I made quite a few people angry due to a silly sentence I wrote in my last post.
Crude wrote this as a response to me on his blog.
A “Progressive” Problem, and an unfortunate decision
By political and intellectual temperament, I’m broadly conservative. I’m against gay marriage. I favor small government. I prefer charity over government welfare. I believe illegal immigrants should largely be sent back to their country of origin. I oppose abortion. I oppose racial preferences in work or school. The list goes on. I argue with conservatives often, and many times I come to conservative conclusions through a different intellectual route than many others do – but at the end of the day, I’m largely an economic and social conservative with some caveats.
But I also reject clannish mentalities. Just as the fact that I’m Catholic doesn’t mean I can’t find common ground with many protestants, jews and otherwise, the fact that I’m conservative doesn’t mean I don’t try to find common ground with liberals. I can’t prove this to anyone – I can point at some past conversations here and there where I talked with liberals and kept cool, just as I can point at many friendly atheist conversations – but it’s never going to be beyond dispute. All I can tell you is that I have – for many years now – tried to find common ground. I’ve tried to keep in mind that the socialist-inclined person may well be acting out of a sincere concern for the poor, and if they are Christian, this may ultimately be rooted in their faith. I’ve tried to keep ultimately benevolent motivations in mind for everything from the agitation for gay marriage to the demands to grant mass amnesty to illegal immigrants to otherwise. This has been a point of pride for me, I will say outright – instead of going right to the conservative or, God forbid, GOP clan behavior, I try to remain calm and cool. I do not want, especially among Christians, yet another bit of pointless fracturing.
I am fast starting to come around to the view, however, that this approach – indeed, this mentality – is flawed. No, more than just flawed. I’m beginning to think that it’s counter-productive, pointlessly idyllic, and ultimately dangerous to regard any self-described “progressive” as anything but, intellectually, a hostile individual.
Pardon me if this post is more about my own experiences and psychology than the broad topics I normally deal with, even if flippantly, but I feel it must be said.
I wrote recently about the worry I have with “progressive” Christians: that the only reason they even stand in opposition to the New Atheists is because the Cultists of Gnu are openly hostile to them, and that this is actually a relatively recent intellectual development. Prior to the New Atheists, atheists and “progressive” Christians were, more often than not, social and political allies. They both favored very liberal cultures. They both despised conservative culture and politics, and wanted them wiped out. They voted the same way, thought the same way about many issues, and even rejected much of the same religion. The only reason they are not working hand in hand anymore is because the atheists have gotten aggressive and decided they don’t need the “progressives” anymore, and that it’s a net liability to work with them. You can see this in Richard Dawkins’ own writings, among others.
Now, I’ve thought about this for a while – but I classified it merely as a worry, intellectually. A possibility, something to pay attention to but which I wasn’t quite willing to invest myself in as accepting as true. But I’ve finally been forced to realize… in each and every situation where I have encountered a self-identified “progressive” – not necessarily a “liberal” (which is fast becoming a word for a certain kind of older generation of thinker), but a “progressive” – I have found a person who was keenly interested in building bridges with atheists, and wiping conservatives off the map. I don’t merely mean disagreeing with social conservatives and arguing against them. I mean thinking up ways to pass laws to make it, quite literally, in practice illegal to even have (particularly socially) conservative beliefs, much less to act on or spread them.
I have seen the “progressives” defend laws that force Christians to take part in gay weddings – knowing full well that these Christians will be targeted by activists and forced to compromise their principles. They do it with glee, smiling happily and feeling all warm at the thought that somewhere out there a person who disapproves of gay marriage is going to have their feet put to the fire, and that if they don’t do as they’re fucking told, the government will step in and punish them severely. I see these “progressives” cheering when someone is fired from their job when they’re outed as having supported Proposition 8 in California, or if they disapprove of gay marriage. I do not consider these minor issues. These are situations where government – the men with guns and the power to take your property, your children, your livelihood – are being used as the tool of choice to advance a political agenda that ultimately comes down to requiring people to give their active blessing to any and all sexual acts deemed ‘good’ by the morality police. The “progressive” Christians know this. They embrace it. They say “Civil Rights!” and that’s all that needs to be said, as far as they’re concerned, no matter how goddamn inane it is to try and extend civil rights to a sexual act.
And before someone says “not every “progressive” Christian is like that”, all I’ll say is – if there are ones who oppose such things, they are apparently so small in number as to be considered functionally irrelevant.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg on the broad political front. The problem is, the personal front has not been any better – the “progressive” Christians I’ve met and interacted with. I documented my exchange with James McGrath, where he tried every which-way to justify his little hate campaign, complete with fellow “progressive” allies. I’ve watched “progressive” Christians I know of pipe up in conversations about gay marriage, subtly presenting themselves as opponents of gay marriage but whimpering that ‘we’re losing the younger generation by pushing this’ and how we should temporarily be quiet about it ‘so we can save more souls’, when the reality was they were lockstep in favor of gay marriage and were just doing their part to encourage dissent (and in this case I knew, because I saw them argue as much elsewhere). In each and every encounter I’ve had with a “progressive” Christian, I have ultimately lost respect for them – not because they differ with me on various issues, but because of their tactics of choice, because of their focus. It became obvious to me that if they had to choose between a fellow Christian becoming an atheist who was in favor of liberal politics, or remaining a Christian with conservative leanings, they would push for atheism every time. And before anyone acts offended that I would infer this about them, now’s a good time to mention I really don’t give a shit who’s offended by this. It’s the impression I’ve gotten, and I’m speaking frankly.
But I think the last straw for me – the final blow – was when I went to Lothar’s blog recently, and read the following:
I agree with anti-theist Richard Dawkins that stressing this to small kids is a form of child abuse and that this damnable doctrine ought to be jettisoned.
I want to stress something here. When Lothar embraces this kind of anti-scientific, unfounded (save for a very interesting case of philosophical and metaphysical commitment) view, he is saying something along the lines of the following: Take a parent who teaches their children that some people are sent to hell for eternity. Put them alongside a father who fingered his son’s anus, and a mother who punched her daughter so hard she knocked a tooth out. These three people are all, in a broad sense, guilty of the same general crime, and should be treated accordingly.
Let me highlight this point: if someone claims that teaching a child about hell is child abuse, they have been put in the following dilemma: they must either believe some forms of child abuse should be legal, or they must believe that children with parents who teach them this belief should be punished and have their children taken away from them by the state. The fact of it is, it’s not a fucking minor point, nor is it a game. To make that commitment – to decide that your personal preference about religious doctrine should be enforced by the arm of the state – is not just a bridge too far. It is a country too far. And, I will note, this kind of “progressive” Christian talk never gets directed at atheists. Show me the “progressive” who believes that teaching children naturalist or atheist beliefs about death and even existence – and these are not ‘pretty’ or ‘encouraging’ things – constitutes child abuse. They are nowhere to be found.
I do not say this lightly. I’ve liked Lothar. He’s interacted with me pleasantly, considerately. He has done me, personally, no wrong. But I can’t turn a blind eye to this sort of thing anymore and convince myself that we are in any real sense on the ‘same side’. I’m tired of watching the New Atheists, a collection of people which included actual marxists and certainly very loud left-wingers, being cast as ‘a right-wing hate group’. I am tired of watching ‘conservative’ evangelicals come in for a repeated beating as the people who are somehow doing the most the harm Christianity, when the fact is that if someone ever tries to persuade you that Christianity is true then 9 out of 10 times it’s probably a conservative, because “progressives” largely think belief in Christianity is near-irrelevant anyway and would find such preaching mortally embarrassing. I am tired of watching the agitation for every sect of Christianity in the world to quickly start ordaining women because it’s just so damn important and no dissent is ever to be tolerated on that issue either. I am tired of every passage in the bible that involves God saying or doing something a “progressive” does not automatically approve of being jettisoned with the ‘well the bible isn’t inerrant so we’ll just interpret God as meaning something else’ line – and treating dissent or disagreement on this topic as itself damnable. I am tired of the mental gymnastics where the only real and clear sins someone can engage in are to believe the earth is young, to vote against universal health care, or to oppose gay marriage, feminism, global warming initiatives or whatever else is trendiest this week.
But most of all, I am tired of trying to ignore the fact that in practically every one of these cases, the “progressives” are not only venomously hostile to dissent, but they openly agitate for their opponents to be squelched, crushed, persecuted, fined and even jailed. And I’m tired of having to pretend that such people are not, put simply, monsters.
This is not specific to Lothar. It is, in my personal experience, near universal among “progressives”, Christian or not. But I will say one thing. Lothar has written critically about France’s historical attempts to purge the german language from their country, in the interests of having a nice, unified french-speaking nation. He has called this cultural genocide. But the fact is, cultural genocide is exactly what he ultimately endorses with regards to conservative Christians, more or less across the board. I say it with a heavy heart – it is hard to criticize someone who has been consistently considerate with me like this. But the idea of having common ground with “progressives” now truly appears to me as little more than the grounds for a work of fiction, one that is particularly fantastical – and it was that hope for common ground that drove a lot of my silence and hesitancy previously. The hope is gone.
So, I suppose, this little blog post in the middle of nowhere can stand as a testimonial on behalf of one broadly conservative, Catholic individual. If you are a Christian conservative who has thought that maybe a shared belief in God or Christ can build some bridges between conservative and progressive Christians, take it from someone who has talked with a number of them, watched them, and thought about this for years: they do not want cooperation. They want you, and anyone who thinks like you, converted or pushed to the absolute margins of society. They would sooner have you be a “progressive” atheist than a conservative Christian if the option were available. They are engaged in a war of cultural genocide against you, and they are not above carrying this war out through any means necessary, from having you fired to making it illegal to even raise your children with your values and beliefs in mind.
I responded there
Okay Crude, I recognize this was an (incredibly) silly sentence, I should have said that “traumatizing a kid with hell CAN be a true child abuse”.
After all, my own parents are nominal Catholics (and nominal secular Christians) and they taught me that evil people would suffer eternally, yet this didn’t terrorize me by any means.
I have a very impulsive personality (having ADHD) which leads me all to often to “shoot from the hip” while regretting it in hindsight.
I further recognize that instead of fostering a dialog between people with different views (as my blog is all about) I have all too often myself used an emotional rhetoric sometimes even bordering on bullying.
I have failed my Conservative readers in many respects by NOT fairly and impartially analyzing their arguments and motives, resorting instead to rhetoric tricks.
Don’t get me wrong: my view that many Conservative Christian dogmas are harmful for both the society and the Church hasn’t changed.
But there are many good conservative ideas as well as many arguments they use which are not as easy to dismiss as many liberals think they are.
I sincerely apologize to all my Conservative readers for not having fairly represented their strongest arguments and most rational positions.
It is my hope they will forgive me and still comment on my blog because I want to foster a true dialog where people disagree in a spirit of mutual respect.
Promoting a really tolerant and open society
Crude is entirely right that too many liberal Christians have an intolerant mindset and want to impose their ideas by any means.
I am, unfortunately, not always an exception.
I think that rational arguments should be employed for promoting our progressive convictions.
Firing someone just because he does not accept gay marriage is an ignoble act.
I will soon blog about this phenomenon and explain why it strongly INCREASES homophobia instead of combating it, as it can be observed in France.
I don’t want to DESTROY Conservative Christianity as a whole and have many Conservative Christian friends with whom I agree to disagree.
What I want to defeat is the bigotry one can find in many American Conservative lobbies.
But now I also want to destroy the very same intolerance which is conspicuous on the left side of the Kulturkampf.
My (unattainable) dream would be to live in society where being for or against gay marriage has no repercussion in terms of employments, friendships and relationships and where people really strive for mutual understanding instead of yelling at each others.
I obviously still far short in that respect.
So what am I to make of these texts? Do I simple ignore them and assume they are false? If so why did Jesus appear to regard the OT scriptures as sacred?
I am incredibly thankful to Geoff for his terrific email which raises many fundamental questions that are all too often shoved aside by Conservative Christians.
I find it extremely healthy to start questioning and critically examining one’s faith, as I pointed out in one of my first blog posts, this is all what progressive Christianity is about.
I am sure, however, that I won’t be able to provide him with final answers. All I can do here is giving him some advice and insights which will hopefully help him make up his own mind.
The problem of Biblical atrocities
Moral indignation against certain Biblical passages is far from being a phenomenon of our enlightened age.
Several Church Fathers in the first centuries of Christianity recognized the stark contrast between Christ’s teaching (on the one hand) and the moral message conveyed by some texts in the Old Testament.
Gregory of Nissa wrote:
“The Egyptian [Pharaoh] is unjust, and instead of him, his punishment falls upon his newborn child, who
on account of his infant age is unable to discern what is good and what is not good … If such a one now
pays the penalty of his father’s evil, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is
Ezekiel, who cries … “The son should not suffer for the sin of the father?” How can history so contradict
C.S. Lewis (who is almost universally admired by Evangelicals) did not share their belief in Biblical inerrancy and had this to say about the genocide depicted in the book of Joshua:
“Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.
To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.”
Salvaging the dogma of Biblical inerrancy
Conservative Evangelicalism is founded on the rock of the Chicago statement on inerrancy, according to which everything a Biblical writer intended to convey is entirely free of errors.
As a consequence, Conservative Evangelicals have developed two kinds of strategies for dealing with putative moral atrocities found in the Bible.
The first consists of calling into question the moral intuition underlying our rejection of certain passages (when interpreted straightforwardly).
William Lane Craig is a great example of that approach. He tried to argue on philosophical grounds that God is not bounded by any moral obligation and has the right to kill an entire wicked people if He so wish.
As Randal Rauser argued, his arguments utterly fail to establish that the slaughter of the Canaanite was not an atrocity.
The second Evangelical strategy consists of arguing that we cannot take the offending texts at face value and that if we interpret them correctly, we will see that they are really not as morally problematic as one could think.
To paraphrase Evangelical pastor and theologian Greg Boyd, both strategies are (at best) only capable of making the God depicted by the terror texts to look a bit less horrible.
A shift of paradigm concerning inspiration
To my mind, such strategies are akin to seeking to cure a cancer by using pain killers. It might temporarily alleviate the pain but does nothing to heal the underlying disease which is still progressing and going to cause many other ordeals.
I think that the Evangelical way to look at the Bible has to be overturned and that one should consider Biblical authors in the same way other Christian and Jewish authors are seen.
Let us consider John Wesley, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, the Church Fathers or many missionaries. The fact that they were not inerrant and that God did not directly speak to them does nothing to cancel the value of their testimonies, experiences and theological insights.
It also does nothing to show that they did not experience God’s miraculous intervention.
Viewing the Biblical writings as thoughts about God rather than as the direct voice of the Almighty certainly greatly alleviate the problems of atrocities they endorsed.
Like Christians between 300 A.C. often got God wrong, writers of the OT and the NT also made culturally conditioned mistakes and misinterpreted the divine will.
This is why we cannot base our theology on the Bible (which speaks with many conflicting voices to begin with) but on God’s ultimate moral perfection, as C.S. Lewis expressed it in the quote above.
This is why we need to use the historical critical method to interpret the Bible in order to understand the historical context and motives of the authors.
If we do so, we will often realize that (most) Biblical authors were not evil and often progressive for their time, even if their ethic fell short (objectively speaking).
And it is from their very experience and progresses we can learn as Christians.
Jesus view of the Bible
This leads us to the most problematic question, namely what Jesus thought about the Hebrew Bible. Did he not consider it to be inerrant in the same way modern Evangelicals do?
I have three important points to make about this.
Incarnation does not mean infallibility
Viewing the earthly Jesus as almighty and all-knowing is not only unnecessary but also flies in the face of the Biblical texts.
“Though theologians seldom point this out, the fact that Jesus operated mainly within the horizon of his
finite human horizon has other implications. If we assume for the sake of discussion that he was a
carpenter like his father, did he ever miss the nail with his hammer? Hit his thumb? Did he think that he left
his saw on the bench when, because he was distracted, he actually leaned it against the wall? Did Jesus
ever look across a crowded town square and think that he saw his brother James only to discover that it
was someone else? And did he estimate that the crowd was about 300 when it was really 200? To confess
that Jesus was fully human is to admit that the answer to these questions must be yes. “
Progressive Evangelical scholar Randal Rauser wrote:
“The problem is that this imputes a bizarre psychology to Jesus which undermines the humanity of Jesus, separating it drastically from the common human experience it is meant to emulate. Consequently, it has nothing to commend it. In conclusion, we are far better off accepting that Jesus had at least one, and likely an indeterminate number, of false theological beliefs, so long as there are no false theological beliefs of soteriological import among them.”
Like all Jews of His time, Jesus probably wrongly held to some kind of Biblical infallibility. To my mind this is a real defeater against Christianity only if you view His revelation as absolute moral and intellectual knowledge, which is an assumption I reject.
Jesus view on infallibility and the meaning of the incarnation
Whatever it was, it cannot be the Chicago view (i.e. what the authors really expressed) since the central message of Christ flied in the face of many problematic passages in the OT.
(There is a nice post on the blog of Peter Enns I could not unfortunately find).
I take N.T. Wright’s view that the incarnation means that Jesus became God’s new temple and the Almighty showed us His true face through the life, death and resurrection of His Son.
Therefore God’s revelation through Jesus is not (primarily) propositional knowledge but a narration.
I think that we must view the Bible as a part of the experience of God’s people which is centered in the life of Christ.
Consequently, we should edify ourselves with the Bible in the same way we build ourselves up through other Jewish and Christian authors, i.e. by seeing what we can learn from their own experiences while always taking into account their historical background for understanding them. The presence of scientific, historical and moral errors are no indication that their experiences were not genuine.
Now all I could write was a sketch and I completely accept the fact that many people won’t be convinced by my views.
I have one main advice for Geoff: follow your own conscience wherever it leads.
If you find my answers untenable and cease to be a Christian, you would much more honor God than by faking a faith and experiencing cognitive dissonance.
And as perfectly loving and just, God is never going to condemn a honest person who could no longer believe in Him due to the evil in the world and confusions He Himself allowed.
I wish you all the best in your spiritual journey which must be authentically yours.
I have discovered a secure way for being hated by everyone during a debate between liberals and conservatives.
It merely consists of saying that one should forbid a woman to carry out an abortion and give the undesired child to a committed gay couple.
While I, as a progressive Christian, actively support efforts for promoting tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals, I cannot regard abortion as a good thing.
And I am not alone in that respect.
Popular writer Rachel Held Evans wrote a great post entitled “Why Progressive Christians Should Care About Abortion” which I reproduced here.
I knew what abortion was before I knew where babies came from.
Growing up in the evangelical subculture of the 80s and 90s, I was well versed in the language of the pro-life cause, as familiar with Roe vs. Wade and the silhouette of a tiny fetus as I was with Disney princesses and contemporary Christian music. My young mind grasped the essence of the pro-life argument—that all of life is valuable, no matter how small or vulnerable—but mistakenly reduced the solution to abortion to a single step—vote for a pro-life president, and abortion will go away. A Republican president meant no more dead babies. It was as simple as that.
…Until it wasn’t.
The first president I voted for was George W. Bush. My dad dropped me off at the polling station and I marched into the Rhea County Courthouse to cast my vote for life. While President Bush endorsed the 2005 Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which I supported, he also championed a pre-emptive war in Iraq that costs hundreds of thousands of lives. His presidency did not make much of a dent in the abortion rate, and even though he appointed conservative judges, Roe vs. Wade remained intact. By the time W finished his second term, I had graduated from college, come to terms with the fact that the criminalization of abortion is highly unlikely no matter the party in power, expanded my definition of “pro-life” to include Iraqi children and prisoners of war, and experienced first-hand some of the major problems with America’s healthcare system, which along with poverty and education issues, contributes to the troubling abortion rate in the U.S. I remained pro-life idealistically, but for the first time, voted for a pro-choice president, hoping that the reforms I wanted to see in the healthcare, the economy, immigration, education, and for the socioeconomically disadvantaged would function pragmatically to reduce abortions. A couple of my conservative friends called me a baby killer. Several questioned my salvation.
As I advocated for the election (and re-election) of President Obama, I confess I grew somewhat embarrassed by the pro-life cause. I hated those cars that boasted a “Choose Life” sticker on one bumper and a “You’ll Have to Pry My Gun From My Cold, Dead Hands” on the other. The stubborn commitment to abstinence-only education among many evangelicals struck me as counterproductive to the cause, and those awful statements about how a raped woman has a “way of shutting that whole thing down” to prevent pregnancy were shameful and ignorant. Plus, sometimes it seemed like abortion was the only social justice issue my evangelical friends cared about, so they turned a blind eye to the ways in which Republican politics might hurt other disadvantaged groups, or turned my advocacy on behalf of other causes (like gender equality, trafficking, peace, healthcare reform, gun control, etc.) as an opportunity to make a statement about the horrors of abortion in comparison. It was all picket signs and prayer walks. But I wanted more conversations, and action, around poverty, adoption, and healthcare.
For a lot of pro-lifers, it seemed, abortion was all about the baby.
The woman, and the factors that might contribute to her decision to terminate her pregnancy, didn’t seem to matter much.
But how can we end abortion if we don’t examine why women seek out abortions in the first place? Making it illegal won’t stop it from happening, and yet so many of our efforts are directed toward that end. Aren’t we wasting our time and money by simply throwing it at politicians who wave the pro-life banner, but then do little, practically, to address the underlying issues related to abortion? And why on earth oppose access to birth control and reforms in the health care system when those will likely make the biggest difference in actually curbing abortions in this country?
(For an interesting look at the problem of categorizing the pill as an abortifacient, check out Libby Anne’s piece on the topic, where she notes that “if your goal is to save ‘unborn babies,’ and if you truly believe that a zygote – a fertilized egg – has the same value and worth as you or I – the only responsible thing to do is to put every sexually active woman on the pill,” because the pill actually reduces the number of zygotes naturally rejected by a woman’s body. Also, this month’s Christianity Today includes a short article on how the morning-after pill does not inhibit implantation, but rather blocks fertilization.)
Furthermore, as I became more involved in the feminist conversation (some feminists are pro-life, of course, but many are pro-choice), I began to understand some of the arguments against the criminalization of abortion, like that banning abortion does not necessarily reduce the abortion rate, that enforcing a ban on all abortions would be impossible, and that women would likely seek out abortions through unsafe, illegal procedures anyway.
And when I was honest with myself, I had to admit that I don’t know exactly when life begins (at fertilization? at the first heartbeat? at the existence of brain waves?). Does the Bible, or Christian tradition, really make this abundantly clear? There is even disagreement among Christians about this, (and historically, even among evangelicals), so was it really my place to deny a woman who has been raped, for example, access to a morning-after pill?
And so I remained pro-life in my personal conviction, but I began to question my position that all abortions should be criminalized. I could be against abortion personally, but ambivalent about its legality, right? I could have my own convictions about this issue without making a scene. It was as simple as that.
….Until it wasn’t.
Under President Obama’s presidency, the overall abortion rate has indeed seen a decline, but he overturned some of Bush’s restrictions on late-term abortions, and there are these drones in the sky that don’t seem very pro-life to me. I squirmed on the couch when, during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, cheers erupted upon every mention of a woman’s “right to choose.” A lot of pro-choice folks like to say that “no one is pro-abortion,” but when celebratory concert series and festivals are organized around the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, I can’t help but question the degree to which we have desensitized ourselves to the reality that abortion means the termination of, at the very least, a potential life, something that should never be celebrated with balloons and rock concerts.
What frustrates me about the pro-choice movement is the lengths to which advocates go to de-humanize unborn children and sanitize the abortion procedure, reducing life to nothing more than a cluster of cells and the implications of pregnancy to little more than a choice. The word “fetus” is used instead of “child.” Efforts to encourage women to receive counseling prior to an abortion are stubbornly opposed. The argument is framed around the woman’s body exclusively, as if the fetus is inconsequential, and pro-life advocates are characterized as being “against” women’s rights. (Frankly, as a woman, and a feminist, I don’t like people invoking my “rights” to unilaterally support abortion.)
For a lot of pro-choicers, it seems, abortion is all about the woman.
The unborn child, and all the complicated, terrifying, and beautiful things its life represents, don’t seem to matter much.
So just as I grew irritated with the pro-life movement for its inconsistency and simplistic solutions, I grew irritated with the pro-choice movement for its callousness and disinterest in discussing the very real ethical concerns surrounding the termination of a pregnancy.
And then the Kermit Gosnell story blew up.
“This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women,” the Grand Jury reported, “What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy – and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors. The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels – and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths… Bureaucratic inertia is not exactly news. We understand that. But we think this was something more. We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”
In response, pro-life made the (accurate) observation that it is a mere technicality that separates the legal termination of late-term pregnancies from the illegal termination of late-term pregnancies so gruesomely exposed by the photos from Gosnell’s clinic. Pro-choice advocates made the (accurate) observation that Gosnell is being prosecuted precisely because what he did was illegal and warned that, should abortion be criminalized, practices like his would likely flourish. I was pleased to see many pro-life advocates acknowledge that the story highlights the role poverty plays in abortion, admitting that the women in this case were marginalized and vulnerable, and that their needs ought to be talked about more often. I was pleased to see many pro-choice advocates acknowledging that the stark reminder of what happens to a fetus in a late term abortion was rightfully unsettling. (It should be noted that late tern abortions make up a very small percentage of abortions, as do cases of rape and incest…so both sides tend to appeal to rare cases in debates.) Kristen Howerton, among others, had the good sense push past all the pointless rhetoric about a supposed media conspiracy to ask why on earth the state of Pennsylvania didn’t shut this place down sooner.
Here was abortion—in all of its heartbreaking complexity, with all of its ties to life, death, poverty, exploitation, fear, loneliness, politics, and propaganda—sprawled out on the front pages of our newspapers, and no single side “won.” It was an indictment on our shared apathy, on our shared callousness, on our shared simplistic political solutions.
“…Because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”
Not surprisingly, I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say. I was, truly, speechless.
My conservative friends took the opportunity to chastise and pester me, convinced my delay in writing a post on the topic revealed my participation in some vast media conspiracy and my unwarranted preoccupation with “minor” issues like gender equality in the church. When I explained on Twitter that a post about abortion isn’t simple enough to fit into 600 words, a guy tweeted back, “Sure it is. I can fit it in three: It’s always wrong.”
When the life or health of the mother is at stake?
In the case of rape or incest?
When a woman’s body naturally disposes of a zygote?
Meanwhile, my more liberal friends begged me not to write anything at all. It’s too complicated, they said, too controversial, too complex.
When the life of the weaker is taken by the stronger?
When one out of five pregnancies in this country end in abortion?
When places like these fail to get shut down in part because we’ve turned abortion into such a political issue?
I think a lot of progressive Christians like myself, eager to distance ourselves from some of the rhetoric and policies of the Republican brand of the pro-life movement, shy away from talking about abortion, when our call to do justice and love mercy demand that we speak and act to address this issue, even though it may be more complicated than we originally thought.
In fact, I wonder if an appreciation of the nuances in the debate, and of abortion’s connection to traditionally “progressive” issues like poverty and healthcare, may actually make those of us who are “stuck in the middle” especially effective agents of change. Let’s face it: We are unlikely to find a single party that truly represents a “culture of life,” and abortion will probably never be made illegal, so we’ll have to go about it the old fashioned way, working through the diverse channels of the Kingdom to adopt and support responsible adoption, welcome single moms into our homes and churches, reach out to the lonely and disenfranchised, address the socioeconomic issues involved, and engage in some difficult conversations about the many factors that contribute to the abortion rate in this country, (especially birth control). It seems to me that Christians who are more conservative and Christians who are more liberal, Christians who are politically pro-life and Christians who are politically pro-choice, should be able to come together on this and advocate for life in a way that takes seriously the complexities involved and that honors both women and their unborn children.
In other words, instead of focusing all of our efforts on making “supply” illegal, perhaps we should work on decreasing demand. And instead of pretending like this is just an issue of women’s rights, perhaps we should acknowledge the very real and very troubling moral questions surrounding a voluntarily terminated pregnancy.
I am still unsure of exactly how to do this. I don’t even know where to start, really. The more I learn, the more complex this issue becomes. But the Gosnell case does in fact point to something simple: that we are failing to care for the most marginalized and helpless among us, be they unborn children or women whose desperation sent them to Gosnell’s clinic. And we won’t be able to promote a “culture of life” until we are willing to advocate on behalf of both.
Perhaps God has called those of us who feel “stuck in the middle” to do exactly that.
I truly like the balanced perspectives she brought up.
I really think that Westerners should feel far less certain of the alleged superiority of their culture while contemplating the millions of abortions occurring every year.
To be clear, I accept abortion for protecting the health or life of a woman.
But I find this act profoundly selfish when carried out for refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions and upholding a selfish lifestyle.
The often used argument that embryos can be killed because they feel nothing could be used as well for justifying infanticides since we certainly dispose of medical means for making the newborn child utterly insensitive.
Philosopher Peter Singer was entirely consistent as he advocated the moral permissibility of killing babies deemed “unworthy of living”. And I think we have good grounds for fearing this might very well happen in the future.
As the great reformed apologist Francis Schaeffer pointed out, what was unthinkable in the past can become thinkable in today’s society at a breathtaking pace.
As I pointed out previously, Christian fundamentalists and former fundamentalists having turned into militant atheists have the very same view of the Bible for what concerns morality and theology. Every command attributed to God is completely consistent with the others and the truth of Christianity (or the moral character of God) stands and falls with the validity of the smallest divine order.
But is it how Jesus viewed things?
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus did not tell to the asking person:
„You should stone your disobedient children.“ or
„Fool! How dare you ask such a silly question to me! Every command is equally important!“
But he said that the entire Jewish Law can be traced back to love for God and love for one’s neighbor as for oneself. And the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that our enemies also belong to our neighbors.
The phrase „And the second is like it“ is particularly intriguing.
It is very likely that Jesus meant that the purest way of loving God is by loving the people he created to his image. This aspect is particularly visible in one of Jesus descriptions of the final judgment:
„But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 25:32 Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them
one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 25:33 He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 25:34 Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 25:35 for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me
drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. 25:36 I was naked, and you clothed me.
I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’ 25:37 “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? 25:38 When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? 25:39 When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’ 25:40 “The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothersr ,
you did it to me.’ 25:41 Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from
me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels;
25:42 for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave
me no drink; 25:43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t
clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ 25:44 “Then they will also answer, saying,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’ 25:45 “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ 25:46 These will go away
into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Mattew’s 25:31 – 25:46
This passage sounds certainly hard, but it shows it is all about love: non-believers having loved the poor people are called into the presence of the Lord whereas believers having ignored their needs are driven out of His presence.
Now we have to deal with a troubling passage:
18“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19“Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
It is very easy to find commands in the Torah not only failing to foster love but also going in quite the opposite direction.
Jesus seemed to be well aware of this as he said
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
So if he really literally meant we ought to literally obey the Law he was literally inconsistent.
Such a cognitive dissonance could perhaps be understandable for a Jew of his time unwilling to deny the validity of what was considered as a divine tradition.
But I doubt that Jesus was inconsistent in that respect, I believe He really meant that love is the ground of everything AND that the law was fulfilled in Him, perhaps in a metaphoric way.
I’m still struggling to understand Jesus attitude towards the Law.
But we can be quite sure that Love was the foundation of his entire ethic even if he might have been culturally unwilling to let go of the inspiration of the Law, the logical implications of his central teachings notwithstanding.
On the Inspiration of the Bible and other Books
Fundamentalists and more generally Evangelicals believe that if God exists and is interested in human affairs, He will give us an inerrant Bible where His nature is revealed in a consistent and trustworthy manner.
We are living in a very uncertain time and I am well aware that such a faith can bring a great comfort to quite a few people who have the feeling to have found an unshakable anchor.
But when clever and intellectually honest persons are confronted with undeniable Biblical contradictions, and above else with places where God is portrayed as being an ugly monster, they will most often throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater and become resentful opponents of Christianity.
Such deconversion experiences often stem from the binary way their brain has been programmed to consider the Biblical Canon: as a young pastor told me recently, if one begins to doubt the truth of details in the Old Testament, everything is called into question and it becomes impossible to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.
They fail to consider the possibility there are many other ways to read, understand and consider the Bible.
I personally read the books accepted within the Biblical Canon in the same way I read books from all Christian authors between 300 A.C. and our the 21cst century, that is as the description of human experiences with and thoughts about God.
When I read the testimonies of other Christians, I will certainly consider what they write as faillible humans words about God, but I am quite open they might have received profound insights about God and how to lead one’s life. I would be also quite open to the possibility that God acted in miraculous ways and that they encountered hostile spiritual entities.
And as I explain with the example of the life of Martin Luther even if people do egregious things and teach mistaken (and even blasphemous) things about God, I have no problem believing they had genuine experiences with Him.
To take a concrete example, I read the books of the apostle Paul in the same way I read books from C.S. Lewis: I believe that both were examplary Christians, great defenders of the faith and extraordinary men, and the presence of logical, empirical and theological errors in their writings does not prevent me at all to appreciate all the right things they figured out.
But if we don’t believe that the books within the Biblical Canon are more inspired than books outside it, how can we make the difference between right and wrong beliefs about God?
While I cannot speak for all progressive Christians, I believe that we should base our theology on the fact that God has to be perfect in order for Him to be God. Even tough human beings are faillible creatures they are quite able to recognize perfection and to find out what is morally right and wrong as Saint Paul explains in the first chapters of the letter to the Romans.
Actually, as I am going to argue in a future post, Paul (or at the very least the author of the Acts of the Apostles) believed and taught that Pagan authors thinking about Zeus can get quite a few things about God right.
Deutsche Version: die Definition des Christentums .
The Definition of Christianity
The definition of what it means to be a Christian can be quite tricky for many persons. Certain conservative definitions such as :
„A Christian is someone believing in the entire Bible“ or
„A Christian is someone going to the holy Mass every Sunday and taking all sacraments“
are extremely reductive and exclude many people who have profound experiences with Jesus while not fulfilling the above definitions.
I will modestly propose a definition allowing us to encompass the whole Christendom:
„A Christian is someone who follows and worships a perfectly good God who revealed his true face through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.“
This is certainly compatible with the two definitions mentioned above but it is not limited to them.
What to think now of the numerous German Protestant pastors who like Jesus a historical person but don’t believe in a personal God and go sometimes as far as denying the existence of any afterlife?
I would consider them as „atheists for Jesus“, they might be extraordinarily good persons and I see no reason why they won’t spend the whole eternity with God and have a very good surprise after having passed away.
But I cannot call them Christians.
Now, I’d love to hear the criticism and comments from people having various perspectives on those topics.