Christian Ethical Vegetarianism: A Modest Proposal
Do Christians have moral obligations to animate creation? Many say no, citing the mandate to "have dominion" over all living things (Genesis 1:28) as reason enough to dismiss notions of animal welfare as a religious obligation. This verse is unambiguous, they argue, demonstrating that animals are a gift from God, available for human consumption whether as food, labor, entertainment or use in scientific research.
But is the language of Genesis so devoid of ambiguity? Some readers may happily embrace the instruction to "have dominion" but overlook the charge "Be fruitful and multiply" in the first half of the verse, perhaps using birth control without any qualm. Why is one imperative limited in scope, while the other universal and timeless? Who determines what laws remain in force, and which cease to apply? The same cynical respondent may also point out that the very next verse describes a plant-based diet, the first reference to food in the Bible (Genesis 1:29; the diet of 9:3 appears to be a concession for a sinful world, not an ideal state). If the "dominion" notion offers enduring permission to rule and consume, why is 1:29 not normative as well? My interest here is not interpretation of the priestly creation story. I merely want to show how the use of proof texts is a slippery business, inevitably involving omissions and selectivity. We cannot appeal to Genesis 1:28 as an easy answer to my opening question any more than we can read 1:29 as an obligatory menu. The Bible, however, is not silent on the subject of animal well-being.
A few admissions are in order before I proceed. Yes, I am aware the ancient Bible does not speak directly or simply to the ethical concerns of the modern world. Yes, I am aware that discourse about animal welfare is a relatively recent phenomenon, originating in part with objections to the use of animals in medical experimentation during the 19th-century vivisection debates. Yes, I acknowledge that I have a limited perspective as an urbanite who has spent little time on farms or in regions where hunting is a way of life. Yes, I am aware that it is a luxury to speak of ethical diets when many in our world go hungry. Yes, I am aware that sentimentality and the tendency to anthropomorphize can cloud objectivity. Yes, I am aware that many Christians view concern about the ethical treatment of animals as a misplaced priority because Jesus tells us clearly that people are worth far more than sparrows (Matthew 10:31; Luke 12:7). Yes, I am aware that animal meat is an essential food source for groups of people in some parts of the world (e.g., the Inuit in the Canadian arctic). Yes, I am aware that meat eating and animal sacrifice is integral to many indigenous cultures and religious communities. And yes, I am aware that arguments for animal rights often involve the assumption that humans are just another species, when the Bible indicates human beings have a unique status in creation (e.g., Genesis 1:26 cf. 1:24-25).