In the previous essay I argued that opposing abortion using arguments based on “personal responsibility” rather than “personal rights” will not win the debate because the argument still functions within the very unchristian framework of personal autonomy. Ultimately we can never win the abortion argument by asserting the priority of responsibilities of the mother’s rights because it’s simply the wrong framework.
When I was attending Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, KS, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and scholar gave a lecture on the abortion debate. In Jewish tradition (according to this rabbi) life is in the ruach (which can be variously translated as wind, air, breath, spirit). It’s not until the baby takes in ruach – that is, breathes its first breath – that it is truly alive. Prior to that its life is simply (and note, I say “simply,” not “merely”) an extension of its mother’s life: the fetus and mother are one.
Assuming the world-view of personal autonomy, one could easily argue that abortion, and even late stage abortion is perfectly okay within the Orthodox Jewish context. But the Rabbi went on to say that the rightness or wrongness of abortion is not a scientific question because the scientific question doesn’t address the false world view of personal autonomy vs the true world view of community in God. In fact, when viewed from a biblical perspective, no matter when the fetus is considered as an entity separate from its mother … at conception (the Christian Evangelicals) or at birth (the Orthodox Jews) … abortion remains a great evil that will bring about great evil on any nation or tribe that practices it.
The heart of the issue is not some arcane and arbitrary decision as to precisely when the mother and the fertilized egg or blastocyst or embryo, etc. are distinct. The real issue is whether the “stranger” or “new one” or “least among you” is welcomed into the community. Old Testament rules for welcoming the stranger are extensive, detailed, and strict. Whenever Israel became xenophobic, God ultimately acted against Israel. (This, by the way, is not a simple or obvious assertion. There is a difference between rejecting and displacing deeply corrupt and evil nations and turning out other nationals simply because of their race. But this exegetical question goes way beyond this little essay.)
According to the Jewish Rabbi, aborting the fetus is an ultimate (ultimate in the sense that involves not just turning away but ending a life or potential life, however the scientists choose to phrase it this week) rejection of the hospitality and welcoming rules and will lead to certain judgment from God.
But the very nature of the hospitality or welcoming argument is that it only makes sense from within the covenant community. So the Rabbi, using a decidedly Christian metaphor (he was at an Evangelical seminary, after all), went on to say that trying to win the abortion debate by direct argument from scripture or even from science understood from within the Covenant Community, will always be a losing proposition because it involves throwing pearls before swine. The arguments require a mindset foreign to the world apart from God’s illumination, and thus the arguments will be trampled beneath their feet.
Does this mean we are to do nothing? By no means! The greatest weapon we have in the abortion debate is not our brilliant intellectual defenders of the faith or political strategists … both are a fool’s game. The greatest weapon we have is our welcoming communities: “See how they love each other” (Tertullian). We can never win the abortion debate intellectually because in America the intellectual framework is stacked against the Christians (as explained in the previous essay). What we can do is change hearts first and in that way, change minds.
Over the years I have frequently heard that such quietist approaches are totally unrealistic. And that is true. But in the New Testament we discover that force doesn’t win the day. Losing is winning. Death is life. Trying to win the abortion debate with our intellectual prowess has all the Christian grace of inviting the Valkyries to slay our enemies. In contrast, welcoming our enemies, our babies, and other strangers, is the strange way of Christianity.
This is not to say that we should not enter into the public debate; this framework rather maps our strategy in the public debate. The Christian’s strength will never be (at least it should never be) in the public debate. The gospel is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, as the Apostle said. Our strength is in our community, our relationships and the way we live our life. Our true weakness is in the intellectual and political prowess of those who defend Christian truth in the public square.
This doesn’t mean we should keep silent, but as we speak, we need to be aware that because we are starting from a radically different starting point, our logical arguments and political agendas will seem foolish. Thus, when we lose the debate (and we will lose the debate), we should never rail against our opponents and mock them because they are dense and stubborn. We enter the debate knowing we will lose the intellectual battle. At the same time we live faithful and authentic Christian lives loving our neighbors and welcoming the strangers among us (let’s see, that would include abortion doctors, pro-choice strategists, confused young women wondering what to do, and lost young men who are fathers but have been excluded from any rights of fatherhood because our culture has so marginalized them) and doing the right thing no matter the consequences.
In this way, over time, even though we can’t win the intellectual debate, given the presuppositions of our society, we can win the hearts of the weak, the questioning, the hurting, the downtrodden, the distressed … that is, all the people who are ripe for God’s message of self-sacrificing love in the first place.
I wasn’t there, so this is only a guess, but my guess is those “intellectuals” who we now consider the great defenders and shapers of the faith (Justin Martyr, the Cappadocian fathers, etc.) didn’t necessarily seem so logical and bright while they were making their arguments. Justin is a perfect example. He wanted to be known as a great orator and intellectual, and in fact he was a great orator and intellectual, but we remember him not for that, but for his martyrdom; his ideas were so dumb, so out of the mainstream, they got him killed. (Martyr wasn’t Justin’s last name, it is an appellation for his greatest gift to the Christ and his Church.) It’s only in retrospect, after the love of the Christian community had finally won the day across the Roman Empire, that the intellectual prowess of these theologians became apparent.
It’s no different today. So, when we lose the next debate over abortion rights, we should not get angry, but only bemused, knowing the inevitability of that result, and continue to cultivate the true Christian virtues of love, welcome, and humility rather than the false “virtues” of intellectual prowess and political expertise.