Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist or a dietician. Nor do I assert that veganism is the only way for everyone or the best way for all. However, it is an option for an everyday lifestyle, or for someone who wants to explore one or two days, or even one or two meals, without meat. And it is definitely an option for Christ-followers who are looking for ways to deepen their faith by actively stewarding their physical health as a spiritual practice.
I was an undergraduate college student when I first met someone who identified as vegan. Growing up in rural South Carolina and eating nearly everything that moved, I’d never heard of meatless meals, or plant-based diets or meat substitutes. But I was very familiar with diabetes, cancer, strokes, amputated limbs and immobilization associated with sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy eating and obesity. I knew countless friends and family members who took medication as a temporary relief for a host of physical ailments and who lived with chronic pain of some sort. Exploring a new way of living, including reexamining what I ate, was a welcomed opportunity.
The road to veganism
As I encountered more people who were vegetarian or vegan, I began studying alternative ways of eating. I learned about communities around the world who followed diets that incorporated meat in moderation or not at all, including some Buddhist communities throughout the world and the Black Hebrew Israelites throughout the United States.
Slowly and intentionally, my diet shifted as I vacillated between periods of eating meat and following a vegetarian or vegan diet. There were periods when I ate based on what was available, such as during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. Or times when I followed a less restrictive diet by eating only select types of meat, such as poultry or seafood. During other seasons and in the last few years, I’ve enjoyed the benefits of a meatless diet with ample vegetables, fruits, legumes and occasional meat substitutes. And at every stage, I have reminded myself, as well as others, that my dietary restrictions are but one way I care for my physical health and deepen my faith through stewardship of my body.
Health and the good news
An exploration of dietary options has blossomed into one of my primary research areas: the intersection of faith and health. I’ve found that Christianity is unique amongst world religions in its heavy emphasis on moral behaviour and sin – particularly (perceived) sin associated with sex and sexuality. This theology can lead us to overlook more integrative practices that care for our physical bodies, our environment and other forms of creation. Globally, many other religions integrate spirituality with physical religious identifiers. Practitioners of other world religions might say something like: “this is how I dress because I am Muslim” or “this is what I eat because I am Buddhist,” but the Christians in my life rarely give such rationale.
Of course, not all manifestations of Christianity overlook our physical bodies. Researchers including Harold Koenig, Pernessa Seele, Linda Chatters, and John Blevins provide frameworks for integrating Christian faith and physical health practices. Some U.S. churches and denominations put theory into practice hosting health fairs, onsite screenings or counselling and testing throughout the year. Last November, one church in Charleston, West Virginia, hosted an event with free flu shots, Covid vaccines and boosters, blood pressure and glucose checks, at-home colon cancer screening tests, car seat checks and smoke alarms. These sorts of events are especially common in Black churches in the U.S. which are often seen as pillars of their communities and trusted resources. However, outside of these particular churches, Christian ministries tend to emphasize spiritual health and forget to mention our physical bodies.
During Lent we come close, often eschewing things like chocolate or sugar or some other “bad” food as we prepare for the death and resurrection of Christ. But even so, the emphasis on food has a spiritual purpose, rather than a focus on our physical selves.
An incarnated God
So I have to ask: have we over-spiritualized our faith? When is the last time you thought about how you manage your physical body with the same conviction you bring to your faith walk? Does your theology offer guidance around overindulgences in alcohol or drugs or sex, but say little about food?
I am well aware that choosing to follow a vegan diet doesn’t mean I’ll never experience an ailment, but it does mean I am consciously and daily choosing to steward my temple. In all the ways we consider prayer, study, fellowship, charity, service and worship as integral to our spiritual practices, I believe we need to make room to consider our physical health – and the health of our planet – in comparable proportions. After all, the God we worship comes to us not only as spirit, but also as flesh. Jesus filled hungry bellies while the words of his sermon still hung in the air and taught us to pray for daily bread in the same breath as asking forgiveness. As people who follow a saviour who was both fully-human and fully-God, we need to take seriously the call to steward our physical wellbeing alongside the spiritual.