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.