Ghandi, Vegetarianism & Christian Ethics

While we’re on the subject of Gandhi, as I was reviewing excerpts from The Story of My Experiments with Truth for my last post, I happened across a criticism of Christianity that I found intriguing. Since Gandhi was primarily a moralist it is unsurprisingly a moral criticism that doesn’t really touch the truth of our religion. Nevertheless, I thought it was worth addressing.

When Gandhi’s vegetarianism began to rub one of his Christian friends the wrong way (in particular, Gandhi began to steer her son away from eating meat), he made a comparison between Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ. He argued that the historical Buddha’s ethics are better and more comprehensive than those of Christ because they deal with animals in addition to humans:

“Look at Guatama’s compassion! It was not confined to mankind, it was extended to all living beings. Does not one’s heart overflow with love to think of the lamb joyously perched on his shoulders? One fails to notice this love for all living beings in the life of Jesus.”

It’s a natural thought given his moral vegetarianism, but is it true? Despite recent attempts to Christianize environmentalism under slogans like “creation care,” it’s hard to deny that humanity is the chief concern of Christianity. What of the rest of creation and its living creatures? Humanity’s stewardship thereof is, of course, a necessary and Biblical ethic, but it’s hardly primary—it didn’t even make the top 10. Contrary to Gandhi’s ethics, God has, in both Testaments, given us animals to eat. This is ugly, and it is meant to be that way, but there is no sense in trying to be holier than God’s own instructions to us. This does not give us a license to cruelty, but it does remind humanity that we are in the same boat as the rest of creation that also eats other animals to temporarily survive.

Somewhere between the two ethical extremes of saying that animals are just as valuable as humans (which, as I recently observed, really means that humans are no more valuable than animals) and saying that the suffering of animals is entirely irrelevant lies a legitimate middle in which we recognize that cruelty towards these creatures is wrong. A human is worth many sparrows, but God still knows when one falls from the sky. So why doesn’t this make a more significant appearance in Jesus’ teaching?

The greatest problem for animals is not that humans sometimes treat them badly, for even apart from human activity, nature is red of tooth and claw. Even if they don’t end up on my plate or in Michael Vick’s kennel, there are usually plenty of other animals that would eat them or hurt them. Even if their end is not prey, it is still to starve, to fight, to get sick, to suffer, and to die. Guatama’s compassion may be a sweet picture, but it does not resolve their primary issue.

By Biblical reckoning, animals are in this pickle because of humanity. God created a world that was vegetarian. He gave plants for humans and animals to eat. God also made humanity the head of creation, but we chose to break this world by disobeying Him. As the head goes, so goes the rest. As Adam fell, so fell the rest of creation. But though the problem can only be attributed to human error, the solution is not human ethics. Our utopian schemes at self-improvement have invariably ended in more wickedness and misery than before. We need to die, and so does this broken world. Humans being ethical before dying does not restore nature—human redemption does. This is what Christ came to proclaim and to accomplish. He has become the new head of Creation. And when this age is complete and this world passes away, there will be a new heaven and a new earth in which the lion will lay down even with the lamb. Merely having a lamb perch on our shoulders pales in comparison.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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