Thursday, October 29, 2015

Abortion, love for enemies, and the sins of all

You have heard that it was said, "you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 NKJV)

If, like many of the people I know, you consider yourself "pro-life", know first of all that I share your basic conviction on the immorality of abortion. I believe the ethics of the killing of an unborn child do not simply come down to a woman's right to do as she likes with her body. Though I don't know how to "prove" it and am somewhat weary of attempts to do so, I believe abortion is the destruction of a bearer of God's image, the waste of a human life created to be a partaker in the life of the divine (cf. 2 Peter 1:4), and a terrible tragedy whenever and wherever it takes place.

Yet I hesitate to identify myself with the pro-life movement. This is because while I share its basic convictions on abortion, I feel that it doesn't act on them in a way that is consistent with its substantially Christian identity. (The inescapability of billboards with Bible verses and gestation milestones on any drive through the rural Midwest is a testament to this identity) In large part, I think this can be described as a failure to heed the Lord's command to love even our enemies—a radical teaching from the "sermon on the mount" which I often find myself coming back to precisely because its implications are so profound and far-reaching that we can always readily think of another way we are failing to live up to them. There are at least three such implications that I think are relevant for the pro-life movement. (And please bear in mind that I am attempting to speak corporately of the movement as a whole, not every single person who identifies with it)

The first is the simplest and most immediate: love your enemies enough to stop slandering them. By "slander" I am referring to the false accusation against Planned Parenthood that it has been selling aborted fetal tissue for profit based on the misleading editing of a video interview with PP officials promulgated by the Center for Medical Progress, used as justification for the recently-fervent calls to defund it. The unedited video is fairly long, which is probably why most people don't pay attention to it, but it makes clear that the payment PP accepts payment for fetal tissue strictly to cover the costs of preparation, handling, and transportation, not to make a profit. The ethics of using this tissue for research, legal as it is, are certainly worth further conversation, but no such conversation is happening, only cries of outrage over a demonstrable falsehood.

So far investigations by seven states, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the GOP itself have all failed to find any evidence of illegality in PP's handling of aborted fetal tissue. Yet despite all of this, anti-abortionists are not calling each other out on this myth, but perpetuating it, to the point where PP has stopped accepting even legal reimbursement in order to quell the rumors. So I simply have to ask: if you are one of those railing against PP for profiting off abortions, how much more proof will it take to convince you that these accusations are baseless? Will any amount be sufficient? Or have you simply determined that this will be its hill to die upon, regardless of the facts?

Underlying the endurance of the false claims made by the CMP's video among pro-lifers is an attitude towards truth that I find deeply disturbing for a Christian movement. Of course they are not making claims that they know to be false; I believe they are simply ignorant of how thoroughly the claims have been refuted. But this raises a new problem; it speaks to a failure to "do one's homework", so to speak, an eagerness to believe negative claims about PP without bothering to see if they are really substantiated. This is not just irresponsible; it is a failure to love those we consider our enemies. If you are reluctant to believe bad things said about your friends, then you should be just as reluctant (not eager) to believe them about your enemies, and should require the same amount of convincing. My attempt here to debunk the slander being spread about PP is an effort to obey this teaching, even if it means defending those with whom I strongly disagree from those I would consider my friends. The love of God does not conform to the divisions we create between ourselves.

As well, PP has made no secret at all of the fact that it has been performing abortions for decades. So why has the CMP's video ignited such ferocious calls to defund PP? How has the basic ethical situation changed? What it does with fetal tissue has no bearing on the morality of abortion. If abortion is just another medical procedure that women have the inalienable right to choose for themselves, as abortion supporters believe, then whatever is done with the fetal tissue afterwards is of little further ethical concern; it is just like disposing of, say, an amputated limb or removed appendix. If it is the killing of a person, as pro-lifers argue, then it is a monstrous evil whether the aborted tissue is given a reverent funeral or cut into pieces and sold at a profit. So why does this "revelation" even make any difference to their struggle to protect the unborn? The answer is obvious: because selling fetal tissue for a profit is illegal; if it is really what PP is doing, then it becomes possible to legally prosecute it and (hopefully) shut it down. Because the goal is to stop as many abortions as possible, right?

The second implication: love your enemies enough to talk to them, not past them, to listen to what they have to say, and maybe even (gasp!) to learn from them. Again, just as you would respect a friend in conversation, so you should do with your enemies. Too often it seems to me like pro-lifers are so focused on abortion itself—restricting it, controlling it, defunding it, or condemning it—that they forget what their would-be conversation partners are constantly trying to draw their attention to: the context of abortion. Abortion, like Scripture, has a context: the socioeconomic factors that drive women to end their pregnancies, the things leading up to the decision to terminate a life. This fact sheet describes those factors:
The reasons women give for having an abortion underscore their understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.
As should be obvious, having an abortion is not a decision made lightly or easily. It is not the first wish that comes to anyone's mind in the event of an unplanned pregnancy; it is a last resort, undertaken when carrying a child to term is simply unimaginable for one reason or another. Yes, some abortions may happen because a woman simply doesn't want to care for a child with a disability or wants an "easy" way out of an pregnancy that would be more inconvenient than impossible to carry to term, but looking at the numbers we can't assume these cases are more than a minority. My friend Joe explains in his own words:
[Women who have abortions are] making a hard choice about their ability to provide for all of the people they need to. Sixty percent of women who have abortions in the US already have children; forty percent of women who have abortions in the US are below the official poverty line, and more than seventy percent are below what actually constitutes seriously poor. The choice that's being made isn't between a child and a Maserati or a child and a vacation to the Riviera; it's between having three children or having two children and enough money to give them food, shelter, and medical care.
Abortion is not so much a problem in itself as it is a symptom of deeper, interconnected problems: poverty first and foremost, our flawed health care system, lack of support for new mothers, abusive relationships, single parenthood, and everything else that undermines a woman's ability to care for her children. If it is to be consistent, the fight for "life" cannot be confined merely to unborn life; a fight against abortion must also address these factors.

I think much of the rhetoric leveled against abortion fails to take this context into account. Simply pointing to it as a monstrous evil, a testament to our nation's hardness of heart and full-speed trajectory away from God, a glaring sin which must be repented—these things might all be true, and they might make a single mother struggling to take care of her two children feel guilty about aborting her third, but they do nothing to help her situation or offer hope, and will thus ring hollow. I'm reminded of the Lord's words against the teachers of the Torah: "Woe to you also, lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers." (Luke 11:46) Arguments from Scripture about the dignity or personhood of a fetus, while true, are not much better. Another statistic from that fact sheet that shocked me was that over 60% of women obtaining abortions identify as Christians (37% Protestant, 28% Catholic). No doubt many of these would agree, at least in theory, with pro-life rhetoric about the "sanctity of life" and the personhood of the unborn. Yet they still seek abortions, probably for the kinds of reasons described above, in spite of those beliefs. (The failure of their churches to offer them much-needed support in carrying their children to term is, to say the least, sobering)

This context also means that the kind of restrictions conservatives seek to place on abortion are not likely to be as effective as they hope, and will also ring insensitive at best, anti-woman at worst. A woman who wants to have an abortion probably feels that the alternative of not having one will be even worse, and so she may go to great (even illegal and dangerous) lengths to avoid that alternative. In all likelihood, she feels she has no other choice—can you imagine why trying to take away the one choice she feels she has left might seem callous and backward? In my other post on abortion, a doctor writes of his experience before Roe vs. Wade treating a women who had had a then-illegal abortion: "Her desperate need to terminate a pregnancy was the driving force behind the selection of any method available." We can expect such cases to become increasingly, tragically common if we take away womens' access to legal abortions without concerning ourselves with the context.

The very dichotomy between "pro-life" and "pro-choice" ideologies is also emblematic of a failure to listen, on the part of both self-identified camps. When did valuing life and respecting peoples' freedom to make their own healthcare decisions become necessarily conflicting goals? Who decided that you have to choose between them? Unfortunately, I think a good deal of the blame falls on the pro-life movement. While the legal measures it pursues against abortion and its providers do protect unborn life (at least in intention), they tend to do so by...constraining choice. Restricting when, where, and how abortions can be obtained, forcing doctors to attempt to dissuade women seeking abortions, or trying to defund organizations that provide them all have the effect of undermining and reducing a woman' choice of the medical treatment she desires and feels (however wrongly) that she needs. The pro-choice agenda is not so much an intentional campaign against life as it is a fight for womens' welfare and their ability to make their own medical choices—as just about any pro-choice supporter will tell you, if you listen. These things are not bad in themselves; why do we act as though we are opposed to them?

This article asks much the same questions. The author remarks on how "it has become a bad thing to be against ending preborn human life." Trying to stop abortions with legal force, as pro-lifers do, is "like trying to put out a fire with gasoline". It has led to defending unborn life becoming correlated with being against womens' health and their right to make medical choices for themselves, and with undermining their welfare. For example, opposition to an Ohio bill that would ban abortions when the sole reason is that the fetus has Down Syndrome is based on the impression that lawmakers are "controlling women and denying them the ability to make the most important choice that they will ever face". It's not unlike the fear among supporters of gun rights that any restriction on gun ownership is a prelude to the government coming and taking all their guns away—except that in this case, the total prohibition of abortion is the explicit goal of most pro-lifers, not just a feverish projection of one's own fears. The author writes about the pro-life legal struggle:
As long as the battle for preborn life takes place in capital buildings and courtrooms, pro-choice advocates will continue to believe that pro-life advocates are backwards and anti-women, that Planned Parenthood fights for the rights of women; and as the quote at the top of the piece argues, that rallies such as the one in St. Paul are held to prevent basic health care.
My friend Joe adds that the legal battle here is not just over the recognition of the personhood of a fetus or the moral status of abortion: pro-life supporters are also seen (rightly?) as promoting sex education that does not help prevent unplanned pregnancy, spreading misinformation about abortion and women's health, doing little to support (or even opposing) health care that promotes the welfare of women considering if they can support a child, and showing comparatively scarce concern for the welfare of children that have already been born. It bears repeating that not everyone who identifies as pro-life is involved in all or any of these things, but rare indeed is the voice of loyal dissent raised within the pro-life movement against them. Pro-choice supporters show a strong awareness of the deeper problems of which abortion is a symptom, problems that too often get ignored in pro-life rhetoric, and it is on this neglect that they base much of their own arguments. In a way, the pro-life cause is self-defeating precisely because the measures it takes to advance its agenda also strengthen its opposition.

I hope I have shown sufficiently how the effort to protect the unborn can benefit from talking to those it disagrees with rather than past them. This means not ignoring them or giving a dismissive response, but listening well enough to hear when they may be reminding us of what we have forgotten. It means addressing our rhetoric to what they are actually saying, not simply to ourselves. It means making their accusations our self-critique: do we, in our actions as well as in our words, care more about unborn life than life in other stages and forms? It should lead us beyond "pro-life" as a mere political cause to the more fundamental why: the recognition, preservation, and cherishing of the image of God and we whom God has granted to bear it. And the truth is, the most ardent pro-choice activist is just as much a bearer of the image of God as an unborn child, worthy of just as much of honor and compassion. If we confine our struggle for the sanctity of life merely to abortion, it becomes contradictory and self-defeating. Listening to the truths spoken by both sides offers hope for a stance toward abortion that combines the best (i.e. true) parts of both ideologies and none of their faults.

Once you stop believing that the two are opposites, it is possible to be both pro-life and pro-choice. If abortion is the result of women feeling like they have no choice, no other way of dealing with a pregnancy, then perhaps the best solution to the problem it poses is not to take away what little choice they have left, but to give them more freedom, more choices, better choices—alternatives to the taking of a life. Instead of condemning those who seek and provide abortions, highlight and celebrate the beauty of choosing life—and, inasmuch as you continue to work on a political level, offer the support needed to help more women make that choice. On a rhetorical level, zoom out from the impasse over abortion itself and turn to the distortions in our culture that give rise to both the justification and permissibility of abortion. As the article author puts it, "offer a hand, not handcuffs ... highlight the beauty of choosing life and offer support to help it come into the world." Not only will this undermine the basis for much of the ideological conflict over abortion and promote reconciliation; I think it will also truly undo the evil represented by abortion instead of just diverting it.

But this attitude of openness, of willingness to listen and seek reconciliation, is tragically rare in the pro-life movement, as far as I have seen. Far more common is the mindset of warfare: we must rally the troops and fight to defend the sanctity of life from all who would devalue and destroy it, from the horrific evil of abortion, no matter what it takes, even slander and bitter condemnation of the "other side". Instead of compassion and a helping hand, women seeking abortions are denounced as murderers and participants in a horrific national evil. The picketing and harassment of abortion providers is a highly visible example of this; according to the fact sheet, "Eighty-four percent of clinics experienced at least one form of antiabortion harassment in 2011. Picketing is the most common form of harassment clinics are exposed to (80%) followed by phone calls (47%). Fifty-three percent of clinics were picketed 20 times or more."

I don't think such an attitude of judgment and condemnation is fitting for fellow sinners such as us—especially not if there is anything to my previous two points and this condemnation is accompanied by corporate sin that is visible to no one more than the very people we condemn. Should immorality among those making a Christian profession of faith (claiming to be a member of "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people" [1 Peter 2:9]) not concern us more than that of the world, where it is to be expected? Are we not first to judge among ourselves, and leave it to God to judge the world? As St. Paul writes: "For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore 'put away from yourselves the evil person.'" (1 Cor 5:12-13) Going deeper into the sermon on the mount, the final implication of enemy love I want to discuss is this: love your enemies enough to see your own sin as worse than theirs.

This is one of the teachings of the Orthodox Church that I have found especially humbling, though it is by no means unique to it. It is obedience to the Lord's later teaching in Matthew 7:1-5: "Judge not, that you be not judged. ... And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? ... Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." It is to adopt as our own the sober self-understanding expressed by St. Paul when he writes, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first" (1 Timothy 1:15), as Orthodox pray before receiving communion. It is to feel the weight of our own guilt upon ourselves as heavier than a mountain, and cry out in repentance and prayer for the pardon and remission of our sins; meanwhile, we view the sins of others charitably, as lighter than a feather, pointing them out not simply to condemn but in loving admonishment, to speed them along the path of salvation. Loading others up with guilt over their own sins without giving priority to your own is the opposite of Christlike—it is pharisaic.

This focus on the seriousness of one's own sin and the importance of pursuing one's own salvation, the discouragement of dwelling on the sins of others, is amazingly pervasive in Orthodox theology and devotion. It is basic to the character of one being conformed to the image and likeness of Christ.  But there is also a rarer, more profound and radical dimension of the teaching: the idea that we are each responsible, in some way, for the sins of everyone. Obviously this does not imply a confusion of persons or a contradiction of the biblical idea that each one is responsible for his own sin; it is something you have to "put on", a different and counterintuitive perspective you have to shift into seeing, not something innate. We don't just see ourselves as involved in the same kinds of sins as others; we actually see ourselves as somehow responsible for the sins of others—and repent for all! As the book I am currently reading for my catechism class puts it, "a saint is one who sees himself in the sins of others."

This idea is presented memorably by the saintly Elder Zossima in Dostoevsky's classical novel The Brothers Karamazov. Fr. Stephen Freeman shares this quote from the book:
“Love one another, fathers,” the elder taught (as far as Alyosha could recall afterwards). “Love God’s people. For we are not holier than those in the world because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, but, on the contrary, anyone who comes here, by the very fact that he has come, already knows himself to be worse than all those who are in the world, worse than all on earth … And the longer a monk lives within his walls, the more keenly he must be aware of it. For otherwise he had no reason to come here.
“But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth.
“This knowledge is the crown of the monk’s path, and of every man’s path on earth. For monks are not a different sort of men, but only such as all men on earth ought also to be. Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and that knows no satiety. Then each of us will be able to gain the whole world by love and wash away the world’s sins with his tears …
“Let each of you keep close company with his heart, let each of you confess to himself untiringly. Do not be afraid of your sin, even when you perceive it, provided you are repentant, but do not place conditions on God.
“Again I say, do not be proud. Do not be proud before the lowly, do not be proud before the great either. And do not hate those who reject you, disgrace you, revile you, and slander you. Do not hate atheists, teachers of evil, materialists, not even those among them who are wicked, nor those who are good, for many of them are good, especially in our time.
“Remember them thus in your prayers: ‘Save, Lord, those whom there is no one to pray for, save also those who do not want to pray to you.’ And add at once: ‘It is not in my pride that I pray for it, Lord, for I myself am more vile than all …’
Later, on his deathbed Zossima similarly teaches:
“Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of any one. For no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps more than all men to blame for that crime. When he understands that, he will be able to be a judge. Though that sounds absurd, it is true. If I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me. If you can take upon yourself the crime of the criminal your heart is judging, take it at once, suffer for him yourself, and let him go without reproach. And even if the law itself makes you his judge, act in the same spirit as far as possible, for he will go away and condemn himself more bitterly than you have done. If, after your kiss, he goes away untouched, mocking at you, do not let that be a stumbling-block to you. It shows his time has no yet come, but it will come in due course. And if it come not, no matter; if not he, then another in his place will understand and suffer, and judge and condemn himself, and the truth will be fulfilled. Believe that, believe it without doubt; for in that lies the hope and faith of the saints.
“If the evil doing of men moves you to indignation and overwhelming distress, even to a desire for vengeance on the evil-doers, shun above all things that feeling. Go at once and seek suffering for yourself, as if you were guilty of that wrong. Accept that suffering and bear it and your heart will find comfort, and you will understand that you too are guilty, for you might have been a light to the evil-doers, even as the one man sinless, and you were not a light to them. If you had been a light, you would have lightened the path for others too, and the evil-doer might perhaps have been saved by your light from his sin. (6.3.h)
Through his memorable depiction of Zossima, Dostoevsky shows the kind of humility, repentance, and love we are called to in Christ—a love that, like our Lord's, bears the guilt of the sins of others. At first I struggled to apply this attitude to the sin of abortion. How am I responsible for it? Not in any immediately obvious way; I don't know anyone who had one (that I know of), and I have never been supportive of it. But I have definitely not done much (if anything) to help address the problems I discussed earlier as the "context" of abortion. In that sense, I am a hypocrite. On further reflection, I realized that despite my words, in how I actually live I worship the same idol of self-governance as do those who convince themselves that there can be such a thing as a "right" to abortion. Most days I pray more as a quick distraction than a vocation, and the great majority of my time is divided up according to whatever I "feel like" doing: a subtle form of hedonism. So in some sense I am able to see myself as responsible for the sin that underlies abortion. The evil that it represents is not just something "out there" to war against; it is alive and at work in my own heart, and I am told to condemn it first of all. When I judge this evil, I judge myself first, and if I seek to heal it, I must be continually repenting of my participation in it.

I am the first among sinners. Paradoxically, so are you. Only when we truly believe this are we ready to pass judgment on the sins of others.

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