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Meat Consumption and Christian Ethics

When discussing the ethics of meat consumption, many Christians cite two relevant New Testament texts that essentially overturn Jewish dietary rules and regulations. In the Gospel of Mark one reads Jesus proclaim, “Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Mark 7:18-19 NASB). Furthermore, in the book of Acts, Peter receives a vision in which a sheet of animals is lowered to the ground as God declares no animal to be unholy. Though these passages imply that all food is fit for human consumption, Christian ethics on the topic are a bit more complicated, especially in light of the concept of stewardship.

Stewardship of creation has remained a central theme of the Christian faith throughout church history. Theologians often point to God’s command for Adam to cultivate and keep the land as an indication of the intimate relationship humanity should have in caring for creation. This decree is not limited to Genesis alone. Various passages throughout Scripture exclaim the glory of God as revealed through nature and the innate goodness of creation. Therefore, by definition, it seems that Christians must be environmentalists (in the purest sense of the word). How does this mandate of stewardship relate to meat consumption?

According to Rachel Atcheson of the Humane League of Philadelphia, nine billion animals are currently raised for food in the United States, eight billion of which are chickens. The vast majority of these animals are raised in Confined Area Feeding Operations (CAFOs). An average CAFO contains 500,000 animals and is defined by three main characteristics: (1) Animals live indoors for their entire lives, (2) Animals are crammed into close spaces and (3) Animals receive no individual veterinary attention. The life of animals in such situations is extremely bleak. For example, chickens are typically locked in battery cages (roughly the size of an 8” by 11” sheet of paper), stacked on top of each other and have their beaks clipped off to discourage fighting. Instead of being fed a natural diet of grass they are given processed soy and corn and are injected with antibiotics to reduce diseases and promote digestion of their unnatural diet. As a result, approximately 70% of all antibiotics used in the United States are used in livestock production.

The systems of meat production throughout the United States are not only unsustainable; they are a clear disrespect and exploitation of creation, not only in regard to the ethical treatment of animals, but also in regard to other environmental factors. Much evidence suggests a link between meat production systems and deforestation, climate change and drought. In light of this, Christians should think twice about their support of a system that violates the central task of humanity to care for the beautiful planet God created. Because almost all meat is factory farmed, when we bite into a burger or a piece of chicken, we are playing a role in an unjust system. How should Christians counter this unfortunate reality?

Practically, we cannot all become vegan overnight; therefore, it is important to take small steps. Try fasting from meat one or more days during the week or reducing your meat consumption to one meal per day. Every step contributes to combatting the unethical existence of the meat industry that is surely at odds with Christian ethics.

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