Animal Protection > Activist Interviews

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 religious education.

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 thing.

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 nonviolence.

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 Ebionites.

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 Corinthians 8:13

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 please?

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 towards Christianity.

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.