"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Christian Reflection on Abortion: Welcome, Relationship, Responsibility

When I saw the headline in my Facebook feed about a church "celebrating abortion" I half expected what I would find. "Of course. Abortion. Kansas. The Episcopal Church. Of course." Much as I love the Episcopal Church, there is no denying that we have a particular knack for majoring in really terrible PR (and that not due solely to ignorant or hostile press, though there is that). And oh, Kansas--nary a dull moment for the culture wars!

The parish church that is hosting the event in support of a local Planned Parenthood clinic (which provides women's health services, but not abortions) is one with which I am personally acquainted. Though I have never been a member there, my family and I have attended services occasionally, as well as diocesan and community events there. It has been a place of blessing for us, a community in the household of God in which sincere love and discipleship are evident. I can say that confidently as one who has experienced it as a reality. Accordingly, I was disappointed (though not surprised) by the inflammatory invective that a quick online search turned up: one columnist allowed herself to speculate wildly about parishioners as neo-Moloch worshipers ecstatically tossing children to the flames.1 Separately, a YouTube activist introduced his video by referring to the parish as an "apostate yoga practicing baby-killing loving church" (alright, I did have to chuckle at that one). Such characterizations can only come from people who apparently have no desire to see "the other" as anything but fanatical. There seems even to be no hint of their viewing "those people" as perhaps well-meaning but misguided--no, they are nefarious apostates bent on evil. No shades of gray here. It is a way of thinking not so far removed from the oft-heard accusation that pro-lifers don't actually care about preventing abortions but simply want to control women's bodies.

Though steering well clear of such rhetoric, the view from the other side in this case is not so generous as I had hoped for. I don't find particularly helpful a statement such as, "The Episcopal Church says you can form your own opinion about reproductive justice and you can be against it or for it."2 Such language feebly attempts to give an impression of open-mindedness while asserting that there is nevertheless an obvious right answer. While I don't subscribe to a post-modernism that admits of the futility of being able to assert anything (the gospel certainly makes assertions, and the Christian life is a way of life demanding decisions, not merely an intellectual exercise), still I do acknowledge that there are many exigencies of human life which are complex and upon which thoughtful people disagree. Political rhetoric from left and right notwithstanding, abortion is such an issue.

I think it is unfortunate that this issue has become so politicized that it is difficult to have meaningful conversation about it. Both sides speak in loaded language, the simplistic language of politicians seeking to win the votes of citizens who don't have time for the complicated details. But such should not be the language of the Church. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The church must refuse to use society’s terms for the abortion debate. The church must address the abortion problem as church.”3 In my own attempt to think through the abortion problem outside of the truncated parameters in which it is typically framed, I would describe myself generally as pro-choice and anti-abortion (though undermining a mutually exclusive view of the terms, I am aware that I am still using the language of the debate; it's a start). And in fact, such a designation is consonant with the public stance of the Episcopal Church: General Convention Resolution A054 states the Church's opposition to government action that would abridge “the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy.”4 Such decisions are too complex, important, and morally fraught to be decided by partisan legislators. However, the same resolution boldly proclaims that “all human life is sacred from its inception until death,” and therefore “all abortion (has) a tragic dimension.” Accordingly, the Church states that "we emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience." In light of this, a woman with an unplanned pregnancy should expect the full support, in counsel and resources, of the Church. That is easier to say than to do.

In his essay, "Abortion, Theologically Understood" Stanley Hauerwas makes the argument that Christians should not understand the abortion debate as one of rights (i.e. "right to life" vs. "right to choose"), but of responsibility. And responsibility is difficult, risky, costly. It may mean Christians working to profoundly change structures in our society so that women can feel confident about having the support to give birth to a child in difficult circumstances. But even closer to home, it may mean Christian communities being willing to make real sacrifices to welcome life into the world, radically offering hospitality both to "unwanted children" and to the women upon whom society, in the name of privacy, would dump the total burden of responsibility. What such a welcome would look like would vary: it could mean more Christians being willing to adopt, or to welcome pregnant women into their own homes, or parishes taking communal responsibility for the long-term care of women and children. In any event, it would not be easy, but such is the call to welcome life as a gift of God. The Church also must ever offer grace and forgiveness, and to seek to be understanding of the frailty of human nature and the sometimes overpowering sense of circumstance. The resources of the Church significantly include her liturgical life: among the authorized liturgies of the Episcopal Church are "A Rite of Repentance and Reconciliation for an Abortion" and "A Liturgy of Lament and Remembrance," as well as associated litanies and prayers.5 I believe such pastoral services represent the right approach in what is a difficult and extremely important ethical issue.      

I don't mind saying that I would not be comfortable supporting a fund-raiser for a Planned Parenthood clinic on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Whether intended or not, it seems to imply a celebration of abortion that is bound to invite controversy, and any work around this issue should be concerned to de-escalate sensationalism. But I don't have all the answers. And so, criticisms notwithstanding, I won't condemn a church parish that is seeking to build upon relationships in their community to enhance women's health and options, and so decrease the market for abortions. On the contrary, it represents an attempt by a particular community of Christians to address the complex realities of human life in their local context. And knowing that particular community of Christians, I am willing to trust that they are acting prayerfully and according to the dictates of a conscience formed by a life of discipleship to Christ. Different churches will come to different conclusions about how they can best minister to their own communities, but I do believe that concrete local involvement and grace-filled pastoral care should be hallmarks of the work of the Church regarding such issues. The demonization or dismissal of "the other" will help neither women nor those they carry in their wombs. But building relationships and being willing to make costly sacrifices for the good of one's neighbor are steps along the way of our Lord.

LORD, you have searched me out and known me;
     you know my sitting down and my rising up;
     you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting places
     and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
     but you, O LORD, know it altogether.

For you yourself created my inmost parts;
     you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I will thank you because I am marvelously made;
     your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
                                                   ~ Psalm 139:1-3, 12-13

The God who is Creator of us all has made us to be known. May the whole Church receive wisdom and courage to step out boldly to forge relationships, even when costly. It is only in community, in knowing one another, that we may hope, by God's grace, to approach the justice of the Kingdom of God.
Peace of Christ.

1. American Thinker
2. The Wichita Eagle  
3. "Abortion, Theologically Understood" from The Hauerwas Reader, Duke University Press 2001
4. Archives of the Episcopal Church
5. Enriching Our Worship 5

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