My wife and I began a conversation the other day evaluating the ways in which we express ourselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ people of faith, and the startling ways in which we find ourselves becoming more conservative with age. We wondered if this was because with age we have become more contemplative and have lost some of our youthful passion or if we have slipped into the sin of complacency.
My wife Erin – former professional chef, lover of Hebrew scripture and Islamic prayer and constant feminist – made the comment that she suspected, despite her best efforts, she was becoming pro-life.
Anyone alive in America in the last several decades has found themselves, one time or another, caught in the culture wars over the abortion issue. As a former student of Jerry Falwell’s I heard from the pulpit on more than one occasion that abortion was a great stain on the soul of America, and the judgment of God was coming as a result.
After 9/11 the late Dr. Falwell even announced that the terrorist attacks were a result of abortion and other sins. In the recent American election one of the largest surprises was when young Evangelicals chose to vote on issues other than abortion and gay marriage and instead vote out of a concern for the environment, ending war and human rights. This represents an ethic where personal and sexual morality – in the narrow sense – is secondary to issues of the common good.
My wife said –
“I think I am personally pro-life and socially pro-choice.”
I remember during the election when now president Barack Obama stressed that what was needed for the future was less political posturing and politicizing and more middle ground work. If the future of politics is moderation then it will come from working out of the middle ground and not from the wings. If such a vision could happen – pro-life and pro-choice organizations working together to make sure teenagers have access to through, safe and informed relationship and sexual education – what would the teen pregnancy rates look like?
This middle ground position is dependent on both nodes in the conversation continuing to affirm their relative positions. Pro-lifers must insist that every life is sacred, including the unborn. The pro-choice must insist that young women should have the power to decide when and if they are going to procreate and that there are certain factors in the human condition that at times make abortion an option. As much as our hyperpolarized nation does not want to admit both of these are valid positions.
The culture war that has been born around this and other issues no longer rings true for most people. The issue remains important but many of us feel that an ethic for life that does not expand from the unborn and the rights of the mother, held as equally valid, to those afflicted by war, the environment and victims of environmental damage to the conditions and realities that human persons live in.This third way, which holds together the value of two of the nodes in the conversation, affirms their central arguments and then holds them together in a way that expands their arguments into universal claims, is what has been called a life-positive approach. People who describe their political position as life-positive may personally fall left or right in the conversation personally but have a separate social argument.
If one is life-positive with a pro-life tendency – or middle, leaning right – then the pro-life ethic means not only protecting the sacredness of unborn life but also all life to the extent that all activities that deal death are rejected. This would include the death penalty, war and extreme poverty. A life-positive person who has a pro-choice tendency – or middle, leaning left. The life-positive approach here would be to not only affirm the rights and dignity of pregnant women but of all women. It would mean to look at and address the social situations and realities that cause people to make risky sexual and relational choices. It would also meant to look and ask questions around the rights of fathers, who they are and where they are in decision making in the future of children they have spawned and encouraging men to step up to the plate for the families they have started.
Unlike the earlier concern in the abortion debate that was more concerned with personal morality the current generation wants to talk about issues of corporate responsibility. What obligations do we have to whole interlocked and interdependent living systems? A Pro-Life position that does not respect these relationships is not truly pro-life.
The abortion and unwanted pregnancy question is always a tough one for people in the church. Ultimately the issue for most people in the church is too steeped in politics when it should be a pastoral issue. Possibly if churches, denominations and theologians started adopting a middle ground approach then we can return the question – and the myriad of issues, concerns and realities that spider-web out of it – to its role as a pastoral issue.
The modern mind was one that functioned on absolutes. In the post-modern age gray areas and the resulting middle grounds will come to define our politics. For the church middle grounds will allow pastoral issues to be addressed as such allowing clergy – even politically active and opinionated clergy – to step out of the political and into ministry. Bodies will always carry politics and sexuality attached to them. But middle ground is a valid political position even if over looked.
The politicized body brings us back to the body of Christ, whom Christians recognize as the incarnation of God. Bodies are political beasts and sex and pregnancy have always been political objects for human reflection. Extending pastoral care to bodies of all states – pregnant, gay, straight, female, male, pro-life, pro-choice, left and right creates the middle space as political but a politic of inclusion and mutuality. To step beyond absolutes is to step into the realm of Spirit and her ability to bring newness out of desperate situations.