Monday, July 27, 2009

The Winsome Vegan: some thoughts on faith, animal rights, and living with carnivores

I wrote this post on my own blog in 2007.

Even when I ate meat, I was never what you'd consider to be a "foodie." As I've written before, in my pre-vegan bachelor days, I could subsist for days, even weeks, on food-related products purchased at the local 7-11. Being vegan does force me to be more thoughtful about what I'm eating, but it's a thoughtfulness born more of necessity rather than pleasure. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy my food, I do. But I've never had much interest in contemplating exciting new meals. Cooking shows -- at least the sort where you are shown how to make something -- are stunningly dull. I do like fashion, and care much more about clothing than food. Hence, I do enjoy "Project Runway." But I can't explain why I'm so fond of "Top Chef" and the positively sadistic "Hell's Kitchen". Perhaps I just like watching people who are passionate about what they do struggling to perform under intense pressure. I know I'm at my best under pressure, and perhaps it's empathy born of experience in other areas of life that makes the competitors on these shows so interesting to me. Lord knows, it's not the food that they're actually making. And this brings me back to veganism. In the last four or five months that I have been much more strictly and actively vegan, I've been acutely conscious of my own dangerous tendency towards self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the pit into which many adult converts tend to fall, and those of us who have "prodigal son" narratives (in my case involving a decade and a half worth of drugs, alcohol, multiple divorces and a lot of very unhealthy sexual acting-out) are all the more likely to become tiresomely prudish as we move to amend our way of life.

Of course, in our zeal to promote the new "clean livin'" we've just discovered, we end up alienating everyone around us. I know I've slipped into the role of the prig many times, and as I grow in Christ, I'm all the more determined to not let that censoriousness characterize my thinking or my words about other people's behavior. At the same time, when it comes to veganism and animal rights, it's hard. As someone who does believe that all sentient beings -- not just humans -- do have inalienable rights to life and dignity, it's often difficult to find a way to live in loving community with those who find that view preposterous and silly. Watching "Hell's Kitchen" last night, I saw one group of chefs preparing "bacon-wrapped rabbit" as a special dish. Looking at the strips of bacon wrapped around the little chunks of rabbit, I thought about the animals from which those morsels came. I thought about the hogs I've been around and the rabbits I've played with. (Lest you think I'm a purely urban vegan, I've spent a lot of time in my life on ranches and farms. I grew up around 4-H and FFA and have been to countless livestock shows and auctions. I'm not an urban sentimentalist totally ignorant of the realities of farm life.) I thought about the capacity of pigs to nurture and to protect, and the clear and obvious ability of rabbits to experience fear and pain and pleasure. And in order to continue watching the show, I had to shut down that part of me that wanted to scream "How dare you!" at the aspiring chefs. I have vegan acquaintances who won't go to family holidays where meat is served. I know some vegans who have severed all of their close ties with those who continue to eat animal products. They find it too painful to sit at family meals while those whom they love consume the flesh of creatures equally deserving of protection and care. I'm far too committed to my friends and family, far too interested in far too many different types of people to ever cut myself off from someone over their dietary choices.

With my family, we've reached a clear understanding. When we come home for family holidays (such as at Easter this year), we'll bring our own food. No one will beg us to try "just one little bite" of ham or omelette. In turn, we won't begin to hector our loved ones with the usual lines: "Do you have any idea how that was made? Would you be willing to eat it if you saw how that animal was slaughtered?" My wife and I not only sit next to meat-eaters, we even help in preparing dishes filled with animal product (as at the Fourth of July, where I spent over an hour cranking out ice cream I would never taste). We've made a conscious decision to strike a balance between our desire for loving, harmonious relationship with our families and our own commitment to no longer consume animals in any form. It's not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes, the meat eaters around me feel as if they're being silently rebuked. As they slice their steaks and I spoon in my quinoa and broccoli, they look uncomfortable. I make a conscious effort not to stare at their food, I don't make disgusted expressions, I don't use passive-aggressive tactics to communicate disapproval. Nevertheless, I see some folks getting antsy. Often, they'll ask if I'm "okay" with what they're eating; I'm always careful to be reassuring.

At the same time, my veganism is not a value-neutral lifestyle choice. Being a feminist and being anti-racist isn't morally equivalent with being a misogynist bigot. Those of us who fight for justice for women and ethnic minorities want to change hearts and minds and behaviors; we want men to stop abusing women, we want full inclusion for people of color in every aspect of public life. Most of us draw a distinction between someone who says "having toast with peanut butter in the morning is better than having cornflakes, and you can't judge me for that view" and someone who says "raping women is something I prefer to not raping them, and you can't judge me." The latter involves tremendous harm to living beings whose lives have innate value, and so we feel comfortable and right in judging it. So if I believe that pigs and rabbits and cows have a similar innate value to that of a human being, am I not contradicting myself if I reassure my meat-eating friends that they're "okay with me" when I would never offer that same reassurance to a rapist or a racist? Yes, I do want a world where we've minimized the suffering of sentient creatures. I do want a world where we are all surviving and thriving on a plant-based diet, and I am eager to play a role in helping to create the economic systems and the policies that can make veganism as affordable and pleasurable and easy as carniverousness. The cost to the earth (in terms of water and protein, for example) to "factory farm" cows, pigs, sheep, and poultry is colossal and likely unsustainable. The cost in physical suffering is unspeakable, and I do wish those who eat meat would, at the least, imagine the face of the creature whose thighs or hindquarters they are eating. There can be no virtue in deliberate, willfull denial.

At the same time, I'm aware we live in a world trapped in the famous tension between the Already and the Not Yet. I am Already aware, at least I trust I am, of what it is God is calling me to be. I am Already convinced that I am called, and indeed, we all are called, to eat and drink and drive and make love and buy morally. I am Already convinced that to follow Christ is to live a life of courage and radical compassion; I am Already convinced that to live as an authentic feminist is to see that the exploitation of other living creatures for my pleasure is fundamentally unethical. I am Not Yet at the place where I can live this life perfectly, without the occasional small compromises that expose me and others to the charge of hypocrisy. I am Not Yet at the place where I can make the case for Christian feminist veganism without coming across, at least to many, as a charlatan or a fraud or a deluded prude swept up in religious enthusiasm. So I'll keep on keepin' on; that means being cheerful about an undressed salad at an elegant restaurant while those around me nosh on chateaubriand. That means being unapologetic about animal rights while being warm, engaging, and non-judgmental with those who are unwilling to consider my position to be practical or desirable. And it means I'm gonna work on another book proposal one of these days. Working title: "The Winsome Vegan: How to Live Cruelty-Free and Love those Who Don't".


  1. Beautifully stated! Like lots of other veggie folks, I went through a self-righteous, quasi-militant phase myself, just after I became a vegetarian in second grade. I was known to scoff and grimace and go into bouts of willful silence when my parents and friends ate meat. What gradually became clear was that while in some cases I would guilt others out of eating meat in my presence, their food choices remained just the same when I wasn't around (and they may even have compensated by eating more meat when I wasn't present). All I was doing was annoying and alienating them and convincing them that vegetarians were absolutely miserable. On the other hand, I came to realize if I respected meat eaters and gently but compellingly shared my opinions, though they may be comfortable eating meat in my presence at first, they would be more likely to seriously consider my perspective and reflect that in their own food choices in the long run. It's one thing to have the courage of one's convictions but it's another to have the integrity of one's convictions: knowing when to speak and when not to speak, and knowing how.