ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (6): the Church as a Community of Life

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

This is the final post in a series on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

This post will focus on the practical implications of the theology outlined in the previous posts.

What does it look like for the church to be a ‘community of life’ within a ‘culture of death’?

Hays argues that if the biblical paradigms (post 4) were put into practice within the church, then abortion would hardly ever be necessary within the Christian community.

There could be some exceptions. Can the Church act ‘in fear and trembling under the guidance of the Spirit’ to identify those extreme exceptions? Hays suggests such cases: pregnancy as a result of rape or incest [not allowed under Irish law]; and abortions performed to save the life of the mother [are allowed under current Irish legislation].

He also raises the issue of disability. Advances in prenatal testing have been significant since Hays wrote (1996). In the UK, non-invasive screening for Down Syndrome and other genetic conditions is becoming standard.

His position is that

the New Testament summons the community to eschew abortion and thus undertake the burden of assisting the parents raise the handicapped child.

Where abortion is practiced, he argues that

The tragedy is primarily the tragedy of a church that has abdicated its call to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). The New Testament envisions a more excellent way.”

The Church in the World

But how then is this community of life to live and witness within the world?

This is a question that tends not to get asked when it comes to Christian campaigns against abortion.

I may be wrong and am happy to be corrected, but it seems as if there is little reflection on the distinction between the church and the world. This suggests to me that there are deep unexamined Christendom assumptions at play like Ireland is, or should be, a ‘Christian country’. This leads towards urgent calls to action that I saw somewhere recently that Christians have a few weeks to ‘save’ Irish society.

Hays calls for Christians to recognise some realities. He writes in an American context.

How does what he writes apply to contemporary Ireland do you think? What are your reactions to these points?

1) Christians “cannot coerce moral consensus in a post-Christian culture.”

2) Christians should “recognize the futility of seeking to compel the state to enforce Christian teaching against abortion.”

3) This is not to advocate withdrawal from society or to propose some sort of dualistic spirituality of the sacred and secular. It is to recognise that Christian rejection of abortion is dependent on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Word – and that the world will never share that rationale for terminating abortion.

4) Christians in post-Christian Ireland need to recognise that we stand as outsiders to our culture. Our primary task is to be a counter-cultural witness. In other words, a community of compassion and love that acts as a neighbour to the desperate, weak and vulnerable; which bears the burdens of others and imitates Jesus in his inclusion of the marginalised.

5) This means that the calling of the church in regard to abortion in Ireland is to show the world an alternative way of life to one in which abortion seems an ‘obvious’ choice. Hays proposes that

“The world needs to be shown another way, not forced by law to abandon something it perceives as a ‘right.’”

I think this is relevant when it comes to the 8th Amendment. From its inception it has been a controversial piece of legislation designed to enforce and copper-fasten Catholic morality on abortion on Irish society in perpetuity. That was the whole reason to add it to the Constitution. I’m not at all questioning the sincerity of those who supported that move – their motive was to protect the unborn from abortion ever arriving in Ireland. But I suspect part of the groundswell of opposition to the 8th today comes from its ethos of legal imposition on what is now a post-Catholic / post-Christian culture.

In contrast to using the power of the law, Hays proposes that the

“The first and most basic task is for the community to act in ways that embody its commitment to receiving life as a gift from God.”

And he closes the chapter giving several examples of the deep cost such a commitment would entail. Here is one, written by William Durland

We should not look to the state to compel women to complete, nor allow them to terminate, a pregnancy. Rather, God calls us to be our own people and our own community – to witness to the world’s scandal, to love and bind up those harmed by its values. If the energy now being poured into attempts to affect Supreme Court decisions were dedicated to establishing viable alternatives to abortion and substantive support and long-range care for victimized women, “unwanted” children and families struggling with poverty, mental illness and domestic violence, perhaps we would begin to see Christian community being born in our midst – a light to the nations and a sure refuge for these needy ones.

Young Irish Christians I talk to have been profoundly alienated from both pro-life and pro-choice politics. It is precisely this sort of voice that they say they have not heard in the Irish abortion debate. As a result, I suspect a surprising number of young Irish Christians may vote ‘Yes’ on 25 May. If so, I think this represents a tragic failure of the church to articulate – and embody – a loving and theologically informed response to the challenge of abortion.

The commitment Durland calls for cannot be made lightly. It calls Christians to inconvenient self-sacrifice, generosity and willingness to open up their lives and communities to those in need. As Hays says

“In other words, it would find itself living as the church envisioned by the New Testament.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

4 thoughts on “ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (6): the Church as a Community of Life

  1. Thanks Patrick for your work on this. You have certainly helped to bring some shades of grey to what has been a largely black or white debate. Allowing our thinking to be framed and contained by the political debate has left churches with no serious alternatives to a Repeal/Retain choice. But the notion that the future protection of the unwanted unborn depends upon a few lines in our Constitution is a denial of all that Jesus says about God’s presence and action in the world. May 25th need not be the end of the story – whatever the result. In the economy of Jesus the actions of a few groups of Jesus-followers to open their homes and their lives to women dealing with unwanted pregnancies or post abortion challenges could be the game changer that the 8th amendment never has been. Could the energy and expense devoted to the Retain Campaign be channelled into a serious attempt by Jesus followers to make abortion a much less attractive option for women in Ireland whatever way the vote swings?

  2. I hope so Sean. I do think a primary challenge for the church is self-critical reflection that needs to accompany saying No to abortion. A young single (Christian) woman said to me on this that a test for her would be what if she suddenly turned up at her local church community pregnant? What would the reaction be? If it is one of enduring shame, guilt, spoken and unspoken judgement, made to feel a failure etc then what right can the church have to tell women like her never to take the morning after pill? Or is the church a welcoming place of grace, hope, love, restoration and help in such a time of crisis?

  3. Thank you for this. I have a lot of time for Richard Hays and the argument being made here. Certainly Ireland North and South are not “Christian nations” and yes it would be wrong for the church to coerce faith on people or force them to live by Christian morality. However, ultimately I do think Christians are allowed to make a case in all aspects of our lives in this time to protect human life. We are talking about questions of life and death here.

    There is a conflation of arguing for law and policy which uphold the value and worth of human life and “coercion”. All law is ultimately coercive and reflects a particular vision of the good life. Laws which allow for abortion are also coercive in various ways. If we can convince in a democracy citizens and politicians of these values then there would be a consensus to protect unborn life. And if we can’t, we can’t. In the Republic, the battle was lost. It may be in Northern Ireland soon enough. But I don’t think we should apologise for making an argument based on our values and beliefs. I view the either/or argument being made here as unnecessary- it should be both/and. I also would suggest there are problematic divisions being drawn between what is “public life” and “private life”- James K A Smith’s excellent recent book “Awakening the King” problematizes this entire narrative in a brilliant way.

    I would also question the idea that only Christians oppose abortion. This is factually untrue in both the Republic and Northern Ireland and this needs to be remembered. Laws against abortion do literally save lives- see the robust estimate, upheld by the ASA, of 100,000 individuals being alive today in Northern Ireland who would not be if we had followed the 1967 Act. Law matters and it shapes culture.

    I fully agree though that the Church has to model a better story. And candidly, we haven’t been doing it. Some fantastic organisations supporting pregnant women in crisis pregnancy like Life NI are underfunded. There is a lot to be said for the church modelling this in practice.

    Truth is that the questions being raised around pregnancy and abortion are messy and incredibly difficult. It raises all sorts of questions which cannot be reduced to soundbites. The Church has to model how to support women- but I simply do not accept this means withdrawal from the debate in our legislatures and assemblies. It is a both/and, not either/or.

    • Greetings mb123 and welcome. Thanks for your gracious push back

      Hays makes the point early on that much depends on where you start from. The methodology of speaking biblcially and theologically to the church first is very significant. I agree with him wholeheartedly. Put it this way:

      ‘A’ is Hay’s approach – perhaps more of an anabaptist one of let the church be the church and then other consequences follow. Be an authentic witness. Model a different way. Persuade by integrity not power. This is not withdrawal, but a different priority of how to engage.

      ‘B’ – is the task of socially engaged public theology – engaging with the wider world as Christians, ideally, particularly for the weak, vulnerable and oppressed. Holding power to account. Abortion is a classic example.

      I agree with you that ‘A’ does not preclude ‘B’. I voted No. B is important and, in a democracy, Christians have as much right as anyone else to persuade Govt to pass just laws. The powerless need others to defend them from injustice.

      But given Ireland’s history (and much of Christendom), it is right, I think, to be cautious about ‘it is both A and B’. Two things tends to happen.

      Either B is either put on equal terms with A (Kuyper and much Reformed theology in here somewhere). This can be debated & discussed of course. But it does, I think, reflect assumptions that are not there in the NT. Such assumptions are contextual. For much Christianity globally today, like the NT, believers are a persecuted minority for whom such a perspective would be incomprehensible. ‘A’, I think, tends to be assumed.

      Or, perhaps even more common, B trumps A altogether. And there is then a serious lack of ownership and repentance and confession about the failures of the church to be the church. It then is assumed that society ‘should’ reflect Christian values. The ‘enemy’ is ‘the world’ and ‘our job’ is to fight to resist modernity or secularism or whatever and you are into a culture war. Tons of time and resources are put into winning that war, where, I think, they should be put elsewhere.

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