My Saturday morning began with a chilling experience. I am not referring to the colder-than-expected DC weather (coming from Chicago, I had hoped for better) nor to my being an observer at the board meeting of the United Methodist Church’s controversial lobby office (which has its own spiritual challenges).
But as I trudged over towards the meeting, my eye could not help but catch a crowd of people abnormally standing around a DC sidewalk. Two static lines of people stood in place outside the door of the nearest building. A couple rather tall, young, white males wearing bright orange jackets were moving about. An old man clutching a fistful of multi-colored fliers meekly tried to say something to a hurriedly walking lady, who blew him off by saying something about how her decision was made and then rushing on into the building. One of the orange jackets physically blocked the man from saying anything further to her. The orange jackets read “CLINIC ESCORT.”
Normally, it is nice to see a young mother and her child, each beautifully created in the very image of God, walking through the city. But this time, the mother was taking her child into Planned Parenthood for a (presumably elective) abortion. Two human beings came in together, but only one would leave alive.
While we are rightly concerned about the premature deaths that are brought by gang violence, war, and car accidents, it is worth noting that every single day, about as many Americans are killed by abortion violence as were killed in the 9/11 attacks, and that the overwhelming majority of these abortions did not involve rape, incest, or even possible physical health complications (let alone confirmed threats to life) of either the mother or child. And let us not forget the surviving mothers (as well as fathers) scarred by abortion.
Amidst such a toll, where is the church?
Appropriately, I was in town that day for a meeting of the agency sponsored by America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, to focus on matters of Christian social concern, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS).
While the violence raged outside their walls, they passed resolutions on a variety of political issues. Yet as has long been typical for the GBCS, I witnessed no hint of concern over the elective abortion violence claiming literally tens of millions of lives around the world every year. For all of the UMC’s Council of Bishops styling themselves as very socially conscious, they have, at least in the U.S.A., offered a similarly deafening silence, with the exception of less than a half-dozen bishops I know of who have individually spoken out strongly, clearly, and faithfully about abortion violence.
At the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), we have long documented how the social statements of officials of the UMC and other “oldline” Protestant denominations have been extremely selective in order to conform, with a yawning degree of predictability, to whatever the platform of the day is for the left wing of the Democratic Party in the United States.
But cultural captivity can also infect evangelical and Catholic churches. In the latter, there are some activists who profess great devotion to “Catholic social teaching” while ignoring or marginalizing Catholic social teaching on the most basic human right, the right to life. In the former, with which I am much more familiar, the central organizing focus of sermons and congregational ministry, in my observation, tends to be (appropriately) on proclamation and spread of the Gospel. Yet some purportedly evangelical voices, professing desire to avoid distractions from reaching people with Christian love, often rise to offer arguments about how abortion is too much of a “hot button political issue” and claiming that evangelical churches need to in some way reverse or dampen their earlier conservatism on the matter if they are not going to drive away younger Americans.
Of course, Christians must be humble, compassionate, and gracious in faithfully teaching on any challenging moral issue, as countless pro-life Christians have been and continue to be in defending people from abortion and helping its survivors find restoration.
But as for the main back-off-of-abortion-to-reach people argument, I could point to polling data showing the enduring, even growing strength of pro-life sentiment in America, especially among those of us in the “survivor” (i.e., post-Roe v. Wade) generations. Or I could highlight the counter-example of the well-known dramatic membership implosion of socially liberalized churches.
But the main reason for churches to care about abortion is because it is not primarily a public-policy issue (though that realm is obviously important). Rather, it is a human issue inflicting untold violence and suffering all around us on beloved people created in the very image of God.
You would be hard-pressed to find a Christian openly declaring that it is not essential for us to love our neighbors.
But beyond lip-service, does this love really include the tens of millions of human beings “fearfully and wonderfully made” inside their mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13-14) in the very image of God (Genesis 1:27) and yet threatened with dehumanizing violence?
As Duke Divinity School Dean Richard Hays notes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, asking if an unplanned unborn child is truly part of the human family or is my neighbor is the wrong question to ask. In contrast to such attempts of “defining marginal cases out of the human race,” Hays notes that “Jesus’ persistent strategy was, on the contrary, to define the marginal cases in.” While the lawyer asked “who is my neighbor?” in apparent hope of narrowing the scope of those to whom he had moral obligations, Christ responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, teaching our obligation to “become a neighbor to those who are helpless, going beyond conventional conceptions of duty.”
All around (and within) our churches, countless mothers with their most-vulnerable children are facing very difficult circumstances with inadequate support, often alone, and often facing some sort of coercion to abort. And all around (and within) our churches are mothers and fathers still suffering from long-hidden but deeply felt scars of past abortions.
What does it mean for such neighbors of ours when churches treat abortion as strictly a “hot-button political issue” to avoid addressing at all costs, or as a “private matter between a woman and her doctor that’s none of our business”?
At best, such an attitude, if stubbornly unmodified, means that the church has nothing to offer such people for their personal situations. At worst, it can mean what happened to a good friend of mine. Finding herself unmarried and pregnant without adequate support, she went to her United Methodist pastor for help. Having little guidance from his denomination beyond a statement supporting legal abortion (against which there is now growing dissent in the denomination), he did not give my friend the love, communal support, or compassion she needed, but rather just money to buy an abortion to supposedly solve “the problem.” Thus this pastor washed his hands of the sort of self-sacrificial neighbor-love to which Christ’s followers are called, actually participating in the killing of a child God had sent him to love and the lasting emotional and spiritual scarring of my friend.
Despite all the glaring moral inconsistencies and logical holes in the “pro-choice” position, we must recognize that a driving force behind rejection of the pro-life position is variations of the question, “So are you saying that my friend who had an elective abortion is a SINNER who committed a horrible SIN?”
This brings us to the very heart of the Gospel. The question betrays a mindset, abounding in our secular culture as well as in many a church pew, that sees “sinner” as a wholly other category of Extraordinarily Bad People.
But with His expanded definitions of such sins as murder and adultery in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was clear that we must recognize the truth that we are each sinners who have chosen to earn for ourselves the wrath of a just God. No careful reader of the New Testament will find Jesus promoting a casual, “it’s no big deal” attitude towards the very grave matter of human sin. But there is hope for forgiveness and restoration, uniquely available through the blood Christ sacrificially shed on the cross, even for such sins as serious as elective abortion, or as the many of which this writer is guilty.
Is a Christian church really doing all that God has called it to do if it is not very intentionally committed to helping the many within and beyond its own ranks to repentance, forgiveness, and restoration from past abortions? If it is not making self-sacrificial commitments to stand with scared young women and children with communal, spiritual, material and financial support, and intentionally encouraging able Christian couples to be open to adoption?
As I walked to a meeting broadly devoted to Christian social concerns, I witness what appeared to be a legalized murder taking place in broad daylight, committed against a human being who has been stripped by our secular society of any legal rights. This was just one instance of a scene repeated thousands of times a day in this country alone. How is this not an appropriately central priority for Christian social concern?