Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
September 22nd, 2011

Eden is for Herbivores


Let’s get one thing clear: I like the taste of meat. I like double bacon cheeseburgers. I like steak so rare it moos. On Thanksgiving I want turkey, on Christmas I want ham, and on my father’s birthday I want meatballs made from my family’s off-the-boat-from-Sicily recipe, so good they take five hours to make and five minutes to eat. So imagine my family’s reaction when I came home for Mardi Gras break my freshman year of college and announced that I was giving up meat for Lent and possibly forever.

“Oh, God, Beth,” said my mom.

“More veal for me!” said my younger brother.

“[Expletive],” said my older brother.

“What are they teaching you at that school?” said my dad.

“That school” was a Jesuit college, and my decision to go veg confirmed my parents’ worst fears about Jesuit colleges. They sent me to Spring Hill like a lamb among wolves, hoping that I could teach those pagan Jesuits something about being Catholic. Yet here I was, six months later, apparently going native.

The visions my folks were surely having of Spring Hill College — think 1984 run by PETA propagandists — are unfounded. Nevertheless, I did come to vegetarianism through not one but two college classes (both, incidentally, taught by meat-eating Jesuits). In my Asian history class, we studied animal-friendly religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and in ethics we discussed utilitarian arguments in favor of animal rights.

But while secular ethics and Eastern religions triggered my decision not to eat meat, Christianity was my true motivation. At the same time that I was taking those courses, I was also attending weekly adoration and daily Mass, feeling closer to God and to God’s compassion than I had ever felt before. I was awash in love and gratitude. I wanted to extend the blessings I felt to the suffering around me — whether or not those suffering were of my own species. The first time I bypassed the chicken tenders and reached for the carrots and green beans, I did so with the conviction that I was answering God’s desire for mercy (Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13).

The connection between my Christianity and my vegetarianism was obvious to me — less so to my Christian friends and family. “Jesus ate meat,” a friend at the cafeteria table said, apropos of nothing, as I partook of mashed potatoes and peas sans animaux. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the meat Jesus ate didn’t come out of our inhumane factory farms.

“God says, ‘Have dominion over the animals,’” my mother quoted at me.

“‘Dominion’ is not the same as ‘barbecue sauce,’” I said.

Indeed, according to the biblical account of creation, God gave us “every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be [our] food” (Genesis 1:29). Not until the flood do animals appear on the dinner table (Genesis 9:3), making it reasonable to surmise that meat-eating is the mark of a fallen world. Isaiah echoed this idea in his depiction of the messianic age. He spoke of a peace so perfect so that even the animals will be vegetarians:

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox[…]
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord,
as water covers the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)

I know what you’re thinking. “But militant vegetarians are so annoying.” Of course they are. Militant anything is annoying. But trust me: I’m claiming no moral superiority here. I can’t tell you how many times I reneged on my commitment to a diet free of sentient beings.

The first Thanksgiving after I turned veg, I managed to resist the turkey, the oyster dressing, even my favorite: stuffed mirliton dripping bacon grease and studded with ham and shrimp. The next day I casually opened the refrigerator door, congratulating myself on my consummate will power and dietary rectitude, when all of a sudden I found myself frantically making a turkey sandwich, ears on the alert for approaching footsteps, heart racing. I ran to my room, locked the door, closed the blinds, and huddled over my sandwich like a junkie. Someone knocked on the door. I jumped as if at a gunshot and threw my half-eaten sandwich into a drawer. “Come in,” I said, voice cracking with forced nonchalance. I might have been looking at a pornographic magazine.

Five years later, those kinds of cravings never hit me. The relish with which I ventured into vegetarianism — the relish of doing something I believed to be right, not because I was raised to, but because I arrived at a moral conclusion on my own — wore off long ago. Nevertheless, I continue to eschew eating critters, and my family and friends continue to give me good-natured flak, a pastime that never, evidently, gets old. However much my relatives rib me, I remain convinced that vegetarianism is a legitimate moral — and, in fact, Christian — practice. It’s also a frequently delicious one. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s some eggplant parmesan in the fridge with my name on it.

Originally published on September 22, 2011.

The Author : Elizabeth Desimone
Elizabeth Desimone has an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Oklahoma State University. In 2009 she graduated from Spring Hill College with bachelor's degrees in English and writing. She is a native of the New Orleans area. Check out Elizabeth's food blog for some delicious recipes.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Beth

    Thomas D Williams, in his book The World as it Could Be. In chapter 2, Dignity and its Discontents, he says “Dignity as concept has grown so amorphous and malleable as to justify nearly anything, and can even be employed to bolster contradictory claims.Catholic Social thought needs to clearly distinguish its understanding of human dignity from other notions of the term.” He further cites new legislation in Ecuador on the rights of nature and posits that is a “logical prgression of a trend that first relativized human rights, then sought recognition of animal rights and finally has arrived at plant rights and even the rights of inanimate nature.” And finally “the lack of recognized foundations leaves rights agreements up to an ever shifting public opinion, expressed in momentary majorities.
    “Universality means recognition of rights for all human beings and exclusivity for only human beings” I don’t think animal rights are part of Catholic teaching and in fact help to diminish the notion of human dignity and human rights.

  • Elizabeth

    Thanks for your comment, Mary. I would point out that the reasoning of the Pharisees (as well as the Christian fringe group Timothy is talking about here) seems to be different from my own. I’m not arguing that certain foods/animals are “unclean.” I believe with Timothy that everything God created is good and deserves to be treated with respect. My concern is with the human process of taking God’s good creation and turning it into food. While there’s nothing wrong with sugar, I think you could make a Christian argument against eating sugar made from slave labor. Such an argument would not be inconsitent with this Scripture passage. So I think my line of argument is different from the one Timothy is addressing.

  • Mary

    “It’s very hard to change bad habits” – with all due respect Valerie, eating meat is not a ‘bad’ habit. I respect your right not to eat meat, but you should also respect the right of others to eat as they choose.

    On another note, while this is a well-written piece, I don’t agree that vegetarianism is a Christian principle (although I agree that it is not opposed to Christianity). On the contrary, the early Christians preached against the food-moralising of the Pharisees:

    “They… order to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Tim 4:3-5)

  • LuElla D’Amico

    Great–I always contemplate becoming a vegetarian. Stop making me feel guilty, Elizabeth!;)

  • Agnikan

    It’s the Jains, not the Hindus, who don’t eat potatoes or carrots.

  • Valerie Wehmueller

    You are awesome, as well as this story! Thank you for sharing. It really is a personal choice on what we choose to eat, or not eat. Whether it’s for personal reasons, religious reasons, health, ethical or moral reasons. It’s very hard to change bad habits, but all things are possible with God. My daughter & I are recent vegetarians, going on about 3-4 weeks, although I’ve wanted to be since I was a teen.

  • Margot

    A couple of additional thoughts–from the Old Testament:
    1. Some commentators indicate thatoriginally, in Eden, only plants were goven to humans to eat. Permission to eat animals comes after the Flood. (a concession presumably spurred by the washing out of most plant life?)
    2. There is a second consideration–cruelty. there are laws–“thou shalt not muzzle the threshing ox”, you must give your animals a Sabbath as well as your servants, etc…
    So to me, current factory-farming practices violate any sense of our relationship with animals–as a Christian I feel they are unacceptable. My response is to eat as little meat as possible, but when I do it must be free-range, organically fed and humanely treated. Easier to do here(Rochester, NY) than other places, but given the cost–reduces meat and poultry consumption radically.
    I have to add, if I lived alone I’d be vegan…

  • ruth housman

    I feel that the fish that is caught is meant to be caught but that doesn’t “take me off the hook”. I know if I had to kill to eat meat I would be a vegetarian so I am a hypocrite because I eat meat. I feel it is very important to recognize the sacred in all living creatures and to mourn their passing.

    the American Indian did this right. they have much to teach us from their sacred writings and deep love and respect for the environment.

  • Mike

    …er, correction. I mean “carnivore” not “herbivore.”

  • Mike

    Romans 14:2

    “One person believes that one may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. The one who eats must not despise the one who abstains, and the one who abstains must not pass judgement on the one who eats.”

    It’s one thing to be vegetarian by preference, but far more difficult to connect to the faith. Far from admonishing the practice of the sacrificial lamb (which was required to be eaten) as an offering for our sins, God BECOMES the sacrificial lamb – not lettuce – who’s flesh we’re required to eat for eternal life.

    I have a difficult time seeing how being a herbivore is contrary to the will of God.

  • Christine

    Message aside (which I happen to agree with) the writing is delightful — clear, engaging, a joy to read. Whatever else they taught you at that pagan Jesuit school, their writing program is to be commended. Good work, Elizabeth.

  • Bethany

    I love this article! I did not come to veganism because of my Christianity, but as I delved into my animal rights research, I noticed that my faith is closely tied to my veganism.

    JLO, the fact your daughter-in-law was/is vegan doesn’t label her as a bad person. Also, is your son such a saint if he was addicted to porn? No one is saintly in this world.

    And Patrick, I am pretty sure that’s not what Hindus believe. Not eating animals or their byproducts is not radical, it’s earth conscious and body conscious.

  • andy

    JLO, definitely TMI

    and also i don’t see why you have to bring sex into an article about diet.

  • Patrick

    If you want radical be a Hindu! They don’t eat anything that dies because of their eating it even veggies,i.e. carrots, potato. They only eat things that can reproduce, like the seeded fruits. Something to think about.

  • Zeb

    My own vegetarianism was inspired by visiting a Trappist monastery, where until recently the guests were served the same meatless diet as the monks. I’m now 12 years in and not looking back one bit. At this point, even if the culture of slaughter did not bother me I think the economic and environmental impact of meat production would be enough to recommend vegetarianism to Christians and anyone else with a social conscience.

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