April 16, 2008

Why I Don't "Abstain"

“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:19, 20, RSV).*
2008 1511 page26 capHEY’RE SEVENTH-day Adventists. They don’t drink, smoke, or eat meat!”
My friend Richard was introducing our group—nine Union College students and me—to the local Lincoln Amnesty International chapter. He seemed genuinely astounded by our existence, as if we could well qualify for a circus sideshow. (“Step right up! See the amazing Adventists!”) We stood awkwardly with half-smiles, wishing we could be known in some other fashion, but soon we were making friends and together planning ways to help people around the world. Later, the students and I laughed about the incident as we discussed what alternative introductions we would choose.
“They love God, and they love all people!”
“They give Christianity a good name!”
“They are honest, brave, peaceful, and intelligent!”
“They’re the friendliest, most helpful people I know!”
“They proclaim the three angels’ messages!”1
For weeks afterward, I kept returning to Richard’s words, thinking about what I yearned to share with him and other friends for whom Adventism is mystifying. I don’t want to communicate that I merely avoid unhealthful or “naughty” things. That’s way too tame. I hold strong socio-political, proactive reasons for my lifestyle choices. And what I decided fit best is the word “boycott.”
“Abstain” Versus “Boycott”
“I don’t abstain from drinking alcohol—I boycott it.” Alcohol is the number one drug problem in the world. In the United States, alcohol is a factor in about half of all human tragedies. One half of all homicides, one third of all suicides, one half of all rapes, 72 percent of all assaults (including spousal abuse), 70 percent of all robberies, and one half of all child-abuse cases are alcohol-related.2 Why would I support something that today is implicated in this much carnage and misery?
2008 1511 page26“I don’t abstain from smoking tobacco—I boycott it.” Smoking is slow suicide. Beyond that, no enterprise is more corrupt and deadly than transnational tobacco. The tobacco industry’s violation of public health, human rights, and the environment is mind-boggling.3
Tobacco currently kills more people worldwide than HIV and AIDS, alcohol, drug abuse, fires, murders, suicides, drowning accidents, and car crashes combined—about 4 million people a year.4 If 27 airplanes, each filled with 400 passengers, crashed every day of every month, would it make headlines? Certainly! Yet the U.S. government recently gave tobacco farmers a bailout of $10 billion. I’m reminded of Joseph Stalin, who stated, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
“I don’t abstain from eating meat—I boycott it.” Fewer than half of all Adventists are vegetarian, but I became a vegetarian before I became an Adventist. I did so for four reasons listed briefly here:
1. Curbing starvation. We can feed 10 times as many people on a vegetarian diet as we can on an omnivorous diet.5 This issue—feeding starving people—matters greatly to me.
2. Living healthfully. It’s true: I have more energy now than when I was living a much more physically active lifestyle and eating meat. As scientific research documents, vegetarians are also less susceptible to dozens of diseases. This doesn’t of itself make me more “spiritual”; biographers assert Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian. It does help me to be more productive.
3. Helping the environment. As a lover of God’s creation, I do my balanced best to be a responsible caretaker. (Creation care is a relatively new evangelical trend.) According to ecological experts, becoming a vegetarian is the best thing one can do to heal the environment. Imagine that!
4. Treating animals with respect. I don’t support all of PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) tactics and aims, but I do believe that on the new earth we won’t be eating our sentient “pets.” Jesus certainly ate fish, but the fish weren’t caged, shot up with chemicals, and killed without ever seeing the sky, as is the case with some veal and poultry.
Just Say Yes
I don’t abstain; I boycott. I boycott because I’m pro-life, and pro-life is pro-health, pro-peace, and pro-planet.
Jesus is about saying Yes. Yes to respect for life. Yes to justly living life to the fullest. Yes to courageous love. Yes to swimming against the current.
Whenever we can be known for what we do in a life-enhancing way instead of what we don’t do, it seems to me that yields a better introduction and the best conclusion.
*Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
1All right, this one didn’t come up.
2From Facts About Alcohol; Alcohol and Health: Sixth Special Report to the U.S. Congress; and Alcohol Health and Research World.
4The World Bank predicts that by 2030 the toll will more than double to 10 million deaths per year, with most of the increase involving people from developing countries.
5No human being is a carnivore. Eating bread or ketchup or fries or 
tortillas or ice cream in addition to meat makes one an omnivore.
Chris Blake is associate professor of English and Communications at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. This article is adapted from his latest book Swimming Against the Current: Living for the God You Love.