Category Archives: Saved by grace and not by law
OCTOBER 23, 2016 BY NEIL CARTER
When evangelical Christians first began debating the issue of abortion, they were nowhere near as unified about the topic as they appear to be today. Shortly after the Supreme Court made their landmark decision on the issue in Roe v. Wade (1973), influential Baptist minister W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist in Dallas, TX, and predecessor to FOX News darling Robert Jeffress, said: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
As late as five years after the legalization of abortion, Southern Baptists were still listed among the denominations officially affirming the decision. Richard Land, who formerly headed up the SBC’s political action division, points out that in those days there was a clear divide between what Baptists and Catholics believed about the matter. They pretty much bought into the idea that life begins when breath begins, and they just thought of [abortion] as a Catholic issue.
In November of 1968, Christianity Today devoted an entire issue to debating the subject, including an article written by conservative biblical scholar Bruce Waltke (Dallas Seminary) who argues that the Bible gives no clear answer on the matter. In that article, Waltke explains that “in the absence of any biblical text forbidding abortion,” we are forced to look at the literature of nearby cultures at the time of the Old Testament to compare their laws with those of the people of Israel. He notes that while neighboring Assyria exacted punishment for performing abortions, no such prohibition existed among the ancient Hebrews. The fact that God did not set forth a similar law becomes even more significant when one realizes that in sexual matters the Mosaic Code is normally more extensive and more severe than other codes.
In Assyrian law, when a fight between two people resulted in a miscarriage, a life was demanded in return for a life. But no such reckoning was present in the Old Testament. If the mother’s life was lost, that would be a much more serious offense. But the termination of the pregnancy itself would only incur a fine, since an unborn child wasn’t yet considered a separate person from the mother (see Exodus 21:22-25, also see note about translation at the end of this article). The closest thing to a biblical definition of “when life begins” would most likely be found in Genesis 2, where it says that God breathed into the nostrils of the first man, at which point “he became a living being.” This kind of language is repeated in multiple places throughout the Bible, equating “breath” with “life” in a fairly unambiguous way (e.g. Ezekiel 37:4-10).
Evangelical Christians today (who seem to have settled on a much more uniform opinion on the issue) often quote Psalm 139 as if it answers a question it wasn’t even being asked: For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb.I will give thanks to You, For I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
As Waltke points out, the writer here isn’t really spelling out at what time or place “life begins” (which is a misleading way to frame the personhood question in the first place). Taken in context, the writer of the psalm was marveling at the omniscience of Yahweh, who he believed could see everyone and everything before they even come into being. Reading the verses around it makes clear what he means to say. It is a poetic expression, as are the lines which follow: “My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth. Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written , The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them.”
No Christian interpreter today would be so literal as to argue this passage teaches that babies are built “in the depths of the earth,” since the language is clearly poetic. The purpose of the imagery is to express wonder at the omniscience of God, who sees what happens everywhere and to everyone before it even happens. Time would mean nothing for such a being. For Waltke, and for most Protestant thinkers at the time, the literary genre at play here made this passage the wrong place to look in order to answer the question of “when life begins.”
One more passage about abortion in the Bible must be noted before we can move on. In Numbers 5 we are told there are circumstances under which Yahweh actually instructed his people to perform an abortion. If a man suspected his wife of having slept with another man, he could take her to a priest, who would give her “bitter water” to drink and then perform a curse over her in order to induce a miscarriage. Whether or not this ritual ever accomplished its purpose is difficult to say, since the only ingredients spelled out in the text are water, dirt, and ink (and of course “a curse”). But the intent of the punishment is clear: For her alleged infidelity, the pregnancy should be terminated.
As it turns out, this is all the Bible has to say about abortion. I must say, it’s not at all what I expected to find when I first set out to discover what it says. It’s not at all what people around me think the Bible says about abortion.
The Origins of the Pro-Life Movement
So what changed? Absent a clear biblical prohibition of abortion, and in light of the ancient definition of life beginning at first breath, how did evangelical Christianity come to embrace the Catholic denunciation of abortion? Evangelical opposition to abortion was crafted by political operatives as a way to co-opt the Christian church into the Republican party in order to save it from extinction after its landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (see map above). Far too few people realize that the pro-life movement was essentially cobbled together by opportunists seizing upon a sudden voter vacuum in the Republican party following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the summer of 1964. They needed something to unify a group of people under one banner, and it took a decade and a half to make it happen, but they were eventually very successful. At first, they were stuck with appealing to the white Southern disgust toward federally mandated racial equality (“It should be decided by the states,” they argued). But shifts in U.S. population demanded a more broadly acceptable issue, something more noble and universally appealing to an increasingly diverse demographic landscape. Randall Balmer explains how Paul Weyrich, founder of both the Heritage Foundation and ALEC, initially struggled to find a unifying issue around which he could piece together a coalition of both Protestants and Catholics, who traditionally were at odds with one another on numerous issues, into a single monolithic political force. …this hypothetical “moral majority” needed a catalyst—a standard around which to rally. For nearly two decades, Weyrich, by his own account, had been trying out different issues, hoping one might pique evangelical interest: pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, even abortion. “I was trying to get these people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” Weyrich recalled at a conference in 1990.
His big break finally came in 1975 when the IRS moved to rescind the tax-exempt status of fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC, for failing to maintain racially equitable admissions policies. Both Catholic and Protestant schools alike were alarmed at the threat to their financial status this move represented, and out of that panic grew a more unified coalition of political operatives ready to declare this an infringement on their religious freedoms. Weyrich at that time tapped Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell to head up his new “Moral Majority” movement. Falwell’s associate, Ed Dobson, would later corroborate Balmer’s reasoning for the formation of this new political entity: The Religious New Right did not start because of a concern about abortion,” Dobson said. “I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion ever being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.” Perhaps after accepting the regional limitations of his own Southern Strategy, Weyrich proposed the abortion issue again a few years later. Given the growing Southern Baptist disdain for feminism and the sexual revolution, Weyrich sensed an opportunity to use opposition to Roe v. Wade as a rallying cry to unify Catholics and Protestants into a single powerful coalition.
Incidentally, Bob Jones University would go on to lose their “religious freedom” case in the Supreme Court in 1983 in an 8-to-1 decision against them. The court’s lone dissenter, Justice William Rehnquist, would later be elevated to Chief Justice by President Ronald Reagan, who was propelled to electoral victory in the South twice thanks to the support of Falwell’s Moral Majority, despite having passed the nation’s most liberal abortion bill in 1967 while he was still governor of California. Abortion wasn’t always what the Religious Right was about, but it certainly is today.
Pawns in a Political Game
In the 2016 presidential election, American evangelicals, who naturally detest virtually everything about Donald Trump, declared they are reluctantly willing to elect the reality TV star to the greatest position of civic responsibility in the country despite his never having held public office of any kind. Why? Because he has promised them he will appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade .
Evangelical Christians today are willing to overlook Trump’s “foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts” because they have become deeply convinced that “life begins at conception,” and that abortion is murder. It has become a black-and-white issue for them, a clear case of right versus wrong. Anyone who would appoint SCOTUS justices who uphold Roe v. Wade must be “worse than Hitler” since he or she would then be responsible for the taking of millions of lives. It’s an issue so central to the way they view their mission in the world today that some of their most outspoken representatives (e.g. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, and Eric Metaxas, who has taken to calling Secretary Clinton “Hitlery”) have been unwavering in their support for the “thrice married owner of casinos with strip joints” who has lately come under fire for allegations of sexually assaulting more than a dozen women in precisely the manner in which he himself boasted on a hot mic before the filming of an Access Hollywood segment.
Leaving aside the biblical and historical problems of this argument, there are at least three significant semantic problems inherent in this contention that abortion is murder, and that life begins at conception.
First, when opponents of war or capital punishment cite the 6th Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) in order to support their causes, hawkish conservatives are quick to call out the absence of nuance in the translation of the word for “kill.” Because there are many different contexts and motives for the taking of a life, better translations render the commandment as saying “You shall not murder.” Why is a different word for killing selected in this case? Quite obviously it is because in the larger context of biblical ethics there are circumstances under which the taking of a life, even a human life, is morally acceptable (e.g. war, self-defense, capital punishment). In order to distinguish this kind of “taking of a life” from other kinds, the word “murder” is chosen, as it denotes a more brutally violent and life-devaluing choice. For some reason, when war or capital punishment is being discussed, evangelical Christians demand context-sensitive interpretations for words that signify the taking of human life, but whenever the subject of abortion comes up, they drop every form of nuance and lurch directly into calling it murder. Why would they do this? They certainly aren’t deriving their positions from the biblical passages that relate to the topic, as we’ve seen above.
Second, they stack the deck in favor of their desired outcome whenever they frame the discussion by asking: “When does life begin?” Is that really the appropriate question? Exactly what kind of “life” are we talking about? Conscious life? Intelligent life? Self-aware life? Even plants and trees have life, as do bacteria. Other animals have not only organic life but also consciousness, thanks to brains that look and function in ways virtually identical to ours. Once again, nuance and clarification fly out the window whenever this exceedingly complex topic is oversimplified into a matter of “protecting the unborn.” The reality isn’t nearly so simple as that.
Third, whenever we talk about the morality of abortion, the most passionate opponents of the procedure tend to lump every form of terminating a pregnancy into the same category, again jettisoning any trace of nuance. But should we really be using the same word for terminating a pregnancy at six weeks that we use for week thirty? Is any effort being made to understand that virtually anyone who elects to terminate a pregnancy in the third trimester (which is extremely rare) would only do so because of an imminent threat either to the health of the mother or to the viability of the child? [Related: “There Are No Nine Month Abortions“] These oversimplifications are unfortunately effective tactics of emotional manipulation employed by well-funded political operatives intent on preserving the national dominance of a political party with very deep pockets, and they themselves frankly don’t care a bit about abortion, gay marriage, or fighting pornography (Do you suppose Donald Trump cares?). These are all handles on the church which they have seized upon in order to steer a large group of potential voters wherever they choose, even to the electing of the least qualified presidential candidate ever to top a major party ticket. In other words, evangelicals are being played. They have fallen for a strategy devised by desperate people with money to spare who were looking to stitch together a coalition of trusting people who would go on to serve as a reliable voting base for a half a century, right up until this election. It is the last gasp of the Southern Strategy finally playing itself out on a national stage.
In continuing to support Donald Trump simply because he says he will outlaw abortion, evangelical Christians have effectively given up their right to speak to moral issues in American life. Five decades of well-coordinated political action has programmed them to draw a line in the sand over issues about which the Bible says virtually nothing, even while turning a deaf ear to the cries of the less fortunate, the marginalized poor and the socially disadvantaged in our country (something the Bible speaks about voluminously). In so doing, as Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe so aptly put it, they have forfeited their right to claim moral authority over matters of public life.
A couple of months ago on her own blog, Rachel Held Evans, a Nashville resident who was once an evangelical herself but who no longer claims ownership of that label, wrote a persuasive piece arguing that consistently pro-life voters who seek to reduce the number of abortions happening around the country should vote in this election for Hillary Clinton. In the eight years since we’ve had a pro-choice president, the abortion rate in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest since 1973. I believe the best way to keep this trend going is not to simply make it harder for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies but to create a culture with fewer unwanted pregnancies to begin with. Data suggests progressive social policies that make healthcare and childcare more affordable, make contraception more accessible, alleviate poverty, and support a living wage do the most to create such a culture, while countries where abortion is simply illegal see no change in the abortion rate. [emphasis hers] By focusing exclusively on the legal components of abortion while simultaneously opposing these family-friendly social policies, the Republican Party has managed to hold pro-life voters hostage with the promise of outlawing abortion, (which has yet to happen under any Republican administrations since Roe v. Wade), while actively working against the very policies that would lead to a significant reduction in unwanted pregnancies. She’s absolutely right. The best way to reduce the number of abortions nationwide is to vote for progressive healthcare policies which approach the subject of birth control from a realistic standpoint rather than an idealistic one. The states with the highest rates of teen pregnancy, STDs, and poverty (including my own) are not-coincidentally the same states which teach “abstinence only” rather than comprehensive sex education, and they are the states that generally make every form of birth control more difficult to procure. In essence, they are exacerbating the very problem they are trying to remedy.
The first thing you should know about me is that I am not you. A lot more will make sense after that. (Melissa Skidmore)
A scripture that has echoed through my mind over the years is the one about getting the log out of our own eyes, instead of judging others. The problem with that is that the log in our eyes keeps us from seeing ourselves. We ALL have blind spots when it comes to seeing our whole selves.
Years ago I began to work with a personality indicator called the Myers/Briggs Type Indicator ( MBTI.) It was spooky to take it and then read the description of my way of being in the world. How could anyone know those things!!
The MBTI helped me become more aware not only that we come into the world with very different ways of being, seeing, understanding, valuing and responding, but that the world needs all of these diverse ways of being. It also needs us to become aware not only of our gifts, but of our blind spots. That’s the only way every ones’ gifts can be valued and work together for good.
The MBTI years ago when I studied and taught it, focused on affirming our gifts. So kind of naturally many of us just focused with relief on our own gifts, not realizing the importance of “gifts differing.” And not using the knowledge to rid ourselves of our blind spots. Belatedly, I recognized that there’s a built in pattern of growth in us where we become more receptive to the gifts we did not have and usually did not value equally to our own natural ones.
There’s a catch to this. To develop in the area opposite to our strongest gift or way of being in the world requires dying temporarily to our own way of being and seeing. It’s a dying to self. Technically, the MBTI doesn’t make any religious claims or statements. But believe me, this dying to our most valued gift is a real part of becoming whole, of becoming the best person we have the potential to be.
Unfortunately, dying to our “selves” is never easy or comfortable. By my age, I have seen creative people bog down in misery when their gifts seem to have dried up. I have myself panicked during a time when the Scriptures no longer spoke to me. I have heard others panic when ritual or their life long way of praying no longer works for them. But, I have also seen accountants become “creative” in good ways, artists learn to keep accounts, and engineers open their eyes and hearts to the mystical.
What I have witnessed and experienced convinces me that the universe is designed for opportunities and challenges to come our way at a time in our life when we are called to die to our strongest gift and become not only more balanced and whole, but more humble, and thus more understanding of those “others” that we have judged harshly most of our life.
What I found through sixty years of living with a man who was totally different in every area of being from me, is that only by becoming free to understand and value opposite ways of seeing and being in the world do we become free to truly and humbly love.
Recently I discovered that in the twenty years since I worked with it, the MBTI has been further developed in ways that help this process. It begins by helping us become aware of and accepting of our way of being in the world. Then, it can also help us accept not only that our way is a gift to the world, but that it isn’t enough. We then can begin to see how this dying to self can free us to become whole or “holy” and better able to understand and truly value both ourselves and those who are very different from us. It isn’t either/or. And no way is better, because no way is whole without the others.
Many years ago I was taking a turn preaching to a sizable group of Directors of Religious Education from very diverse denominations at a training week for DRE’s. I was going to use Paul’s scriptures on the Body of Christ and how all of the parts were equally important. As I was reflecting on this scripture, suddenly in my mind’s eye I saw a figure coming toward me. It was coming very slowly and jerkily, because the legs were clumsily, tripping over each other and the arms were flying in different directions and the head twisting back and forth. My immediate response was horror. “This is what we have done to the Body of Christ!” And I cried out, “Lord, what can I do?” And into my mind, clear as a warning bell I heard, “Admit what you can’t do.” As I have grappled with many aspects of this challenge over the years, two things have become clear to me, One: The world needs all of us, different political thinking, different religious understandings, different cultures’ values, gender traits, racial strengths, talents, skills, on and on and on. And Two: Only the grace of each of us truly knowing ourselves and knowing with heart and mind that we are loved as we are by God, can we become humble enough to love those very different others, just as we are loved. And that is the only way we can ever live in peace. We need all of us.
The MBTI isn’t gospel. But it can be an amazingly helpful tool for knowing ourselves better, and coming to value ourselves in a way that allows us to equally value others who seem completely different from us.
There’s a site on line called “16personalities.com” that offers greater understanding of the going with the flow of letting go and developing in new areas until the day we die. I am finding it both challenging and helpful in learning to let scary changes open my eyes to opportunities in my new life at eighty-two as a widow.
“You can’t fill a cup that is already full. That means you can’t approach a new situation, relationship, or job with what you think you know will happen. When you do that, you’re not leaving room for the unexpected, the delightful, and even the miraculous. Try starting from a place of ‘Maybe I don’t know.’ It allows you to be open to something or someone being different from what you experienced in the past. When you approach life in this open way, you also allow the universe to conspire on your behalf. So be empty of expectations. The universe will always dream bigger than you will. Abundance comes when you realize that you can receive what you need-every day.” by Eden-Clark and John Germain Leto
This quote so speaks to my condition right now. One of the hardest things for me is to allow those I care about to hurt. I want to help them find joy even in times of suffering, both for themselves and partly for myself. But suffering is part of the fabric of life and brings opportunities for grace and each of us has our own way and timing for experiencing it and learning from it. And part of loving another person is allowing them to be themselves, even if we are totally convinced we know “better” ways to be. Not being able to help my husband accept the losses that come with his illness or to help him trust that death is only a doorway, not the end, is very painful. And feelings of inadequacy and failure easily become less painful when disguised as frustration and impatience. The quote at the beginning of this showed up as a memory on my face book page today reminding me that my way may not be the best way for someone else and to trust God who loves my husband more than I ever could.
I do relate this experience to Mary’s vigil at the foot of her son’s cross. She had tried to convince him to come home when she realized he was putting himself in danger. She must have struggled with anger when he wouldn’t listen, also with guilt that she had somehow failed him, and with unimaginable heartbreak as she watched him suffer.
In the quote at the beginning of this, I translate “Universe” as God. And however anyone understands salvation, I truly believe that Jesus showed us that this life is not all there is and that suffering has the potential to be redeeming.
And the most counter-intuitive truth he showed us about life was when he prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” He showed us that forgiveness is the ultimate requirement for love, so that we too can experience forgiveness. Because forgiving others and accepting and experiencing forgiveness are inseparable.
Forgiving others frees us to forgive ourselves, particularly when we have not been able to consciously admit we need forgiveness. We all have the self-righteous belief that our way is the totally right way. And that blinds us to the harm we do. Forgiving others for their blindness both frees and heals us.
Forgiving others is at the core of the command Jesus gave us, “Love one another as I have loved you,” because forgiveness is the very essence of Good Friday.
My prayer for all of us this Holy Week is that we will find the grace to admit the limits of both our own understanding and of everyone’s human blindness, freeing us to both forgive and accept forgiveness. So then, on Easter, we can celebrate the love of God expressed in Jesus and truly rejoice and be glad in it.
I agree that religious extremism in any form ends up doing violence to the rights of others. But blanket judgments of all people who are evangelical is the same kind of extremism. Some of us have had our whole lives changed for the better by seeing through the distortions of religion of all kinds to a central reality that Jesus himself recognized: Whatever we do to those who are the least in our eyes, usually those most different from ourselves, we do to all, including Jesus. The mystics of all major religions say the same thing. We are all one, like the parts of a human body, the cells of living creatures, the atoms of all creation. For me, the person of Jesus was key to my waking up to this and growing more and more aware of the love of God for me and all creation. Everyone sees through the glass darkly. We are not God. So it is not up to me or anyone else to judge others. God is the only one that sees the whole reality. We are simply called to love. We share what has helped us lovingly, while recognizing that God may be working in a different way in someone else at any particular moment in time. We should certainly speak out against extremism. And all blanket judgments are extremism.
In the Gospel of John, when the risen Jesus appears to the frightened disciples, he says something unexpected and amazing. He tells them, if they forgive anyone’s sins, they’re forgiven. But if they don’t, then they aren’t. This isn’t power, this is responsibility. Jesus has spent three years trying to make them understand that receiving forgiveness and forgiving others are inseparable. In his agony on the cross he prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That prayer was not only for all those who played a part in his physical crucifixion that day, but for all of us who continue to crucify him in each other.
The humbling, often heartbreaking, recognition of the harm we have done to someone is designed to bring the life changing acceptance of God’s forgiveness that gives us the grace to forgive others. It’s all one spiritual process. Sometimes, our first clue to what we need to ask forgiveness for is what we cannot forgive in another. And over and over the message is the same: forgiveness is the heart of love, the core of Christianity, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and it’s our commission. And there is no escape clause in the small print even about forgiving repeat offenders. Remember the seventy times seven?
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, Whenever you are praying, forgive if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. This isn’t just a whim of God. It’s a cause and effect that was designed into the human condition. Listen closely. Jesus died so that we might be forgiven, but in order to accept forgiveness, we have to admit humbly and sorrowfully when we need it, so we can be freed by grace to pass forgiveness on. This is the key to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus gave us, because all fall short of the glory of God.
Note: Forgiving a broken person does not mean allowing them to abuse you or anyone else. God forgives them, but doesn’t remove consequences that can make them recognize the need to change.