Halal

My folk sent me this article the other day and asked my thoughts on it.  I’m not familiar with the author outside of this article, but he seems to be a thoughtful, concerned Christian.

The article raises two major concerns in conjunction with halal food.  The first is that growing numbers of foodstuffs are labeled halal is a concern of continued Muslim influence even in countries where Muslims make up a tiny percentage of the overall population (1.5% of the Australian population, .9% of the US population based on 2010 Census data).  The second concern is whether or not Christians can eat halal foods without violating our faith in some respect.

Halal is a broad designation that spells out what is acceptable/permissible to Muslims.  While we typically think of it in terms of food and drink, in reality it covers most of daily life issues.  Muslims divide facets of life and behavior into five categories – compulsory, recommended, permitted, disliked/discouraged, and forbidden.  Most halal regulations regarding food have to deal with animal-related foods.  Halal rules dictate how the animal is to be killed.  However, Muslim law also states that if there are no halal food options available, Muslims are permitted to eat non-halal foods rather than starve to death.

Regarding the first concern, I don’t see much difference between halal and kosher.  Both are special designations indicating that the food should be acceptable to a particular group of people.  I don’t worry much about food being kosher or not.  I suspect that people worry about food being labeled as halal more because Islam is definitely a religion that actively seeks to expand.  Few people in the West feel threatened by Jews, and so don’t worry about kosher designations or not.  With the rising tide (or at least rising publicity) of Islam-related violence, halal takes on darker overtones for some people.

The second issue has to do with whether it is appropriate or permissible for a Christian to eat a food labeled as halal.  If it is meat in question, then the animal was executed facing Mecca while a prayer giving thanks to God was uttered by a Muslim.  The concern is whether this makes halal foods “foods sacrificed to an idol”, a topic which St. Paul deals with in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10.

I see 1 Corinthians 8 primarily as dealing with the impact of eating pagan food on new Christians.  Someone coming from a pagan background who sees a ‘mature’ Christian eating the same food that the recent convert is used to eating might lead the young convert to presume that their newfound Christian faith really isn’t any different than their old beliefs.  The issue is whether eating pagan food harms the faith life of another Christian.  For Paul (and therefore for all Christians!), whenever that is the issue, then the solution is simple – don’t do whatever might harm the faith of the other person.  Regardless of whether what we are doing is wrong or not, we refrain from it if we think it might confuse and mislead another person of faith.

In 1 Corinthians 10 the issue is more addressing the food itself.  The chapter begins with an exhortation to living in a God-pleasing way, as opposed to thinking that you can live like everyone else (v.6).  Those who have come to Christ may have other practices, beliefs, and actions that they need to give up because they are not appropriate to a Christian.  To ignore this is dangerous.

Then, in vs.14ff, Paul focuses on the issue of idolatry.  If you worshiped idols before, you need to realize that this is not appropriate as a Christian.  Eating food that has been explicitly sacrificed to an idol is inappropriate for a Christian who participates in the feeding of Holy Communion.  In the ancient world, where you ate was a reflection of what you believed, who you are.  We have severed this connection in many ways, but Paul leads us to think that we maybe should think about it more than we typically do.

We think about it *not* because idols and false gods are anything real – they aren’t (vs. 19-20). But what we do and what we believe are linked, and we need to take that seriously because failure to do so can put us at risk (vs. 21-23).

The practical teaching comes in the next section.  We aren’t to worry about the source of the food we eat from a theological perspective.  Is the person selling meat at that particular delicatessen Jewish?  Or Muslim?  What we’re buying is meat, not theology, and we don’t need to worry excessively about this issue.  More to point, if a Muslim were to invite me to dinner, I wouldn’t worry about whether the food was halal or not.  I would assume that it probably is, but that needn’t keep me from accepting their hospitality.  However, if the host was to specifically make a point of saying that the chicken meat had been sacrificed in praise to Allah, now I need to consider taking a pass on the chicken and just having a salad.  Is it because eating the chicken would be bad for me, somehow, as a Christian?  Of course not!  Rather, I don’t want my host to mistakenly assume that I am joining them in worship of Allah specifically by eating the chicken.

Christians are not caused to be paranoid, nor are we caused to obsess about what is or is not permitted.  We live in grace and freedom in Christ, after all!  But what we do affects not just ourselves but others.  So we clearly want to abstain from things that are inappropriate for Christians (worshiping idols), and at the same time want to be conscious of how our words and actions might be interpreted by other people.  I might not think twice about eating a halal burger or chicken breast at home, but I don’t want to take a new Christian to the international market to specifically buy halal meat because they might misunderstand what I’m doing and why.  And I likewise don’t want to eat food that someone has specifically brought to my attention is sacrificed to a false god or an idol, because I don’t want them to think that I agree with/accept/worship their god or idol in some respect.

Freedom, but freedom with responsibility.  It’s not an easy line to walk, and for that reason a good thing to keep talking about and sorting through!

 

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