Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (21) Exodus today?

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post, we continue looking at The Passover and the Exodus and the cross as a dramatic act of deliverance by God.

We stay with the question of what does it look like today for God’s people to live in the power of his great Exodus deliverance at the cross of his Son, Jesus Christ?

… the passing of Jesus through death into life unfolds the eschatological significance of the passage of the Israelites from bondage into freedom. (227)

Political Implications of Exodus Today

In the final section of this chapter Rutledge looks at the universal political implications of Passover / Exodus.

Much space is given to the American Civil Rights Movement and the deep Exodus themes within the experience of the African American community in light of the great sin of slavery by white Empires.

Exodus of old becomes Exodus of the present.

Preaching, worship, church gatherings, the ideal of non-violence, leadership by ordained ministers like Martin Luther King – the Civil Rights movement was shaped profoundly by Christian theology, symbolism and history.

Rutledge quotes Paul L. Lehmann, from his book The Transfiguration of Politics;

Reading the ‘Dream Speech’ now is to relive the day of its utterance for all who heart it on the Washington Mall or through the media. And in so doing one can affirm again Mrs King’s Report that “it seemed to all of us there that his words flowed from some higher place, through Martin, to the weary people before him. Yes – heaven itself opened up and we all seemed transformed.” “Transfigured” is perhaps the truer word. And this, not only because another Exodus was in the making, but also because a moment of truth had broken in from which there could be no turning back. Moses and Elijah were in the wings, Righteousness and resurrection were on the move. And there was yet great suffering to be endured. (230, Lehmann, 182-83)

Rutledge sees this as an example of a ‘new Exodus’ – an event where God is already at work and

‘who gives his Word from a higher place to his weary people’ (230)

The power of the Exodus story, says Rutledge,

‘continues to hold out the promise of life around the world over the centuries as people who have been oppressed cling to the promise that God is acting among them.’ (231)

‘Political Transformation’ verses ‘Holy Distinctness’?

What do you think of Rutledge’s hermeneutic?

Is it legitimate to universalise the Exodus this way?

How we answer that question will, to a large degree be shaped by our prior theological assumptions.

Rutledge (in my view) seems to be coming from a ‘transformationist’ perspective – where God’s people are to be front and centre involved in the political transformation of sinful social structures. In doing so, this fallen world can be changed to reflect something of God’s heart for the oppressed and marginalised.

There is a certain Christendom ‘blurring’ of lines here between the community of God’s people (the church) and the hopes and aspirations of broader political communities.

A ‘holy distinctness’ framework is wary of concepts like ‘Exodus’ and ‘kingdom’ being universalised beyond the boundaries of the community of God’s people to apply to the world in general.

[If you are interested you can read here a journal article for Evangelical Quarterly I wrote a while back on public theology and engagement in politics using an Irish example]

The overwhelming emphasis in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is God’s Word spoken to and for his people – there is rarely a hint of a wider mandate to transform the world. In fact, quite the opposite – most of the time what the ‘world’ is doing politically is completely irrelevant to the writers of the New Testament. Their focus is firmly on the spiritual authenticity of the church- the people of God.

There are no easy answers here. I am firmly on the ‘holy distinctness’ side. I am deeply sceptical of where the church takes it upon itself to transform the world. It often ends in disaster.

We need to recognise that to take a story like the Exodus and apply it to our very different cultural and political world is not an obvious or simple thing to do.

Richard Bauckham has said on this issue that a creative and imaginative hermeneutic is needed to apply ancient texts to modern political life. [Richard Bauckham, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically (London: SPCK, 1989)]

So, my answer is … it all depends. What is the context?

Faced with a situation of a virtually apartheid 1960s America in which:

  • one ethnic group was systemically discriminated against
  • where God’s heart is clearly on the side of the poor and oppressed
  • where the church’s agenda is not to seek power of its own
  • where evil and sin is to be confronted and named
  • where there is a willingness to suffer rather than to inflict suffering

These surely were conditions for Christians to get involved in a struggle for justice. This is what love for others in need calls for.

I just wouldn’t call it a ‘new Exodus’. Christ’s work on the cross cannot be equated with an agenda of political and social change, however right and just.

Next, we begin chapter 6, ‘The Blood Sacrifice’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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Brexit: the Leitrim case for a hard border

There has been next to no comment on Brexit on this blog, haven’t had the heart to add to all the verbiage.

This is by far the best word I’ve heard – simply brilliant.

For non-Irish readers some translation may be required. The occasional profanity comes with the humour.

 

An Advent Reflection: History is not about the Politics of Power

The angel Gabriel’s promise to the virgin Mary in Luke 1 is not the first time in the Bible that a frightened or incredulous woman hears such unlikely words. There is a thread of similar divine announcements throughout the story God’s covenant relationship with Israel.

They begin at the very beginning of that story. Old age pensioners, Sarah and Abraham, are told they will have a son. Sarah’s reaction is laughter at such impossible nonsense. Yet conceive and give birth she does and she calls her son Isaac (laughter). God’s covenant promise of blessing to Abraham that he will be a father of many nations comes into life with the birth of that baby boy (Gen 17:5).

In Exodus, another baby plays a redeeming role in Israel’s history. While not a miraculous conception, the story of Moses, a child of slaves, being rescued from death is a tale of God keeping his promise of blessing to Israel through a helpless and crying baby (Ex. 2:1-10). That little child would become the deliverer of the people of God from the might of Egyptian empire.

During the period of the Judges, a barren, unnamed woman only known as the wife of Manoah, is told by an angel of God,

‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son.’

The Spirit of God would be upon him and he would help deliver Israel from the Philistines. His name was Samson (Judges 13:1-25).

Later comes the story of Hannah, who is heartbroken with grief at her inability to have children by her husband who loves her. She pours out her heart in prayer at the temple and her request is granted by God. She names her son Samuel (heard of God). And so the age of prophets in Israel begins (1 Sam. 1:1-20).

During the darkest period of Israel’s history – exile in Babylon – it is the prophet Isaiah who speaks words of hope. Israel may now be like a barren woman enclosed within the confines of a small tent, but one day that desolation will be transformed. The tent will be enlarged for a growing family. There will be prosperity and life bursting forth in all directions. God’s promise to Abraham is not forgotten.

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of  the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the  Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.  (Isaiah 54:1-3)

Centuries later, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the Temple speaking words about his wife, Elizabeth conceiving and giving birth to a son who will be called John. Despite being too old, what he says happens. Elizabeth speaks to herself, ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said (Luke 1:5-23). John’s exalted task is to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’.

And so, finally, we come to the consummation of that first promise to Abraham. The angel Gabriel appears to a young virgin girl called Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin. She is told

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

This baby is the child of promise, the deliverer of Israel, her long-hoped for Messiah.

She sees more clearly than anyone else, the significance of the angel’s words. She understands that she stands in line with Sarah, Moses’s mother, the wife of Manoah, Hannah, Isaiah’s prophecies and Elizabeth.

But more than this, she perceives that she is most highly favoured of all these women (Luke 1:28). The Lord is with her. Her son will be Israel’s saviour and king (Luke 1:31-33), the Son of God (1:35). The power of God’s Spirit will make all this possible, ‘For no word from God will ever fail’ (Luke 1:37)

Mary’s great act of faith is to believe the angel’s words

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38)

In her song of thanksgiving (the Magnificat of 1:46-55), Mary locates her own experience within the story God’s promise of blessing to Israel. Her rejoicing flows from wonder that she has been chosen by God to play the pivotal role.

‘My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour (46-47)

His being ‘mindful of the humble state of his servant’ (1:48) reveals God’s mercy.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones  (50-52a)

God is all powerful. But Mary’s point is not so much political as it is one of worship. The paradox is that God’s limitless power takes the form of gracious kindness to the powerless (Israel, Mary, all the powerless women listed above)

And this choosing of the humble includes Israel herself.

‘He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’ (54-55)

As with the story of Moses, even mighty Empires cannot resist the covenant-keeping promises of God.

Things will be no different with the birth of Mary’s boy. His mother is supremely confident that, whatever opposition from proud and arrogant rulers who seem to hold all the power, God’s promise of blessing to the nations will not be thwarted.

Mary’s story tells us that history revolves around the fulfilled promise of a miraculous birth. It is a story of promise and hope.

So as we celebrate this Christmas, Mary’s Magnificat reminds us that our faith is embedded within the story of Israel. The birth of the Messiah is God’s answered promise to Abraham embodied in the fragile form of a baby boy.

It also tells us that history is not about power politics. In a news-cycle dominated daily by Brexit and Trump, it is easy to become obsessed with the latest political drama and, subconsciously, to believe that this is where ultimate meaning lies.

And in doing so we begin to lose hope and trust. Not just because Brexit is a shambles and Trump is, shall we say, erratic and unpredictable. But because all political promises fail, all Empires fall.

Yes, faith is worked out within the context of Empire (just read Luke 1-2), but that Empire is irrelevant and powerless in the face of God’s promise.

Ben Myers, whose words have stirred this reflection, says this,

‘Pregnancy and childbirth are the means by which God’s promise makes its way through the crooked course of history’ (p. 53) …

‘The meaning of history is not power and empire, but promise and trust. The secret of history is revealed when a woman, insignificant to the eyes of the world, responds in joy to God’s promise and bears that promise into the world in her own body’ (p. 54, The Apostle’s Creed).

Voting No on abortion – a personal view from Trevor Morrow

Credit: RTE

Trevor Morrow is a friend, ex-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and retired minister of Lucan Presbyterian, our Maynooth Community Church’s ‘mother church’.

Here are his reasons for voting NO tomorrow in the Referendum, published in the Irish Times yesterday.

Since the only choice before us in 2018 is ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, I feel that I am forced, however reticently, to vote ‘No’

I claim a strange yet personal connection to our Constitution, as one of my predecessors as minister of Lucan Presbyterian Church, Rev. Dr. James Irwin (a great friend of de Valera) helped to draft some of the original document. In his shadow I came to Lucan as a minister in 1983, the same year, coincidently, that the 8th Amendment was added to its text. Thirty-five years on, we are being asked to vote on this amendment again.

I have always had a profound sense that one of the unique characteristics of Irish society is the inherent value that we place on human life – bound up in the shared values that are at the heart of our culture.

From the generous way we give to famine relief, to the manner in which villages and towns throughout Ireland welcomed and celebrated the Special Olympians, to our consistent openness to welcoming strangers from overseas – our cherishing of life has always been about reaching out and being hospitable. This referendum is about life and that is why, for most of us, it creates a dilemma.

As a pastor I am only too familiar with the ‘hard cases’. I think specifically of a mother whose life was nearly destroyed by having to carry, by law, her anencephalic baby to full term. I can see the reasons for wanting to repeal the 8th. On the other hand, many advocating a ‘Yes’ vote do not seem to want to talk about the unborn child whose life is taken when abortion is performed. Human life is sacred. This persuades me to retain the 8th. That’s the dilemma.

Sadly, the Government has not given us citizens a meaningful third option in this referendum – it is simply retain or repeal, all or nothing. For those of us who want to honour the sanctity of human life, while at the same time recognising the exceptional circumstances, there is a profound wrestling within our conscience about how to vote.

I would have preferred something like the tweaking or rewording of the 8th to allow for these ‘hard cases’, while continuing to recognise the sanctity of the lives of the unborn within our Constitution. Instead the Government has proposed that we remove the 8th and allow the Oireachtas to legislate so as to permit unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks and on health grounds after 12 weeks.

David Steel, a Presbyterian and the son of a former Church of Scotland moderator, introduced comparable legislation in Britain in 1967. It was motivated by Christian compassion for women and to avoid the scandal of backstreet abortions, but it has led to the loss of over eight million lives.

Since the only choice before us in 2018 is ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, I feel that I am forced, however reticently, to vote ‘No’. To allow unrestricted killing of our offspring in the first 12 weeks of life, which would in effect be foeticide, is surely incompatible with human dignity and morally unacceptable?

In our faith community I see the Christian scriptures speaking consistently of the importance and value of human life, including that of the unborn. But you do not have to share my faith, or my worldview, to regard every human life as being special. Indeed, I believe the vast majority of my fellow citizens hold this view.

It is for this reason that I am a passionate supporter of readily accessible and appropriate care and support in the perinatal period and beyond for every woman, child and family. Ensuring such provision for those who experience a crisis pregnancy should be the highest priority for Government.

May 25th is not simply about voting to retain or repeal, it is about who we are as a country. It is about how we value human life.

Very Rev. Dr. Trevor Morrow is minister emeritus of Lucan Presbyterian Church and a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

 

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.

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (5): tradition, reason, experience

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

Continuing a series of posts 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.

In the last post, in the light of how the Bible has pretty well nothing explicit to say to the modern practice of abortion, we discussed Richard Hays’ hermeneutical proposals around these themes

  • God the life-giver
  • Being a neighbour to the weak, vulnerable and helpless
  • Bearing one another’s economic and practical burdens like a crisis pregnancy
  • Imitating Jesus in looking after those in difficulty

But there are also other sources for thinking theologically about abortion – namely those of Tradition, Reason and Experience.

(1) TRADITION

Christian tradition against abortion is long-lived, strong and consistent. Early evidence points to Christian counter-cultural witness against pagan practices of infanticide and abortion.

The Didache (late 1st Cent or early 2nd Cent manual of Christian teaching) contrasts the ‘way of life’ against ‘the way of death’ (language that speaks eloquently into the reality of modern abortion practice as well).

“You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor shall you kill one who has been born.”

The entire historic Christian tradition has consistently rejected abortion. Any shift towards acceptance of abortion by some branches of modern liberal Protestantism is utterly out of step with the traditional teaching of the church catholic.

(2) REASON

It is in the area of reason that most contemporary secular arguments for abortion are based. ‘Pro-choice’ arguments on a leaflet dropped through our door and arguments made in general debate include the following:

  • A woman may not procure an abortion in Ireland on the grounds of rape or if she is carrying a child who will not survive after birth. Pro-Life arguments are “cruel” to such women (moral and philosophical arguments around women’s rights and well-being).
  • Over 150,000 women have travelled to Britain for an abortion since 1983 when the 8th Amendment was introduced (pragmatic arguments that since it is happening, it should be made legal in Ireland).
  • Many women take abortifacient pills unregulated in Ireland (medical arguments for abortion as safer for women who will have one anyway).
  • The 8th Amendment equates a woman’s life to that of an embryo (legal arguments on the status of a person).
  • Rejection of arguments that abortion increases risk of suicide and depression (psychological arguments on the health of the mother)
  • Abortion law as a misogynistic affront to a women’s right to have control over her own body (feminist liberation argument)
  • An embryo is not a person (scientific arguments about consciousness, personhood and when human life begins)

There are other arguments, but you get the picture.

Reason is the arena where the abortion referendum is being played out. It is primarily a political, cultural and legal debate, with competition for the moral high ground (defence of the rights of the unborn versus assertion of the rights of women to make autonomous choice regarding abortion).

Here’s the danger for Christians in this debate: all too easily Christians jump right into the middle of these arguments without much awareness that they represent a double-edged sword. Double edged in that these arguments inhabit the thought-world of secular rationalism.

If Christians choose to try to win the argument within these terms I think that they have already conceded defeat before they begin. They become just one more pressure group talking the language of law, reason, pragmatism, rights, psychology, medicine and individual choice. They have nothing particularly distinctive to say. They have (perhaps unconsciously) abandoned the thought world of the New Testament in favour of the thought world of secular rationalism.

To be honest, I am dismayed by how so much Christian activism against Repeal the 8th has taken the form of primarily secular rationalist arguments – whether legal, medical, rights based, pragmatic, or psychological. They have, as a result, had little to say to the Church in helping people frame a Christian response to the issue of abortion.

I’m not saying that a Christian rejection of abortion is irrational – far from it. It makes strong, consistent, moral and ethical sense – but it is an argument that is coherent and compelling within the thought world of the New Testament.

Ok, you may be wondering what I am talking about. Maybe some examples will help.

Richard Hays give 6 examples of “fundamentally inappropriate” ways for Christians to frame their opposition to abortion.

i).  It is inappropriate for Christians to set up the issue as one of competing ‘rights’ – the right of the pregnant woman versus the right of the unborn child. This is not the language of the Bible or Christian theology. No-one has a ‘right to life’ nor a ‘right’ to do what they will with their own bodies. All life is a gift from God, no one can claim ‘rights’ over it. A Christian’s body is not their own (1 Cor 6:19-20).

ii). It is inappropriate for Christians to see the issue as a ‘right to privacy’ or purely a matter of individual choice. No Christian is an unaccountable free-floating individual. She or he is called to be a faithful disciple within a community of faith.

iii). For Christians to appeal to the ‘sacredness of life’ is, Hays says, a ‘sacred cow that has no basis in the New Testament.’ God is the life-giver, this is why Christians respect life, not because of life itself.

iv). It is not a Christian argument to appeal to the question of ‘When does life begin?’ or ‘Is the foetus a person?’. There is no clear scientific or biblical answer to these questions. Usually they are asked with the agenda of defining certain conditions as outside human personhood in order to justify abortion. ‘Jesus’ persistent strategy was, on the contrary, to define marginal cases in.’

v). Deeply anti-Christian is the ‘quality of life’ argument – “no unwanted child ought ever to be born.” Christian witness from Jesus and the church has been to receive the marginalised, unwanted, and rejected – not to ‘put them out of their misery’. Such arguments rationally lead to infanticide and euthanasia of anyone deemed not to have a suitable ‘quality of life’.

vi). Christians should stay well away from feeble consequentialist arguments against abortion like ‘What if Mary had aborted Jesus?’ Such silly questions merely reinforce how the NT never engages in such consequentialist speculation. As Hays says, it never asks ‘What will happen if I do x?’ but it asks ‘What is the will of God?’.

(3) EXPERIENCE

The appeal to experience is probably the most significant factor in the Irish abortion debate.

Proponents of abortion appeal constantly to the experience of women forced to travel to Britain or forced to give birth to a child with a severe disability or forced to carry a child conceived by rape.

Opponents of abortion counter with arguments about the psychological and physical risks of abortion.

Such arguments are going to go back and forth and will be inconclusive one way or the other.

For Christians to base their support or rejection of abortion primarily on experience is to venture into a quagmire of competing claims.

 

Comments, as ever, welcome.

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (4): biblical paradigms

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

Continuing a series of posts 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.

If the Bible says little or nothing directly about abortion, then we need to reflect theologically on the issue, using the wider framework of the Bible’s rich teaching on God as the creator and author of life.

Hundreds of texts proclaim God as one from whom all life comes into being. For example, this is true of the beginnings of both Testaments: Genesis 1-2 in the Old and John 1 in the New (where the ‘In the beginning’ of John 1:1 echoes Genesis 1:1).

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:3-4).

Similarly, in Colossians 1:15-16

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

For Richard Hays this means

“Wherever new life begins to develop in any pregnancy, the creative power of God is at work, and Jesus Christ, who was the original agent of creation, has already died for the redemption of the incipient life in utero. That is why Barth can say, “The true light of the world shines already in the darkness of the mother’s womb.” We are privileged to participate in the creative work of God through begetting and bearing and birthing children, but there can be no new life without the generative power of God.” (450)

This means that life is not ours to do with as we will. Intentionally to end a pregnancy “is not only to commit an act of violence but also to assume responsibility for destroying a work of God” (450).

(The abortion debate directly relates to other life and death questions around euthanasia, suicide as well as war and non-violence. To be consistent, Christians who are against abortion should I think also be committed to not taking life in those circumstances as well).

In this framework, it is a distraction to get into arguments of when a foetus becomes a ‘person’ – he or she is a manifestation of the creative life-giving power of God.

If all life is a gift and does not belong to us, this means that to end life is an extreme act. As Hays says, there might be extreme circumstances in which it may be warranted (I assume he has in mind here examples like fatal foetal abnormality or a major medical risk of the life of the mother) but such action would be very rare and require compelling evidence.

Three lines of metaphorical reasoning

To develop his argument, Hays gives three lines of metaphorical reasoning – three ways the theological world of the New Testament overlaps with the contemporary practice of abortion.

1. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

The subversive double point of the parable is that (1) to love your neighbour means loving your enemy (2) it is the hated Samaritan who shows rather than receives mercy.

In relating this to abortion, Hays argues that the point is not that the foetus is somehow a ‘neighbour’. Rather, it is that we are called to become neighbours to the weak, powerless and helpless. Like the Good Samaritan, to go beyond boundaries to offer life-sustaining care to those whom we naturally would not consider worthy of our compassion.

Such life-giving care would go out to the mother in a ‘crisis pregnancy’ as well as the unborn child.

Such an approach subverts legalistic questions such ‘Is the foetus a person?’ Hays is compelling here – such a question is like the lawyer’s to Jesus: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ He wanted to know so he could limit his obligation of care. Questions about the personhood of an unborn child have behind them a desire to limit obligation and care – ultimately by killing the life it represents if it is not ‘defined’ as a ‘person’.

Instead, Jesus widens the scope of those to whom we have moral obligation. He tells us at the end of the story to “Go and do likewise.”

2. The Jerusalem Community (Acts 4:32-35)

Let’s remind ourselves of Hay’s approach to thinking ethically about abortion.

“The first task of normative reflection about New Testament ethics is to form the thought and practice of the Christian community.” (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 445.)

Hays is doing that here. This text is well-known. ‘There was not a needy person among them’.  His point is that within the church there can be no grounds for abortion on economic grounds or on the incapacity for the mother to look after the child. Within the community of the people of God, sharing and love are the answer, not abortion. For the church to acquiesce in abortion on pragmatic grounds is to fail in its vocation to be a radical community that bears one another’s burdens.

Church discipline is also relevant. Men need to be held responsible for children they father: by supporting the woman emotionally and financially; and by being there for the child as it grows up. Within the community of faith they do not do this alone – it can take a community to raise a child and support a family through love, support, prayer and encouragement.

3. The Imitation of Christ

Hay’s third paradigm is the imitation of Christ (Rom 15:1-7; 1 Cor 11:1; Gal 6:2; Phil 2:1-11). The Christian life is cross-shaped. It means giving up rights for the sake of others just as Jesus did.t is a life lived in relationship with others, often at significant cost and inconvenience.

Hays applies this to abortion this way. The pregnant woman cannot just be told ‘You must have the baby, abortion is wrong’ or some such moral imperative. Or the example Hays gives of ‘You must imitate Christ by suffering for the sake of this child.’ Rather, if one part of the body is in difficulty the whole body experiences the trial. While only the woman carries the baby, the church community as a whole can assume the responsibility of caring for the mother and the child when it is born. This is what it means to be a community of welcome. Hays remarks that

“If this proposal sounds impractical, that is merely a measure of how far the church has drifted from its foundation in the New Testament.”

Abortion as a test of authentic Christian community

Examples like these begin to shape imagination, thinking and behaviours that inform an authentically Christian response to the question of abortion.

  • God the life giver
  • Being a neighbour to the weak, vulnerable and helpless
  • Bearing one another’s economic and practical burdens like a crisis pregnancy
  • Imitating Jesus in looking after those in difficulty

This is why the question of abortion for Christians is one that first challenges the church and its radical practice of welcome, care, generosity, community and love.

For those in Ireland, how much have you heard this perspective articulated and discussed amongst Christians and churches in the Referendum debate?

How would it change the debate?

If it has been pretty well absent, why is this do you think?