BOOKS: Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism & the World’s Religions

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1999:

Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism & the World’s Religions
Essays, conversations, recipes by Rynn Berry
Pythagorean Publishers (POB 8174, JAF Station, New York, NY 10116), 1998. 374 pages, paperback; $19.95


Vegetarian religious historian Rynn Berry pops up occasionally in national news media to rebut the oft cited but bogus claim that Adolph Hitler was a vegetarian. Hitler, according to Berry, eschewed meat only occasionally, on medical orders, to relieve constipation. Hitler’s favorite meal, according to his personal cook, was stuffed squab.

On March 13, Berry made headlines again, when Washington Post s t a f f writer Bill Broadway quoted him and cited his new book, Food for the Gods, in an article about the current furor in Amarillo, Texas, over a PETA billboard which says simply, “Jesus was a vegetarian,” and gives a PETA web address: >><<.

One L. Michael White, identified as professor of classics and director of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin, reportedly said he knew of no Biblical scholars who believe Jesus was a vegetarian.

White evidently overlooked not only Berry but also Charles Vaclavik, whose 1986 volume The Vegetarianism of Jesus Christ i s generally considered the definitive investigation of the subject.

Either Berry or Vaclavik could acquaint White with the vegetarianism of many of the earliest Christian leaders, among them Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen; the vegetarianism of saints and mystics including Basilus the Great, Elisabeth Von Thuringen, St. Hedwig of Schliesen, Simeon Stylites, and St. Anthony; and the vegetarianism of the founders of the Augustinian, Trappist, and Franciscan monastic orders.

The latter founder, Francis of Assisi, is remembered as patron saint of animals, in part for his rescues of farm animals from butchery and his opposition to bird hunting. He was calumnized after his death by the fiction that he would eat just the legs of pigs to avoid killing them––an invention of corrupt successors who turned the order so far from Franciscan teachings that when Franciscan monk and cook Ron Picarski recently tried to revive the vegetarian menu, he lost his job.

A s Food for the Gods documents , and the news from Amarillo confirms, there is no exaggerating the obtuseness of flesh-eaters.

Said retired Catholic bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen to Washington Post w r i t e r Broadway, “There are no indications of Christ being a vegetarian. I grew up on a farm eating fried chicken”––as if that non-sequiter had anything to do with it.

Amarillo SPCA board member Benita Trnka reportedly asked PETA to remove the billboard, after volunteer Priscilla Sirmon took an anonymous call from a man who threatened to burn a cat a day as long as it remained up.

Instead, PETA posted a cash reward for information leading to the arrest of the caller––as the Amarillo SPCA should have.

Said Sirmon, to Amarillo G l o b e – News reporter Sonny Bohanan, “I think they should take the sign down and put up something more Texas-friendly.”

In other words, don’t challenge people to rethink their participation in the most ubiquitous cruelty. Try to save dogs and cats; never mind the creatures who do 99% of the suffering and dying at human hands.

PETA didn’t remove the billboard, but the billboard company did, cancelling a month-long contract after just three days.

The PETA campaign in Amarillo is newly controversial, but isn’t actually new. Campaign coordinator Bruce Friedrich unveiled the >>www.jesus.veg<< web site in September 1998. A billboard similar to the one in Amarillo went up near Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, just before Christmas, and another went up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on Ash Wednesday.

Each brought comparable response.

As Berry records, among the world’s major religions Christianity seems to have strayed farthest from vegetarian origins. Berry seems to believe this is because vegetarianism is much less central to core Christian beliefs than it is to the core beliefs of those he terms the “vegetarian religions” of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism.

But even the “vegetarian religions” are not immune to similar controversy. On July 28, 1998, Fund for Animals program coordinator Norm Phelps asked the Dalai Lama, the figurehead of Tibetan Buddhism but not a vegetarian, “to issue a statement declaring his compassionate opposition to all forms of animal cruelty. In the areas of vegetarianism and biomedical research,” Phelps wrote, “this will require some revision of public positions which His Holiness has previously taken, but the effect in reducing animal suffering would be tremendous.”

A week later, having received no response, Phelps made his request public. That brought a rebuke from Tenzin Geyche Tethong, secretary to the Dalai Lama, for “inappropriate and unacceptable” conduct which Tethong interpreted as “putting pressure on [the Dalai Lama].”

Months later, at Thanksgiving, the Dalai Lama “commended the animal rights movement for working to end the suffering of animals, and urged everyone who can to adopt a vegetarian diet,” according to a Fund press release.

Whatever the Dalai Lama actually said, however, was evidently not amplified through his own office.

As the Episcopalian minister Andrew Linzey comments in Food for the Gods, “With the sole exception of the Jains in India, I’m not sure that any religion, east or west, has a very good record on animals.”

Linzey cites the weakness or absence of animal-protective legislation in many nations dominated by the so-called vegetarian religions.

Berry argues that, “There are ethical safeguards for the rights of animals within the doctrines of” those religions “that obviate the necessity for animal welfare legislation.”

Responds Linzey, “I don’t think you can have it both ways. I don’t think you can argue that there is a greater ethical consciousness in the east, but there isn’t the legislation; whereas in the west, we have better legislation but not the ethical consciousness.”

Without ethical consciousness, one cannot pass or enforce legislation; without legislation, one cannot actually stop much cruel behavior.

As a whole, Food for the Gods i s more an exploration than an argument, and–– by intent––more a primer on the interface of vegetarian issues and religion through the centuries than an ultimate reference. Visitors have often picked up our office copy, and each, so far, has read some of it, remarking that he or she would like to read the rest.

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