So that is a temporary means of causing us to focus more on what Jesus has done for us. But that is something that probably wouldn't have much benefit for more than 40 days or so. But it can, and should be, a helpful short-term practice.

  7. I appreciate these comments from Thinking Friend Kevin Payne from nearby Independence (MO):

    "Another good and thought-provoking article.

    "I will continue to eat meat, but I understand the concerns regarding the use of land used for cattle growing.

    "I’ve done some reading regarding the development of 'floating fisheries' in the ocean to raise vast amounts of fish for food – there is tremendous potential there!

    "One thing you didn’t mention was the use of land for corn growth, to be used for ethanol production. This, as you know, has driven up the price of corn all over the world, and caused a real hardship on the poor. Well-intentioned but misguided environmentalism, and well-funded PACs, are another part of the struggle to feed the world."

    1. Kevin, thanks for taking time as a busy pastor to read, and to comment on, my blog postings.

      Actually, I am thinking most about becoming a pescetarian (a new word I have recently learned): that is someone who eats fish but not other types of meat.

      The ethanol issue is a significant one that perhaps needs to be addressed separately at some point. But in that regard, here is what John Dear wrote (about 4.5 years ago):

      "A hundred million tons of grain go yearly for biofuel--a morally questionable use of foodstuffs. But more than seven times that much--some 760 million tons according to the United Nations--go into the bellies of farmed animals, this to fatten them up so that sirloin, hamburgers and pork roast grace the tables of First-World people. It boils down to this. Over 70% of U.S. grain and 80% of corn is fed to farm animals rather than people."

  8. A blessed Lent to everyone.