Notes for the 22nd of January

The 22nd of January (in the US) and that Sunday in October designated ‘pro-life’ (ditto) always get under my skin a bit. Why? My suspicion is that beneath my frustration and anger, there is a point about Christian faith and practice. Too often, Christianity is reduced to a program or an issue. The checklist of what to do and what to believe is a lot easier than the command of Jesus to be perfect, or the command to love God completely, and your neighbour as yourself. It is easier, that is, to slap a pro-life sticker on your bumper, participate in the relevant activities every January (and October), and think that you are pro-life.

But being for life, if it is to be a true expression of Catholic faith, must involve a whole lot more than that. It goes without saying that abortion is a tragedy in every case, and more often than not, an avoidable tragedy. Abortion is not, however, the sum of all evil. It is rather, a symptom of the corruption of our hearts–all of our hearts–and of a world in which scarcity and death threaten us. I wonder sometimes whether the energy expended to protect the unborn is really an effort to protect ourselves. Babies are loveable; it is not difficult to evoke sympathy for the children who are threatened by the practice of abortion. it is hard to imagine a person in our culture (or any culture, really) who wouldn’t mourn at the suffering of an infant, wouldn’t extend him- or herself on that child’s behalf. And so it should be.

I wonder, though, whether that isn’t like loving those who love you. The point there seems to be that loving those who love you is not terribly difficult. There is a reciprocity that makes the love you give less costly. What does it cost you to love those who love you? What does it cost you to be concerned for the unborn? Time, perhaps, and prayer–and that isn’t a bad thing. But if the heart of Christian love is forgiveness (see Matthew 18 and John 20: 22-23, e.g.), how can protesting abortion take center stage?

Abortion is an evil that happens in a world in which evil things happen all the time. Is it a worse evil than child abuse? than malnutrition? than the soul-destroying conditions in which thousands of children live? I’m not convinced it is. I think there is a peculiarly self-serving form of human sinfulness that operates when the choice to terminate a pregnancy is made for convenience, or because of disabling conditions. In such cases, I think the word ‘murder’ is not too strong, and I would rank those decisions at the top of the list of godless human judgments. (I say I think.)

What it boils down to, for me, is this: (1) I firmly believe abortion is wrong. (2) At the same time, I view the law legalising abortion in a similar light to the law permitting divorce; Jesus qualified that law as having been given because of our ‘hardness of heart’–though I appreciate the differences between the two. (3) I look around the world and see sin and need and lack of love everywhere. There are children who live in conditions of abject poverty and desperate need–of material goods and also of the love and affirmation they need to grow up healthy and strong. (4) I see plenty of grown-ups with the same sorts of needs. (5) I am concerned that focusing so narrowly on one evil–abortion–allows us to avoid evils more difficult to confront, and commands more difficult to obey. ‘Love your enemies…’; ‘forgive…seventy times seven’; ‘feed my sheep’; ‘make disciples…’; ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.’ Obeying these commands requires us to be pro-life until it hurts us, to extend ourselves for life, to confess our faith in the Giver of Life in all that we think, say, and do. We have to be conscious of the darkness and sin in our own hearts that prevents us from being the bearers of God’s light and life to others. We have to oppose practices that threaten, demean, or undermine life–like torture, slavery, the death penalty, the drug trade. We have to resist hatred, fear, indifference, unforgiveness and the temptation to leave undone the good we can do. We have to put on love and humility, letting our pride and self-sufficiency be crucified with Christ.

Being pro-life is being for Jesus–the Way, the Truth, and the Life–always and consistently. To follow Jesus, to be his disciples, and to be about the business of making disciples, that is what it means to be pro-life. Praying with others for the unborn is good; mourning the loss of those children who never will be because of abortion is good; protesting a practice that allows us to exercise heartless power over the most vulnerable is right and proper. But if we stop there, we cannot call ourselves pro-life. Unless we get up on the morning of January 23rd ready to reach out to the poor, the unwanted, the unloved, the seemingly unlovable and unforgivable, unless we take seriously the call to be witnesses and make disciples, we have missed the point. Jesus came that we might have life abundantly, and to follow him means bearing that life and giving it away every day of every year, in all that we say and do.

So I get angry when the topic of abortion is the litmus test for Christian faithfulness. Of course we ought to oppose abortion–but that isn’t the cutting edge of our faith. If we are growing into the likeness of Christ, we have to have bigger hearts and a broader vision. Jesus was not speaking about ‘the issues’; he was declaring ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. Jesus came bearing love, and forgiveness, and grace, and life, and he was and is the light that shines in the darkness–and our hope is and will ever be that the darkness cannot overcome Him.

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4 thoughts on “Notes for the 22nd of January

  1. Your points are well made. To focus exclusively on the rights of the unborn at the expense of other pro-life issues is tokenism. Of all the crimes against humanity that you list, abortion is the most heinous because the unborn have no means whatsoever of defending themselves or of even offering the conscious prayer, “Father, forgive them.” God bless!

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    • Thanks for that–it is exactly that sort of ‘tokenism’ that frustrates me! Tiny infants are equally vulnerable, don’t you think? It breaks my heart to think about the suffering of little ones–whether before birth or in childhood. Anyway, I am concerned not to make abortion seem less bad, but to draw attention to the insufficiency of a narrow focus on abortion. People outside the Church shouldn’t see that as the primary concern of Christians. I appreciate your comments!

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  2. I have to say, if I think of individual people I know personally, rather than “people” in a general way, the number who have anchored their faith around a specific issue is on the minority side. But in those cases it does seem perhaps to be a compensation for the fact that to take on the Whole Thing is rather a daunting task! Being over-focused on one specific sin (be it abortion, homosexuality, bad liturgy, immodest clothing, or other things) seems to provide a sort of shelter of compartmentalization, a territory to defend, and a sense of worldly (not divine) clarity and order. The wider, broader vision you point to requires a rather scary giving up of self, and opening to forgiveness that threatens that false sense of security.

    The delicate territory seems to be that the opposites we tend to imagine are not really the opposites. That is, the opposite of being over-focused on one issue is not “Well, then, who cares?” This can be the fear – if I don’t pour all my fire into this cause, then I will be saying it doesn’t matter. But the “opposite” in a sense, is not NOT caring, it’s rather caring so deeply that all suffering, sin and misery is cared for. An open heart mourns and loves the unborn child, AND your really annoying boss, and that politician you can’t stand, and the drug-addled abandoned teen robbing people in the park, and the deformed heart of the brutal insurgent, and the priest who grates on your nerves, and the lady whose cell-phone always rings during the Consecration…. But that’s a lot harder to do, because it’s so big. Only God’s love can go that big. And when that much love comes into our hearts, we die a little inside, and that’s scary, even if it’s also amazing.

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    • That’s what I’m talking about! I do think there’s room for finding your way in through some quite particular concern; but we can’t stay there. What breaks God’s heart should break ours. And I do think it’s scary–and amazing. Love is the way. Humility and love. Thanks for your comments!

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