Today is the 40th anniversary of the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision enacted by the supreme court. Since that time, the rhetoric, misinformation, strategic “messaging”, and political posturing surrounding this issue has continued by both sides. These 40 years reveal that Americans are good at talking within self-referential communities, but not good at talking to people whose view is different than their own. As a result, Roe v Wade became a catalytic force for the religious right to establish itself as a political force in America under the likes of Jim Dobson and Jerry Fallwell.
These men, rightly in my opinion, grieved the massive cultural shift that would allow “choice” as to whether viable life in the womb should have the right to live or die. With such a sweeping cultural shift, the most vulnerable lives on the planet were denied any protection whatsoever regarding their right to life. That this doesn’t grieve our collective national conscience should be cause for alarm, to say the least.
BOTH sides of this debate though, demonstrate a glaring unwillingness to engage in the kind of honest and thoughtful dialogue that could bring a measure of consensus and a way forward for us collectively. I could point to many examples, but I’ll limit the conversation to two:
The right to life folks always see the vulnerability of the baby, but rarely that of the mother. The reality that 70% of women seeking access to an abortion are under the poverty line is rarely discussed, and as a result questions about how this woman is supposed to raise the baby or care for it aren’t answered. Will there be financial help for the new mother? How about job training or education so she can better herself? Access to day care or at least a group of people willing to care for the children of these women who are, themselves, also vulnerable and at risk? These questions have been met with silence by the right, not all the time, but mostly, for 40 years. It’s as if we want large government intruding into the lives of people to protect and care for life in the womb, but only ’til the baby’s born. After that, it’s laissez faire, “you’re on your own”, and “welcome to a Darwinian world where it’s every one for themselves”. The unwillingness of the right to adequately engage these questions makes any notion of consensus building or finding a ‘third way’ nearly impossible.
The left seems no better to me, because they too speak two messages. On the one hand, I often hear my friends on the left say that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”, declaring that any abortion is a tragedy. And yet, the organizing strategies of these same groups are centered on stopping any movement away from “unrestricted abortion on demand”. Counseling regarding choices ahead of time? Nope. Ultrasound, so that the woman can see a heart beating at four weeks? Nope. Awareness that there are options available to enable you to bring this life into the world and gain their own needed education for economic betterment? Off the table. In the name of choice, I’ve heard too many stories where only one choice was offered to someone at the most vulnerable moment of their lives, which was termination of their pregnancy. One choice, however, is no choice, and renders the rhetoric of abortion being ‘safe, legal, and rare’ nothing more than a sound byte to protect abortion rights advocates from important challenges to their position. I know of several woman who, when faced with real choice, chose to carry the life in their womb to birth. I can only wish that “choice” were actually offered more of the time.
I’ve learned from these kinds of debates how little tolerance most people have in our culture for nuanced conversation about ethical issues. We want answers, we want them to be absolute and easy, and want them yesterday; now is already too late. So we find a camp that’s offering a position and we join it. Then we listen to all the rhetoric that reinforces our position, until we’re convinced that only a fool would think differently than we do on the matter. Then we wonder how fully half of America, divided as we are, can believe the nonsense of the other side.
This propensity for reducing everything to easy answers is why I love Bonhoeffer’s view on ethics. His thesis is that any rush to judgement, or refusal to deal with all the nuances of an ethical situation prayerfully, puts in in the camp of the Pharisees. One blogger writes:
According to Bonhoeffer, “the Pharisee is not an adventitious historical phenomenon of a particular time. He is the man to whom only the knowledge of good and evil has come to be of importance in his entire life… For the Pharisee every moment of life becomes a situation of conflict in which he has to choose between good and evil” (26, 27, emphasis added). As such, life for the Pharisee is ultimately comprised of logical alternatives: right/wrong, lawful/unlawful, sin/virtue
Instead, what matters, is our prayerful and ongoing consideration of the ethical demands before us in each and every situation, bowing not to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil offered us in the garden, but to Christ, who alone is the embodiment of truth.
When we think this way, labels become harder to impose, and listening in order to understand becomes easier. Yes, I’ll share what I believe the Bible teaches on many important ethical issues in the realm of relationships/sexuality in the coming weeks. Yes, these views will be derived from the Bible, which is the sole source of authority in Christ. Yes, they will be nuanced; more conservative than the left desires and more progressive than the right desire. Yes, we all need, desperately, to listen to each other and continue to pray, so that our ongoing transformation into people of hope, light, and purity can continue. Othewise, forty years from now, the church will still by shouting across a big dividing wall that Jesus desires be broken down.