catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 13 :: 2013.06.21 — 2013.07.04


Vegetarian discipleship

I became a vegetarian without realizing I was doing it.  It was a gradual process that took about five years from the moment I first noticed that I felt better with less red meat in my diet to the moment when I finally let go of fish.  I never intended to do it and I never had a plan for where I would end up.  I started eating a little less red meat, and then less and less until it was gone.  It happened that way with poultry and fish, too.  With each one, I would eat it less frequently until, one day, as I was eating, a sudden understanding would come over me that this would be the last time I would ever eat it.  I could tell by the way my body was receiving it that I was done.

I don’t know anyone else with this particular experience, but I’m glad it’s mine.  I did not write a Meat Manifesto, I simply listened to what seemed like my body’s wisdom.  Along the way, I learned some facts about the way factory-farmed animals are raised and about the waste of food and resources we hardly notice in some parts of the world while people are starving in other parts.  I incorporated more researched nutritional knowledge to go with my body’s wisdom.  But I still don’t have a manifesto to promote.

Like anything you practice or observe over time, there are gleanings from my life as a vegetarian.  I don’t want to recruit you or harass you or convince you of anything, but I will share some of my observations and suggestions from nearly 25 years on the path.

I eat what I love.  I know vegetarians for whom this isn’t the case, but since I never had to convince myself of the “rightness” of my path, I also never had to convince myself to enjoy what I eat.  I was led by love and attraction, not fear or penalties.  I don’t miss anything.  I was the kid growing up who wanted a second baked potato rather than another piece of steak.  My favorite summer meal was always fresh tomatoes and other goodies from the garden, with a biscuit on the side.  The way I eat is not a sacrifice.   

As with many areas of life, you can say “no” hospitably and graciously.  There was a hot debate going about accepting hospitality when I worked summers in Appalachia with low-income families.  As college students on summer staff from other parts of the country, we were often invited for a meal while working on someone’s home.   Some vegetarian staffers had a patronizing way of saying “yes” to whatever food was offered, under the false assumption that the families wouldn’t understand.  I learned to say “no” with the same grace and hospitality as the offer was made.  Real relationships depend upon being who you really are, especially when it’s hard to explain or doesn’t “match” who is around you.  People encounter this same dynamic at holiday meals with families.  Focus on what you do eat (you can say “yes” to some of the meal or even just a cup of coffee) and on the kindness of the offer and be truly thankful for the offer of hospitality.  Take the opportunity to share more about who you are and to listen when the other person shares.

Being gracious, part 2.  Don’t expect that everyone knows what “vegan” (insert your own label here) entails and don’t punish people who don’t.   Don’t just say “vegetarian” and expect automatic comprehension and compliance.  Be willing to say, without attitude, “I don’t eat fish, poultry or meat.  Is this soup made with any type of animal stock?”  And be ready to order something else if you don’t get the answer you are looking for.  It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to cater to your diet.  When invited for dinner, say simply, “I want to let you know I’m a vegetarian and I’d be happy to help by bringing a dish to share.”  And be happy!  You now know that there will be something you can eat, you are helping the host, and you have the opportunity to demonstrate how delicious vegetarian cooking can be.

Purity is a false ideal in general — not just in food.  I avoid eating all animal products except eggs and dairy.  If I can’t be positive that the waiter understands what I’m asking about the soup stock, I will order something else.  But I’m sure I have eaten chicken stock or gelatin without knowing it.  I’m just not going to get bent out of shape about it.  My goal is to make disciplined choices for myself, but the path is the prize — not reaching some “pure” state where I can proclaim that such-and-such has not passed my lips in however many years.  I’m not interested in pronouncements but in a lifestyle that teaches me something by the very practice of it.  Making an idol of purity is an empty pursuit (and, contrary to what some Christians say, not what God’s looking for either).  Concentrate instead on making of yourself a better and more faithful observer of the practice — a disciple. 

Everyone should be able to explain why they eat as they do.  This one is not as radical as it was 20 years ago when I said it, but it still applies.  Know where your food comes from and why you choose it, even if the reason is “that’s what we ate growing up.”  Absolutely do not expect that you can ask a vegetarian “why” and not answer the same question yourself.  Would you do this with a Buddhist you sat next to at dinner — ask why/how/if questions about his religious beliefs and not expect to join the conversation yourself? 

I honestly don’t care what you eat.  Really.  Zealots of all kinds are annoying to those who have not mustered the same zeal and vegetarians get a bad rap for this.  Never once have I sat down to dinner and started asking people why they are eating bacon, but there have been countless times where my “strangeness” has prompted the question of me.  (Remember: if you ask and don’t like my answer, that’s on you.)  It’s true that I do care about horrid factory farming practices, but everyone should, whether we eat what they produce or not.   Having that conversation is not about shaming omnivores; it’s about stewardship and justice — and loving animals and omnivores.  After all, if you embark on a culinary journey to live more lightly and justly, but can’t love your neighbor in the process, what good is it doing you?

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