Would anyone who knows me be surprised to learn that I have been a vegetarian most of my life? I feel a great deal of affection for animals, and the thought of killing them to eat them feels all wrong. We wouldn’t eat our pets, would we?
Add to that the reality of how brutally most animals are raised and slaughtered, and I am deeply repulsed. When I think about the cruelty of industrial farming — not to mention the environmental damage it inflicts — I feel that all-out veganism is the only ethical way to eat in modern society.
Sure, there have been periods in my life when I have suppressed this awareness and eaten meat, but I have always returned to vegetarianism.
Four years ago, when I was undergoing treatment for esophageal cancer, treatment that permanently altered my digestive system, and not for the better, I decided that I needed access to more foods than my strict vegetarianism allowed. I had reason to be wary of carbohydrates, and I suspected that fiber wasn’t my friend. (My gastroenterologist later confirmed that suspicion.) Also, since I was struggling to maintain weight and get adequate nutrition, I wanted access to more than noodles when I eat out. So, I compromised, and allowed myself fish and seafood.
I have noticed that protein is my friend. It is common for me to feel unwell after eating, but I found that protein-rich meals are the safest. My best dinner at a restaurant turned out to be:
Part of the salad
All of the fish
Part of the starch
A taste of the cooked vegetable, if there is one.
Then, my daughter, who was a lifelong vegetarian with a sensitive digestive system, began eating meat, saying she feels better doing so. It made me pay attention. I started struggling with my conviction that it is wrong to kill animals to eat them.
Being a rather spiritually-inclined person, and a Quaker to boot, my inclination isn’t to reason this through in some sort of orderly process; I am quite certain that I could form high-quality arguments for both sides of the issue. My task as a Quaker is to discern if God is leading me one way or the other, or is it left to me to choose? Is my unease with the idea of carnivorousness a Divine leading? Or is the persistent thought that I should be eating meat a Divine nudge? Or neither?
I have to confess that the I haven’t reached any clarity on this. I am not sure if my aversion to the practice of eating meat is just me or all Him. I know that spiritual authorities are also divided on the subject; eastern religion generally favors vegetarianism, while western religion is mostly indifferent. Jewish dietary laws freely permit eating meat, while focusing on practices that make it a shade less brutal and brutalizing. Christianity is pretty indifferent to the question, although the paragraphs that I have found the most helpful in grappling with this were written by the apostle Paul, in his letter to the church at Rome.
Paul was writing about the early church controversy about whether it was obligatory for members of the church to follow the Jewish dietary laws. This was something that was very important to Paul, because he was engaged in bringing the church to non-Jews. Consequently, he had to live among people who had no experience of kosher eating, where he himself had no access to kosher food, and bring them into the fold, where most believers identified and lived as Jews. Here’s what that Paul wrote, that this Paul found helpful:
Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind…. he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God…. I know and am convinced … that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean…. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.
I have to mention at this point that those of us who have had surgery for esophageal cancer are able to perform a trick with our digestive plumbing that other people can’t. With our eyes closed — indeed, while we are fully asleep — our plumbing can spray foul, caustic substances into our throat, mouth, and windpipe. This is called “bile reflux”, and can ruin your whole night. A few months ago, I had quite a bit of this going on.
And I happened to notice for the first time that bile reflux appears to be gas-powered. That is, it seems that it is a rising gas bubble that blows the bile upward. Having realized that, I quickly connected that with the fact that my after-meal discomfort is always associated with a lot of bloating and burping; it involves a lot of gas, as well. As everyone knows, beans and vegetables, the staples of a vegetarian diet, cause digestive gas.
So, there I was — stuck with an aversion to harming animals, a lust for eating flesh that years of vegetarianism hadn’t dulled, and a near-certainty that moving from a bean- and vegetable-based diet to a meat-based diet would leave me feeling better. I took solace in knowing that carnivorousness can’t be an affront to God, because She built it into so much of the natural world and into us. I went into Benny’s Luncheonette for a burger.
I still don’t know if I am doing the right thing, I only know that I feel better much of the time. I have come to suspect that this is one of many questions that lack a right answer, and that all that is being asked of me at this time is that I remain uncomfortable with any answer I come up with. I don’t think that we are required to figure everything out satisfactorily, we just have to take these questions seriously: What does love ask of me? What does love require of me?
Perhaps my discomfort arises from being stuck in the no-man’s land between what is asked and what is required; more is being asked of me than I am able to give — but we are never required to give more than we can. This is the point of faith that brings me into unity with that other Paul, and allows me to eat or to eat not, to give thanks either way, and avoid the condemnation of self-doubt.