Friday, November 11, 2011

Abortion: the moral poverty

"America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father's role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts -- a child -- as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the independent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And, in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners. Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being's entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be declared to be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign." (Mother Theresa -- "Notable and Quotable," Wall Street Journal, 2/25/94, p. A14)

As American society continues to crumble as it searches for its moral footing, as the Church struggles to be relevant within this disorder, and as we watch violence perpetuate itself in the streets amongst our young people, one cannot help but to wonder if perhaps we have imparted to the next generation the relative if questionable value of human life. Our culture has come to embrace the practice of abortion as a "choice", a "right", or even a "necessary evil" as seems implied in the United Methodist Book of Discipline: "The beginning and ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence ... Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion ..." (¶ 161J). In other words, the United Methodist Church advocates, by its own chosen language, that by human decree it sometimes becomes necessary to violate these “God-given boundaries” and intentionally and deliberately terminate the life of one in order to preserve the life of another.

We cannot make a moral claim to be “equally bound” to respect the mother’s life as well as the life of the unborn child if we would advocate for the willful destruction of that unborn child ostensibly for the sake of the mother. Yet few would reasonably presume to be in a woman's difficult emotional position who is experiencing a high-risk pregnancy and whose learned and trusted doctor has advised that termination of the pregnancy would be in her own best interests. We also must not neglect the reality of the cultural conditioning which has reduced the unborn child - since 1973 when Roe v Wade became the “law of the land” - to the clinical, less-than-human status of “fetus” which has successfully removed the human element from such profound moral decisions about the value of human life and places a higher value on “viability”; “usefulness”. This moral dilemma becomes even more acute when this same mother already has young children who are equally dependent upon her for their well-being.

The short and simple answer is, of course, that "the beginning and ending of life are ... [exclusively] God-given boundaries" (UMBoD, ¶161J), boundaries we dare not presume to cross. Yet we do not seem to recognize that “God-given” boundary in Protestant theology within the social and cultural context, and particularly in Methodism, when we allow for ourselves political and social solutions to moral if medical problems. We have not only violated these “God-given” boundaries, but we have also set up camp in a realm where we clearly do not belong and to which we have clearly not been appointed, in spite of our stated belief in such boundaries to the point of such a despicable act more commonly referred to as "partial birth abortion", sometimes deemed medically necessary, a “necessary evil” in some circles. In such enculturated practices we have approached new boundaries such as stem cell therapy, biomedical research, and human cloning to the point that we have diminished the "sanctity" and "sacred worth" of every human person and have made human life of no more value than what is relative to our own well-being, “convenience”, and affordability. In such morally questionable contexts, life becomes not as much a divine gift than a human commodity to be used and consequently discarded when no longer of any use to us. Mother Teresa’s words in 1994 could not have been more prophetic.

Such dilemmas have become problematic for the Protestant church when on the one hand life is proclaimed as “God-given” with its inherent “boundaries”, and then on the other hand the Church declares for itself its own circumstantial and ambiguous boundaries that are in direct contradiction to a stated if conflicted doctrine that is presumably set within a biblical and traditional context. Once the church departs from the divine law by which it is governed and seeks political solutions according to social demands, it enters into the very human and cultural context from which it is called to be set apart (Luke 2:34) and in so doing, surrenders its moral authority to speak on behalf of the divine law.

Rachels claims scriptural ambiguity in its “supposed” biblical prohibition against abortion and suggests only a conservative, rather than universal, argument could be made by such passages as the prophet Jeremiah’s commission within “God-given boundaries” (Rachels, ppg 58-59). Rachels argues that Jeremiah is only “asserting his authority as a prophet” and that “the sanctity of fetal life is not discussed” (pg 59). If the statement stands alone, Rachels has a point, albeit a narrow one. This argument falls apart in a much broader context however, when we consider the several biblical passages in which the Holy God does not show “partiality” (Acts 10:34). We also cannot proclaim a universal faith in which every life is of equally sacred value, assuming Rachels’ inference that Jeremiah was of greater value than any other who is not so divinely appointed in spite of the psalmist’s claim that even he was “knit together in [his] mother’s womb … fearfully and wonderfully made” by God (Psalm 139). Rachels’ contention places relative value on human life according to human perceptions of divine usefulness and ignores the broader claim of St. Paul that human beings are universally endowed with various gifts by which the Body of Christ itself is made whole (1 Corinthians 12:22-23).

Lovin attempts to do away with moral ambiguity by his use of extrabiblical writers as St. Augustine who maintained there are moral absolutes in the choices we make and the context in which we make them: “two cities created by two kinds of love; one in which is self-love and ultimately contempt for God, and the other driven by love of God to the point of contempt for one’s own life” (Lovin, pg 13). This extrabiblical reference leads us to a much broader understanding of Jesus’ teaching of which choice actually leads to enduring life rather than to death. St. Augustine and other church fathers did not claim their own unique authority to make up new rules or establish new standards; rather they claimed their own interpretations often as they were spiritually led but within a biblical and perhaps historic context (Augustine, sermon 93.5).

In this, then, we can reasonably use the Didache as extrabiblical literature and its specific prohibition against abortion and infanticide (Didache 2:2) as the Roman Catholic Church does. This literature has been dated as early as the first century and as late as the second century and has been traditionally attributed to the apostles and their teachings. We can reasonably embrace the validity of these writings within a consistent standard for the same reason we can reasonably embrace The Gospel according to St. Mark as having been actually penned by a disciple of St. Peter’s rather than written as a first-hand account. Scholars are divided on the authorship of many books of the Bible as well as the Didache, but such contemporary and perhaps enculturated division does not necessarily diminish the value or the validity of what is written. Tradition questions whether Moses actually “wrote” the Pentateuch, but we do not question the spiritual wisdom of those books traditionally attributed to Moses. We learn from generation to generation as Moses required, and we pass on what we have learned; not what we have made up to suit our own purposes (Deuteronomy 4:2).

Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Humane Vitae, maintains this same general and traditional order in that the Church has a moral responsibility to “guard and interpret” rather than to “arbitrate” the moral and divine law since these laws were imparted by divine means rather than devised by human measure (II, para 18). St. Paul expresses the same concerns of liberty by which limits must be discerned between what is “right” and what is “lawful” (1 Corinthians 10:23). Humanity has within its grasp the power to lord over life and death, and the value of life cannot be determined by social or cultural standards which inevitably shift from generation to generation. All life is “of sacred worth” – or - of no value at all outside of cultural relativity, human standards being arbitrary and conditional at best. Rachels’ point is well taken: “Every generation reinterprets Scripture to support its favored moral views” (Rachels, pg 61), but such a statement only affirms the reality of St. Paul’s contention that just because we can legally do something does not grant to us the moral authority to do it.

Divine law as understood by the historical and traditional Church is difficult to define because of the obvious distinctions and seeming contradictions between the Old Testament and the New. The “old” law, for instance, prohibits homosexual conduct which the traditional Church continues to uphold. Yet this same “old” law also prohibits the consumption of pork, a staple at many a church potluck table! We can argue about the finer points of the kosher law and the Law in general; however, we should not make the same mistake in interpreting the moral, social, ethical, and sacred value of every human life. Nor should we find ourselves bound by the circular and impossible arguments of when an unborn child becomes a “person” or at what point in human development a “cluster of cells” becomes something worthy of divine respect.

In such fruitless arguments are contained those “boundaries” which exist for a unique and divine purpose, “boundaries” we dare not cross (but insist upon doing) lest we find ourselves trying to redefine impossible boundaries by human standards according to a fickle human race that cannot know from one generation to the next what is good except by what has been traditionally and universally upheld as good: human life. It is the one moral standard that is as well established as the divine law itself. It is when we become confused by the “two cities” of St. Augustine and our part in either that moral standards become ambiguous and our God and the divine law become more of a concept than a reality.

Though Roe v Wade was issued a ruling by which “the right to terminate a pregnancy is a matter of personal decision and is a privacy issue protected by the Constitution” (Hamilton, pg 114), the social upheaval at the time and the very public debate about the Court’s decision required the Church to take a stand. The Roman Catholic Church affirmed its teaching that life is divinely ordained and refused to “adjust” its doctrine to satisfy the “earthly city”, standing firm from the Didache and Holy Scripture to John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (1995). The Protestant Church has been less than vocal or consistent in its wavering social contexts by which it has attempted to assuage those who demanded such unfettered “freedom” to do with their bodies as they pleased and please God at the same time. The obvious result is a Church lacking any semblance of integrity, no moral foundation upon which to stand, and no doctrinal direction to follow – all because we by word and deed question the value of human life. If St. Augustine is correct in his spiritual assessment, we United Methodists have built a “summer home” in the city of God in which to relax and restore our souls. We live and work, however, in the other “city” and continue to struggle to be relevant both to God and to humanity.

Hamilton references Genesis 9:5-6 in making it “clear that ending a human life is not within our jurisdiction. This is God’s domain” (Hamilton, pg 119). Such a stance is consistent with historic Church teachings and consistent with what is written in our “Discipline” and other sources we neglect to our detriment. Before we can be a moral compass for the society we are called to witness to and lead, we must first decide for ourselves whether we believe what is written and exactly whom we serve. Once this is determined, then and only then can we decide by which moral standard we will stand.

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