Where Logic Meets Love

Meat, Alcohol, and Jesus

Sunday, April 10, 2011

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Meat, Alcohol, and Jesus | Faith Permeating Life
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver talks about how there is a stigma against becoming vegetarian (or otherwise making restrictive food choices) for environmental reasons:
Our culture is not unacquainted with the idea of food as a spiritually loaded commodity. We’re just particular about which spiritual arguments we’ll accept as valid for declining certain foods. Generally unacceptable reasons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: it’s prohibited by a holy text. Set down a platter of country ham in front of a rabbi, an imam, and a Buddhist monk, and you may have just conjured three different visions of damnation. Guests with high blood pressure may add a fourth.
I think I understand why there's this discrepancy. If someone is abstaining from meat for religious reasons or avoiding salt for health reasons, then you can draw a distinction between them and you: I'm not that religion. I don't have those health problems. And you can go on your merry way with your Big Mac and fries.

But if the person is making those decisions for the environment, for human rights, or for better general health, well, then you're not exempt from that reasoning. Even if they never imply you should be doing the same, you immediately get the feeling you should be. And you feel guilty. Or at least I do.

I think this why many vegetarians I know seem reluctant to explain their decision -- especially since the topic often comes up when we're all seated around a table and everyone's got some form of meat in front of them except one. Unless they're really gung-ho about promoting The Cause, their decision is a personal one. And yet others immediately feel that they're being judged for not doing the same, since, after all, they aren’t exempt from any of the environmental, human rights, animal rights, or general health reasons. Those others get defensive and start arguing with the person's reasons, trying to bring them back over to the Meat side so they don't have to feel so guilty.

It's the same reason I avoid announcing that I don't drink alcohol. The truth is, my reasons are 100% personal. I don't enjoy the taste of alcohol, and I don't enjoy the effects. That leaves me with pretty much no reason to drink. ("Fitting in" has never been much of a reason I do anything.)

I have no problem with other people's drinking. Yes, I worked in alcohol abuse prevention for two and a half years in college, but our office never took an abstinence approach; instead, I sat with group after group of underage drinkers sanctioned to "alcohol education classes" and discussed what they wanted to get out of drinking (be social, relax, have fun), then helped them figure out how much they could drink without suffering too many of the negative consequences they said they wanted to avoid (blacking out, embarrassing themselves).

Yet time and again I see people -- especially if they're heavy drinkers -- get instantly, visibly uncomfortable when they find out I don't drink. Without my saying a word about them, they start making assumptions: I'm judging them. I think I'm better than them. I think they're a terrible person for consuming alcohol.

Why is this? Is it because they've actually had conversations with holier-than-thou nondrinkers, and they're lumping me in with those people? (For the record, I don't think I've ever met a holier-than-thou nondrinker, and that's after not only working in alcohol abuse prevention for two and a half years but living on a floor of nondrinkers for a year and then being for four years in a student organization that organized alcohol-free events. Everyone I know has been cool with drinking alcohol as long as it's done responsibly, and almost all of them began drinking when they turned 21.)

My guess is that anybody who feels threatened by my personal decision has doubts about their own decision. I know for me, anytime I've felt uncomfortable around someone who's a vegetarian, it's because I was reminded that I believe that I shouldn't be eating meat, or should at least, like my one friend, only eat meat that's locally and humanely raised. Their decision holds a mirror up to my own inconsistencies between what I feel to be right and what I actually do. Even if ultimately I think I'm doing the best I can right now.

(By the way, Mike has gotten really into planning out what's going to be our mini-farm when we finally have land. That makes me pretty excited.)

All of these musings lead me to this: I think this is why there's such a social stigma against talking about religion or faith, or at least being "too into" religion. In my experience, the people least perturbed by talk of strong faith are committed atheists. They've made their own decision, so someone else's deep faith doesn't bother them. The people who are made uncomfortable, I believe, are those who kind of believe, who want to believe, who think they should believe, but just haven't put much effort into it. Or who do believe but don't really put much thought into what that means for their day-to-day life. And in America, from what I can tell, that's most people. Raised in some religion -- usually Christian -- and would tell you they're Christian if asked, but don't really see that as a fundamental aspect of their life.

OK, buckle your seatbelt, 'cause here's where I ruffle some feathers.

I hear a lot of people talk about how it's OK to forcefully proclaim the Gospel to others, because after all, that's what Jesus did, right? Made people uncomfortable? Got in their face? And if people don't like that, well, that's not your fault, you're just following your call to evangelize.

Here's the thing, though: Yes, Jesus had a challenging message. But He also showed God's love, over and over again. He got down on His knees and washed His disciples' feet. He was forgiving, even when His disciplines screwed up and ran away from Him. He performed miracles for people who were grateful--and for those that weren't. He had many ways of bringing people to Him and showing them the truth. He didn't adopt a holier-than-thou position even though He was, and He condemned those who did so.

The whole notion of evangelization is a tricky one because it can so easily become about you and not about the people you're trying to show Jesus to.

Here's what I'm trying to say: People who have even the slightest notion that they would like to believe in God or would like to live a Christian life are already going to be uncomfortable and feel judged by others' proclamations of their own personal faith, even without that person telling them they should believe. And that's OK. It doesn't have to be swept under the rug because it makes people uncomfortable. If your goal is to make people uncomfortable enough that they re-examine their own life and see something missing, then having a strong personal faith is already going to do that, just like avoiding meat and alcohol will make people uncomfortable if they have doubts about their own decisions.

The catch is what to do next. I've seen people get so intent on telling another person that they need to believe, that they're going to Hell, and all the rest, that that person is turned off even more from the whole notion of Christianity because of the negative association they're now making between this person's judgment and Christianity. As the Facebook profile of one of my gay friends says, "I love Jesus, but I hate some of the people that work for him." It frustrates me so much how many gay people have been turned off from religion because of those who use the Bible to cast judgment.


The approach I've taken is that I'm comfortable talking about my faith, but I don't ever tell someone else what they should or shouldn't believe or that they're going to Hell because the Bible says so. I might tell them what I believe, or what the Catholic Church says, or what the Bible says, if it's appropriate to the conversation. But I try to avoid turning them off from the idea even more.

Instead, I just try to live it. I try to live a Christian life the best I know how, and I know I fall short, but that's my goal. That's why this blog is "Faith Permeating Life." Because I don't think faith can only be discussed separately from the day-to-day goings-on of life.

When I was a senior in high school, I was coming back from a dance with a friend (actually the same friend mentioned above), and he said to me, "Can I ask you something? How is it that you have such a strong faith in God?"

This took me aback completely. I don't believe I'd ever had a single conversation with this friend about my faith. I don't remember it even coming up in conversations among our group of friends at that point. I mean, I attended church regularly, and I'd helped lead the past year's sophomore Confirmation retreat. I'd also written a lot about my faith in a project for junior year English class, but he couldn't have known that. I honestly don't know how he'd come to that conclusion about me, even though it was true. The only thing I can reckon was that I was very vocal about joy and having a positive outlook, and I also really enjoyed giving gifts and doing things for others. Both of these aspects were strongly rooted in my faith, and I guess that must have come out somehow.

I'll leave you with a link to an interesting article on the subject of evangelizing through words vs. actions. This isn't something I have completely figured out yet, but I do know what I see not working, and I try to avoid doing anything that's going to drive people away from faith in God.

Your thoughts, as always, are more than welcome.


  1. Jessica, I agree with you completely. The only way to really bring Christianity to others is to actually, truly exemplify a Christian through ourselves. Just like what happened with your friend. You must have been doing a pretty good job. ;) And hey, about the meat, don't feel guilty!...Eating meat is not inherently at odds with sustainability. I actually am frustrated by that idea because I have personally interacted with some "holier-than-thou Vegetarians" in my experience. We, who prefer to remain omnivores, simply have to support sustainable meat production. :) And in terms of health, eat the sorts of meats that don't make your heart stop. ;)

  2. @Caiti
    Thanks! And you're right, I should have been clearer than I don't feel guilty about eating meat per se, just about eating meat from CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which in the U.S., unfortunately, is nearly synonymous. I actually just finished the chapter in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle wherein Kingsolver explains why it's better to eat well-raised animals than to abstain from meat altogether.

    Since I've been reading and thinking about all this lately, though, I finally made the effort to look up on LocalHarvest.org where we could buy sustainably raised meat, and... drumroll please... we're going to subscribe to a meat and produce CSA from a local farm starting next month! We think we'll be able to do it without destroying our budget too much, and I'm very happy about it! :)

  3. An excellent post. I always tried to point this out, but people didn't seem to get it. It's an idea I first heard of in Matthew Kelly's Rediscovering Catholicism.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head too. The people most bothered by strong opinions are people who are undecided. They are the ones I have the most compassion for though, people who think they're supposed to have faith but just don't, and are tortured by guilt because of it. It hurts terribly when it looks so easy for others to believe and have faith. Confusion and uncertainty, as well as not living up to social expectations, hurts a great deal.

  4. @Macha
    I haven't heard of Rediscovering Catholicism, but it sounds like something I'd like. I'll add it to my (very long) want-to-read list!

    I think you're right about how tough it is to want to have a strong faith and finding it difficult. That's why it's helpful for me to think about the vegetarian parallel and how, even though it seems to me like becoming vegetarian would be really difficult, the more people I know who are successfully living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, the more I want to make an effort to do it. (And now that Mike and I are going to be getting our meat from a local farm, I'm going to make an effort to eat vegetarian in restaurants.) I realize there are a lot of differences between learning to believe in God and learning not to eat meat, but I feel like those who are already "there" can help in the same way--by being a model, and being joyful and open about it.

  5. Great article! I am mostly vegetarian and have encountered many of those people who think that MY food choices are a judgment on THEM. I find it particularly weird that if I'm eating with a group of people and have a full plate of food but no meat, often someone will say, "Oh, are you a vegetarian?" Don't they EVER choose to eat pasta primavera or skip the meats on a 75% veg Indian buffet??

    But I actually find it helpful to say it's "for health and environmental reasons" because that deflects the assumption that I'm an animal rights nut. (I think animals should be respected as part of Creation. But I think plants and minerals should, too, and don't think any of them should be treated as people.) I don't know that I get any less respect than someone with a religious restriction.

    I used to drink alcohol, but when I was 27 my body suddenly noticed that alcohol is poison. Now I can have one drink or less, sometimes just a few sips, before my hands and feet swell and I begin feeling feverish and queasy, so it's just not worth it. I don't mind explaining this, but I wish I didn't HAVE to so often--I wish people would just accept that some people prefer not to drink.

    In my experience, the people least perturbed by talk of strong faith are committed atheists.

    In my experience, there are two types of atheists: those who are pretty calm about it, and those who are zealous converts. It may be that the second group are not truly "committed" but secretly have some doubts, so their strong need to convert others is an attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance. But I've had even people in the calm group react to hearing of my faith by saying (in one case, literally in these words), "Really, YOU're a Christian?! I thought you were smart!" I've known a number of people who are really thrown off by the idea that an intelligent, free-thinking person could have concluded that this Jesus stuff is true. Many more people have assumed that I practice Christianity only because of family tradition and guilt--I couldn't possibly be getting anything out of it--and they start lecturing me about how I could enjoy more free time if I quit church.

    But anyway, you are right that in all these situations, the idea that I'm judging the other person comes from that person before he/she even knows WHY I do what I do. It indicates insecurity on their part. And rather than judge them for being insecure, the best thing I can do is SHOW them what I believe by living it.

    Enjoy your CSA! We love ours!

  6. Ack, as always, agree with you, would love to expand more, but haven't the time right now!!!!

    Maybe soon?

  7. I love how thoughtful you are and how you have thought about things you feel strongly about. So many people feel strongly but don't know why and have never considered the basis for those feelings, so they are slightly invalid to me.

  8. @'Becca
    Don't they EVER choose to eat pasta primavera or skip the meats on a 75% veg Indian buffet??
    Haha, yeah, really! I wonder if they get some kind of "vegetarian vibe" from you and then when you seem to confirm it, they have to ask. I've heard people express surprise about certain other people being or not being vegetarian, so I gather that people have some preconceived notion of what a vegetarian is "like."

    I don't mind explaining this, but I wish I didn't HAVE to so often--I wish people would just accept that some people prefer not to drink.
    So true. There seems to be some sort of cultural expectation that you have to have a specific reason not to drink, but you don't have to have a reason to drink, which I find fascinating.

    Re: The zealous atheists, I had the thought while I was writing this that there probably are such people, I've just been fortunate enough, I guess, not to run into them (or at least not to get into conversations about religion with them). Given that a large majority of my friend groups have been Christian, I guess those friends who are atheist have either seen it as a completely personal decision or have decided it would be a losing battle to try to argue it. That's really interesting to me that people assume you attend church out of tradition/obligation.

    Glad you've had a good experience with your CSA! I'm excited about ours!

  9. @Rabbit
    Your thoughts are always welcome, even much later! :)

  10. @Becca
    Thanks! I tend to be an overly logical person, so I dislike strong opinions (mine or others') not based in reason. This can drive Mike nuts when he just wants to be angry about something without having a really good reason for it :)


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