Friday, March 26, 2010

A Reflection on the American Church and the Abortion Debate

Something's been troubling me recently about the way American Christians have participated in the abortion debate. Then, I read an essay by Stanley Hauerwas on abortion (referenced below) and my troubled thoughts were confirmed. It concerns what I think is a fundamental problem with the American Church's stance on abortion, one that is not only theological problematic, but also standing in the way of the Church making any cultural inroads on the matter in the US. (Notice I said "cultural inroads"--that is, making a transformational impact in our culture. I'm not talking about laws and legal policy in this post, although that is another important matter.)

I think it is wrong for the Church to frame the debate about abortion in terms of the woman's "rights" versus the child's "rights." It is wrong from a rhetorical perspective and an ethical perspective. Let me explain.

First of all, the language of "rights" arises from Enlightenment liberalism, which does not take into consideration the Judeo-Christian view of the human person in relation to the Creator God. Christians don't believe in "inalienable rights" (Thank you, Stanley Hauerwas!). Christians believe that everything about our lives matters to God and God has told us how we can and cannot live. The same goes for our bodies. Christians have no rights over their bodies. Those baptized into Christ have given their bodies over to God's reign. In this way, debating about rights is entirely unnatural for Christians, because we don't believe we have rights over anything!

Secondly, pitting the "rights" of the woman against the "rights" of the child is also ethically problematic, because it forces us to choose between defending the one or the other, but not both. This too is entirely un-Christian. Women and children are made in God's image. They bear the mark of their Creator and have been designed by him with love and purpose. When Jesus taught his disciples that their ministry unto "the least of these" would be ministry unto him, I think he most certainly included women and children.

It should be obvious why children are among "the least of these." They possess nothing that our society finds valuable: money, power, or influence. And, yet, Jesus says the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. For this reason, children must be embraced by the Church and protected, for in their weakness, we see the face of our Lord.

It may not be quite so obvious why women are among "the least of these." Unfortunately, what secular feminism and liberalism have often failed to do is reveal just how vulnerable women still are in the US. There are two reasons for this. First, we tend to assume "women" equals white women. Compared to their brown, black, and tan skinned sisters, white women are doing pretty well. But, the plight of women of color in the States is an entirely different story, often one of poverty and struggle (which I don't have the time to document here). Second, the media's coverage of "women's stories" tends to focus on preferential hiring for women, women's rights, women advancing in higher education, etc, and its easy to get the impression that women (=white women) are doing quite well. But, in a broad view, that's just not the case. And, I'm not talking about "equal pay for equal work," either.

Let's consider one vital area where women are not prospering: violence against women. In the US, the evidence indicates that women are being abused every day, in every socioeconomic class, in every religious group, in every ethnic category, all over the country. Recent statistics tell us that every 15 seconds a woman is abused. Abuse is the single largest cause of injury to women in the US, greater than the number of injuries sustained from car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. (Read that sentence one more time.) Thirty-five percent of women who seek treatment at a hospital emergency room are there for symptoms of ongoing abuse. Thirty to forty percent of female homicide victims are killed by their male partners. Every day, ten women are murdered by their male partners. And, every five years, more women are murdered by their intimate male partners than the number of all American lives lost in the Vietnam War.

We could take this picture global, too. Research has shown that a woman, whether living in the so-called First World or the developing world, is more likely to be injured, raped, or physically threatened by a current or former intimate male partner than by a stranger or any other person. On every continent, at least one in ten women report being physically abused by an intimate male partner. One in four women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. This means that, of the approximately 4.5 billion women around the world, about 450 million have suffered physical abuse by an intimate male partner, and about 1.1 billion have been sexually assaulted. Indeed, if violence against women was swine flu, it would be considered a pandemic.

OK, so what's my point? Weren't we talking about abortion? Whether liberal media elites portray it this way or not, women are among "the least of these" in this country. They continue to possess a subordinate status in most situations, especially when it relates to their physical person and sexuality. For this reason, women and children are to be embraced by the Church as those in need of nurturing, care, and protection. I'm not trying to turn all women into helpless victims here, nor am I suggesting that all men are abusing women (of course not!). But, I think that the framing of the abortion debate in terms of women vs. child has made many Christians view women as "the problem"--and that is a problem!

It is my firm conviction that until the American Church begins to be as supportive of women's issues as they are against abortion, especially voicing continuous and loud opposition to violence against women, there will be no cultural progress made. The Church must be a champion of women. And, the Church must be champion of children. Both are welcomed into the open arms of Christ and both must know that they are wanted and loved by his Church.

Despite our preconceived (and often ill-informed) notions, a woman who gets an abortion rarely (if ever) does so because she's vehemently protecting her "right to choose." More often, she does so because she believes she has no choice. She has no reason to hope and she turns to what has been presented to her as an easy medical procedure to fix things. Typically, women are convinced that they do not have the means or capability to care for the new life they're carrying. Or, women are convinced that they will lose important relationships if they go through with the pregnancy (whether with family or men, or both). In both cases, the woman is made to believe that she is solely responsible for the life she carries--and that's simply not true.

Women facing poverty, abandonment, abuse, or other difficulties because of pregnancy should not believe they are alone. Its not enough to wave picket signs and confront women with pictures of aborted babies--to give her the choice between murder and hopelessness. The Church must become the defender of women. This can take place on a practical one-one-one level or at a structural level.

How many of us would have a young woman come live with us throughout her pregnancy and then offer her child a home, if she so desires? Are we prepared for the real inconvenience and sacrifice that would entail? How many of us would accept teenage mothers into the church, help pay their bills, and provide them with loving guidance for parenting? How many of us would adopt the Downs syndrome child that a young mother of three feels she can't provide for?

Or, getting beyond the personal, what about good, affordable healthcare for a mother and her child (even if *gasp* government funded)? What about supporting sufficient child allowances and ample federal standards for maternity leave (and I don't mean the paltry 6 weeks that most companies provide)? What about real protection for women in blue collar jobs who will, despite the legality, lose their jobs when they give birth? What shall we say about those things?

Christians must no longer pit the "rights" of the woman against the "rights" of the child. Not only does the Church not believe in "rights," because we have given up our rights to follow after Christ, also we care deeply about the lives of both women and children. And, when it comes to pregnancy and motherhood, we believe that they rise and fall together. Supporting a woman financially, emotionally, and physically during a pregnancy and after delivery means supporting the child, too. Offering a loving home to a pregnant young woman abandoned by her boyfriend means offering a home to the young woman's child. And, standing up to abusive men, male promiscuity, and deadbeat fathers means standing up for women and children, as well.

Again, I'm not talking about laws. I'm talking about the Church's ability to influence and transform cultural views of abortion. The Church of the resurrected Christ always greets new life as a joy and a miracle of God. In this world of violence, death, and destruction, it is the most absurd and the most profound thing that we continue to welcome children and believe that God's reign is salvation for them. In order to do so, however, we must change the way we speak about the abortion issue and the way we view women and children within the debate. It is imperative we turn this corner if we're ever going to approach creating a true culture life within a lost and dying world.

Abuse statistics come from a study cited in Betty Coble Lawther and Jenny Potzler, “The Church’s Role in the Healing Process of Abused Women,” Review and Expositor 98 (2001): 228-230.

Also, the above commentary was inspired by Stanley Hauerwas, "Abortion, Theologically Understood," in The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001). You can find the text of this essay online in a number of places. One is here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Learning to Confess and Repent

The following is the Litany of Penance from the Book of Common Prayer. I encountered it first when Chaplain Mike posted it on February 18 over at Internet Monk. Frankly, we contemporary Baptists (in general) don't do well with public confession or formal prayers. We eschew the former by tossing out platitudes about answering to Jesus alone and we dismiss the latter by supposing there's something particularly holy about spontaneous prayers. Among other things, I find Lent a challenging time for setting those prejudices aside and learning from the thoughtful worship of our "high church" sisters and brothers. And so, I encourage you to meditate upon the following prayer. It is meant for public reading, in "call and response" form. But, I think it remains deeply meaningful in private prayer, as well.

Litany of Penitence

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints 
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault 
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us.
We have not been true to the mind of Christ.
We have grieved
 your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness:
pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways,
and our exploitation 
of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration,
and our envy of those
 more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts,
our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship,
and our failure to
 commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done:
for our blindness to human need and suffering,
and our 
indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments,
for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors,
and for our prejudice and contempt toward those 
who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation,
and our lack of
 concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Glenn Beck's Errors

Along with most Americans who own either a TV or a computer with internet capability, or both, I'm sure you've heard by now that Glenn Beck of Fox News fame made some rather serious claims on his show last week regarding the association of Christian "social justice" with socialism and Nazism. Here's a full quote of the most offending portion of his comments (available to read for yourself here):

"I'm begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them... are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"

There is so much ignorance and error present in Beck's remarks that its difficult for me to know where to begin. I will focus my efforts here on the two issues most relevant to my area of interest: theology and ethics.

The first major error is ethical in nature and, in my opinion, glaringly obvious. Social justice is a fundamental Christian commitment, arising directly from the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, the theological reality of the present reign of God, and the ethical pattern set before us by the early church. Although not without some controversy in how exactly Christians believe social justice is best sought (this is where debates about government involvement come in), there is almost uniform agreement from the "far left" to the "far right" that justice and mercy are essential manifestations of the Gospel's power in our world.

All this is to say: Glenn Beck is wrong. "Social justice" is not a code word for "socialism" or "Nazism." "Social justice" is a traditional Christian word for "faithfulness to the Gospel." And, in this case, I'm not the only one who says so. He's got a 2,000 year-old, trans-denominational and trans-cultural tradition to argue with.

Beck's second major error is ecclesiological in nature. And, while I think Beck's error on the above point is egregious enough, for some reason it doesn't bother me nearly as much as this one. Perhaps it is because I think that this TV personality has unwittingly voiced a perspective on the Church that is shared by many in American Christianity, even those who should know better.

What is Beck's ecclesiological mistake? Beck presumes a character to the church that is fundamentally flawed. Even if we were to grant him the point that "social justice" could be code for a liberal political agenda, in his plea for people to leave their churches because of differences of opinion on this matter, he wrongly assumes that church is simply a matter of voluntary association--a club to be joined and abandoned depending upon one's personal whims. And, sadly, this is how many American Christians view their own church "membership."

Church is not a club, a volunteer organization, a study group, or a business. Church is not something that Christians are meant to treat as a merely personal choice, capable of being chosen and un-chosen based upon political differences or other such disagreements. Church is the body of Christ, the community of saints, the temple of God. Church is the gathering of God's people for worship, for formation in Christian character, for service to each other, and for sacrifice for the world. Church is the initiation into God's Kingdom through baptism, the Eucharist, the reading of Scripture, the confession of sins, mutual edification, and healing. Church is a supernatural sign of the rule of Jesus Christ, put on display for the whole world to see that this is what God's Kingdom is like.

Beck completely misses the mark by suggesting that the people of God should demand uniformity of belief in the church on complex matters like social justice. There is plenty of room in the body of Christ for brothers and sisters to disagree about how best to enact faithful discipleship in reference to the healing of social ills. In fact, some theologians have suggested that one of the primary characteristics of the church is that it is a "community of argument."* Certainly, we are united in conformity around basic practices of the faith and basic beliefs about God, Jesus, etc, but we are united, as well, in our diversity about matters of praxis like social justice.

It is a deep ecclesiological error to suggest that people just pick up and leave the body of Christ, to which they have pledged their lives, because they find they have a difference of opinion with the pastor, elders, or even the majority of their brothers and sisters. This is American buffet-style, consumer Christianity at its worst and I, for one, am not willing to abide it. Once again, Glenn Beck is wrong.

*Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).

Let us Pray for Michael Spencer and Family

I just saw this tragic news from Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk on behalf of Debbie and Michael Spencer. I am deeply saddened by the news and I ask you to pray for this brother and his family.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Meditation on the Crucified Messiah

We follow a crucified Messiah. We follow a crucified Messiah. I know we know this intellectually. I know we know and preach and teach this. Its basic Sunday School stuff, right? "Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose again on the third day and if you believe in him, you'll have eternal life." But, do we really know this--is it a defining, framing, all-encompassing reality for the way we view life?

A crucified Messiah is well and good when we want our sins forgiven, but not so nice when we want our life to proceed comfortably... predictably... safely. A crucified Messiah is a wonderful thing when we want to escape eternal hellfire, but not so fabulous when our we're called to follow... take up our cross... obey... even when our present life is in shambles. Do you know what I mean?

Over the past couple years I have been gradually awakening to the fact that the crucified Messiah I trust in for salvation is the same one I follow in discipleship. That is to say, I don't simply affirm the reality of the death of Jesus as a fact of my salvation, but I embrace it as both a window into understanding God and a practical way of life--a path to follow after. Here's what I mean.

The reality of our crucified Messiah tells us that God is mysterious, unfathomable, and eternally dense. Who or what is this God who would unite with human flesh, walk the earth, suffer at the hands of sinful men, and experience a tortuous death? Who or what is this God who embraces his enemies and accepts humiliation? Surely not a God that I can understand.

And, this lack of understanding, this confusion about the workings of God, is a major aspect of the real Christian life, is it not? The truth is, things don't always happen for a reason. Not everything works out in the end. And, sometimes horrible things happen and nothing necessarily "good" comes from it. Mothers get pancreatic cancer. Children die. Jobs are lost (along with houses and families and hope). Good pastors suffer at the hands of carnivorous churches. What are we to do with the truth that the Christian life is not a life that's safe and easy and comfortable?

As I have dealt with this issue, I have often felt like Moses standing before Mount Sinai. The ground quakes beneath me as God descends and acrid smoke fills the air. Everyone on the ground below me cowers in terror. This God is fearsome, radically free, and furious with love and justice. What would it feel like to draw near to a God like this? I've also felt like the disciples traveling with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. Slowly, it dawns on me that he really believes what he says about suffering and dying and that he actually intends to go through with it. This God is frightening, unpredictable, and dangerous. What does it mean for me to follow the way of a God like this?

It is contrary to everything in my comfortable, safe, Christian American upbringing to draw near to a God who is so intimidating and hazardous. I like to think that my God, my Jesus, is "safe and fun for the whole family." But, whatever this God is that I imagine--this God who guarantees a job, a house, a complacent way of life--it is not the God of Jesus Christ. It is not the crucified God.

And so, I'm back where I started. We follow a crucified Messiah. And, he requires us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Sometimes, the following leads us to mountaintops; often, the following leads us through valleys. In either case, my response is the same. I must follow. Through the fear, the confusion, the sadness, the struggle, the desperation, the loneliness, the uncertainty, the angst--I must follow. I have sold everything to buy the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in a field. I have nothing left to lose. There's simply no other choice.