Elyse Durham on Why Going Vegan for Lent Can Orient Us to Christ’s Calling

Elyse Durham is a writer in Detroit. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


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 conversation 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 abstain from animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays 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 4:3) 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 cases 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 is often 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 significant importance. 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.”

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Source: Christianity Today