Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith
Sarah Withrow King
Paperback: Zondervan, 2016
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Reviewed by Alisa Williams
As someone who was raised in a large Christian community that actively promotes the virtues of vegetarian and vegan diets, I was intrigued to learn about Vegangelical. I’ve been vegetarian my entire life – raised by parents whose faith led them to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle in early adulthood, and King’s premise that “animal stewardship is part of a holistic ethic of Christian peace and justice” is I something I wholeheartedly agree with.
Unfortunately, I found the way in which King approaches the issues she addresses unsettling. One could argue that we should be unsettled by what King says. She pulls together a variety of heartbreaking stories of animal cruelty, and calls on Christians to do better. I agree with that calling. The way in which many humans treat animals, whether these animals are pets or being raised for food, is often deplorable and needs to change. But the unsettlement I felt while reading Vegangelical stems from the way in which King speaks to her readers. Her authoritative voice often veers into condescension. Every issue is discussed as black and white: for King, there is a right, and there is a wrong, and there is definitely no in-between.
In Part 1: Theological Foundation, King lays out the biblical evidence for animal stewardship. I appreciated her reflections on what it means to have dominion over the animals, which she gleans from theologian Richard Bauckham: “the obedience which the creatures owe to humanity is reciprocated by an obedience of humanity to the creatures…a kind of mutual and humble deference in the common service of the creatures to their Creator.”
As a whole, however, King’s theological foundation proves unsteady. She confidently draws what are, in actuality, rather tenuous conclusions from a haphazard collection of bible verses to support the premise that eating meat is a sin. This pick-and-choose philosophy of finding verses that support one’s own theology is problematic, no matter the issue one is addressing. And though I do agree that a strong case can be made for an overarching biblical call to care and serve the entirety of God’s creation, King is unable to support her idea of veganism as humanity’s sin-free diet.
In Part 2: Using Animals, King discusses how humans mistreat animals in a variety of areas: as pets in our homes, in research laboratories, as entertainment, and as food and clothing. King begins each chapter with a wealth of horrific stories of animal mistreatment and then goes on to discuss the changes she’s made in her own life to counterbalance this: she only adopts pets from shelters, never breeders or pet stores, she does not allow her son to attend zoos or circuses, she has ceased wearing leather and wool, and the list goes on.
I find much to agree with in these notions. But as with her pick-and-choose theology, King’s approach to the care and keeping of animals is often incongruent, with personal feelings and beliefs masquerading as sound theology and research.
King argues that adopting a pet from a breeder or pet shop is wrong, but is a passionate advocate for euthanasia of elderly animals, referring to it as a “gift” and a “peaceful release.” Neither of these issues is as straightforward as King would have you believe. Valid arguments exist for adopting from a breeder, though King gives no mention of them. And though rare, some pets have a bad reaction to euthanasia drugs and experience seizures, pain, and panic during their last few minutes of life. Hardly the “quick and painless end” King describes.
Additionally, she offers no distinction between zoos (the majority of which are non-profit), and circuses and Sea World (which are for-profit). Certainly, mistreatment has and does happen within all of these organizations, as King outlines. But her solution – just stop supporting zoos with your attendance – is overly simplistic. Zoos rely on their patrons to financially support the animals in their care. If everyone was to stop attending zoos today, what would happen to these animals? King does not address this.
King also fails to address any call Christians may or may not have to another group of God’s creatures: insects. Vegans typically avoid anything made with honey or beeswax, as the extent to which humans have overtaxed bees has turned natural production into a commercial assembly line, but King never discusses the plight of honeybees. Are they not God’s creatures, too? Does she draw a distinction between bees and animals? If so, it seems hypocritical given her belief that drawing such distinctions, specifically between ourselves and God’s other creations, is what led to the catastrophic mistreatment of animals in the first place.
Such disparities occur throughout Vegangelical. King’s argument seems to boil down to this: if we all stop eating and using animal products today, animal cruelty and abuse will cease to exist. That would be wonderful but it is not true nor practical. King briefly discusses the many ways in which the laws that govern the humane treatment of animals are lacking, but never once does she suggest contacting your local or state governments, or lobbying for better laws.
This incongruence in thought and belief extends to the very end of the book. Throughout 150+ pages, the reader is told repeatedly that eating animal products is a sin. Then, in the last chapter, King admits that she doesn’t mind eating eggs laid by her friend’s pet chickens. So what is it, exactly, that King defines as sin? Is it eating animal products, or is it the way in which animals are treated when utilized for food?
King is equally unclear about the takeaways she gives her readers. The laundry list of dos and don’ts outlined throughout the book was exhaustive, authoritative, and presented as absolute. The stories of animal abuse King gave were meant to illicit shock and fear. And yet in the final pages she states, “instead of focusing on…creating a legalistic system in which we make choices out of fear or to toe a party line, I prefer this simple guide: reduce suffering where you can.” (150)
In the end, my hope mirrors King’s: that we will reduce suffering where we can. That more Christians will realize that the morality to which we hold ourselves should extend to our treatment of animals. Where King and I disagree is in the presentation of these arguments. I don’t think condescension or over-simplifying the issues at hand is a beneficial approach. The same care and compassion King calls on for animals should have been extended to her readership as well, and that unfortunately, was not the case.
Alisa Williams serves as Spirituality Editor at SpectrumMagazine.org