A Black Christian Approach to Veganism

My first introduction to animal-rights activism was not one I welcomed. My favorite football player had participated in something horrendous — dogfighting — but all my pre-teen self could focus on was the punitive and vengeful way some animal rights activists treated Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.

“[Vick] should be given a brain scan that will show if he’s capable of remorse,” said Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Have your Vick spayed or neutered,” read one protest sign. Conservative political pundit Tucker Carlson said Vick should have been executed for his crimes. Even the more benign protesters explicitly argued that Vick didn’t deserve a second chance, something that never sat right with my Christian upbringing.

Worse than mocking signs and inflammatory statements, animal rights groups successfully fought to increase Vick’s jail sentence. Prosecutors recommended 12 to 18 months, which was already more than the usual recommendation for first-time offenders. The judge sentenced him to 23 months; animal rights groups had lobbied for more than double that amount.

So, despite my beliefs that something is seriously wrong with the way American society treats animals, particularly in factory farming, I have had my trepidations about engaging in animal rights work. Even as I’ve largely stopped eating beef and attempted to integrate more vegan/vegetarian meals into my diet, I’ve been mostly doing this because of my concern for the environmental impact of meat. 

Rev. Christopher Carter is a virtue ethicist, commissioned elder in the United Methodist Church, and professor of theology. He has spent much of his professional and personal life learning to better the treatment of animals as part of an integrated approach to justice for all. Carter, the author of The Spirit of Soul Food: Race, Faith, and Food Justice, defines his work as a practice of “Black veganism,” which “forces us to examine how the language of animality and ‘animal characteristics’ has been a tool used to justify the oppression of any being who deviates, by species, race, or behavior, from Western Christian anthropological norms.” 

In our conversation, we discussed food security and factory farming, developing better cooking habits, and how animal rights affect all species. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: What’s the right term for this type of work? Is it animal rights? Animal liberation?  

Christopher Carter: It depends on what we’re discussing, right? I am a virtue ethicist. So, while I think a lot about how ideology and cultural norms shape behavior, and how we can see that there are limitations to a “rights” approach or just a rules approach, it’s not to say that rights aren’t important. They are. 

Rules are deeply important. Rules give us boundaries and frameworks for having conversations and discussions about what is morally right and what is morally wrong. But rules also are limited because of human sin. And to be clear, I describe sin as a failure to love, or a “failure to bother to love,” to borrow a phrase from Jim Keenan.

What we’re invited to in Christianity is much more of a “both/and,” a “transcend and include.” The “rights” language is important and useful, but we need to recognize that it has limitations.

This, [coming from] a Black person, ain’t surprising, right? We technically got all kinds of “rights” that we don’t actually have access to. The intersectional approach or analytical lens that I bring to [animal rights] is unique because I’m gonna be thinking about rights in a fundamentally different way than a white person. By nature of the racial hierarchy and caste system in America, even though I technically have the same rights on paper that you have, in practical reality, I do not. 

So then, how did you get involved in working on animal rights and animal liberation?

It was a little bit of happenstance, a little bit of suffering, and luck. I’m the first person in my family to even have an undergraduate degree. My grandpa was a migrant picker. My mom worked at a factory. My dad’s a janitor. I didn’t go to college until I was 22. I had a good job, bought a house, and in my family, that was considered very well-off. My wife — she’s brilliant, she’s a veterinary oncologist — she essentially forced me to go to school. It was there that, not only I accepted my call to ministry, but I began to be interested in oppression and oppressive systems, particularly racial oppression because I grew up in a poor neighborhood that was multiracial.

When I finished my Master of Divinity and decided to do a doctorate, I happened to be driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco for the American Academy of Religion conference. And what I saw [farmworkers] looked so much like slave camps. It looked like what my grandpa — born in 1938 Mississippi, in the deep Delta — would tell of stories about how he was treated by white people, the work he did in the field, and the racism he endured. And he would always end those stories by saying “Oh, it could have been worse.” And when I was driving to San Francisco, I saw the same things happening to other brown people. And it clicked with me in a way that I hadn’t really ever noticed before. 

The dehumanization of industrial agriculture; the ways people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous people, are “animalized”; how the language of the “animal” is really the linchpin of race. It all just rushed to me. I knew, in my soul, that I had changed. I had a conversion experience, quite honestly.

At that point, I became a vegetarian. And I didn’t become vegan because I knew I needed to continue to find ways to eat that were in alignment with my identity. I wasn’t going to rush into it. I was one of the handful of Black people at my school and I felt very culturally isolated. To leave my cuisine behind — which was one of the ways I felt connected to my community — just seemed like a terrible idea. So I had to figure out how to cook and eat in ways that allowed my moral values to align with my cultural identity. And then, in addition, figure out a way to explain this theologically, ethically, and morally. 

I love animals. But I don’t do my work for the animals. It’s really for people. I’m vegan for my people. Because this industry disproportionately harms people of color. We get a [disproportionate amount of harm] based on the ways animal agriculture and industrial farming impact Black and brown communities.

What would look different if we had a better approach and dismantled the systemic oppressions of food production, particularly around meat?  

Now, I am going to give you an answer that other vegans are probably going to disagree with — I’m just going to lay that out there. I come, not only from a family of rural folk, but family who hunt. Even though we Black. We didn’t have school on the first day of the second week in November — that was the first day of bowhunting season.

[That said], individually, we need to take seriously the reality of the structural racism embedded in our food system. That means considering where we purchase our food and taking seriously the reality of the ecological oppression that comes along with that. That typically means buying from a farmer’s market. 

You have to do some research to figure out where is best to buy food. Thinking about where we purchase our food is probably going to be the most important way to begin to make a change.

The other thing we can do is advocate for structural changes within the organizations that we are tied to. My son’s school has a great food lunch program in [the Los Angeles Unified School District]. So much of [the program’s food] comes direct from farmers … a lot [of them are also] people of color.

I would argue that unless you are buying [meat] directly from the place where it was grown, raised, and slaughtered, you are essentially complicit in systems that do harm to people of color and the planet. Also, we fundamentally eat way more meat than we actually need to. We should practice “soulful eating,” which includes a kind of veganism. While recognizing that not everybody can do that. 

I talk in [Soul Food] about how to practically do that. I grew up on food stamps, we couldn’t have [eaten] purely vegan. But we could have practiced “Black veganism” as I define it.

What about organizations like churches?  

Churches can work together to establish and create food sovereign communities. A great example of what this looks like in practical terms is the Black Church Food Security Network. They’re doing amazing work. Rev. Heber Brown III is a good friend of mine. Soul Fire Farm too — they’re not religious [but] they are in alignment with the values of the radical prophetic tradition.

Churches can be food hubs. We could be working together to connect with local farmers so that we can buy food at a price that’s fair to the farmer and allows [churches] to cover overhead, but doesn’t have to “make money,” because that’s not the goal; the goal is to feed people. 

Theologically, churches should probably be vegetarian. It’s hard to make the argument for eating meat, given how difficult it would be to procure it in a way that’s sustainable. We have to take life seriously and [the fact] that life has sacred meaning and value. [At minimum] they should opt out of factory-farm meat. 

Growing up in the American church, I had this idea that all of creation was “good,” but humans were “very good.” Or that humans are made in the image of God, but animals are not. And that we’re supposed to “steward” the earth, which in most people’s minds could include raising and eating meat.  When you say churches should be vegetarian, what’s the theology behind that?  

How things would be different if the Bible started with Genesis 2 versus Genesis 1, right? The second [creation] narrative is written by farmers, [and it] fundamentally talks about the interconnectedness that we have with all life. It talks about stewardship and responsibilities that we have and that we’re supposed to exercise … It’s about appropriate relationships.

We have to take seriously the reality of human sin, fundamentally. To make the argument that “it’s okay as long as we’re doing it right” — we have yet to do it right.

I really focus on the second [Genesis] narrative. Not to dismiss the first narrative, because it’s important [and] there’s something to be said about being created in the image of God and that order structure, but if I am going to talk about the first creation narrative, I’m definitely going to emphasize the fact that the seventh day is the only day that is blessed. And the seventh day is holy. 

[That should cause us to ask]: What does it mean to not extrapolate and externalize our resources such that the planet is blessed and livestock and everything can actually rest? 

How long have you been vegan?

Since 2018. But I don’t really know because I went through this whole complex around purity culture. I was a vegetarian, and I was slowly becoming a vegan, figuring out how to do it. I called myself a “dirty vegan” for years. [I would be vegan except when I traveled because it made it harder to be strict.] 

The notion of purity is so embedded in Christianity. Honestly, [rejecting that] shaped my approach to thinking about the beginnings of Black veganism.

I think a number of people feel like a fully vegan diet would be impossible, and so they don’t take any steps to change their food sources. Do you think those small changes are worth it?

As a virtue ethicist, I’m all about the cultivation of habits. We have to cultivate habits that help us embody practices that move us toward — as we Methodists would say — perfection [or] sanctification. 

I want to apply this to food, but I want to also emphasize that I apply this to my spirituality: You should be growing toward God every day. That’s just how I fundamentally live my life. 

It’s a matter of making progress. There is no way of being perfect, but it’s about improving every day and taking improvement seriously. Unfortunately, a lot of Christians practice that kind of Christianity that demands very little of them on a day-to-day basis. 

If I were to try and get more hands on with this — let’s say you’re somebody who eats an average American diet, what would be a helpful first step toward less oppressive food habits? What does it look like to find new recipes? What does it look like to create those new habits?

When I became a vegetarian, it required me to do a couple of things. We have to reclaim the kitchen as a sacred space. It’s hard. We don’t live in a culture that values cooking. This is an American thing; capitalism requires us to place little value on the kitchen as a sacred space or a place of community. 

So, some of this is changing our relationship to cooking. Some of this is finding recipes or veganizing and vegetarianizing recipes that you already have.

I live in Southern California. I like to eat a lot of tacos. I like to eat a lot of pizza. I like to eat a lot of soul food. I just got on Amazon and bought cookbooks, looked up recipes, and just tried them out. The hardest part was the investment in time and seasoning. But, what I found is that I grew to love it so much that there’s recipes in my book [The Spirit of Soul Food]. 

What would it look like if the kitchen were a sacred space?  

We need to take more time because cooking does take time. We also need to remember that we are a people who love stories and narratives. My son, who’s little, helps me cook. I have pictures of him helping me cook since he was two. And that’s the only way he’s ever going to get a chance to know his great-grandmother because she died really young. I talk about the stuff I learned [to make] from her. I talk about my grandpa. I talk about my mom. And I talk about [my son’s] day.

I can’t [cook with him] every day, but I do it once a week and it’s important. I want my son to know the story of the liberation and growth of his family, but also to see himself as a part of the story.

That’s how the kitchen becomes sacred. Yes, we need to take more time. That’s fundamentally important, but we need to talk to each other. 

What do you think about the ethics of lab-grown meats or Beyond Meat and products like that?  

I am impressed by the work that they’ve done. To an extent, it does solve a lot of problems ecologically. But it also can create other environmental problems. You have to also consider who’s working in those factories and the wages they’re getting paid. 

There is no silver bullet. We have to actually think about food, not only through a local process and a local lens but also a systems lens. We need to talk much more about access and public transportation; all of these things are interconnected. You can have lab-grown meat, but if people can’t afford to get to the store or afford to buy it, then what good is that going to do?

If you could change one law around animal protection, what would it be?

We need to get rid of ag-gag laws. We don’t have any space to hold these organizations accountable. These mega-industrial agricultural organizations have created a system such that if you try to record anything or “spy” on them, it’s called domestic terrorism. That’s evil. 

We’ve created a system that’s so bent on capitalism and exploitation that we don’t actually want to hold people accountable. If we hold these places accountable, if people see what’s happening in them, you could have a lot of grassroots activism. People want to believe that animals are being treated better than they actually are.

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