Franklin Graham, the son of pastor Billy Graham and heir to his evangelical empire, has gone vegan. That’s right: Perhaps the US’s best-known evangelical leader has stopped consuming animal products. If that statement seems too outrageous to be believed, see his Facebook announcement for yourself. What brought about such a change in the man who will lead a prayer at Donald Trump’s inauguration? Almost all of what he discussed in his original announcement, and his follow-up tweets, has to do with his health. And this is a very sound strategy: A plant-based diet is tremendous as a bulwark against everything from cancer to heart disease. Graham also invoked the Bible in his Facebook statement, pointing out that when “Daniel went on a complete vegetable diet and after 10 days his appearance was better than the others who hadn’t.”
But the Bible has even more interesting things to say about animal products and our eating habits.
Someone whose likeness has appeared on a PETA advertisement, Pope Benedict XVI, invoked Sacred Scripture when he told a journalist in 2002 that “degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
The “mutuality” to which Pope Benedict XVI referred to comes across clearly in the first books of the Bible. I often tell my theology students that Genesis 1 and 2 are among the best pro-animal texts we could ever imagine there being. Nonhuman animals and humans are created on the same day of creation. Both share the breath of life. God commands humans to eat plants. Animals are brought to Adam, not to kill and eat, but “because it is not good man should be alone.” The fact that Eve is latter found to be the “suitable partner” does not change the fact that God brought the animals to Adam to be his companions.
It is true that in the biblical narrative God gives Noah and his descendants (limited) permission to eat meat, though this notably occurs after sin enters the order of creation. Yet the clear standard of the Kingdom of God (that is, the world God intended for His creations) nevertheless remains one of nonviolence — between humans and humans, yes, but also with all of creation. None “will hurt or destroy” on God’s Holy Mountain, predicted the prophet Isaiah, and this means that lambs will lying down with lions and babies hanging out with poisonous snakes. And it is the intended order of creation that Christians should always seek to emulate.
For much of Christian history, the “new heavens and a new earth” discussed in so much of the New Testament were thought to include nonhuman animals. Pope Francis has said — both in off the cuff remarks and in binding papal documents — that the afterlife will be experienced by our fellow creatures. In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Francis insists that “Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.”
Interestingly, traditional divine liturgies in the Eastern Orthodox church — trying as best they can to witness to the Kingdom of God — have refused to use animal products in the sanctuary, aside from wool and beeswax.
The implications of the theological fact that nonhuman animals belong to God, and not to humans, were much more clear to the early Christians than it is to us today. Yet the animals we eat today are generally thought of as just another thing to be produced, bought, and consumed. Owners of monstrous factory farms think of little besides maximizing “protein units per square foot” (and, by extension, profits for shareholders) with predictably horrible results for God’s hapless creatures.
But many different kinds of Christians are beginning to recover a more conservative view of nonhuman animals — one which honors the Bible and traditional Christianity over our current practice of sacrificing billions of animals to the idol of consumerism.
The faith outreach office of the Humane Society of the United States, for instance, was able to gather high profile Evangelicals to sign the “Every Living Thing” statement. President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, signed the statement and noted, “ … we, as Christians, ought to be the most, of all people, opposed to cruelty or mistreatment of animals …. We should be the people, because we’re formed and shaped by the Bible, who call the consciences of those around us to care about responsible treatment of animals.”
That statement grew into a book project which I contributed to by writing one of its two forewards; the other was written by Karen Swallow Prior, an Evangelical and professor at Liberty University. A stalwart pro-life activist, she has also done more than almost anyone in demonstrating how Evangelicals in early 19th century England (like William Wilberforce and Hannah More) were some of the earliest advocates for animal protection.
Is Franklin Graham directing his life to reflect this traditionally-Christian concern for animals? Refusing to eat them for health reasons is a good start, but a recent tweet by Graham hints that more may be going on here. It displays the photo of a pig’s head and its half-eaten carcass with the line, “Can you believe I used to eat this?”
Yes, I can. But I welcome the exponentially growing number of Christians who refuse to do so any longer.