Saturday, September 22, 2012

BEYOND PRO-LIFE


After 30+ years of polarizing single-issue politics, it's time for something more responsible for all who care deeply about life.

Another national election cycle rolls around.  That means a number of my fellow Christian friends are again aligning themselves with the Republican Party and its line-up of candidates primarily because of abortion.  It means a few friends are again openly questioning my Christianity because I do not fall in lock-step conformity with prescribed partisan pro-life mantra.

Typically, I would quietly endure these assaults and continue to vote my conscience.  This time, however, I’m not in the mood to be self-defensive or silent in the face of religious misjudgment and political bullying.

I’ve been on the other side.  As a Christian college student, I formed the school’s first pro-life committee in 1979.  Having attended the Chicago premiere of the five-episode film series “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” I brought it to campus.  My initial political involvement was voter registration and organizing around this issue.  My stiff views moderated, however, when I began to serve neighbors in the heart of the city, to grapple with socio-political realities in an urban pastorate, and to witness hypocrisy in pro-life politicians and manipulative powers behind the pro-life movement.

The six considerations I share below are not for the sake of defending my political choices.  Instead, it’s an attempt to open up a different range of considerations regarding abortion and pro-life posturing in elections.  And, if possible, to persuade some--who think that if they are against abortion they can only vote for pro-life candidates--otherwise.

1. Most pro-life candidates are primarily anti-abortion, not necessarily life-defending or life promoting.  If one thinks voting for pro-life candidates means one is voting for persons and platforms that consistently and comprehensively affirm the value of life, one would be sorely mistaken.

As it has been expressed over the past 30 years, pro-life politics excludes the lives of persons on death row.  It excludes the men, women and children living in countries considered to be our national enemies.  By policy and investment, it excludes the lives of billions of persons struggling to stay alive in the face of poverty, disease, and scarcity of food and clean water.  It fails to connect to creation care, without which human life will ultimately not be sustainable.

More directly and immediately, many pro-life politicians have not supported basic prenatal and postnatal care and early childhood initiatives that are considered essential preserve life and promote health of our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens.  In fact, some pro-life politicos have actively pursued the reduction or end of community initiatives aimed at reducing infant mortality and early-childhood problems.

The difference between anti-abortion politicians and those of us who advocate for life is profound.  Like me, they find sweeping away the independently viable life of an unborn fetus objectionable.  Unlike me, they tend not apply the “made in the image of God” rationale beyond the issue of abortion.  They do not oppose the death penalty, unconscionable military spending in the face of domestic and international poverty, or cuts in healthy baby programs on the same grounds.  Because I take the Bible and historic Judeo-Christian ethic seriously, I apply the “image of God” principle to all human life and societal relationships.

2. Once elected, anti-abortion candidates have not addressed abortion as the high priority they gave it when they sought the votes of those who care deeply about this issue.  Thirty years after first making this a top election issue, anti-abortion politicians continue to wave this flag in election campaigns but put it away after the votes are counted.  Their few legislative forays over three decades have produced lots of polarizing rhetoric but negligible movement on this issue.  To the point: politicians’ highly divisive approach to reducing abortions in America has not worked.  Continuing to elect those who hype this as a wedge issue may well prevent real progress toward effective abortion legislation or policy.

More than a few politicians use anti-abortion campaign tactics in a calculating and cynical manner.  Aware that federal-level policy on abortion is defined and upheld by the US Supreme Court, they still posture and campaign as if nothing is more important.  All the while, they know there is little they can or will do administratively or legislatively to impact this lingering moral and social quandary.  I want to elect persons who are more sincere (or at least less disingenuous) regarding social concerns I care about deeply.

3. When single-issue politics is used, voters give politicians a license do just about whatever they please regarding everything else that ought to matter.  If citizens commit to vote for candidates simply because they say they’ll oppose abortion, the politicians are off the hook for the rest of their agendas.  Single-issue voters should not be surprised that politicians serve their own and others’ interests on a wide range of issues with little accountability to “values voters.”  Why?  Because they know they can count on single-issue voter myopia in the next election—no matter what.

4. Politicians who say they are anti-abortion tend to deny, ignore, or contradict a wide range of personal, social and economic concerns that reflect a sound Biblical ethic.  Perhaps voters assume that if a politician stands against abortion, they will stand for what’s fair, just, and reconciling.  Again, voters believing this would be sorely mistaken.  Anti-abortion politicians have routinely blocked laws or aggressively argued against policies that would have assured fair wages, curtailed corrupt Wall Street practices, challenged runaway military spending, mended holes in the safety net for vulnerable citizens, addressed workplace race and gender prejudice, reduced deaths of citizens unable to access affordable health care, or ensured life-saving resources for people in the direst situations in the world.  So, on the one hand is an eagerness to spend taxpayers’ dollars to defend the rights of the unborn, but, on the other hand, an unwillingness to apply US citizen resources to invest in other critical expressions of giving, preserving and extending life.

Why this contradiction?  Conservative political and economic ideology drives more Christian politicians than their personal commitments to follow the way of Jesus.  What the Bible declares about social relationships and life, they filter through a partisan ideological grid so that only a limited set of “values” are positively considered for legislation. Conservative political ideology surmises that the above-listed concerns should be left to the whims of free market promoters and individual charity and choice.  But the Bible declares that a faithful nation’s integrity hinges on these critical collective decisions.

5. Single-issue politics distorts the Bible’s meaning and message, as well as the life and mission of the Church.  It does so by accentuating one issue at the expense of others.  It does so by making one issue the lynchpin for all others.  It does so by lifting specific Biblical texts out of context.  It does so by marrying the Bible and Church with a humanistic conservative ideology in a partisan power play.  The Bible’s wide-ranging story of hope, redemption and reconciliation--and the church’s witness to it--is too great to be conscripted to serve one issue.

6. It is worth challenging perspectives of abortion and choice as good/evil, either/or, all or nothing.  Regardless of what others have told you, candidates who believe choice is important are not evil.  Neither are your fellow citizens who vote for them.  Nor are choice-affirming communities of faith, or nonprofit organizations, or political parties.  If you have demonized others over the issue of abortion, it is time--for the sake of sanity, an ability to understand others and any prospect of speaking the truth in love--to reevaluate your perspective.

In my decades of work with neighbors who are confronted with the choice to birth or abort, I have not encountered one evil person.  I have not talked with a single choice advocate who conveys a cheap view of life.  Few take abortion casually or dismiss its ethical implications.  Most choice advocates labor to make abortion as rare and safe as possible.  Though we may have disagreed—sometimes vehemently—over our views of abortion, I have not found people worthy of the demonic labels and dehumanizing stereotypes that have been heaped upon them.

On the contrary, I have found those who advocate choice do so because of their genuine care for vulnerable women.  As much as an anti-abortion advocate expresses care for an unborn child, a choice advocate defends a woman’s ability to make considered choices about her body regarding reproduction and sexual activity.  As much as one may see abortion as robbing the life of an unborn child, a woman may feel her own life being used, taken over, and snuffed out by others.  The stories of girls and women who have been coerced into intercourse and sexually abused are real and persistent and many.  If evil is to be named in this context, it must include men who exploit women as sexual objects, who control them with threats of violence and compel unwanted sexual intercourse even within marriage.


Make no mistake: to me, abortion is lamentable.  Whether it is necessary to save the life of a mother, induced after rape, because of unsustainable birth defects, or chosen because a pregnancy was perceived to be inconvenient, to me, at least, abortion is cause for soul-searching decision-making and not infrequently, grieving.  But so is the choice to take the lives other human beings, whether through the sanctioned violence of war, death-sentence executions, or withholding available life-giving resources in the face of hunger, disease, natural disasters or the inability to pay for health services.  Every preventable loss of human life sends shutters of grief through the human family.

I do not have a satisfactory resolution of the abortion/choice tension.  It seems to me, however, that we must explore and carve a new path forward beyond partisan posturing and polarization that politicians cunningly use to gain and maintain power.

With all my heart, I believe that one vital part of moving forward and achieving breakthrough is by unequivocally advocating for human life in all its dimensions.  Perhaps we can find common ground in actions that give life, affirm life, restore life, liberate life, give meaning to life, lead to life, cultivate life, preserve life, extend life, provide for life and celebrate life.  What candidates will move in that direction?  That’s what I’m looking for and casting a vote for in this election.

12 comments:

  1. "My stiff views moderated, however, when I began to serve neighbors in the heart of the city..."

    You give testimony to the fact that absolute stands are easy in the abstract and hard in the specific. To truly understand your neighbors opens your eyes to immense complexity.

    I echo Mary's thanks.

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  2. Anonymous11:42 AM

    Thanks for speaking what I feel.

    C. Crist

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  3. Thank you for this. The term "pro-life" bothers me because it implies that those of us who are pro-choice are somehow anti-life. For me, it is quite the opposite. I do not take abortions lightly. I support educational and health programs that decrease abortion and I honestly hope there will come a day when there's no need for abortions. But yet, I fill vilified by the single-issue voters.

    And as you so eloquently stated, I also believe that being "pro-life" should not end at giving birth. It makes me absolutely nuts to hear a "pro-life" candidate talk about cutting healthcare or social services to the most vulnerable and needy in society. How can you truly be "pro-life" if you're willing to let citizens die because they don't have access to affordable healthcare? The hypocrisy and short-sightedness is stunning and frustrating to those of us who believe life - ALL life - is sacred. Not just the unborn.

    Once again, a sincere thank you for this thought-provoking post.

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  4. Anonymous4:53 PM

    Rhak you, thank you, thank you. I have said from day one I am pro life, ALL LIFE, not just the unborn. That is not an easy proclomation, and one in which this election I am voting for Obama, because he aligns with social justice activity which preserves all life.

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  5. Thanks for stating this rather perfectly But not in a hostile or ugly way. As Obama said "No one is Pro-abortion."

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  6. Anonymous9:25 AM

    But the Bible declares that a faithful nation’s integrity hinges on these critical collective decisions.


    So I would like chapter and verse regarding this statement of collectivism. It seems a bit of a stretch to equate execution of murderers to the choice of having an abortion. The executive of a "war" to the choice of an abortion, these are different worlds altogether. My biggest problem with "pro-choice" is not a choice. Too often the person recieving advice regarding an abortion from "pro-choice" clinics are often pushed to one choice, abortion.
    I can find in my Bible absolutely nothing that justifies taking the life of an unborn baby, nothing. Does that mean I am a single issue voter? No. I work with many "children" having babies they are not ready for and would be much easier if they didn't. I see their struggles, pain, and problems. I also work with those who have chosen abortion and witness the struggles, pain, and problems involved with that choice, both are lifelong choices with consequences. From my experience, one who has lost a child, death is a most painful choice and I didn't have that choice to make.
    I appreciate your views and your work with troubled youth but again, as a Christ follower, I can find nothing Jesus ever said or did that can allows for the choice to murder an unborn baby.

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  7. Anonymous10:52 AM

    You say "But the Bible declares that a faithful nation’s integrity hinges on these critical collective decisions." I'm curious, as a christian who considers it very important to vote pro-life (not "anti-choice" as some would call it) - where is that in the Bible? I don't think the Republican party is perfect by any measure and both sides could use a lot of improvement. That being said, I consider the innocent, unborn life extremely vulnerable and deserving of protection and it weighs heavily in my voting decision. Absent the case of rape or life of the mother in child birth, women make the choice to have sex and thus (I believe) should have an understanding of the possible consequences. The unborn child made no choice and the abortion procedure is a cruel and disgusting thing to put anyone through, most of all that child. We are commanded to love one another and take care of each other as christians, but I do not think Jesus' commands to his disciples necessarily translate to secular governments. If the church did more (as it should) we would have fewer poor, fewer orphans and widows, etc.

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  8. I usually do not publish anonymous comments, but will make an exception on this post as long as they remain civil.

    So, to the anonymous post of 9:25 am (and, I suppose, 10:52 am), you ask for chapter and verse regarding collectivism. I wouldn't equate "collectivism" (your term) with "collective decisions." I think it's pretty clear, however, that the Old Testament commandments and array of explicit stipulations and regulations were used to guide the community/nation's shared economic, agricultural, social, spiritual, etc. life. When these were disregarded, the prophets called the nation's leaders back to integrity in the marketplace and with neighbors and aliens, etc. Together, these formed the very basis of a legal/obligation structure and ethic from which modern democratic societies have drawn inspiration and pattern. It's also pretty clear to me that Jesus turned his followers to the heart of this ethic and its specific obligations to neighbors. The call to care for neighbor and alien (and Jesus would add "enemy"), to do justice, and be compassionate is not optional for his followers and a people who would claim "in God we trust." This ethic has been a woven into the corpus of Jewish and Christian cultures and governments for millennia. To try to divorce such things as fair wages and just treatment of workers (Isaiah 58) from social responsibility because a modern conservative humanistic ideology finds it inconvenient (in the face of its own scheme of maximizing personal wealth at the expense of others) seems to be out of sync with the trajectory of the Bible and its application over time.

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  9. Jesus made it clear in Matthew that the ones invited into the Kingdom with be those that fed the hungry, took in strangers, gave a cup of cold water to the thirsty, put clothes on the naked, & visited the sick and imprisoned. To me that is truly pro life. That is where our great effort may be better served. There is a correlation between caring for the marginalized and lower abortion rates. Pro life has to not only mean protecting the unborn, but also protecting those are born. I truly care about the unborn, but I am disheartened by the back seat given to the born.

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  10. I echo SharonUp's comment. The ability to discuss this in a respectful manner is what has been missing for so many years in this debate. Next year will be the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling. That means two generations who have no memory of life before. The ugly truth of life before is that those who have money will always have access to abortion. Jump on a plane to another country where abortion is legal(or pay the black market price of RU46)....so the rich will always have a choice, while the poor will be regulated to "back alley abortions" with their risk of serious infection, hemorrhage and death. Is that pro-life? Walk in another woman's shoes. The only person who knows an abortion is the right choice is the pregnant woman - at the time in her life with the other stresses she is dealing with. Also, everyone acts as though pregnancy is not without risk, like it is no big deal to be pregnant, give birth -- these are life threatening medical conditions-- we are thankfully shocked in this day and age when a woman dies in childbirth but it can and does happen. And many women suffer severe complications which affect them for the rest of their lives. Someone in a previous post made the statement that women choose to have intercourse.... Well, I think John stated very well that that choice is often forced upon them. At some point can we not give these abused women a choice about their own body, their own life. And we must remember that we have a generation who have benefited from more than a decade of attempts (many, unfortunately, successful) to replace quality sex education with abstinence education(so when do they receive sex ed? from the minister when they go in for pre-wedding counseling - sex is not like drugs, at some point it is socially acceptable even by the church). The answer which is not that difficult, but yet remains so controversial in our society is to provide complete sex education to young teenagers, then provide free access in a non-judgemental clinic to contraceptives. I heard just yesterday about a young hispanic woman who at the age of 21 first heard about condoms - seriously?? That is just wrong. Not only are those who are "pro-life" intentionally or unintentionally supporting politicians whose other actions go against the teachings of the Bible, but it seems that many have been educated in the same "science" classes where Todd Aiken received his information regarding the ability of a woman to get pregnant when raped. Apparently, once it became accepted in some places (ie, my home state of Kansas) to teach creationism in a science classroom, science could be rewritten regarding any subject - global warming, female bodies. I want elected officials who respect and do their best to understand the complicated scientific knowledge which we have and make informed decisions about what is best for the humans, animals and earth on which we live.

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  11. Anonymous1:47 AM

    You have so eloquently summed up my thoughts. Thank you!

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