It's Not Really About You

Why I’m a Christian but I’m not pro-life – Part 2

[This post is a response to a comment on my original post, Why I’m a Christian but I’m not pro-life. The comment noted the lack of Scripture in the original post, and it pointed out the survey discussed below.]

2013 Barna Group survey found, among other things, that Christians “are twice as likely to adopt than the general population.” This makes for a great headline, but the survey also found that this amounts to only about 5% of Christians (compared to 2% in the general population) who have adopted a child. While that’s a great start, it’s certainly nothing to pat ourselves on the back about; after all, Scripture provides an overwhelming number of unequivocal commands to care for orphans – see, for example, Psalm 82Deuteronomy 10:12-22Exodus 22:22, Psalm 68:5-6; Psalm 10:14-18; Psalm 146; Isaiah 1:10-20; Jeremiah 7:5-7; Zechariah 7:8-10; Malachi 3:5; James 1:26-27.

I am also very familiar with the texts commonly used in the abortion debate – Jeremiah 1:5 and especially Psalm 139, are among the most frequently used to show that God has an intimate knowledge of and concern for human beings, even from their time in the womb. But the Psalm 139 text, for instance, is not quite the slam-dunk it appears to be. While pro-life supporters place a lot of weight on v13 – “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” –  v15 complicates things by suggesting we were made not in a womb, but in the bowels of the earth – “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”  V16 then complicates matters further by saying that God’s knowledge of us extends back to a time even before we existed: “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” Finally, v19 seemingly comes out of left-field and begs God to kill those who oppose the Psalmist – “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me!” 

Now, I don’t point any of this out to suggest that we should be cavalier about commodifying human life. As I tried to make clear, even if I did not say it explicitly, an abortion is one of the worst possible outcomes for a pregnancy, and more importantly, it falls far short of God’s dream for the world.  However, the point I’m trying to make is that it’s unwise to cherry-pick Scriptures to bolster a modern political platform. At the end of the day, Psalm 139 isn’t about making a forensic declaration about the source of life. It marvels instead at the magnitude of God’s throughgoing love and intimate knowledge of our very souls. The Psalmist is bowing in awe to the grandeur of God’s presence that overflows the bounds of time and space. His response is both a doxological act of worship and a plea for God’s holiness to envelop every dark corner of his heart. By allowing this Psalm to speak on its own without forcing it into a political agenda, it stands out as a beautifully rich expression of worship and devotion on its own terms. To put if another way, this Psalm is fundamentally about God, not us.

An honest, even-handed reading of the whole Bible reveals a God who is immensely concerned with justice, mercy, and rightly-ordered relationships (Tim Keller does a great job of unpacking this; see also this helpful piece from Christianity Today). Preserving life is certainly a part of that. But – as with every social problem – there are no easy solutions in the abortion debate, and I think we’re woefully naive to assume that merely outlawing abortion will give rise to a world that is ultimately safe and just for everyone. Instead – and this was the spirit of my original piece – we as Christians are called to take the lead in actually caring for people who are in the regrettable position of having to consider an abortion. This, I believe, is the first step towards living out God’s calling to be agents of peace and ambassadors of redemption (2 Corinthians 5).

More broadly, most pro-life rhetoric overlooks the complexity of the problem by failing to help Christians gain a sober understanding of how enmeshed our world is in ecologies of evil (Ephesians 2:1-3). A Christian response to abortion should be multi-pronged, context-aware, and comprehensive, and it must take seriously the collateral damage any hasty ban on abortion may cause. Most importantly, though, it begins with a biblical view of a just world where believers, compelled and empowered by the Spirit, work tirelessly to create ever-new ways to radically open our lives to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13 and 21).

Early Christians and war

Theology is developed out of real-world experiences in response to real-world challenges. Christian attitudes toward war and military service provide an excellent case study – before St. Augustine first developed the idea of a Just War, early Christian attitudes toward war evolved significantly during the first centuries after Jesus, and arguably, the most significant factor was Christianity’s changing relationship with Empire.

First of all, early Christians lived in two worlds. First, their “Jewish” world, especially from the Hasmonean period onward, provided plenty of examples of armed rebellion, revolt, and all-out war. In many of the extant sources from this context, violent rebellion was viewed positively, often as a sign of faithful obedience to the Law, or as an instrument to mete out God’s justice by punishing the unrighteous. 1 Maccabees provides plenty of great examples, for instance 3:3-8 praises a Hasmonean patriarch for attacking the Seleucids:

[Judas Maccabeus] brought greater glory to his people. In his armor, he was like a giant. He took up his weapons and went to war; with his own sword he defended his camp. He was like a ferocious lion roaring as it attacks. Judas hunted down those who broke the Law and set fire to all who oppressed his people… We will praise him forever for what he did. He went through the towns of Judea and destroyed all the godless men. He relieved Israel of its terrible suffering.

But early Christians also lived in the rapidly-Romanizing Hellenistic East, where war was often seen as a tool for preservation of peace and justice. In fact, precursors for Just War Theory can be traced through Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and other Greek writers, as well as Roman writers like Cicero, especially his De officiis. Moreover, military service was an opportunity to augment and exhibit one’s status. Kings often gifted veterans with tracts of land following successful military campaigns, while Book 40 of Cassius Dio’s Roman History catalogs other forms of honor that could be bestowed on soldiers:

they adopted a middle course, and by praising some of them and not others, by allowing some to wear garlands of olive at the festivals and others not, and, furthermore, by voting to some of them ten thousand sesterces and to others not a copper….

Against this background, it is important to note that there was no official “Christian” stance on war. Instead, there were many competing conceptions of morality, relation to the State, and comfort level with assimilating to the surrounding culture. Literature surviving from the 1st and 2nd centuries offers varying opinions – some glorifies martyrdom (and by extension, passive resistance) as the supreme act of faithfulness to God. Famously, the Martyrdom of Polycarp (c 150) and the Letter of Ignatius to the Romans (c 110) show this clearly, while the latter text depicts soldiers as unnecessarily cruel beasts.  Other texts highlight the uncompromising rejection of imperial authority. In The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (c 180), a disciple named Speratus announces, “I do not recognize the empire of this world. Rather I serve the God whom no one has seen…”

Likely these latter texts come from settings where Christians were suffering from some form of persecution. Contrary to the romanticized belief that Rome uniformly saw Christians as dangerous enemies of the State, persecution was unevenly seen across the empire, and it seems one of the most common causes of this was that Christians were withdrawn and nonparticipants in larger society: they “assemble in stealth” and “refrain from honest pleasures”;

they “do not go to our shows [and] take no part in our processions, [they] are not present at our public banquets, [they] shrink in horror from our sacred games… [they] do not bind [their] heads with flowers [or] honor your body with perfumes” (Octavius of Minucius Felix, c 200?).

Ostensibly this suggests that Christians abstained from military service as well.

Later texts, however, go out of their way to show that Christians were beneficial, integrated participants in broader society. Justin Martyr says in his First Apology that Christians are “helpers and allies in promoting peace”,  and Tertullian even writes in his Apologeticus 42 (c 200) that Christians “sail with you and serve in the army and we till the ground and engage in trade as you do” (the first clear extant textual evidence of Christians in the military). Tertullian’s later opinions, however, are mixed – De Corona 11 seems to be primarily concerned about the “lawlessness” and dubious lifestyles associated with soldiers, while Idololatria 19 sounds like Tertullian is categorically denouncing all military service: “No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action.” In any case, there surely were Christians serving in the military by this point, and Tertullian’s hostility towards that fact suggests that his feelings were not universally shared among all Christians.

In another well-known passage from about the same period, Hippolytus’ Apostolic Traditions (c 215) provide guidelines about who should be accepted to the catechumenate:

A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.

This passage also mentions sculptors, charioteers, gladiators, and prostitutes, and the overriding concern seems to be ensuring Christian conduct is seen as undeniably moral and upright. But the document is also peculiar in that the actual proscription against soldiers actually seems to be about murder, not military service itself – though the distinction may be difficult to maintain in practice.

Christianity became more “compatible” with war in 312 when emperor Constantine saw a heavenly vision on the battlefield and commanded his soldiers to add Christian symbols to their shields. This, according to Eusebius of Caesarea, was the beginning of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity – after he defeated (and decapitated) his rival Maxentius, Constantine ended his patronage of the traditional Roman religions and slowly shifted his support to Christianity.

By 380, the Edit of Thessalonica required all Roman citizens to profess faith in Christianity. But after Rome was attacked in 410, Augustine’s City of God, relieved the theological tension between Christian pacifism and military service by providing the rationalization of a Just War. He argued for a fundamental spiritual/secular split to reality – we live in the City of Man that is beset by violence and injustice, but Christians also live in the hidden, spiritual City of God. Though our citizenship is secure in the latter, sometimes we “gotta do what we gotta do” to get by in the former: “War is justified only by the injustice of an aggressor; and that injustice ought to be a source of grief to any good man, because it is human injustice,” as Augustine writes in Part 5, Book XIX.

It was a clever theological move that helped Christians adapt to the new world they found themselves in, and it has held sway with Christians ever since.


Why I’m a Christian but I’m not pro-life

Up front, let me say this clearly as I can: this is not a pro-abortion essay. Every pregnancy should result in the birth of a healthy baby to committed parents who joyfully respond to God’s call to raise a child.

But that doesn’t always happen.

Many evangelical Christians, most with the noblest of intentions, have for decades argued that the linchpin of a just and equitable society is the elimination of the practice of abortion. Supporters call themselves “pro-life” – a winsome term with obvious rhetorical power – and in exemplary evangelical fashion, they bolster their arguments with plenty of Scripture that emphatically teaches the inherent value of all life.

But somewhere along the way, “pro-life” became a political rallying cry – codespeak if you will, used almost exclusively to marshal support for the Republican party, and has arguably become the ultimate wedge issue for evangelical Christians in America. Mere mention of the word now incites heated reactions from my evangelical brother and sisters, who seem to have jettisoned empathy and prayer in favor of political indignation.

I am not pro-life. No, not because I delight in the termination of a pregnancy or because I believe freedom of individual choice trumps all other arguments. I’m not pro-life because I believe the movement has put ideology and political gain ahead of prayerful, earnest resistance against all the manifestations of evil in our world.

Pro-life is too narrowly focused

First, pro-life Christians have a bad habit of using abortion as a ’litmus test’ political issue to divide people into two diametrically-opposed groups: those who value life and those who don’t. Sometimes abortion is used to determine whether or not somebody is even a Christian at all. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for voting their conscience, but I do have a problem with gross oversimplification, whether that means evaluating someone’s character based on a single decision or collapsing a complex policy discussion into a single binary issue.

Yes, abortion is an important issue – I’ll even grant that it’s a “life and death” issue. But it’s not the only issue Christians should be concerned about. We live in a profoundly unjust world that faces an overwhelming number of serious “life and death” issues:

But my pro-life evangelical brothers and sisters usually demote these issues to second-tier status, assuming they don’t deserve the same outrage as abortion does. In fact, those of us who dare to speak out on these other issues often get shouted down with derisive terms like “liberal”, “socialist”, “feminist”, “disrespectful”, “disloyal”, even “un-Christian”.

We have a duty as citizens – but more importantly as Christians – to think critically about all the issues in our world, and to appoint leaders who will enact policies that get us closer to a just, peaceful, and equitable society. Yes, abortion is an important issue.  But it’s not the only important issue. 

Pro-life is too simplistic

Secondly, the goals espoused by the pro-life movement do not address the root problems that cause unplanned pregnancies in the first place. Although many evangelicals assume that a legal ban on abortion will “fix” the problem, overturning a narrow class of state and federal laws will do little to promote a more just world.

First of all, making abortion illegal cannot realistically prevent abortions from happening. Women have been terminating pregnancies for centuries, long before the advent of modern medicine. Similarly, there will always be a black market for back alley abortions: those with financial means will always be able to find trained medical professionals to administer the procedure, while poorer women will use whatever home remedies they have available. Some studies even suggest that the legal status of abortion may actually have little effect on how many abortions actually occur.

So there’s a deeper problem here, one that can’t be solved by legislation alone. Other legal maneuvers don’t offer much promise either – for instance, we learned during the last election cycle there’s little public appetite for holding women criminally responsible for seeking an abortion.

In any case, such a strident focus on a legal solution is unusual for evangelicals who have long loved the phrase, “You can’t legislate morality,” especially when used to support a range of other conservative political ideas (after all, every social ill is just a sin problem, right?). While there’s certainly merit in the theology behind this principle, it should be applied to all social problems equally, with the understanding that the number of abortions – and more importantly, the reasons women seek abortions in the first place – cannot be ameliorated by legislation alone.

Instead, a truly comprehensive pro-life strategy should begin by acknowledging abortion always takes place in the context of inequality. Abortion is, at least in part, a protest – a woman’s rebellion against a man’s (sometimes violent) sexual escapades or a staunch refusal to get trapped in poverty by raising a child in an economic climate already stacked against her. Sometimes abortion is a capitulation to a man’s coercive attempt to sidestep his responsibility to his unborn child. Whatever the reason, abortion has to be first understood as a response, a defiant (or defensive) reaction to social factors that existed long before the pregnancy began. Abortion is often a last resort for someone with few viable alternatives, but banning abortion would do very little to empower women, confront our nation’s rape culture, or correct our society’s deep-seated economic inequalities. We need deep social change – and yes, deep heart-change, too.

Pro-life takes the easy way out

This leads me to my main objection against the pro-life movement: most of the tactics of evangelical Christians focus too narrowly on political solutions while overlooking the messy, Christ-like work of caring for women who face unplanned pregnancies (not to deny, however, that choosing a Jesus-centered lifestyle is a decidedly political act in and of itself).

The abortion debate is too far removed from the struggles of raising children without family support or the opportunity to earn a living wage. Pro-life politicians and pastors rarely (if ever!) face the same struggles as a 22 year old sophomore living off student loans or a 17 year old inner-city drug addict who gets raped by the neighborhood bully.

Sure, it’s easy to write angry letters and run for political office. But a Christian response to abortion should mean standing in solidarity with those who feel like abortion is their only option. Relational, self-sacrificial, in-the-trenches, arms-wide-open love must precede our political maneuvering, marches, and boycotts.

Historically, Christians have done their best work “from below”, in the trenches alongside those who most urgently need to experience the life-transforming love of Jesus firsthand. So here are some ideas (none of them are new) about what we can do instead of waging ideological wars against one another:

  • Adopt a child. Adoption is frequently cited as an alternative to abortion, but too few Christians seem willing to put their money where their mouths are. There are 100,000 children in foster care who need a loving home, and many of them age out of the system every year. Until the adoption pipeline is empty and every parentless child has a home, we simply cannot, in good conscience, promote adoption as a one-size-fits-all alternative to abortion.
  • Invest in robust family planning, fostering and adoption services, especially in poor communities. No, throwing money at some nonprofit doesn’t count. Do this on a local, personal level. Carve out a major chunk of your church budget to do this work. Spend more on this than your pastor’s salary.
  • Provide low-cost child care for underprivileged mothers. Literally, open a daycare center at your church and build a reputation as a warm, loving congregation that openly welcomes poor working mothers. Think about it – if a young couple is confident in your willingness to care for their baby while they work their minimum wage jobs, they just might rethink an abortion.
  • Mentor, mentor, mentor. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister, or team up with other local agencies to get involved in the life of young person who may one day be faced with tough life-and-death choices. But if you do this, remember you’re not there to “fix” anyone. You’re there to provide support, and to learn from someone who faces a different set of life circumstances than you do.
  • Get real about sex ed. As a matter of public policy, abstinence-only sex education strategies do not work. They don’t prevent STIs or pregnancies, and more importantly, they leave scores of young people with deep emotional and spiritual scars after they go too far with their high school sweethearts. Don’t just preach “sex is bad” – instead, equip young hearts with tools they need to make responsible decisions.

Do you dream of a world where every pregnancy results in the birth of a healthy baby to a loving family? My evangelical brothers and sisters, we can continue arguing about legislation and ideology, or we can embrace a posture that is genuinely life-affirming and life-giving. If pro-life is the way of Jesus, then let’s approach this issue like Jesus would.

[Note: Part 2, where I bring Scripture into the conversation, can be found by clicking here.]