Monday, March 21, 2011

What I learned about "evangelism" when I stopped eating animals

Last July, I stopped eating animal meat. About a month and a half ago, I started to phase out of my diet anything that comes from an animal. I don't advertise. I try not to label myself or accept labels. At the office when someone raves about the brownies someone brought in, I don't say, "Well, I can't eat them. I'm vegan." At church potlucks, when someone says, "Mmmm, these mini-wieners are delicious!" I don't reply with, "Gross, do you realize what you're eating?" I usually smile and say something like, "They look really good!" Because, in reality, the brownies and the wieners probably are very tasty.

Unless someone passes me a plate and I have to say "no thank you," and then again, more emphatically, "No, really. Thank you, but I'll pass," and then they ask "Why?", I don't bring it up. Why? Because going around telling Southerners I don't eat animals usually makes them feel uncomfortable. To be fair, not everybody feels uncomfortable, just more people than would if I were in Massachusetts or Oregon, say. It's just not as receptive an audience here.

From The Vegan Traveler
But if they ask, I tell them. I start with my own journey. "I want to live consistently with my conscience, to be as compassionate to all creation as I can be. I felt like in our culture we arbitrarily chose some animals like cats and dogs to make parts of our families and some animals like chickens and pigs to treat as a product." If they ask about milk and eggs, I share some of what I know about how they treat the cows and chickens and how they end up when they stop producing their cash crop. 

I tell them my reasons are not only for animal welfare, but also for our health. I don't feel confident in the health value of eggs from unhealthy chickens that don't get any exercise and get pooped on from the hens in cages above them. It's also not good for the environment to have heaps of methane-producing manure from the dairy farms. I know people need to make a living, and I know there are farmers who are just doing the best they can to feed their families. But in my opinion, industrialized animal farming seems overwhelmingly unhealthy--in other words, any good that an individual farmer tries to do is offset by the farmers who go with the status quo. And as a consumer, I can never tell who's being honest, healthy, humane, and who's posing, or who's doing it the way they've just always done it. So it's easier not to buy into the industry at all.

Even if I know the animal was raised in a healthy way, I've decided "If I wouldn't kill this animal for food unless (maybe) I was absolutely starving and needed it to survive, I won't make someone else do the dirty deed for me." The only thing I would consent to eat is my parents' chickens' eggs. They live out their full days, they are not starved and forced into molting to produce more eggs, they are not kept awake with artificial lighting to produce more eggs, they are not killed when they stop laying as many eggs. They wander through the yard, scratching in the dirt, dust-bathing, eating insects, playing (yes, chickens play!), and looking forward to when my dad comes out with the scrap pail from the kitchen. But alas, my parents live states away from me.
From Unity College Maine

So back to my point: When people ask, I tell them my story. I have realized that it doesn't matter how much a person knows or doesn't know about the process, or how compassionate they are at heart; each person must come to a realization for themselves. Obviously, I wish everybody would choose not to eat animal products. But that's not anything I can convince anyone to do. 

From Animal Blawg
I knew "the facts" for years and I have always been a tender-hearted animal lover (who even at a not-so-young age cried when one of my parents accidentally ran over a squirrel). Yet I didn't change until some invisible spark ignited the passion in me to go all the way in following my conscience, to stop "not thinking about" the whole journey an animal with intelligence and personality was forced to take to end up on my plate. I had to come to that on my own. I'm sure if someone had tried to argue me into it, I would have resisted and it might have taken me longer to get here, if at all.

Usually, when they ask and I share my story in this way, people are gracious about my choice not to eat meat. This will not always be the case.

Take a recent Facebook "conversation." A sweet friend of mine, who doesn't know (I don't think) that I'm vegan, joked, "If we're not supposed to eat animals, how come they're made out of meat?" I laughed. I commented. "I'm made out of meat, too, and yet you wouldn't eat me... Or would you?" I may have even thrown in one of those sideways-wink emoticons. She responded, "not unless I was starving to death... then I might consider it. lol!!" I was enjoying our half-serious but respectful light-hearted banter.

But a mutual acquaintance took the whole meat-eating agenda and ran with it. He practically had a cow (pun intended) that I said what I said. "Oh Sarah, PLEASE! Really?" He posted other jokes about eating animals. "There is a place for all of God's animals. On my plate right next to the potatoes." "I'm a member of PETA--people for the eating of tasty animals." A few more people chimed in with lols and other meat-jokes.

I can take a joke, like my friend's about animals being made out of meat. I know her, and she knows me, and we respect each other. But that someone else would respond with mockery at the mere hint that I may choose not to eat meat--I felt like I was doing someone grievous wrong by not taking advantage of all the tasty critters out there. 

I chose not to respond to the guy at all. I could have gone all pedantic, or worse, polemical, and tried to use Facebook as a platform to "educate" (or "witness to") people on why eating meat is not necessarily a given in our diets and to consider the harm it does. That was certainly my temptation (and maybe I'm using this blog as the outlet). I wouldn't want to miss an opportunity to raise awareness of the benefits of going meat-free. The good news of vegetarianism! But it wouldn't have been received. Not by someone who has clear and strong opinions on the matter, from an acquaintance with whom he has little background on which to base any respect. 

What it comes down to--in any kind of "evangelism" whether it's about religion, politics, sports, or TV shows--is not to respond with incredulity at someone else's opinions: "Really? I can't believe you think that!" Or, "If people only knew..." (implying people are dumb). Don't flaunt your convictions in other people's faces like a martyr, "I can't eat that cake. I'm vegan." 

But rather lay low, go with the flow, act (gasp!) normal, and if people ask, tell your own story in ways that won't make your listeners feel like you think you're better than them or know more. Frame things positively, in terms of your lightbulb moments, your revelations, your hope that through these you are becoming a better you.


  1. Good writing, Sarah. My question for you is - what do you do with the scriptures I Cor. 10:25-26, Romans 14:20 and Acts 10:13-15. I have always wondered how to reconcile these with the belief that animals and animal products are not to be eaten. Just curious.

  2. I don't believe there are "proof-texts" for either eating meat or not eating meat. There are, however, multiple places of support in the Judeo-Christian Bible for the idea that God has compassion on animals, and that animal welfare was part of the law codes handed down early on. Either way, I think the NT verses you mentioned support grace and freedom in personal choice. I don't say it's a "sin" for you to eat meat, and it's not a "sin" that I do not eat meat. I think we could all agree on that. It is a sin, as even the letters of Paul say, for an individual to violate their own conscience. So there's my short answer for people who wonder at my spiritual reasons for not eating animals.