Incubators of the absurd: Yes, the Church should discourage abortion.
One of the common mistakes that I believe most Americans are guilty of making, though perhaps more so at churches that identify as liberal, is the assumption that faith and religion are private matters. As Americans, perhaps as westerners in general, we tend to view most every aspect of our lives a private matters, but especially matters of sexuality and marriage, parenting and “family values.”
While it is interesting to me that Americans will insist on the importance of maintaining privacy, they will vote on national policy according to how they believe personally about various matters. Indeed, the apparent consistency of an Average American’s lament over the lack of community is remarkable, as community has come to be defined as those groups of people who will tend to underwrite your individual desires as worthwhile, and your ability to hold individual beliefs without being challenged to defend or articulate them. This tendency appears in all but the most conservative or radically faithful of Christian or utopian communities.
I begin this post operating under the assumption that the above premise is true, and not only is it true, the fact of such high regard for the protection of individual privacy plays a detrimental role in presenting a comprehensive, if not more consistent, embodiment of the gospel witness. I want to use the recent rash of facebook postings, including my own, that are concerned with the ongoing emotivist argumentation over the continuing legality of abortion services and the spectrum of reproductive health services that are not “just” peripheral to this debate, but actually quite central to it.
First, I must qualify my beliefs by being up front with my own “feelings” about abortion. I really don’t have strong feelings about abortion one way or the other. I believe that, when I hear of such a procedure being performed for certain reasons, I am saddened, and when it is performed for other reasons, I am perhaps judgmental. In any regard, I ultimately have a more sympathetic understanding of the view toward keeping abortions not only legal, but available to women across the socio-economic spectrum.
I have heard all of the arguments and seen all of the pictures, and the fact is, I was pro-choice early on as a non-Christian, and remain unmoved by Right to Life hyperbole concerning the need for Christians to rally around an anti-abortion political message. Quite honestly, I find the so-called Right to Life movement to be so entirely inconsistent with a comprehensive and consistent representation of the gospel witness as to identify them as a mainly conservative political front group as opposed to any sort of justice or rights group. For the record, even as a social work student attending a very conservative Bible College, I lobbied hard and risked much personally to have Planned Parenthood speak along side of a local Right to Life group as my community organizing class presented a workshop to local social service organizations that provided information on women’s reproductive health resources. The local RTL chapter president, a man, actually tried to prevent PP’s participation by going over student’s heads and asking the school president to deny our class permission to have PP speakers at the event.
Now that I have made my “feelings” or, my politics of abortion known, I want to address what I believe the gospel witness reflects about abortion, and how I believe the church should preach and teach about abortion, and reproductive health in particular. I think that those individuals who attend more politically liberal churches might be a little disturbed by my assertions.
I believe that a biblical community of Christ should go to great lengths to prevent almost all abortions as related to church membership. No matter that we as a church should not coerce or dictate this ethic to the general, secular public policy making, the nature of the early church and a consistent Christian witness, in my understanding, is clear. We must be a consistently pro-life church where our voluntary membership is concerned by preaching and teaching that abortion does not represent the ethics of Jesus.
Of course, the canonical text says next to nothing about fetal rights, the “unborn,” or abortion in particular. We do, however, understand reproduction to be of primary concern in the Old Testament. It seems to be of little concern at all in the New Testament, but to believe that the early church was disinterested in abortion or healthy infants is a mistake. Not only was the early church notable in it’s capacity to rescue abandoned infants from alleys and orphans from certain death, the Didache, or “The teachings,” is one of the earliest Christian texts, with plenty of certainty over its authority in early messianic communities. The Dicache is a “sayings” document, much like the Gospel of Thomas, and it states:
Chapter 2. The Second Commandment: Grave Sin Forbidden. And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge.
For those who want more info to further legitimize the Didache as a primary source, it is authorship is generally dated to before 100 AD. Additionally, it introduces Christ-specific teachings as primary. Note the above reference is Chapter Two. Chapter One of the text illustrates that the Sermon on the Mount/Sermon on the Plain texts were considered primary to the overall teaching of the church, stressing a total “pro-life” witness.
Chapter 1. The Two Ways and the First Commandment. There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one who asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts). Happy is he who gives according to the commandment, for he is guiltless. Woe to him who receives; for if one receives who has need, he is guiltless; but he who receives not having need shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what. And coming into confinement, he shall be examined concerning the things which he has done, and he shall not escape from there until he pays back the last penny. And also concerning this, it has been said, Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give.
(On a separate and unrelated not, two translations of this document specify that mistreating boys or pederasty are violations of Christian moral vision. It does not mention specifically homosexual sex acts as sinful, simply speaking to a general sexual immorality. The only mention of “sodomy” as it is translated in some other renderings, is detailing man-child cultic sex that was a common occurrence among social elites in Roman social relationships, as well as with deviants ((non-mentoring relationships)), and during feast celebrations.)
Yet, it must be stated that, even with evidence of this rather consistent inclusion of abortion as a prohibited act, it is evidence first that abortion was at least common, if not accepted among some social groupings in Greco-Roman society. Second, abortion prohibitions may have perhaps been a rather unique Judeo-Christian concern, with messianic communities going even the extra mile in adopting orphans and rescuing rejected newborns from gutters. I’ll leave the second point open to correction by those with more historical knowledge of ancient religions.
One thing I do know, the decision to abort was not a matter of “rights.” Human beings did not have rights as we believe exist now. Certainly a fetus had absolutely no rights, and many women did not have rights outside of those who were members of the elite classes. Some women could divorce their husbands, and were entitled to own property. In such instances, these women may have had access to abortions behind the backs of their partners. I do not believe there was an entrenched moral concern for forcing pregnancies to be carried to term – there may have been some ambivalence related to the fact of so many women dying in child-birth. Women of means may not have been eager to push their luck, and perhaps their husbands were not eager to lose them either if children were already part of the family
So, early Christians must have had different assumptions about children in general, perhaps providing us with some insight about how children, and hope, were more important to the church than the matter of abortion or reproductive health, per-se. Abortion may have been seen as a moral concern by messianic communities. I am not inclined to contend with such an assertion. I will contend that there is more to an anti-abortion rule of faith than a moral concern for murder of a fetus. I believe that the Christian value for all life, even life in the womb, is representative of grace, mercy, and Christian hope that God will judge and set everything to right. This means that all life will be liberated from the hopelessness that is evident in so much of what seems real in the world, even today.
However, early Christians also knew that the God of Abraham and Sarah worked miracles, and brought salvation to the rest of the world, through the most marginalized of people. One cannot help but read the story of the Hebrew midwives and recognize that their refusal to follow the infanticide law of the empire in order to save infant Hebrew lives led to the event of the Exodus, for Moses was the product exactly such an original “operation rescue.”
Additionally, the fact that miracle birth stories in the Old Testament, and the stories of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus show that unexpected pregnancy was the means through which God showed sovereignty, not only over life and childbirth, but over the fact of hopelessness. Salvation comes from women who were of less worth because they could not bear children, or in Mary’s case, because they were pregnant despite being unmarried teens. From Sarah to Hanna, to the rape of Bathsheba, God turns around the most exploited of women through acts of child bearing.
Naturally, miraculous birth stories place an emphasis on the value of even the fetus that will be born into the most unforgiving of circumstances. Even Ruth is the product of rape – the Moabite line started with an act of intentional incest, though we must remember above all, the woman made the choice in the case of Moab to engage in reproductive activity – Lot’s daughters raped him while he was passed out drunk. Yes it was incest and rape, but it was firmly the woman’s choice to engage in the activity, and have the baby. We must be very careful not to project such hope onto the wombs of those who do not voluntarily accept that faith produces such miraculous outcomes. The good news cannot be received as good if it is not voluntarily submitted to.
There is an even more important condition that must be met in order for the church to carry out this “consistently pro-life” attitude. It is not enough that Christians limit the anti-abortion ethic to its members. The church, if it is to be consistently pro-life, must be entirely pro-community. The church must provide for every need, relationally, materially, and spiritually, for every child, mother, family, and pregnancy. To be pro-life means to be responsible for every aspect of the life of mother, child, and family, fathers and husbands included. If not every thing is shared in common, time must certainly be shared. Not only must mothers receive every reproductive service necessary to healthy births, the health, diet, clothing, education, and safety of each mother and child must be guaranteed as long as they are voluntary members of the community.
This means that sexuality, marriage, parenting, and and so-called “family values” must all fall under the influence of a church community that one voluntarily associates with. Responses to questions of divorce, remarriage, abuse, rape, and birth control must all be characterized by mutual decisions made by a biblically bound community that interprets not only matters of reproductive health together in an egalitarian manner, but must teach the male members of each congregation to respect women as equals, be responsible for birth control, responsible for child-raising, and most of all, be responsible for controlling their own male desire when the potential outcome of a potential act, coercive or otherwise, is pregnancy. Above all, the problems of coerced sex and physical abuse must be a primary concern for a peace witness of complete non-violence and consistent pro-life ethics.
I propose a pro-life witness so consistent that an anti abortion stance is not so much voluntary, as that a community of Christ exists where abortion, rape, and abuse are such anomalies that abortion is not an option, not because it is against the rules, but because child birth is such an overwhelming blessing despite circumstances. Pro-life means healthy communities take care of not just moms and children and families, but especially care for the most broken and distressed so that only miracles can result from violence and brokenness, and this is so much in evidence that the outcomes of childbirth are never in doubt.
Until the church can make the sacrifices that prioritize mothers, children, and families over individual liberty, patriarchy, sexual hypocrisy, privacy, and above all, individual economic privilege, we cannot really hope to be totally and consistently pro-life. To be consistently pro-life is to be consistently emptying of privilege and power. We must empty ourselves of our need to control the bodies of others if we are consistently ask that people sacrifice their bodies for the well-being of a communities hope.