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Back in the late 1990s, the radical animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) tried to popularize the idea that Jesus was a vegetarian. Their main argument was that Jesus is not recorded in the Bible as eating meat; He is described as eating only figs and fish, the latter of which was a mistranslation, down the ages, of the word seaweed. That Jesus was a vegetarian can be deduced, PETA proposed, because He was a member of the Essenes, one of several Jewish sects that some historians believe abhorred animal sacrifice. “A diet without any animal products at all is what God intended,” declared PETA’s campaign coordinator Bruce G. Friedrich, a self-described Catholic vegan, with a stridency typical of zealots. “Anybody who eats meat is mocking God.”
The Jesus-was-a-vegetarian movement was silly (seaweed, really?), even specious (it’s hardly been proven that Jesus was an Essene), and never gained much traction, despite a multimillion-dollar budget that helped fund, among other things, a website with lots of bells and whistles for the time (in the days of Web 1.0) and a multi-city billboard campaign. The ads featured images of Jesus that looked suspiciously like the Sacred Heart, with taglines like “I said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Go vegetarian,” and “Lamb of God: Please don’t eat His creatures.
L. Michael White, director of the Religious Studies program at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Washington Post that PETA’s arguments were “so thin they’re pretty difficult to deal with” (March 13, 1999). “This is just another cause making bad use of Scripture,” he said.
Perhaps the movement’s most high-profile moment came during Pope St. John Paul II’s pastoral visit to St. Louis, Missouri, in January 1999. PETA paid for a billboard along the Pope’s motorcade route that showed Our Lord framed in an orange slice with the caption, “Jesus was a vegetarian. Show respect for God’s creatures — follow Him.” The intended provocation might have caused more buzz if its placement hadn’t been so awkward: It stood adjacent to a billboard advertising Malacca gin. (Thankfully, nobody has claimed Jesus was a gin-drinker — not yet, at least — not even gimlet-eyed Brits, who know that gin has its origin in the Early Modern Era. Jesus was, rather, a hearty wine-imbiber, and He rued the common putdown that He was a “drunkard,” cf. Mt. 11:19.)
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