idol food

On Idol food, Covid Vaccines, Abortion, Retrieval Ethics, and Love for Neighbours

Modern life is complicated.

This piece is both about that complexity, and how hard it is to make good ethical decisions, and about the current conversation about how a potential Covid-19 vaccination uses cells from abortions conducted decades ago.

The Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies has described use of human tissues from abortion as ‘reprehensible,’ and he, and others, have suggested use of this vaccine is now a conscience issue for Christians.  The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said, in an article urging the Government not to create an ethical dilemma, that news of a Covid Vaccine seems great:

“Until you read the fine-print on the ampule. Turns out that this vaccine makes use of a cell-line (HEK-293) cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.”

He said, further:

“Of course, many people will have no ethical problem with using tissue from electively aborted foetuses for medical purposes.

Others may regard the use of a cell-line derived from an abortion performed back in the 1970s as now sufficiently removed from the abortion itself to be excusable.

But others again will draw a straight line from the ending of a human life in abortion, through the cultivation of the cell-line, to the manufacture of this vaccine. They won’t want to be associated with or benefit in any way from the death of the baby girl whose cells were taken and cultivated, nor to be thought to be trivialising that death, nor to be encouraging the foetal tissue industry.”

There’s a beautiful picture of just how complicated in the Netflix series The Good Place, where modern people have stopped being good enough to earn a ticket into the afterlife because of how deeply enmeshed modern systems are — even when it looks like we’re doing ‘good’ things, the system runs a long way down and our actions are almost always the product of a system that involves some evil. Really obvious versions of this involve supply chains for the goods we purchase in the western world; I might buy some baby clothes to donate to a new mum, but I might buy them from a source who have slave labour in the supply chain for both the raw materials and production of those clothes; at which point I am complicit, whether I know it or not, in propping up that evil.

The Good Place makes the case that, whether knowingly or not, being complicit in evil is inevitable. Knowing that we’re complicit presents a dilemma, because, from that point on, we can’t claim ignorance as a way to mitigate our culpability.

This makes doing the right or good thing pretty tricky; and might just lead us to a fatalism that says evil is inescapable and so we should just do what we want, or what seems best to us, as individuals, without tackling the complex systemic issues.

The Good Place was an attempt to at least frame that conversation in a world without God in the picture; it provided its own answers with a sort of virtue ethic built on love for others and the pursuit of happiness in the realms we can control; it offered a humanist approach to the dilemma of complex, systemic, sin.

The Bible has both an account of and a solution to, complex, systemic sin, and a guide for how to live in a complex world where all human behaviours intersect with evil and are complicit in benefiting from evil. There’s a stream of Christian ethics developed from this understanding that the world as we know it is not ‘turtles all the way down’ but ‘frustrated by sin and curse all the way down.’

The Bible accounts for systemic sin with a vision of humanity that starts in our hearts and minds; we’re actually not capable of pure altruism that only benefits the other and has us escape from the system; at one point in Genesis, God looks at humanity and the human heart, and declares our hearts to be ‘only evil all the time’ (Genesis 6:5). The ‘good’ that we do, even as those still made with the capacity to reflect the image of God in the world, is inevitably tainted by complex mixed motives and especially self-interest.

This is one way that people from the Reformed theological tradition, following Calvin and Luther, have understood ‘total depravity’ — the idea not that all our actions are absolutely depraved, but that sin and its effects are such that all our actions are the actions of hearts tainted by sin; Luther borrowed Augustine’s idea of the heart curved in upon itself; which is a nice picture — even as we offer love for others, or for the world, there’s a self interest in the mix.

One way the Bible unfolds with this in the background is that no person is capable of righteousness, or doing good, until we meet Jesus in the story; the righteous one. This means that as good happens throughout the story of the Bible it happens through God’s actions in the world and despite human failings; the Old Testament is full of figures who do evil stuff, but who God still works through — sometimes, even, God works through people whose hearts have been hardened towards him, like Pharaoh in Exodus (as Paul explains this in Romans). Sometimes what we intend for evil, God can use for good — this is true of, explicitly, Joseph’s brothers sending him into slavery in Egypt for evil reasons (Genesis 50), but is also true of the execution of Jesus; an evil, sinful, expression of human selfishness (as the Bible frames it) that we intended for evil, but that God used to bring goodness and life; this act from God, through the righteousness of the son, is one where we’re either complicit in a way that brings death and judgement on us, or one where we find — in the fruits of that evil act — that is, Jesus body broken and blood poured out — eternal life. Good is retrieved from this act; Jesus, obviously, is willing in this moment in a way that Joseph was not so much (that’s the point of his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he says “not my will, but yours” and then goes on to be arrested, tried, and executed as an act of selfless love for God, and for those who will find life in him).

Even as we seek to do good, we’re caught in a world made by people who operate in self interest, and who sometimes operate in a sort of self-interest that doesn’t love others; especially distant others. Our inclination, self-interestedly, is to love those neighbours we get the most back from; those we’re most proximate to (who can effect our well being the most); the distant vulnerable aren’t always on the radar (see how easy it is to cut foreign aid, especially without seeing what that does to a complex global system, or worse, because we do see what that does to a complex global system and want to maintain a status quo of inequality so we get cheap stuff). We cannot actually escape benefiting from sin or evil. This is the system we live in and benefit from; even, for example, Centrelink payments come from taxes raised by the government, including taxes raised from gambling, and mining, and other industries that make money from sin. They’re handed out by a government that makes legislation that promotes sin (for eg, greed), and pays an army that engages in many military activities, not all of them ‘just wars’.

David Foster Wallace captured this in his famous This Is Water address; where he said this selfish default drives a world of “men and money and power’ that hums along in a pool of “fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self,” our lack of inclination to upend this status quo comes because “our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

The account the Bible gives for this systemic mess is that we turned from the life giving God towards autonomous self rule; to self worship (as Wallace put it); this starts in the first pages of the Bible with the story of Adam and Eve, who reject God’s good design for a world in harmony with him; a role bringing goodness, fruitfulness, order, and love — Eden — to the whole planet, and so instead of the whole earth being made as Eden, the world is cursed and frustrated, and people are exiled from God’s presence and the relationship with him that would shape our hearts.

When Paul reflects on the human heart, and its entanglement with a systemically broken world, in his letter to the Romans, he says the system we all end up being shaped by, this system of sin, starts with a decision to worship and serve created things instead of the creator (Romans 1), after a lengthy working through just how bad what the Bible calls sin is for us, our relationships, and our destiny, and how God does something about this with a new pattern for humanity in Jesus, his death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit — so that we can be forgiven, and share in a new humanity (by sharing his death and resurrection) — Paul lands in Romans 8, where he talks about ‘creation’; the whole world; being frustrated by sin; captive to sin. It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s sin. In Romans 7 he describes the human experience without God’s Spirit as being one where even if we know what good things we should do, we can’t — our idolatry means our hearts are curved not towards God, but towards created things, and ultimately towards ourselves.

Idolatry is serious business. It destroys life; it creates systems of mess. So, of course, Christians who are trying to live a new life in Jesus — where we share in his death and resurrection, and receive his Spirit to liberate us from bondage to curse and sin — are meant to ‘not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind,’ as we worship God properly, ‘offering ourselves as a living sacrifice’ to God (sharing in the death of Jesus, one might say). The false worship in Romans 1; where ‘self’ rules, is replaced by a different picture of worship — where we give ourselves in love; where we put self interest to death (a theme Paul picks up on repeatedly in his writings, most clearly in Philippians 2).

Idolatry is a picture of the systemic complexity of the world, for Paul, it is both a symptom and a cause of systemic mess and sinful behaviour. One way this complexity manifested itself for first century Christians was in food sacrificed to idols. At a physical level, idol food was still food. It still nourished the body and gave life; it was still meat from an animal that God made. If it landed on your table and you had no understanding of its provenance, you’d be hard pressed to know the difference.

This is a bit like if someone gave you a cotton shirt today, with no label, it might be difficult for you to tell whether that shirt came from a sweatshop, or was ethically produced, or whether the cotton came from an Aussie farm, or from slave labour internationally… you might eat that meat with a clean conscience (or wear that shirt). But once the provenance is made known; after that first bite, or first wear, you’re faced with a new dilemma.

You’re being asked to decide if more bites, or more wears, make you complicit in a whole sinful system, and what that means for you.

The more ubiquitous the meat in the marketplace or shirt in the clothing store, the more difficult it is to avoid such complex ethical questions and participation; in fact, it is almost inevitable that our consumption of goods in this world will be a product of sin and evil (see David Foster Wallace’s description of the default system); in the form of idolatry; and some sin and evil will be more palatable to us than others (for Christians, where we’ll get to below, it’s interesting to ask why abortion is a conscience issue around a Covid vaccine, where sweatshop labour, or supply chain issues, don’t seem to challenge us so much on a daily basis in our consumption of goods).

Paul addresses food sacrificed to idols on two occasions in his writing in ways that I think are helpful for framing the present day conversation about Covid-19 vaccinations and cell lines coming from two aborted foetuses. I’ll unpack a little bit of what he says in Romans and 1 Corinthians, and the principles for ethics in his working out that issue; touch on some key teachings of Jesus that I think are in the mix for Paul and us (on these questions), and then, against the backdrop of acknowledging how complex the modern world is, and how it’s sin all the way down, ask how we might best approach issues where we are being made aware of sin in the provenance of something we’re being invited to partake in; so that one might act according to conscience. I’ll sum these up in a nice numbered list at the end. So feel free to skip to that to see if this whole thing is worth reading.

How one approaches an ethical question like whether to eat food sacrificed to idols, or whether to receive a vaccine that comes from a questionably sourced line of cells, or prosperity in a nation built on stolen land and the genocide of its first peoples, will be the product of one’s ethical system (and often there’s a political shortcut here, where we outsource our ethical thinking to chosen leaders).

It is interesting that the people most loudly opposed to the use of this vaccine are those most interested in individual sin, from a particular paradigm, rather than systemic sin. That’s an ethical outlook. There are lots of ways to do ethics; our default western method is utilitarianism, where the ends justify the means (who cares where the vaccine comes from so long as it works and is safe), some Christians like divine command ethics (our job is to act where God has spoken clearly, how he has spoken, and to discern what he might command of us if he is silent) — in a complex modern world, people from this camp are often looking to create new black and white rules where none have previously existed. Duty ethics are closely related to divine commands; where we have a duty to obey God, but also any legitimate authority he has created (church leaders, denominational articles/confessions, the state (depending on how one reads Romans 13 etc).

These systems will all ask questions about whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to take a particular course of action, with a different authority in the mix (the results, God, the authorities one recognises who establish a duty for us — even nature, in some forms). Another form of ethics; virtue, or character ethics asks not so much ‘is this action right or wrong?’ and ‘who says?’ but ‘am I acting rightly as I take this path’ — virtue ethics can both recognise how inevitable sin is in a messed up world, and provide a way forward that focuses not so much on choosing the lesser of two evils, but on being as virtuous as one can be in a given situation.

There are lots of ways to frame virtue ethics; I love a combo approach that brings Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue together with the Christian story; the type articulated in Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Hauerwas, as an anabaptist, is very committed to the idea of systemic violence; the impact of sin ‘all the way down’ — he particularly draws that out with reference to the modern state (or kingdom) as essentially a violent, military, enterprise. I’m sympathetic to a criticism of anabaptist ethics that it ends up seeing people disengaged with worldly institutions, and always operating in parallel (and I like James Davison Hunter’s response to Hauerwas in To Change The World); but Hauerwas is bang on the money in his willingness to see sin impacting systems, and to call for an alternative system that radically reshapes our ethics and our understanding of character and virtue.

Incidentally, there’s a terrific piece on Christianity Today from David Fitch, who is a guy with anabaptist sympathies who wrote a book unpacking some of Hunter’s ideas around “faithful presence” critiquing Tim Keller’s recent paper on social justice and critical theory that is worth a read. I also think given the complexity of modern life, where it’s sin all the way down, the question is not ‘how do I avoid evil?’ — if evil is inevitable — it’s not even ‘how do I pick the lesser evil?’ But ‘how do I do what is most loving?’ It may be that this sometimes means choosing not to participate (in a trolley problem type scenario, you actually never have to pull the lever), but it should always, for Christians following the example of Jesus (and secure in the results that the evil done to him produced for us), involve a heart not curved in on the self, but towards God and others by the Spirit. Modern ethics requires some of us to stand distant enough from the fray, with a degree of purity intact, so that we might ask questions about the status quo, and some of us getting our hands dirty in the mess and muck of compromise in order to work towards change. We need both Anabaptists and Anglicans (but maybe not Anglicans who act as Anabaptists).

Idol food in Corinth and Rome: A path for navigating ethical dilemma in complex and sinful systems

I think Paul, in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, champions an ethical system built on the commands of Jesus; specifically, the command to love God (above idols), to love one another (those within the Christian community), to love one’s neighbour (such that they are clear about God and idols, and might become clear about the love of God for them); and that he leaves navigating life this way as a matter of freedom, conscience, and character rather than in the realm of rules or results. Here’s some of the data.

Paul says:

1. Even though idols aren’t real and people should be free, then, to enjoy idol food as meat made by God, some people don’t know this (1 Corinthians 8:4-7). This knowledge gap is a relational reality; and this makes the right thing to do disputable, rather than black and white (a question, perhaps, of ‘ethics’ rather than law or divine command.

This model doesn’t immediately map on to the vaccine question; because the abortions in question were real and sinful (just as the idolatry in the meat sacrifice was real and sinful); and the vaccines are a fruit (some time removed) of that sin (just as the meat is), part of Paul’s logic is that these idol statues aren’t actually real (not that the sin isn’t), they haven’t magically changed the meat.

Now, it’s worth teasing out that part of Paul’s ethical framework, at least in Corinth, is the idea that ‘an idol is nothing’; that the meat in question is simply a clump of cells, and that meaning is created by the way the cells are framed. An aborted foetus is not nothing, it is someone. The question here is different, but there are similarities too. Abortion, in the form we experience it in the modern west, is not just a health issue (such that one might decriminalise it), but also a biproduct of idolatry (have a look at the behaviours that Paul lists in Romans 1, and you’ll see the behaviours that produce lots of the modern demand for abortion). This means the parallel is not exact; and yet, while the cells used in this research come from people; unborn babies; unborn babies  who experienced an evil (so far as we can tell, or assume, without knowing the medical and social circumstances around these abortions — though the letter from the Archbishop says they were from an ‘elective abortion’), the cell culture involved has been duplicated over and over again in a chain for decades, it is not so straightforward to argue that the cells that exist now are ‘the person’ who was aborted then. It is clear we’re not, in this instance, talking about the ongoing trade of foetal tissue from elective abortions; though this sort of research justifies the ongoing trade of aborted persons for scientific research, and certainly prevents the status quo being changed to make abortion less commercially or scientifically attractive. Part of the conscience question facing us is whether using this vaccine, or this cell line, rather than other options, props up, or justifies, a system that should be torn down; the other question is about what good might be retrieved from that historic evil (not an ends justifies the means argument) for the sake of people now.

The human tissue cultures used in these vaccines is intrinsically connected to the sin in a way the meat isn’t (the meat was a good creation from God, taken by people to do bad things, but there was an original purpose for that meat connected to God’s glory which can be redeemed — receiving it with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4); the cells were a good creation from God, but the human intervention means they can’t be directly redeemed for that purpose — the life of the person who was aborted, though a vaccine is life-giving it isn’t in the same form that God gave the material substance in question; and yet, is also disconnected by time and duplication in a way that makes the question less clear cut (and a matter of conscience), and a ‘good’ can be retrieved from that evil, which is a pattern we see from God through history, and particularly at the cross of Jesus, where a life is taken that then gives life to others.

It’s a complex question; the issue is that some people will inevitably, now, think that anybody who receives this vaccine is complicit in evil. Their consciences will be seared, and it is likely this searing will create division between those whose consciences are clear, and those whose aren’t.

2. How we approach these conscience issues and areas of freedom really matters because of the way those who are a little more black and white (the ‘weaker conscience) perceive your exercising of freedom, and when they choose to act against their conscience, while following your example, or choose not to care about the sin at the heart of the question, because they think that is what you are doing; they do the wrong thing (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). If you’re going to articulate a position on a disputable issue it seems important to make it clear that it is disputable and not binding (like Paul is, himself). And if you’re going to say an issue is disputable it inevitably means making space for the ‘stronger’ position to actually be the correct one (if it is possibly true and explicitly not illicit). In Romans, Paul unpacks this a little more, he says ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your Christian brothers and sisters believe you are supporting evil/idolatry and so leading them to do something against their own conscience.

3. Because life is complicated and often figuring out how the wise and good path is ‘disputable’ rather than clear cut, Paul is keen for people to venture into discussions like this carefully and without quarrels; that means both those who are ‘strong’ and those who are ‘weak’ — that is those who think to participate is to be sinful and complicit, and those who think it isn’t — should make room for one another in Christian community and not break fellowship over the question (Romans 14:1-4). Part of his logic is that ultimately all of us have to give an account to God for our decisions (Romans 14:4, 7-13). But, digging in to questions like this and arriving at a position of conviction in ‘your own mind’ (Romans 14:5) is a good thing (especially in a mind being transformed and renewed by the Spirit and your true and proper worship ala Romans 12). He’d prefer people focus on unity in Christ, and things that will build that, than that they venture into disputable matters in ways that either offend or bind the conscience of others (Romans 14:19-22), and yet also says to ‘not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil‘ (Romans 14:16), and is, himself, writing a letter that got published in a pretty successful book making a particular case.

4. If you decide that to receive this vaccine is sinful, it is quite possible that you are wrong (and I think you are, as I’ll unpack below), but if that is your conviction, then to receive this vaccine is a sin (Romans 14:14); not an unforgivable one, but the lesser of two evils is still evil if you think you’re choosing ‘an evil’. Any deed not done as an act of faith(fulness to God) is sin (Romans 14:22-23).

5. Paul’s ultimate ethical questions are faithfulness to God and relationship with him (Romans 14:7-13), and love for neighbour (especially, but not only, fellow Christians) (Romans 15:2-7), but also explicitly that we act in such a way in society that builds relationships and models the Gospel to non-Christians (1 Corinthians 10:21, 33). His priority is not self-seeking. As he invites people to “come to your own conclusions” he also invites us to recognise that you aren’t only an individual; as a Christian you are both united to Jesus (and you belong to him), and you are a member of a particular community of people (the body of Jesus, the church), and that communion matters more than your individual freedoms (Romans 14:7-9). Paul would rather abstain from meat all together than cause another to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13, Romans 14:13-14); this is another point where the comparison is inexact. To not eat meat is fine, there are vegetables that are nourishing. A vaccine in a pandemic is a slightly different sort of health question than a question of diet preference; and, the Archbishops have also said that if it’s a choice between this vaccine and none, they think this vaccine would be a ‘good’ rather than an evil. Because the stakes are a bit higher (it’s not just about diet, and there are anti-vaxxers in the mix who are, at times, from a Christian fringe), I think there is a case to be made that the ‘stronger’ should actually be speaking up strongly in favour of vaccination as an act of love for neighbour (while perhaps questioning supply chains). To this end, I think the letter does a reasonable job, but the reporting of the letter makes the dilemma a little more black or white than either Archbishops Davies or Fisher were.

6. Don’t be an idolater at idol temples. It should be clear to people you belong to a different world and worship a different God (1 Corinthians 10:18-22). The equivalent here would be that it is enough for people to know that you aren’t complicit in abortion if you aren’t participating in the abortion industry, or seeking a termination. It is quite possible that our public opposition to the sort of world that produces an abortion industry that sells human body parts will be enough to make us not complicit in the evils connected to this vaccine’s history, but also to have an ethical model that sees some good retrieved from that history in the form of this vaccine (not in a way that justifies the continuation of the practice). Our true worship (offering ourselves as living sacrifices) and what we say yes to, including the ways we show that we value human life, will do more to frame our engagement in these issues than what we say ‘no’ to. In Corinth, the way they were meant to share in the Lord’s table, as they gathered (which they were failing to do very well) was part of the mess where people’s participations at other tables called their loyalty to Jesus into question.

7. If a thing seems to be a good thing that can be received as an act of faithfulness, not explicitly idolatrous, you are free to participate (1 Corinthians 10:25-27). It isn’t necessarily wise to raise questions of conscience when they wouldn’t otherwise be raised. In Corinth, unless meat came from a kosher butcher, all meat was connected to the idol temples and the meat market. It wasn’t that the status of the meat was likely to be idol-free, it was that asking made an issue of the connection. Don’t go digging into the provenance of a thing if you aren’t prepared to act on the information you then receive; but if you receive a thing that appears good without knowing its illicit provenance, you haven’t sinned. Once you’ve got that information you’re in conscience territory.

8. It’s not just conscience territory, but appearance territory. In fact, Paul says the biggest deal is not your own conscience, but the consciences of others — it’s if the people on believe your action is supporting the idolatrous status quo because you are a participant — that makes him take the position he does (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). So ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your non-Christian neighbours believe you support evil/idolatry.

Retrieval and Love: An ethical system for disputable matters in a complicated world

In his The How and Why of Love, Michael Hill develops an ethical system that is kingdom oriented, shaped by a Biblical theology that positions us as those awaiting the return of Jesus in a complicated and fallen world where there’s sin all the way down. He says it’s not enough for us to simply say ‘this is what God’s kingdom looks like’ and do that, because we’re not there yet, but also that the character of God’s kingdom is caught up in the great commands of Jesus, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. He takes a teleological ethic that says “an act is right if and only if it promotes the kingdom of God,” and shows that the kingdom is a kingdom of loving relationship between God and humans, individual humans, groups of humans, and humans and the created order,” and also “inner harmony within each human.” When I teach this to my RI kids I talk about how God made us to love him, love each other like we love him, and love the world like he does. That’s our purpose; that’s what the kingdom looks like. Hill’s restatement of an ethical system of ‘mutual love’ says “an action or trait of character is right if and only if it promotes (creates or maintains) mutual love relationships between (a) God and humans, and, (b) humans and humans.” Because we live in a world that is not yet ‘the kingdom of God realised,’ Hill suggests a “retrieval ethic,” where “in the context where hardness of heart prevents the accomplishment of the goal of mutual love, love would seem to necessitate the retrieval of as much good as possible, or, at least, the reduction of harm.” He distinguishes this model from the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach because here one is not choosing to justify evil, but rather, seeking to do what is most loving in a bad situation (a sort of virtue ethic, where our understanding of love is shaped by the Christian story, and particularly God as creator and redeemer, through the cross of Jesus, the resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit), and the “kingdom ethic” model where we are told to act as though the kingdom is already fully realised (or as though that’s our job).

Hill does have a chapter on abortion in his book; one that touches very briefly on the use of cells in research. He doesn’t dig into that as a picture of retrieval, but instead, outlines a thoroughly Christian vision of the unborn foetus being fully human. Once that life has been taken though, as was the case decades ago, the ultimate good to be retrieved would be the retrieval of a view of their personhood, and their dignity, and the tragedy of the loss of life involved; we’re decades down that chain now, which is why Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal is a useful vision of what it might look like to both retrieve that good, seeing the personhood of the unborn child, and the good of the medical research, that has emerged from their tragic death, including the possibility of this vaccine.

Here’s how I’d approach this particular vaccine, through an ethical grid supplied, in part, by Paul’s approach to food sacrificed to idols.

1. The complex world we live in means every act in a network of relationships, or culture, or system, or nation, is tainted by sin. We can’t avoid corruption from the fruits of idolatry.
2. Something more than ‘don’t partake in evil’ is required.
3. Adam’s original sin was partaking in something that had been declared sinful by God, something more than ‘partake in evil without worrying about it’ is required.
4. The law, or ‘divine commands’ in Christian ethics is ‘the floor’; love for God and neighbour (and the imitation of Jesus) is the ceiling.
5. Our ethical systems should compel us to imaginative love and virtue, not just right (moral) decision making.
6. Conscience is a really big deal in Paul’s ethical system; but he always implicitly sides with the ‘strong’ conscience while accommodating the weak; Christian leaders should avoid binding the conscience of others in case they are the weaker brothers and sisters on an issue and they unnecessarily bind the conscience of another by making an issue of provenance where none exists.
7. If we’re going to raise conscience issues on one sin of particular concern, it’s worth being consistent (asking questions about church institutions and their investment policies, super funds, environmental policies, etc, etc). Once we acknowledge complexity as a conscience issue in one area we better be prepared to follow that up with consistency.
8. God retrieves good things through human sin and evil; we are not God, but we might be prepared to adopt a similar posture of seeking to retrieve goodness, love, and life-giving approaches for the sake of our neighbours in good conscience, making the best of it.
9. That there are some goods retrievable from abortion (in the form of this vaccine), in no way justifies those particular abortions involved, or abortion in general. The end does not justify the means.
10. If Christians are never to participate in evil, when the complexity of systemic evil is made known, then we must create parallel institutions like schools, banks, libraries, etc; not to mention an alternative political state (especially in Australia); a paradigm of working towards good as redeemed people who, by the Spirit, are now able to curve our hearts away from ourselves to some degree, towards love for God and neighbour, then a more helpful paradigm for our ethics is ‘am I being Christlike in this situation’ and a working towards retrieving good.
11. True retrieval and love for both God and neighbour, in the face of complexity, means not turning a blind eye to evil or sin, but staring it down, and acknowledging it. Rooting it out of our own lives, but also seeking to change and challenge the systems we find ourselves in (across the board). Speaking out about questionable provenance of ‘goods’ that we seek to consume is one part of a step of undermining such a market, or status quo, creating genuine alternatives has to be part of that picture too. I think it’s a good thing that the Archbishops from these denominations have raised questions about the provenance of the Oxford vaccine, I think it would be great if other vaccines are pursued instead, but if they are, or aren’t.
12. Vaccines are a way we love our neighbours. The anti-vax movement is often built on an individual ethical paradigm (what is loving for self; often built on personal utility around minimising personal risks), rather than a community/relational one (what is loving for others and for God). Questions about the provenance of a particular vaccine aren’t questions about vaccinations in general.
13. The solution to a complex and messy system is the renewal of all things by Jesus, not the righteousness of us people. This doesn’t mean doing nothing; it just means our actions won’t be enough to solve the problem of sin and curse — either systemically or in our individual lives. We live our lives simultaneously recognising that creation is subject to frustration, and that we are, by the Spirit, the children of God the creation is waiting for in eager anticipation; how we tackle sin and mess now anticipates the return of Jesus to make all things new; removing sin, and curse. This is the story that answers the question ‘who am I?’ that provides the answers to the question ‘how should I live?’
14. You should not get a vaccine that is a byproduct of abortion if that is a conscience issue for you; that is, if you think you would be sinning if you received the vaccine voluntarily.
15. You should not subject other Christians to your conscience based assessment of the morality of the vaccine.
16. I do think whether or not one chooses to partake in the Oxford Vaccine is a matter of conscience similar to food sacrificed to idols; and one shouldn’t publicly trumpet your choice as a matter of Christian freedom that destroys a weaker brother or sister, but, nor should we not say anything; finding the balance of speaking like Paul did, and adopting a position on a contentious issue without delegitimising the positions of those who arrive elsewhere is a question of wisdom and imagination.
On balance, given the retrieval framework, it is, in my summation, a ‘good’ to receive this vaccine as an act of love for those neighbours presently alive, whose health and well being and ‘life’ (in pro-life terms) will be positively impacted by your decision.

But this last statement also has to be carefully qualified; and this is how I think I’m discharging that responsibility to not let something ‘good’ be called ‘evil’ in a disputable zone… On balance, personally, and without seeking to bind the conscience of others; I can say:

  • modern practices around abortion are a sinful failure of love for neighbour (the individual unborn neighbour, but also the system that makes abortion desirable represents a failure to love those in our community who might seek an abortion),
  • through the evil of abortion, in the case of this vaccine, some goods might be retrieved that allow love for neighbour in a different form (vaccination),
  • that to participate in those goods is not simply to participate in, or be complicit in, evil. In this I’m drawing an analogy here between the outcomes of idolatry (food sacrificed to idols, and abortion), and whether Christians can partake in free conscience, our knowledge of the sin involved in the production, promotion, and use of this vaccine, and whether our participation is perceived as making us complicit (or makes us complicit in the ongoing idolatry).
  • to participate in promoting and receiving this vaccine, while alternative vaccines might not be caught up in the same sinful system, might not be the most good and loving thing that I can do.
  • other vaccines will also inevitably be the product of other forms of sin (greed, immoral conduct, commercial enterprises built on various problematic practices or products),
  • our job is to act as people motivated by love for God, and love for neighbour,
  • a covid vaccination with widespread uptake in the community is a part of love for neighbour during a pandemic, but even this will involve a complex mix of systemic sinfulness, and possibly even my own selfish desire to preserve my own life, possibly at the expense of others rather than for their good.
  • so, there are more constructive approaches to ethics, and things for us to be talking about and doing as Christians. We might be better off focusing on positive alternatives than highlighting negatives; as a citizen in Corinth might have been better off giving and seeking hospitality with their neighbours, seeking to save the lost to reduce demand for idol food, or starting their own meat markets, rather than policing the food served up in a complex and messy world.

17. In all this, because the world is complex and our hearts still curve in on themselves, none of these actions or positions will totally avoid sin. Participation in sin in this world is inevitable. The Good Place had the diagnosis right. The answer is not that I live a good or ethical life of love though; I can not. Christian ethics are always a response to God’s grace and forgiveness received through Jesus. Whatever point you land on in this complexity (I hope this post is long enough to have earned this…) Jesus is the ultimate vaccine, and he protects us from the deadly consequences of our curved hearts.

Why I only eat “God Certified” food (and why I am not worried about Halal Easter Eggs)

My Facebook newsfeed is awash with discussions about Halal food. Today it’s Halal Easter Eggs (from Cadbury). Last week it was people speculating about links between Halal food and funding for people trying to introduce Sharia Law to Australia, or funding for terrorism.

I think all food is certified by the true and living God, provided it is “received with thanksgiving,”

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”— 1 Timothy 4:3-5

And, the ultimate key to “certified,” God-approved, food,” is Jesus, who calls himself the “bread of life.”

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval… “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” — John 6

Halal Easter eggs are a great opportunity to love your Muslim neighbours and share the message of Easter with them. But getting to that conclusion, and dealing with some of the objections Christians have to Halal food, might take some doing…

Halal is an Islamic term that means “permitted” it is the opposite of Haram, which means not permitted. I’m not going to claim to be an expert on Halal, I’m not a Muslim. It would be odd for me to do so. But, from what I gather, for a food to be permissible for a Muslim (Halal) it simply needs to not be haram — there are certain foods, especially meat, where there are guidelines that must be met to ensure certain boxes are ticked. Outside of this, it seems most foods (those not forbidden) are fair game.

Here’s what the Australian Food and Grocery Council says about Halal certification.

Many Australian food manufacturers seek Halal certification of their facilities and processes, in order to label their products as Halal and ensure they are able to be enjoyed by Muslim consumers. In the same way that food labeled as vegan or gluten-free is suitable for consumption by a broad range of consumers, Halal certified foods are commonly enjoyed by non-Muslims.

For a product to be Halal, it must be as a whole, and in part:

  • free from any substance taken or extracted from a Haram animal or ingredient (e.g. pigs, dogs, carnivorous animals, animals not slaughtered in compliance with Islamic rites);
  • made, processed, manufactured and/or stored by using utensils, equipment and/or machinery that has been cleaned according to Islamic law (e.g. not cleaned with alcohol); and
  • free from contact with, or being close to, a Haram substance during preparation, manufacture, processing and storage (e.g. blood, alcohol, poisonous and intoxicating plants and insects such as worms and cockroaches).

Many foods and drinks, particularly those that do not contain meat or alcohol, are inherently compliant with Halal criteria. Official certification, which may be granted by accredited religious authorities in Australia, any claim of certification is however required before products are able to be labelled as such.

Halal certification is a gateway into a massive industry, a Monash University study estimates the Halal industry’s global value at $3 trillion, and growing, with the Halal food market a relatively small $700 billion per year segment of this industry. This primer on Halal certification from The Conversation suggests it’s $1.75 trillion. It makes sense (and cents) for Australian food producers to try to sell their products to a large portion of the international population.

I get the impression that Halal certification is simultaneously a semi-unnecessary marketing tool, and part of an increasingly global marketplace — it seems to me that the Islamic world survived pretty well for a long time without labels on food. But setting up businesses to make it clear that particular food stuffs are free of contaminants is a clever business model for serving the Islamic world.

Business sense aside, there seems to be some “Christian” concern out there about halal food on the shelves of grocery stores in Australia, and in the pantries of non-Muslim households.

These concerns seem to operate on a few levels. At least so far as the social media campaigns and anti-halal campaigners are concerned (I won’t link to these campaigns because I don’t think they need the oxygen).

  1. The costs imposed to “Aussie” businesses and passed on to non-Islamic consumers.
  2. The supposed links to terrorism and Sharia Law.
  3. That Halal food is “food sacrificed to idols” so Christians shouldn’t eat it.

It’s the third point that I think is most interesting, but I’ll deal with the first two first.

It seems to me that Aussie businesses who pursue halal certification are doing so in order to increase their profits, to expand their markets, I’d hope that this means the benefits outweigh the costs and that rather than passing on costs to the non-Halal audience, the costs of Halal certification are covered by being able to sell their goods to people who would not otherwise buy them. I’m yet to see anyone offering anything like proof, and a few spurious economic arguments that seem to ignore the massive commercial benefits for entering this industry, for the idea that these increased costs will impact consumers.

Halal certification is carried out by a range of organisations, some, it seems, are businesses that have set themselves up to supply services according to this new market, presumably, these businesses are operated by Muslims, who, as a result of their faith, give a portion of their income as zakat (much like a Christian might give to their church), others, like Muslims Australia are a specifically religious institution that invest income generated through their certification into Muslim institutions (mosques, schools, etc).

Consumers in Australia (and everywhere, really) are free to make decisions about what they consume, just as businesses are free to make decisions about how best to open up their products to new markets, deciding who to sell, or not sell, to.

Should Christians oppose Halal?

If Halal products are, directly or indirectly, supporting Muslim institutions, and the expansion of Islam, should we, as Christians, not buy Halal? How should we decide what products to buy, beyond this debate? How do we shop in a way that is consistent with our faith?

Part of making this decision will include being educated about what cause the money that goes to a certain company might support, but where do we draw the line? Why are Christians not campaigning about companies giving money to workers who use it to buy cigarettes, or pornography, or who choose to gamble it? Or companies that profit from these industries? Are they not equally harmful to the end user in terms of the soul? And, more harmful, in terms of the body?

Consumer ethics are a pretty massive minefield, and it’s hard to know where to start drawing a line, saying “boycott X, because X is bad,” it’s hard to know whether or not metaphorical fruit that comes from a metaphorical tree we buy from is poisonous because of its roots. It’s harder still to find fruit that isn’t tainted in some way in a poisonous world full of people who do things that are opposed to God, and for their own benefit (not the benefit of others), by nature (though when it comes to frozen berries that carry hepatitis these concerns about poisonous fruit might be justified and non-metaphorical).

It’s good to shop ethically. It’s good to be informed. It’s good to support people who are doing good. It’s also good, I suspect, to support people because you want to love them well and see them be able to put food on the table for their families. But where is the line when it comes to companies supporting religious ideologies? Do we eat Certified Kosher meat? It hasn’t been prayed over during the sacrifice, but presumably the Kosher certification bodies are funding Judaism? What about businesses run by Christians whose teaching you disagree with? I don’t particularly like some stuff Hillsong says, but that’s not what stops me buying Gloria Jeans coffee (the lack of quality does). I think the Seventh Day Adventists teach a pretty messed up version of Christianity, with a harmful approach to the Old Testament, but this doesn’t stop me buying Sanitarium products. I don’t ask every owner of every business how they’re going to spend their profits. If an Islamic business wants to fund their version of Islam, by allowing a non-Islamic business to sell food to people who trust their certification process, then this seems to be the product of a free market. The non-Islamic business is free to make educated decisions about who certifies their food, for whom, and there are plenty of options out there.

We have great freedom, as consumers, to choose what to buy, and what to eat. More freedom than, historically, anybody has ever enjoyed.

I’m not really interested, in this post, in convincing you not to exercise this freedom. Quite the contrary. But I do think it’s important that we’re consistent in how we exercise this freedom, and that we’re not doing it out of fear, or worse, hatred. It’s downright bad for the Gospel when Christians take part in campaigns against companies and people who exercise this freedom when we are operating out of fear or hatred of the other – rather than love.

I think it’s great when Christians campaign against certain sorts of consumption out of love for people (eg when we stand up against gambling, or pay day loans, or pornography, or prostitution, in a way that loves those whose lives these insidious industries destroy). I think false religions — as a form of idolatry — are destructive, but I don’t think the right response to destructive false religions is hate, or fear, but love.

The loving answer to false religions, is Jesus, not wiping out the food supplies as though these religions are a city under siege.

It seems to me that one way to love our Muslim neighbours is to allow them to eat food in good conscience, just as we might feel loved if we are allowed to eat food in good conscience. If halal certification allows that, then I can’t see how, generally, this is a problem.

As Christians we shouldn’t be on about poisoning the proverbial waterhole — limiting a Muslim’s access to food they can eat— but we should be on about holding out the bread and water of life. Jesus.

There is no way that we can equate campaigning against halal food with God’s work. It is not what we’re called to do… God has his own seal of approval, his own certification method, his own version of certified food — it’s from Jesus, and it is Jesus. Here’s a thing Jesus says, just after he’s fed the 5,000 in John’s Gospel.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” — John 6

Bacon is part of the good news of the Gospel (Why Christians don’t follow the Old Testament food laws)

As Christians, our great desire for people is that they enjoy their freedom, we should, I believe, be promoters of freedom. Promoting the freedom to enjoy the goodness of God, that comes through the good news of the Gospel, news where your standing before God doesn’t depend on keeping a bunch of rules and regulations about what you eat, but on God’s good gift to people in Jesus.

The Old Testament contains a bunch of regulations, like the Halal/Haram food laws in Islam, that guided God’s people before Jesus.

Christians don’t have to worry about food laws. And that’s good news. Christians can speak about finding freedom in following God and truly mean it. Hopefully in a way that shows that certification plans for perfectly tasty food are a bit of a rort.

Ultimately, Jesus being the bread of life, the one who gives life, the one who defines “clean” and “unclean” is going to transform the way the people of God approach earthly food. The Old Testament was full of food laws that marked Israel as different from the nations around them, like this, from Leviticus 11:

And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.

“‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean. And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you. —Leviticus 11

No bacon. No lobster. No prawns. No prawns wrapped in bacon.

But Jesus is a game changer. Here’s a few important bits of Bible.

Jesus says it’s not what you eat that defines you as a person in God’s eyes. You aren’t what you eat, you are the product of your heart.

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” 

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” — Mark 7

What separates God’s people from here on in is not that they avoid mixed fabrics and bacon, it’s that they follow Jesus, are shaped by the Holy Spirit, and love people, one another, and people who don’t yet follow Jesus.

Here’s what a heart like that will look like. Here’s John, who had that stuff about Jesus being the bread of life before, talking about what it looks like to follow Jesus…

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  — John 13

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” — John 15

And here’s some stuff from Matthew

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22

Both John and Matthew are recording words of Jesus from before his death, before his resurrection, before his people are given the Holy Spirit, and all of these statements anticipate the way Jesus loves people at the cross. Just in case we think John is talking about something else, later, in one of his letters, he writes:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. — 1 John 4

Why all this love stuff? What does love have to do with Halal food? What does love have to do with bacon? Hopefully that’ll become clearer, but it’s worth seeing that love, shaped by the way Jesus loved us when we were his enemies, is the foundation for any Christian response to any ethical issue. We do this so that people will know we are his disciples, that we are his children.

This also explains (apart from the fact that most of us aren’t Jewish) why we don’t follow the food laws. The Christian approach to food unites, rather than divides. Sharing food with someone is way of loving them.

There were some pretty major fights about food in the early church. Food was a big deal in both Jewish and Roman culture. It limited who Jewish people could associate with — the food laws in the Old Testament made it difficult to get out and about in Roman culture. Food was an identity marker then, as it is now (Halal food is an identity marker for Muslims, just as freedom to eat anything is an identity marker for Christians). Josephus, the Jewish historian, brags that Jewish food practices are consistently observed throughout the world:

“For there is not any city of the Grecians, nor any of the barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, whither our custom of resting on the seventh day hath not come, and by which our fasts, and lighting up lamps, and many of our prohibitions as to our food, are not observed. — Josephus, Against Apion

Philostratus, a Roman writer, says this approach to food alienated the Jews from the Roman world.

“For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies.” — Philostratus, Life of Apollonius

This sort of distance is likely to get in the way of the spread of the Gospel to the non-Jewish world. Which explains what happens to Peter as God tells him to go and see Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, in the book of Acts.

“About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him,“Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.” — Acts 10

 

Now, I’m pretty sure the food stuff isn’t just a symbol of the bigger point of Gentiles being included in God’s people through Christ, it’s also part of the means by which this will happen. When the church has to start grappling with how Jews and Gentiles co-exist in the body of Christ a few chapters later, they do away with almost all of the Old Testament food laws, with the exception of some that are linked to the practice of idolatry (and feasts in idol temples).

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

There’s a good case to be made that this is sort of shorthand for saying “Gentiles need to steer clear of idol-worship,” and that these are the steps that are required for Jewish Christians who are still keeping Torah (perhaps, like Paul when he visits Jerusalem, in order to preach the Gospel to Jews) to share what’s called ‘table fellowship’ with Gentile converts.

The apostle Paul applies the framework from Acts 15 in apparently different ways in different contexts – in Rome, and in Corinth. I wrote an essay on this in college which you can read online, the conclusion, in sum, is that in both situations Paul wants his readers to promote the Gospel in the way they eat, to eat with love for the other, whether that be eating in a way that is loving to people whose consciences don’t allow them to eat certain things, or eating in a way that allows you to share in the lives of non-believers.

“…if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” – Romans 14

“And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 8

Here’s Paul’s advice specifically about food sacrificed to idols, which, in Corinth, was just about every bit of meat sold in the marketplace (it comes just after Paul tells Christians not to join in idol worship and idol feasts in temples, possibly specifically referring to emperor worship in the Imperial Cult temple in Corinth.

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” — 1 Corinthians 10-11

There’s an interesting tension here, publicly participating in idol worship, in a way that suggests that false gods are real is a problem, but going to a non-Christian’s house, and eating with them, is great, unless they try to make dinner in their house something akin to an idol worship session, and it appears this is only an issue for Paul because it harms Christians who are bothered by it.

The other thing that I’ve always found interesting about these passages is that Paul talks about issues of conscience as being divides between the weak and the strong, but he, one of the leaders of the church, who is writing Scripture, takes a position on these issues that must surely have the affect of persuading some of the weak to alter their position.

Paul warns about people who will try to limit people’s freedom to enjoy the goodness of God. He may well be talking about bacon (although, it’s probably he’s talking about anyone who comes along saying that certain foods are off limits).

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”— 1 Timothy 4:3-5

Is Halal meat “food sacrificed to idols” – and what are the implications for Christians?

I think this collection of Bible passages has some interesting implications for Christians as we participate in discussions about Halal food. There’s a whole heap of Halal food that just falls into the “permissible” category for Muslims that doesn’t have anything especially religious done to it. It’s just certified because it’s not banned (and in some cases because it doesn’t contain banned ingredients, where it might). I can’t fathom why Christians are opposed to Halal yoghurt, or chocolate (I can fathom why Islamophobes are, because fighting against Halal certification in any form is striking a blow for that ideology). Halal meat, on the other hand, is meat slaughtered following a process called Dhabīḥah. There are some interesting bits of the Qur’an governing this process, one bit says:

“Forbidden for you are carrion, and blood, and flesh of swine, and that which has been slaughtered while proclaiming the name of any other than God, and one killed by strangling, and one killed with blunt weapons, and one which died by falling, and that which was gored by the horns of some animal, and one eaten by a wild beast, except those whom you slaughter; and that which is slaughtered at the altar and that which is distributed by the throwing of arrows [for an omen]; this is an act of sin.”— al-Māʼidah 5:3

I’m not an expert on interpreting the Qur’an, but the clause “while proclaiming the name of any other than God” has some interesting implications, it has been held to mean that a specific prayer must be uttered as the animal is slaughtered, or, failing that, the slaughter is to be conducted by a “person of the book”— which includes Christians and Jews — so that there is no possibility the animal has been sacrificed to an (Islamic) idol.

Interestingly, except for the prayer to Allah, this process is pretty much what the Old Testament, and Acts 15, calls for to keep Jewish food laws enough to enable table fellowship between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. To be clear, I think the freedom the Gospel brings includes the freedom to eat a medium rare steak, but I wouldn’t do this with a Jewish Christian (or a vegetarian Christian), if exercising my freedom in this way caused them to stumble. Even if I would write something like this to outline why I think it’s ok (good even) to eat a medium rare steak as an act of appreciating something delicious that God made. 

If the above approach which outlines a consistent treatment of idol food in the New Testament is right, then there are some interesting implications in the Halal debate. Just to sum up in case it wasn’t clear above I’ve suggested that non-Jewish converts were urged to avoid meat linked to idolatry for the sake of fellowship with Jewish Christians (Acts 15), Paul then upholds this instruction in cases where a Christian brother or sister might be lured into idolatry, or disunity, and have their faith destroyed (1 Corinthians 8, 10-11, Romans 14-15), while essentially agreeing with those who take a position that emphasises Christian freedom — provided the food is received with thanksgiving, and eaten for the glory of God (which, could be, in a sense, said to be something of a spiritual trump card that wipes out the prior idolatry, perhaps), and both in Acts 10 and 1 Corinthians 10 the eating of previously ‘unclean’ food, and, food sacrificed to idols is part of the spread of the Gospel to non-Jews (provided it doesn’t lead them to get confused about the validity of idols).

The guiding principle is conscience —exercising Christian freedom should never come at the expense of your own conscience or the conscience of others. This seems to be behind Paul’s specific instruction, regarding idol meat in the market place (which was probably all the meat except the Kosher stuff), or, perhaps, Halal meat in the shopping centres.This meat sold in the Corinthian market place was typically meat from the many sacrifices in the many idol temples of Corinth. Presumably the market vendors bought this meat from these temples, presumably the proceeds were funding these temples, and yet Paul says to “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” 

Paul expects Christians to eat this meat with non-Christians. I’m not sure that there were idolators in Corinth who were so pedantic about the source of their meat that they would only eat meat sacrificed to their idol, so it’s interesting to ponder whether or not Paul would have served idol meat to such a person in order to dine with them, and whether that means we should serve Halal meat to Muslims in order to dine with them. But I suspect he would have. He was keen to behave like a Jew to win the Jews, and like a Greek to win the Greeks (1 Corinthians 9), and would obey Jewish laws (presumably including food laws) in order to reach Jews (even though there’s some confusion in Jerusalem, from the crowd in the Temple, as to whether this is the case in Acts 21), and, I think (and this is speculative), given the importance of conscience in his framework, he would want Muslims he was sharing the Gospel with both to see the freedom from food laws that is caught up with the message of Jesus, and for them to act according to their conscience until such time that they wanted this freedom for themselves.

It’s probable that Paul wouldn’t have rocked up in the local mosque to join into the slaughter of an animal in any way that affirmed the truth of Islam, but beyond that, he’d have been keen to win Muslims to Jesus, and to enjoy the delicious meat God made in all its deliciousness as an act of thanksgiving to God for his goodness.

Are Halal Easter Eggs “food sacrificed to idols” and what are the implications

But what about Halal Easter Eggs? If the meat question is a grey area, Halal certification where no sacrificial prayer is offered to Allah, but the certification is purely an indication that nothing Haram is involved is much more black and white.

Halal Easter Eggs are an incredible opportunity to include Muslims in your celebration of Easter. Presumably, as a conscientious Christian consumer you’re not buying into the commercialism, or idolatry, of chocolate at Easter, but you’re enjoying the opportunity to talk about Easter as a celebration of new life, and eggs as a symbol of that celebration, you know, the new life found in Jesus, through his death and resurrection. If that’s the case, and there’s no sense that you might be mistaken for a follower of the idolatrous God of crass commercialism, then I’d recommend buying up big on Halal Easter Eggs and sharing them with the neighbours in your street — Muslim or otherwise — inviting them to enjoy the good news of Jesus, bacon, and chocolate. But mainly Jesus.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

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