Abortion and the Horde

In a discussion of the Ten Words (Systematic Theology, II) argues that the “second table” applies to all polities. I have doubts about the “second table” notion, and also about the plausibility of separating the last six words from the first four. Still, Jenson has some penetrating things to say about the “second table” as “natural law.”

Applied to those who are not part of the narrative of exodus, “the commandments state minimum conditions: no society can subsist in which the generations turn against each other; in which vendetta has not been replaced by public organs of judgment and punishment; in which the forms by which sexuality is socialized, whatever these may be, are flouted; in which property, however defined, is not defended; in which false testimony is allowed to pervert judgment; or in which greed is an accepted motive of action. Indeed, even the commandments of the first table have a kind of negative and so general application: no society can long subsist that violates its own religion” (87).

It’s especially in the last sentence that the whole enterprise breaks down. How can the first table imply that a society should be loyal to a God other than the God of exodus?

Jenson goes on to illustrate by calling attention to the import of abortion: “A society in which an unborn child can legally be killed on the sole decision of the pregnant person cannot be “a people” even by the least rigorous of Augustine’s definitions; it can only be a horde” (87-8).

Why is that? Because “Thou shalt not kill” marks “the decisive break between precivil and civilized society: the replacement of vendetta by courts and their officers. The decision that someone rightly must die is no longer to be made by interested parties and is instead to be made by maximally disinterested communal organs.” Thus, “if unborn children are members of the human community, then allowing abortions to be performed on decision of the most interested party is a relapse to pure barbarism” (88). It hands the authority to kill to an interested party.

The key question, of course, is whether unborn children qualify as members of the human community. The Supreme Court founded Roe on an act of agnosticism: “there is no plausible way to draw a line across the development of the unborn child before which it is not a human person and after which it is. But what follows is quite obviously the opposite of the law the justices laid down. Unless interfered with, the child will at some time be a human person; and if at any given point in its development we cannot know that she or he is not yet that, what we do not at that point possess is any justification for treating the child as other than a member of the community, embraced in society’s protection from private decisions to kill” (88).

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