Animal Protection >
Christianity, Animal Rights and Nonviolence
– the Keith Akers Interview
Keith Akers is the author of the book "The Lost Religion
of Jesus – Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity." His
scholarly interpretation of Jesus' teachings, simple living and
pacifism as exemplar is a fine example and a credit to him for
precise and detailed research. What's even better is that Keith
Akers never shirked the difficult questions. He won my attention and
respect. See if he does yours.
During the past thousand years consideration for animals has, on
the whole, lain outside the purview of Christian theology, although
throughout that period there have been individual teachers who
spared a thought for non-human creatures.
Akers scholarly input here has redressed a balance that Christian
theology in the past has, frankly, not been accepting of non-human
animals as having any rights except as chattel. Animal Liberation
spoke to him recently about Christianity, Animal Rights, PETA's "Jesus was a
Vegetarian" campaign, among other topics. If you had thought
previously that Christianity had nothing to offer the animal rights
perspective then this interview will come as a pleasant surprise
(and not before time.
Interview by Claudette Vaughan, March 2001.
Q. How did you research this book Keith?
A. I did almost all of my research for "The Lost
Religion of Jesus" at the Iliff Theological Seminary library
in Denver, which is just about eight blocks from where I live.
This was very convenient.
I restricted my researches to what would be acceptable to
people of different religious persuasions. This means I took
evidence from writings dating from around the early Christian
era and from scholarly works based upon the history of early
Christianity. There's a wealth of writing available on the
"historical Jesus", and the controversial work of the "Jesus
Seminar" has stirred up quite a bit of interest over here in
the States. I am not a member of the Jesus Seminar, but I
support their work and the efforts they are making to further
I did not include "channelled" works or esoteric claims of
revelation based upon manuscripts never seen by anyone else. A
lot of people who claim Jesus was a vegetarian do this kind of
Q. What is the "Jesus Seminar?"
A. The Jesus Seminar is a group of (mostly American)
scholars examining the question of who the "historical" Jesus
was. Of course many scholars have done this since the 19th
century, but the difference with the Jesus Seminar is that it
has taken its findings to the public. This has created
something of a smash in the States. These people are not
vegetarian by any means, but one of my goals is to introduce
them to the idea that they should consider ethical issues
raised by Christianity – like simple living and
Q. Tell us about the Essenes.
A. Everybody wants to talk about the Essenes, but no
one wants to sort out the evidence. It's time for people
hoping to find a more progressive view of Jesus to branch out
from the overworked and overextended idea that Jesus was an
Essene. There is much, much more solid evidence evidence about
Jesus than the fragmentary evidence we have about the Essenes.
Much more fertile ground is to investigate the history of
Jesus' own followers, most especially the Jewish Christian
Was Jesus an Essene? He certainly might have been, but if
he was, he probably broke away from the sect. By all accounts,
the Essenes kept very much to themselves, isolated from the
mainstream of society – they "have only palm trees for
company," Pliny says. Jesus, by all accounts, was very public
and outward in his preaching. I would regard the Essenes as
spiritual "cousins" of Jesus rather than spiritual ancestors.
They have some common views but a very different approach to
these views. So, Jesus may have been influenced by Essene
views, or may have even joined them at some point, but if so I
doubt that Jesus remained an Essene.
Q. At what point in Pauline Christianity did the
Church sanction war and the acceptance of non-peaceful (outer
and inner) conditions?
A. If you consider meat-eating to be "non-peaceful",
then meat-eating was accepted by "Pauline Christianity" from
the very beginning, since Paul explicitly addresses this
question in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10.
Paul strongly believed that vegetarianism should NOT be
required of Christians, through he may have been a vegetarian
personally: " If food is a cause of my brother's falling, I
will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall. " – 1
The question of war and violence against other humans,
though, is different. While it's not clear, it does not appear
that Paul accepted – though he does not emphasize – the
pacifism of the early Christians (Romans 12:9). So here is a
case where "Pauline Christianity" as well as "Jewish
Christianity" both agreed with each other and with Jesus, but
this view was still rejected by the church.
It is hard to pin down when precisely the church
"officially" reversed itself on the acceptance of war. There
were some Christians serving in the army even before
Constantine, though the subject was debated. As a practical
matter, though, it was impossible to object to Christians
joining the army after the year 312, when Constantine came to
power. At the Council of Arles in the year 314, it was said
that he who throws down his weapons in times of peace
("peace", that is, for the church, because the church was no
longer persecuted) should be excommunicated. By 416, the
tables were completely turned: everybody serving in the army
HAD to be a Christian.
Q. My own research definitely does not portray Jesus
as a "pacifist". When he saw wrong, for example the
money-changers in the temple etc, he acted and didn't retreat.
Metaphysically, the same situation occurred when he was
tempted in the desert – he fought and didn't resign himself to
"peace" for the sake of it. What are your insights here
A. Jesus believed in resistance. A distinction has
to be made between "nonviolent resistance" and "violent
resistance". Jesus uses force, and does not even respect
private property, in the incident in the temple; but he did
not attempt to injure or kill those he opposed, as is evident
both from the incident in the temple and the account of his
arrest. Gandhi made the same kind of distinction in his
writings, emphasising that "passive resistance" is a misnomer
– since Gandhi's actions were very "active".
Jesus opposed violent resistance; this is evident from the
New Testament ("love your enemies", and "blessed are the
peacemakers" etc), and almost all the early Christian writers
– whether orthodox or heretical – accepted this idea for
several centuries after Jesus. Therefore, Jesus was a pacifist
in the sense that he opposed violent resistance, not in the
sense that he stands by and accepts what is going on. He
wouldn't have come to Jerusalem in the first place if he had
been content to accept what was going on.
Q. What are your thoughts Keith on PETA's "Jesus was
a vegetarian" campaign?
A. PETA has been helpful to me, which I appreciate –
although their campaign had pretty much come to an end by the
time my book was published. When I found out about the
campaign, I talked with Bruce Friedrich extensively and sent
him a copy of the manuscript before it was published. Ingrid
Newkirk took a look at the book and warmly endorsed it – she
gave me a blurb describing it as a "riveting read".
I have concerns about the billboard approach to
Christianity, and at this point I believe PETA does too,
considering the responses they've gotten. Their billboards
declaring "Jesus was a vegetarian" attracted a lot of
attention but a great deal of that attention was hostile.
Religion really gets people excited and emotional and when
someone sees something that is pertaining to religion that
they don't like they will often get angry and offended. The
problem with saying that Jesus is a vegetarian is not just the
vegetarianism, but it also tramples on orthodox views about
Jesus, namely that he ate meat. So PETA has modified its
approach to say that you should be vegetarian whether or not
you think that Jesus was a vegetarian.
A more important problem with PETA's campaign, though, is
not that it's too radical, but that it is not radical enough.
Christianity today is hemorrhaging because it cannot deal with
the moral crises that are confronting the planet and because
it doesn't understand the teachings of Jesus. As Bishop Spong
says, "Christianity must change or die". What happened to the
teachings of simple living and nonviolence. Isn't this the
message of Jesus? And if the churches don't understand the
basic teachings of their own founder, where does that leave
anyone who takes Jesus seriously?
Q. So you're taking on the whole Christian religion.
Isn't this a bit on the ambitious side?
A. A lot of people are dissatisfied with
Christianity, our culture, or both. For example we have the
animal rights movement and the vegetarians who are outraged at
the immoral treatment of animals.
Christianity is in trouble. People are yearning for
spiritual fulfillment and meaning, and the most earnest ones
are the very people who are not finding it in the theological
formulas which are today being held up as the essence of
Christianity. There are exceptions, to be sure, but overall
Christianity is a conservative force which essentially cements
into place a system of materialism and violence. Yet most of
these modern problems are addressed by what Jesus and his
first followers actually preached and practiced.
Q. What you've said previously to the hostile
reaction to PETA's "Jesus was a vegetarian" billboard – don't
you find it a travesty that professed peace-loving ordinary
Christians will kill for their views – bombing abortion
clinics for example. What constitutes spirituality in the
Christian sense today Keith?
A. This is a very large question which I can't
adequately answer. Jesus addressed these issues in the Sermon
on the Mount – surely Christians should listen to this message
before resorting to violence. I'm more concerned with our
recently-elected American President's attitude towards the
death penalty – he just loves executions – than I am about the
"pro-life" people who are resorting to violence.
Let's start with the easy things: to begin with murder is
not spiritual. Degrading people isn't spiritual either. A
movement which continually seeks to increase anger is in the
end self-destructive. In my opinion, this is where all the
Marxist and leftist groups which seemed to have such a
promising future in the 1960s and 1970s went wrong. At some
point you have to say "This is wrong. I know this is wrong. I
must change and convince others to change." And then, go on
with your new life. Try to reach out to the Divine power,
however you understand it, through whatever means seems to be
best for you.
Q. Why do you insist that Jesus was a vegetarian?
Andrew Linzey doesn't seem to think that. He argues that in
spite of the fact that Jesus was not a vegetarian, we should
be vegetarian anyway.
A. I certainly don't oppose the efforts of Andrew
Linzey who is trying to carry out a plan which I have rejected
– accepting the idea that Jesus ate meat, but saying that we
should be vegetarians today anyway. But there's an obvious
problem here: if you say that Jesus ate meat, you will lose
most of the Christians and most of the vegetarians to this
discussion right at the outset.
The Christians will say: "Well, Jesus ate meat. Paul ate
meat. Why can't I eat meat?" And there is no satisfying answer
at this point. Linzey tries to do this (and Richard Young also
in the book "God Was A Vegetarian"), but it is a difficult
case to make. If Jesus ate meat, and Jesus is your Lord and
Saviour, it's hard to explain to people why it is ethically
wrong to kill animals for food. Similarly, the vegetarians
will say "Jesus ate meat? Your Lord and Saviour, who is God
incarnate ate meat? Why should we take this religion seriously
at all?" And, again there is no satisfying answer at this
point. That's why the vegetarian and animal rights movement
are somewhat anti Christian. There's no overt public
hostility, but if you sit down at the table at vegetarian
potluck dinners and somehow the discussion turns to
Christianity, you will find a lot of hostility and anger
If we say that Jesus ate meat, a dialogue between
Christians and vegetarians is not absolutely impossible, but
it is probably a waste of time. Ethical vegetarians seeking
spiritual fulfillment would be better off turning to Hinduism,
Buddhism, or Judaism – rather than accept a meat-eating
Messiah, better to say that the Messiah has not yet come.
Q. Matthew Fox, Dominican scholar and theologian,
once said that "Taking on the Vatican is like being flattened
by a massive roller device". He went on to form "Creation
Spirituality" which respects indigenous peoples' rights,
animal rights and the environment. Are his views closer to
Jesus' original teachings?
A. Absolutely. Matthew Fox isn't (yet) a vegetarian,
but he's on the right path. And, he understands some things
that I'm sorry to say that some vegetarians and animal rights
activists don't; namely the interconnection between many of
the problematic features of our so-called civilisation. It
isn't just meat, or social justice, or consumerism, or war, or
hunger that's the issue – it's all of these and more. Things
are much more interconnected than we realise.
Please note that we have a signed copy of Keith Akers' book
"The Lost Religion of Jesus – Simple Living and Nonviolence in
Early Christianity" to auction at our celebrity auction
bonanza, coming soon.