After the Referendum

The summer edition of VOX is out. Thanks to a talented team of Ruth-Garvey Williams, Jonny Lindsay and Tara Byrne, it has developed and maintains a high standard, mixing news and articles and opinion pieces. Here’s a piece I have in it reflecting on the aftermath of the abortion referendum.

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I have been trying to think through what the abortion Referendum result means while also trying to sort out my emotional ‘gut reaction’ to the vote. So what follows is unapologetically personal. You might agree or disagree, but hopefully we can learn from each other in the process.

Let’s start with emotions: at a deep level I’m dismayed and saddened. Christians believe that God alone is the life-giver. To take life is to assume the ‘right’ to destroy a precious work of God. But’s let’s also try to think what the result means more widely. I’ve only space to make two points on how I think the result poses profound challenges for Christians in Ireland today.

First, the Referendum was about much more than abortion. A story is a powerful thing. I don’t mean story as fiction, but story as a narrative that carries moral, emotional and personal power. The story of the YES campaign was vote for compassion, safety, liberty, inclusivity, welcome and dignity for women faced with the traumatic situation of an unwanted pregnancy. It was a vote to cast off the last shackles of our religious past: its harshness, judgementalism, cruelty, abuse, enforced adoption, and systematic humiliation of vulnerable women by a patriarchal religious culture that used power for its own ends. This is why, for some Christians I talked to, the vote was far from a black or white issue but posed a real dilemma. It was also, I think, primarily the leaving behind of the final legacy of ‘old Ireland’ that thousands of people were on the streets of Dublin to celebrate on the 26th of May 2018.

This means that in today’s Ireland, to use the language of John’s Gospel, it is the ‘world’, not the church, that embodies progress, hope and, most of all, love. And here’s the thing that churches really need to face up to and own – there is very good reason for the world to think like this. You don’t need me to re-tell the story of religion in 20th century Ireland. And let’s be honest, Protestant, evangelical and Pentecostal churches have plenty of repenting to do about our own divisions and lack of love.

I often hear it said that Christians in the West now find themselves in a context similar to that of the early Church – as marginalised small communities of believers living within a pagan Empire. I think that’s partially true, but is too easy a comparison. The first Christians had no baggage of church history. Christians in Ireland, rightly or wrongly, like it or not, are perceived as carrying a truckload. The vote shows that a large segment of the population see that baggage as bad news, not good.

Second, this means that the Referendum is primarily a challenge for the church to look at itself. Our job is not to ‘save’ Ireland – as if there is such a thing as a Christian country. The ‘world’ will do what the world will do and we cannot control it, nor should we try. No, our primary job is to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world.

This means being authentic communities of love, grace and good news. Of serving others, of preaching the gospel, of forgiving each other, of welcoming the outsider whatever their history, sexuality or status. If we are against the taking of life in principle, it means being people of peace, not war and protecting and taking care of the elderly. When it comes to abortion, it means not only talking about it, but being communities of such generous love that a woman faced with a crisis pregnancy will be supported and cared for emotionally, financially and relationally so that the community can help her bring up her child. But we can’t do that from a distance. We need to ask ourselves, are we in nice holy huddles, detached from the experience of many women (and men) faced with abortion as the only ‘solution’ to their situation? Or are we taking the time, and bearing the cost, of loving people in need sacrificially?

I’m troubled by my own answers to these questions. How about you?

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?

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (3): What does the Bible say?

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.

So what does the Bible say? At one level, the answer to this question is simple – nothing. No text addresses the issue directly.

In a sense this is not that surprising – here’s why. In Scripture, children are seen as a wonderful blessing from God. Not only is the child to be loved, but children are a source of security and a guarantee of future lineage. In the OT in particular, childlessness is a terrible affliction, so having children is a source of great joy

Children are a heritage from the  Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.

Psalm 127:3-5

In this sense, the Bible portrays a world, as Hays puts it, “in which abortion would be not so much immoral as unthinkable or unintelligible.” (449)

Various texts are sometimes marshalled to provide biblical support for opposition to abortion. But none of them comment specifically to the issue, and the use of some texts is far-fetched.

To cite Exodus 20:13 “You shall not murder” as an anti-abortion text is to beg the question. Yes, it can be claimed that abortion is murder in the sense that it is intentional killing of a human person. But such a view depends on how human personhood is defined. And Exodus 20:13 says nothing to that question.

The text probably most commonly cited is Psalm 139:13-16

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

Now, this text is relevant in relation to modern debate about abortion, but like any text it needs to be read in context. A Psalm of David, its focus is not a general statement about the status of the unborn, but a song in praise of God’s loving omniscience and foreknowledge, specifically his providential hand of blessing upon David in the face of potentially deadly opposition. Such a lyrical poem is at best only tangentially related to the issue of abortion.

Similar comments can be made about Luke 1:44 (Elizabeth’s child leaping in her womb). The text is Christological – focused on the unique identity of Mary’s son Jesus. As Hays comments, “To extrapolate from this text … a general doctrine of the full personhood of the unborn is ridiculous and tendentious exegesis.” The issue of abortion is simply not in view.

And also Matthew 19:14 “‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Again, to try to use this text about children as one which somehow speaks against abortion can only, as Hays puts it, “be judged as an embarrassing instance of decontextualized prooftexting.”

We should pause here for a moment to acknowledge the fact of the paucity of Bible texts that address, even indirectly, the issue of modern abortion. Understandably, some Christians will either not want to acknowledge this fact or will try to make some texts say far more than they actually do say about abortion. Neither move is helpful.

Better upfront to recognise that, when it comes to modern abortion practice, the lack of direct biblical teaching means that we will need to look at broader biblical principles in order to develop a considered theological response to a contemporary issue.

This is not at all unusual. While there are many contemporary issues that are addressed directly in Scripture (think of how much the Bible has to say about money for example), obviously there are many which are not (think artificial intelligence for example). We do not live in the biblical world, but Christians affirm that the ancient text, inspired by the Spirit, continues to speak powerfully and relevantly into our world. Bridging the gap between the two worlds is what hermeneutics (the methodology of interpreting the text) is all about.

More on that in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (2): Minding our Language

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

“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.)

What Hays argues here is crucial to the challenge of thinking about abortion. Where do we begin? In the last post I listed some possible jumping off points. But notice how none of them fulfil Hay’s primary task above.

Debates about whether the foetus is a person with inalienable human rights is language and thought foreign to the New Testament. Focusing on practical arguments against, and negative implications of, abortion fails to ‘think Christianly’ about the issue.

For example, arguments about the high level of safety for giving birth in Ireland, the negative impact on the life-saving ethos of the Irish health system, the traumatic impact on many women, how abortion favours men, possible gender selection and abortion as a form of euthanasia could be made (and are) by those with absolutely no Christian commitment.

Don’t get me wrong. Many of these are good arguments in their own right. But they are political and pragmatic arguments that fit the norms of secular pluralism. If this is the primary language Christians have for opposing abortion, then we are failing to be salt and light to the world.

For what is the church but a community of disciples called to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord? Our thinking and practice for all of life is to be shaped by this story above all others. To use political and pragmatic arguments against abortion is to fail to articulate who we truly are and what we believe.

At the risk of getting side-tracked, there are, I think, at least three reasons Christian opposition to abortion tends to be framed in the language of secular pluralism. Feel welcome to add your thoughts on comments on others

i) We hope that we will get a better hearing from those in power if ‘religious’ ideas and language are avoided. In other words, we play the political game on its own terms.

ii) We have deep (perhaps explicit, perhaps unconscious) assumptions that society should and can be shaped by ‘Christian values’ and that it is our job to ‘save’ or ‘transform’ Irish society. Our focus is outward, on seeking to influence and shape the public sphere. There tends to be a blurring of distinction between the church and the world.

iii) A more negative one – we don’t actually believe what we say we believe. When push comes to shove, it is in politics and power that we trust to bring justice and hope, not the foolishness of a crucified Messiah. We put all our hopes and energy and money and time in the political process.

So, following Richard Hays and others, when it comes to abortion I’m suggesting that our language needs first and foremost to be that which is forming the thought and practice of the Christian church as an alternative kingdom community in the world.

Hays puts it this way

“Regardless of what others may do or think, regardless of what the law allows, how shall we as people who belong to Jesus Christ live faithfully under the gospel with regard to our treatment of the issues of pregnancy, abortion and childbearing?” (445)

To begin to answer those questions we need to think biblically and theologically for this is the language of the people of God (next post).

But notice how this also shifts the focus of the discussion.

Rather than ‘by-passing’ the Bible and theology and jumping straight to the politics of the world, we first must do business with what Scripture says – and does not say. And we need to listen hard what the issue of abortion says to us – to the Christian community. In other words, abortion is not an issue ‘out there’ which we sit ‘above’ in moral purity, it is one which will challenge our practice and priorities.

It is one thing to be against something, but a deeper challenge is how can the church embody a life-giving alternative vision of a world without abortion?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Abortion theologically considered (1) : what we are not going to talk about

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

CONTEXT

First, some context for the vast international readership of this blog.

On 25 May 2018 Ireland will hold a referendum on abortion. Or, to put it more precisely, a referendum on whether to repeal the 1983 8th Amendment to the Constitution which reads

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

The Supreme Court has recently made it clear that the unborn have no constitutional rights. Those rights begin at birth. If the 8th is repealed, this leaves the way clear for the Government to introduce proposed abortion legislation.

The new law, if subsequently passed in the Dáil, will include the following:

  • Abortion being allowed up to 12 weeks “without specific indication”. Effectively abortion on demand.
  • Abortions to be provided on the grounds of risk to the life or ‘serious harm’ to the health of the mother.
  • No distinction will be made between physical and mental health risks.
  • Abortions legalised in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, including cases which will lead to the loss of life of the baby shortly after birth

The choice to include mental health on the same footing as physical threat is highly significant. In practice abortions for a physical threat to the mother account for about 0.2% of births. In the UK, 99.8% of abortions are carried out due to threat to the mental health of the mother.

There was some uncertainty about whether the legislation therefore would allow for full-term abortions on the basis of risk to the mental health of the mother. The Government proposals will theoretically prohibit abortion once the foetus is ‘viable’. This is roughly up to six months of gestation. (The bill cannot be formally tabled in the Dáil unless the 8th Amendment is repealed. Obviously, if it is not repealed, general abortion is off the table).

So, as I read it, the Government is effectively proposing abortion on demand up to around 6 months. This represents a dramatic shift from an extremely restrictive approach to abortion to an extremely liberal abortion regime.

How to ‘think Christianly’ about such an issue?

One option is silence, but that’s simply avoiding the issue. Abortion needs to be talked about. Individual Christians and churches need to be speaking and teaching and reflecting self-critically on the ethical and moral challenges posed by abortion and the upcoming Referendum.

WHAT WE ARE NOT GOING TO TALK ABOUT (apart from this post)

Now, at this point one route would be dive into all sorts of observations as well as various arguments against abortion. At the risk of self-contradiction, I’ll talk briefly about some below and then not talk about them any more in posts that follow. An explanation is at the end if you get that far.

Some potential leaping off points are:

(1) The obvious one that the Referendum itself is indicative of huge cultural, political and religious shifts within Ireland since the 1983 Abortion Referendum.

(2) There is the back story of the X case and subsequent 1992 Referendum on the right for a woman to travel overseas for an abortion without fear of prosecution.

(3) There is the fact that Ireland is one of the safest places on earth to give birth. To use fears about the mother’s safety to introduce abortion on demand is wildly disproportionate. Current legislation allows abortion if there is a life-threatening risk to the life of the mother. There could be a debate about legislation specifically to allow abortion for fatal foetal abnormality and / or cases of rape and incest without introducing general abortion on broad grounds.

(4) We could talk about the political reasons behind the campaign to introduce abortion in Ireland. These are not irrational and inconsistent: they make perfect sense within a certain understanding of political reality otherwise abortion would not be widely available globally. They include: a Western narrative of the liberated autonomous individual; freedom from ‘misogynistic law’ that ‘controls’ what women can do with their own bodies; and the belief that maximum choice equals maximum freedom equals the maximum good. In this sense abortion is a regrettable but necessary experience for a pregnant woman who for whatever reason does not want a child at that particular time in her life.

(5) Abortion could be framed as a human rights issue. Evangelical Alliance Ireland has taken this approach “rather than as a matter of religious dogma or of reproductive health.” If the baby is a human being, he or she has a right to life as much as any other human. (This approach does seem to have been dismissed in law by the recent Supreme Court decision mentioned above).

(6) Some talk about the essential ‘sacredness of all human life’ and try to oppose abortion that way. This tends to lead to all sorts of complicated medical discussions about when life begins and is the foetus a person?

(7) We could talk about how damaging abortion is for women; many of whom come deeply to regret past action.

(8) We could go the political activism line and examine where TDs and their parties stand and seek to influence their decision-making.

(9) We could begin by talking about abortion as a form of euthanasia, namely the deliberate eradication of people with disability. For example, in Iceland, there is now a 100% abortion rate for babies with Down Syndrome. This despite Down Syndrome not being an illness and Down Syndrome people being some of the most loving and fun people in existence (not that being loving and fun is required to be able to exist). New technology for non-invasive testing for Down and other disabilities will inevitably lead the UK (and Ireland if abortion is introduced) to follow Iceland’s trend.

(10) We could talk about the impact of introducing a culture of intentional and medically needless death into the Irish health system that was designed and intended to save life.

(11) We could talk about abortion being, far from a victory for feminism, a victory for patriarchy and men acting irresponsibly. Quite simply, men benefit significantly from abortion. Men do not have to bear the pain, trauma and memories of ending a life within their own bodies.  Men don’t face the possibility of subsequent long-term complications from an invasive medical procedure; men don’t face the threat, implicit or explicit, that their partner will leave them if they don’t have an abortion. Rather, abortion suits many men because they don’t have to face the long term consequences of their actions – financial, emotional and relational. They remain ‘free’ of such inconvenient ties.

(12) And we could talk of the implications of continually improving technology for earlier and earlier gender identification within pregnancy. If the current Irish legislation leaves open abortion up to viability, it would be naïve not to be aware that a proportion of abortions will be due to the baby having the ‘wrong’ gender. Globally, and ironically, the ‘wrong’ gender is female (think China and India for example).

But we are not going to talk more about any of these issues. Why? Because, quite simply I do not believe that they are the place to begin when thinking ‘Christianly’ and theologically about abortion.  We’ll try to do that in the next few posts.

(civil) Comments, as ever, welcome