We are a hardhearted people. From southern racists flying confederate flags, notwithstanding the pain this causes black passersby, to the New York Times defending using fetal body parts for experimentation– as if the only problem is one of legal technicalities– we human primates lack empathy.
The gun lobby insists on the right to carry weapons notwithstanding that children are gunned down as a result of easy access to assault weapons. And a Planned Parenthood official is taped eating lunch while casually discussing the dismemberment of unborn children and all the New York Times can come up with in defense of this callousness is that Planned Parenthood isn’t actually selling body parts.
What they do not dispute (because they can’t) is the fact that the tapes reveal a coldness of heart by Planned Parenthood when describing manipulating fetuses during abortions to keep certain parts intact while crushing the head in order to supply big pharma with organ tissue to experiment on.
We humans have a problem: We are apes with a glimmer of conscience. That goes for the self-described enlightened as well as for the far right. As a species we’ve evolved just enough over the last one hundred thousand years or so to worry about the fact we’re just animals who behave like… animals.
So we do several things to assuage our young still-developing consciences. We look away from the truth of who we really are. We invent political or religious theologies to explain our barbarity and justify it. We let politics guide us away from admitting the truth about our conflicted semi-evolved selves. We care more that our “side” say Democrats or Republicans “win” than about admitting the truth about ourselves.
That truth is that we are animals who look at the world through spiritual eyes. That means that we are conflicted about ourselves.
And above all we parse the terms of our debates to justify hardness of our hearts. Mostly we use the language of rights or law to hide from ourselves and our true hardheadedness.
If we are on the political right we look away from the military industrial killing machine we call our military. We look away from mass murder perpetrated by people who use the right’s defense of untrammeled gun ownership as a means to get weapons they kill children with. We look away from poverty and racism saying that the poor are at fault. We refuse to tell the truth about American history and have a slave-owning rapist (he had sex with a 14 year old slave) like Thomas Jefferson, as our patron saint and still give respectable statues to slave-owning southern generals in thousands of town squares where their statues are to be found.
If we are of the left we look away from the cold reality of the abortion industry. No I’m not talking about the question of the legality of abortion.
I believe it should be legal. That doesn’t mean I think it is usually a good choice.
Abortion is dreadful in the same way that a cop needing to shoot someone is dreadful– even if they “deserve” it and the shooting is justified according to the law. Both acts reflect a deeper truth: we are semi-evolved primates who have just enough conscience to know we are lacking in selfless empathy but not enough to follow the example of Jesus’s co-suffering love.
So we inhabit the worst of all worlds. We are animals who judge ourselves. This conflicting paradox is paralleled by the basic human dilemma: We are conscious enough to fear death but not spiritual enough to accept our mortality. So we live in tension. This is a tension the editors of the Times deny by simplistic parsing of legalities, as if that is the only problem.
This is why the right fails to be both religious and empathetic. A follower of Jesus can never be a libertarian. We are our sister’s and brother’s keeper.
To harden our hearts and hide behind technicalities—“the Planned Parenthood tape was deceptively edited” or “the police officer felt threatened”—is to be a coward and duck truth of ultimate unknowing while hiding behind false certainties needed to assuage deeply troubled conciseness. This is the evil of placing politics ahead of truthful self-contemplation.
As a columnist I rarely agree with Ross Douthat, put it well in “Looking Away From Abortion” (New York Times, July 25, 2015)
“[I]t’s precisely this argument that’s been marshaled lately in response to a new reminder of the fleshly realities of abortion: The conversations, videotaped covertly by pro-life activists posing as fetal organ buyers, in which officials from Planned Parenthood cheerfully discuss the procedures for extracting those organs intact during an abortion and the prices they command. It may be disturbing to hear those procedures described: ‘… we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.’”
The meaning of Jesus is to offer an alternative to picking and choosing between the willful hardhearted blindness of the left and right. To the Jesus follower all degradation of neighbor, born and unborn is a tragedy. This tragedy does not make the Jesus-follower a judge of others. The follower of Jesus understands the paradox of being semi-evolved monster killer primates with a blind spot for tragedy.
The gift of Jesus is to give us the ability to look — unblinking — at the tragedy of our shared hardheartedness be it from the left or right. We offer ourselves up as a sacrifice of unconditional co-suffering with the victim. We stand up for the rights of the LGBTQ community against the churches in the name of Jesus. We stand with black America against white “Christians”. We stand with both mother and child and demand full health care for families, day care, maternity leave, equal pay and yes the right to always tragic abortion.
But, and this is a big caveat, we also call our fellow primates to listen to their inner empathy before political gamesmanship, and to not excuse our hardheartedness in any political cause.
This means that the Jesus follower will please no one.
On one day we will call conservative political leaders to listen to their hearts and reform our immigration system for the sake of love, to welcome the stranger. On another day we will squarely and honestly face the fact that long association with the practice of abortion has hardened the hearts of the practitioners of abortion and deformed them. The elements in politics and the media that turn away from any ethical second thoughts about carving up little bodies for experimentation do so because of mistaken solidarity with a too- neat politics that has no room for self-doubt.
If the victim is a black man in a traffic stop being beaten by the police we stop and offer to take the beating. If it is a Planned Parenthood leader hardened against human conscience talking about aborted babies the way experimenters with animals talk about causing suffering to chimps and dolphins as “good science” , we do not judge that spiritually deprived woman. Instead we offer love to her knowing that we have our own blind spots when we look away from sorrow we find inconvenient to our politics.
The truth is that there is no easy fast fix to your and my hardened hearts. This is not because of sin but because of the war between our killer ruthless primate selves and the higher consciousness we are on the cusp of embracing. (That’s what “original sin” is if it is anything.) The problem is we’re not there yet. So people who call themselves “Christians” also fight for the “right to carry” laws and have spent seven years lying about a good and decent man — President Obama — to further crass politics built on a hardness of heart to the lest of these. I mean consider these words “Christians against health care for the poor.”!
And on the left, abortion rights blinds so many to the tragedy of watching a fellow human eating lunch while discussing dismembering a baby. (Sorry, this happened, the “edited”taped interview has been replaced with the full unedited version on YouTube and the cold meaning is still clear.)
To follow Jesus is to step into a no man’s land where we are never welcome.
It is to be uncomfortably constant to a yet-to-be-achieved level of empathy.
We offend everyone because we will not buy into the party line of the left or the right, of conservatives or liberals.
We renounce selfishness and self-interest, thus we renounce our very own evolutionary history.
We defend beauty not just rights, love, not just law, empathy, not just justice, mercy, not just procedure.
We do not condemn the “other” for there is just us.
And we do not do what the political operative for the crass Roman Catholic right– Douthat– did in his opinion piece: come up with blanket and simplistic legalities (say to outlaw all abortions) to try and cover up the fact that morality is not the same thing as co-suffering empathy. Sometimes Jesus calls his followers to put love ahead of not just law but morality. Deal with it.
Co-suffering empathy means that we accept the semi-evolved imperfections of second best sometimes as a lesser harm than upright enforced perfection. Jesus could for instance, speak against adultery yet invite only those without sin to enforce the law. So we today who fight to keep abortion legal can also honestly speak of the barbarity of those to whom legality equals a desired result.
It is legal to kill in war, Bush made it legal to torture, it is legal to incinerate women and children with drone strikes, it is legal to incarcerate a third of all black males at some point in their lives for petty non-violent drug offenses. It is legal to carry concealed weapons. It is also a sad tragedy.
Does the Jesus follower hide behind legalities or cut to the heart of the matter which, is always– the heart?
We say yes to love and sacrifice. We say yes to paradox. We admit that Jesus’s example means that every aspect of life presents us with a dilemma: what we evolved to be and who Jesus calls us to become are in opposition to each other. In that sense Jesus is our window to our own ethical evolution say another hundred thousand years from now. The follower of Jesus tries to live there now. It is a futile task. In that futility we can sense God– the creative force that brings consciousness from nothingness. Our task is to shape that evolution.
We are on a path to a time when we will have evolved to a better place where we can actually hear the words “Love your enemies.” That enemy may be a gun-caring criminal. It may be a terrorist or the unborn child invader of a career plan.
In a context where women are still regarded as chattel property in most of the world today we stand with women against servitude, even servitude to biology. Thus abortion must be legal. But this is a mere way station to a fuller embrace of empathy. Along the way let’s not pretend that the awful compromises we strike with ourselves are a pretty sight.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace