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Religion and Animals
New crusade against eating meat turns religious
July 09, 2005
Meat and religious ceremony share a long history, a link so sacred that severing it may seem blasphemous to some.
Then there are others who assert that following an omnivorous diet is a sin all its own.
Neither group wants to waver. And neither wants to be told what to believe or, more importantly, how to eat. For almost a year now, one organization has taken an extreme stance on encouraging nonvegetarians to reconsider.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, has launched an advertising campaign with a bite -- one that suggests good Christians steer clear of flesh consumption, and that Jesus would have agreed with such advice.
Spearheaded by Bruce Friedrich, PETA's director of vegan campaigns, the movement pushes a hard-to-swallow message. A billboard depicts a piglet beside the sentence, "He died for your sins,'' and a photograph of chickens carries the caption "Holocaust on your plate.'' Bloody bobble heads of Kentucky Fried Chicken's iconic Colonel Sanders have been sent to the media. McDonald's said recently it would consider different methods of slaughtering chickens.
"People will always continue to argue that eating meat is OK. But it's no more defensible than slavery is defensible,'' Friedrich said. "I have yet to hear a cogent argument against that.''
David Martosko, director of research for the Center for Consumer Freedom, based in Washington, D.C., would like to make one. CCF's mission is to protect consumers by informing them about groups infringing upon their food and beverage choices. PETA, in Martosko's estimation, is one of the most notorious infringers.
"These people are twisting Scripture to their own ends. This is in-your-face, bare-knuckle bar fighting,'' Martosko said.
"Friedrich's campaign is based on the flawed premise that Jesus was a vegetarian. But Jesus celebrated Passover his entire life," Martosko said, referring to an observance in which lamb in significant. "This campaign is wrong, and it's sacrilegious in my mind.''
PETA produced a free pamphlet in early 2004 arguing otherwise, citing religious justifications for the vegetarian lifestyle.
This information was endorsed by a Christian Vegetarian Association board member, the Rev. John Dear, author of Christianity and Vegetarianism: Pursuing the Nonviolence of Jesus.
The text stated that, in the United States, more than 9 billion land animals and 15 billion marine life-forms are killed each year by throat-slitting, suffocation, bodily decompression and crushing. Friedrich added that pigs and cows are castrated without pain relief, and that chickens have their beaks sliced off without anesthetics.
"My hunch is that most Christians, most Americans actually, would not want to slit animals' throats open,'' Friedrich said. "Morally speaking, there's no difference between eating a chicken and eating a cat. It is entirely arbitrary. And Biblically speaking, the earth is on loan to us, and we're supposed to be stewards.''
To back up Friedrich's Biblical claim, the brochure includes this passage from Genesis 1:29: "God said, 'See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the Earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.' ''
Open to interpretation
While some may contend that Biblical statements are open to interpretation, Friedrich said he feels that they are clearly on his side. He said that the results of the last presidential election are proof that moral values, such as his, are becoming paramount in American society. Therefore, he said, those values are "guiding the faithful toward a more humane way of eating.''
The faithful tend to be the harbingers, he said, as they were the first to challenge slavery and to advocate women's suffrage.
But Martosko said he believes that Friedrich is the opposite of progressive, and that his campaign strategies are counterproductive and alienating. PETA recently attacked the methods of a kosher meat producer in Iowa, and enraged Jewish groups in early 2004 by comparing Nazi Holocaust victims to farm animals, Martosko said.
He added that Friedrich has previously defended arson of slaughterhouses and medical research labs that conduct animal testing.
"What I object to is hijacking religion for a political end. We've all got religious traditions that we hold dear to, whether it's the Christmas turkey or ham, or lamb on Passover,'' Martosko said. "Bruce wants this vegan utopia. If he succeeds, it comes at the price of neutering a wide swath of religious traditions. I don't think they've counted on the backlash they're going to get. Most Christians I know will take Christ's word over Bruce Friedrich's seven days of the week.''
Some figures in the religious vegetarian community are taking both Christ's and PETA's words seriously, even if they do not wholeheartedly agree with Friedrich's approach.
Richard Schwartz is the president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America and the coordinator of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. The latter is an interfaith effort that believes all religions stress compassion toward animals, and both organizations have worked alongside PETA in years past.
"We don't agree 100 percent with PETA, but we agree in terms of the fact that animals are definitely mistreated. We have slightly different perspective, based on Jewish values, but it's to the same end,'' Schwartz said from his home in Staten Island, N.Y.
"We've been trying to give people a wake-up call about how their meat is produced. We feel that shifting to vegetarianism is a societal imperative.''
Schwartz said his research shows that 10 billion animals are raised every year in the United States in abusive "factory farms'' where they are denied fresh air or space to move comfortably. Two-thirds of harvested grain in the United States, and 37 percent worldwide, is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while about 20 million people die each year from starvation.
Steve Kaufman, co-chair of the Christian Vegetarian Association, wants these points to be known by the public. He said that he also is aware that many people attach a stigma to the members of his vegetarian movement.
"I would say that most of the people who have been very critical of us have not read what we've said or have intentionally not understood us. It's a position that's not easy to argue with because it's Bible-based,'' Kaufman said from his home in Cleveland. "We're frequently criticized for thinking we're better Christians than everybody else.''
The difference between his and Friedrich's ideology, he said, is that Kaufman does not aver that eating meat is inherently sinful. He has no affiliation with Friedrich's campaign, and PETA does not hold jurisdiction over Kaufman or Schwartz's organizations.
One woman who does cooperate with PETA and other animal rights groups is Regina Hyland, also known by her pen name, J.R. Hyland.
The ordained evangelical minister and Long Island, N.Y., native has lived in Sarasota, Fla., since 1985, and maintains the philosophy that one's diet is a personal choice. Her convictions about her own are strong, but she does not condone forcing that opinion on others.
Hyland said she has been vegetarian for 32 years, ever since she witnessed brutal animal experiments in a college laboratory. She went on to write The Slaughter of Terrified Beasts: A Biblical Basis for the Humane Treatment of Animals in 1988, which was reissued in 2000 by Lantern Books under the title God's Covenant With Animals.
Hyland said she believes that, just as Western culture used the Bible to denigrate women, to prolong slavery, and to justify war, the Scriptures have been used to terrorize animals.
"The New Testament puts it succinctly: 'All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,''' Hyland said. "I feel so strongly about this, but it's not like I am trying to push anyone into something. I just really feel like it is a personal thing with me, and that's how it should be with everyone.''
Abby Weingarten writes for the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, Fla.