A friend recently stated his belief that vegetarianism is simply a construct of SDA church dogma and is really a matter of culture. He argued that from a scriptural standpoint it simply “isn’t there.” What surprised me most is the fact that my friend is also an SDA pastor. I don’t mean to imply that this pastor is representative of all or even most of Adventist leaders, but it is certainly something I have heard frighteningly often. His argument was essentially that there are many things in Adventism that are more cultural than Biblical and vegetarianism is one of them. Vegetarianism?! There are a plethora of independent films of late that explore the multifaceted relationship we have with food in terms of our physical health, global sustainability, etc. Diet for a New America, in which Jon Robbins sends out a Lennon-style plea to take action on his dream to move toward a vegetarian lifestyle, was an early effort. Super-Size Me makes the case that fast-food is more threatening to the world than terrorism. The producer, Morgan Spurlock, ends his 30 days of bingeing on burgers and fries with a vegan detox diet in order to lose the weight he gained (not to mention regain some of his former functionality!). Forks over Knives was recently advertised as showing in a local church (perhaps in an effort to help their desperately sick members? In all seriousness, most churches have a prayer list as long as my arm with cancer and needs for surgery of various sorts figuring prominently.)
Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead was an indie film I recently saw where a professional man takes to juice fasting for 60 days in order to lose about 100 lbs. FOODMATTERS was made by two former nutritionists who faced a personal experience with disease which motivated them to find answers outside of conventional medicine. Average Joe on the Raw documents a young man’s journey who decides that he doesn’t want to be average anymore. Tests reveal he has several vitamin deficiencies as well as hypogonadism, which truly shocks him. After 30 days on a raw, vegan diet, his test results show the reversal of all his deficiencies, including reaching a normal testosterone level without any hormone supplementation.
Many more miraculous plant-based experiences have been documented in books, films (and CHIP programs in our own circles), literally saving peoples lives. But is there more to vegetarian eating than a reversal of lifestyle disease? Is vegetarianism supported Biblically?
While viewing yet another independent film titled Raw: The living food diet, a statement was made by a young woman who, I’m pretty sure, is not a Christian. She said rather poignantly, however, “If you believe that the purpose of our lives is to get closer to the garden of Eden, then being raw is for you. Because when you eat raw you are eating from the garden and you are truly living in paradise.” Without analyzing this statement too deeply, in the flow of the documentary she was simply making a plea to do the right thing and look toward fulfilling our true purpose here on earth. However, I found it fascinating that she would sight the Biblical Eden diet as the goal when some (if not most) evangelical Christians (Adventists too?) would perhaps rather that the tree of life bear cuts of steak, burgers and chicken--everything but those things that are strictly “unclean” (not to mention meat analogues) instead of luscious, in-season fruit. But what exactly was the Eden diet?
Again, without exploring this too deeply I offer this text. “And God said: Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed, to be your food” (Genesis 1:29).
For me, this explanation is very helpful but a little restrictive, especially when I’m staring at a cheese lasagna in the church potluck line! But that’s the point. God’s truth meets us where we are and causes a confrontation with our fallenness.
Of course, arguments can be made that God permitted the introduction of meat into the human diet after the flood for various reasons including scarcity of plant matter, merciful shortening of life, etc. And of course those who eat meat are not automatically “outside of the fold.” And many (mostly believers I fear) often argue about the prevalence of meat eating in the New Testament Church and even in Christ’s life here on earth. The arguments are endless about “freedom in Christ” and the kingdom not consisting of food and drink, etc. And there a compelling arguments on both sides. My fear, however, is that all of these arguments betray a superficial understanding of God’s interaction with our fallenness and his ultimate goals for humanity.
If one takes a serious view of scripture, it is notable that the whole tenor of God’s interaction in the mutable realm is with restoration in mind. A major part of this restoration is returning to a state where death is obsolete. Interestingly, many outside of the Adventist context have come to an understanding of this on a deeper experiential level than we have, even without the benefit of a high view of scripture or an understanding of God’s plan of redemption. The way we eat is not rooted purely in Adventist culture. It is rooted in God’s plan for restoration. It is Biblical to the core.
Unfortunately, what is uniquely a part of Adventist culture (not to mention God’s people in general as prominently displayed in Scripture) is to sheepishly cower in the face of truth and attempt to “get by” with the bare minimum disruption in our own comfort and lifestyle. To put it bluntly, what is in fact cultural for all fallen creatures, not just Adventists, is to rebel against anything that smells of Biblical restoration. And more to the point, Adventists have always been too comfortable being the tail and not the head. Our denominational insecurity fuses with our own fallen and lustful desires to bring about a radical marginalization of truth. If we can excuse our own sinful tendencies as simply cultural, our consciences are quieted. And as we debate about whether or not diet is a cultural issue, a salvational issue or an issue of non-importance, we are being ravaged by all the lifestyle diseases of affluence and compromising not only our own growth, but our witness to those around us.
But the point is not to beat up on us as a people. God wants us to be restored and diet is a part of that. Exploring why we view diet from a certain perspective can be very helpful in exploring our understanding of our own fallenness, our own resistance to the work of restoration in our lives. It’s not dogma, not culture, not a battering ram. It is a gift.