In recent years, environmentalists and animal rights activists have called for Christians to commit to veganism during Lent. But while the practice may be growing as a lifestyle choice, fasting from animal products is an ancient Lenten tradition far predating current interest in veganism. As Christians around the world begin the observation of Lent, contemporary thinkers consider how the practice of fasting squares with current science on the impact of cutting meat and dairy from our diets, calling believers to think of the practice not only as a deeply personal part of their spirituality but also as something with social and ethical implications.
Though vegans are a tiny minority worldwide, a 2018 study reported that two out of three Americans had reduced their meat consumption in recent years, citing expense and health concerns as primary reasons for doing so (though environmental impact was also a frequent concern).
Yet thousands of years before veganism became popular, the Bible and Christian tradition included fasting as a way of maintaining healthy attitudes toward food and stewarding the earth responsibly. Dave Bookless, an expert in biodiversity conservation who serves as the director of theology for A Rocha International, pointed out in an interview that fasting from meat and dairy at certain times of the year has long been a Christian tradition. “Lent is traditionally a time of abstinence,” said Bookless, a part-time vicar of a multicultural congregation in London. “In quite a lot of Christian cultures, if you look back through Christian history, people were vegetarian during Lent. That was quite a common thing in many parts of the world. And it’s still a common thing in some Christian traditions.”
As CT mentioned in 2006, some evangelicals have rediscovered fasting in older traditions. For instance, Orthodox Christians regularly abstain from animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as in the weeks leading up to Easter and during other parts of the liturgical cycle. Fasting has also been a Catholic practice for centuries: Many Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays, opting for seafood instead. Today, while some may remain skeptical, fasting during the Lenten season is part of many Protestant traditions.
Scripture contains myriad instances of fasting, most of which are total fasts from food and drink: Christ’s total fast in the wilderness (Luke 4:1–2), David’s for the life of his ailing child (2 Sam. 12:13–23), Esther’s for her people (Esther 4:16) and Nehemiah’s fasting and imploring God to save Israel (Neh. 1:4). In Scripture, fasting is a means of repentance and of crying out for God’s attention and help. But fasting doesn’t necessarily require total abstention from food: it can also mean the simple avoidance of meat and dairy, as in the case of Daniel (Dan. 10:3). John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1–4), as a consumer of locusts and honey, was not strictly a vegan, but through his ascetic diet and lifestyle often causes him to be considered the father of monastic fasting traditions. These Scriptural examples set the precedent for Christian traditions of abstaining from animal products, particularly during Lent.
Leslie Leyland Fields, an Alaskan writer and educator, says that decisions made about food are inherently spiritual. In her book The Spirit of Food,Fields observes that Christ instituted the taking of Communion, requiring us to eat and drink to commune with the body of Christ, as one of his last acts on earth, imbuing eating and drinking with significance. According to Fields, we praise God when we give conscious, prayerful consideration to how to eat with thanksgiving. “In all of its aspects–growth, harvest, preparation, and presentation–food is given as a primary means of drawing us into right relationship toward God, toward creation and his people.”
For Bookless, Christians steward creation when choosing to abstain from or limit one’s consumption of meat. “It’s very clear that the Bible tells us to have compassion toward animals,” he said. “In Psalm 145 verse 9, it says that the Lord had compassion on all that he has made, and that has implications for how we treat animals.”
Bookless argues that factory farms that use unsustainable, inhumane practices violate God’s call to steward the earth and its creatures. “Some of our modern, intensive, industrial farming methods go plain against the teaching of Scripture on having compassion for God’s creation,” he said. Therefore, purchasing, preparing, and eating meat raised on this kind of farm could be seen as ethically, and perhaps even biblically, questionable.
Daily meat consumption is relatively new in human history. According to Wilson J. Warren, author of Meat Makes People Powerful, global consumption of meat skyrocketed after World War II, driven by globalization, federal aid to factory farms, and expanded consumer markets—as well as hefty advertising from the meat industry. Beef in particular—the most resource-hungry of all meats—has been aggressively marketed to Americans. (Consider, for instance, the 1984 “Where’s the Beef” campaign, or the 1993 “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.”) This widespread marketing continues today: In 2019, the American beef industry spent over $40 million on advertising alone.
In 2020, Americans are on track to eat more meat than ever before. And despite the recent introduction of a plethora of meat alternatives, the USDA predicts that Americans’ consumption of meat will only increase over the next decade.
Bookless said the consumerism of the food industry can lead Christians to make poor choices. “We live in a society of excess where we’re encouraged to have more food, more possessions, more stuff. Advertising feeds this insatiable hunger.” The spirit of consumerism is in direct opposition to Christ’s call to store up treasure in heaven.
Fasting, on the other hand, can be a way to break from consumerism and its inherent idolatry. “In our culture today, there’s the risk of having an idolatry of money and possessions and giving in to our appetites,” Bookless said. “The challenge to cut down on meat consumption can be a rejection of some of that idolatry.”
The United Nations has stated that the livestock industry is a primary contributor to climate change. One way to address this is for consumers to change their diets. According to a recent study in Nature, swapping out animal products for more sustainably-sourced vegan alternatives could help lower greenhouse gases. Ensuring a balanced diet would be challenging, though possible. The authors caution consumers to replace meat with “nutritionally sound” alternatives.
When considering issues of food and climate change, it is important to recognize that not all populations have easy access to nutrient-dense, high-iron foods, let alone an overconsumption problem. Others may face health concerns that do not allow them to limit animal products (pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, for instance, or those who are anemic).
Christian writer and thinker Karen Swallow Prior uses the term “reducetarianism” to describe how one can be more conscious of the amount of animal products in one’s diet and try to source those products ethically and sustainably.
For someone considering trying out veganism, Bookless suggests a gradual introduction, avoiding animal products just one or two days a week. “I don’t say every Christian should go vegan,” Bookless said, “but we probably need to greatly reduce the amount of meat we eat, for environmental reasons.”
Lenten fasts, long a part of Christian tradition, provide a way for Christians to orient themselves away from the idolatrous overconsumption and consumerism of Western culture and back toward Christ, who reminds us to seek first the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 6:33). For Fields, fasting is also a way for us to draw near to our fellow Christians. “Even [food’s] intentional absence, through fasting, pulls us toward a deeper dependence on God and one another.”
Fasting during Lent (or any time of year) can provide spiritual strength. “To learn to say no is spiritually very freeing,” said Bookless. “To learn restraint can help us greatly in our walk with God.”
Elyse Durham is a writer in Detroit.