The Tricky Problem of “Rights Language” continued

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.

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The Tricky Problem of “Rights Language”

I am reminded again of the problem of “rights language” by a recent article published by Front Porch Republic. The comments following the article have devolved into a rather nasty business of “my rights are better than your rights,” and worse. Rights language is so ingrained in our thought process that nearly all political discourse ultimately turns to the question of rights. But do we have rights at all?

The standard Reformed answer is that rights are rooted in the Ten Commandments.  For instance, everyone has a right to physical life, based on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.” While it seems a very easy logical leap to move from the sixth commandment to the right to life, this is not what the sixth commandment says; such a sentiment, in fact, turns the commandment on its head, making the object the subject.  (This, by the way, is the heart of idolatry – making the object the subject – so we are skating on thin ice when we choose to find a basis for the Enlightenment rights rhetoric in the Old Testament rather than adopting Old Testament rhetoric at face value.) In short, the Bible doesn’t say we have a right to life although it clearly states that we should not murder.

This conundrum leads to the standard Reformed perspective on rights: we primarily have responsibilities rather than rights and rights cannot be granted without corresponding responsibilities. This is certainly a step in the correct direction, but it’s not a solution because rights and responsibilities are too easily set up in dialectic. By choosing the language of responsibilities people who are seeking to be true to the historic Judeo-Christian tradition are still allowing Enlightenment categories to define the debate. We don’t choose the category of “responsibilities” as primary because it is where scriptures start the conversation, we choose it because it is more-or-less the opposite of Enlightenment “rights” language that we are trying to critique.

The primary problem with “rights” language is not the self-centeredness that is inherent to the rhetoric (that’s the “responsibility” response), but rather the conflict or violence that is equally inherent to the rhetoric. Rights language creates “me vs. you” scenarios. When we argue rights we must balance my rights and your rights, and when that happens there will almost always be winners and losers. If we champion a baby’s right to life we must do so by curtailing the parents’ rights (although in our culture, the father no longer matters, being a sort of sperm donor; only the mother or babies rights are debated for the most part).

Such language of conflict is also deeply rooted in the Enlightenment. This should be no surprise because the language of violence is deeply rooted in the human predicament. Thus, at the earliest stages of divine revelation, violence became part and parcel of the story because the fullness of divine intent had not yet been revealed. Take the Old Testament story of the Messiah as an example. It’s a tale of sturm und drang in which the Messiah will violently overthrow the enemies of good and those who stand against God.  (Don’t you think Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries would be an appropriate soundtrack to this version of the Messianic return? Or for those of you of a slightly older generation with a slightly more violent bent, maybe this rendition of Wagner is more to your liking. This, btw, is where I learned that along with Brynhildr, Gondul, and Gunnr, one of the Valkyrie names was Elmer, but I digress.)

This sensibility led to the crazy world into which Jesus was born. There were those people of God who sought to appropriate godless secular power through political intrigue; there were those people of God who sought the violent overthrow of the Roman government; there were those people of God who took the violence to a very personal level, becoming a group of assassins on behalf of the Messiah.

But the actual Messiah turned this whole world-view on its head. Rather than overthrowing anything by violence, he allowed himself to be utterly overthrown and in the act of utter defeat, won the ultimate victory. No Valkyries were making the decisions about who would live and die on that day of battle, God himself coopted life and death and took on death and defeat so that we might live.

In this New Testament, Christian world-view there is no room for personal rights. It is completely counterintuitive, but love does not “seek its own way”; rather it “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” What is more important to understand is that this world-view is deeply offensive to the world. It is either foolishness or a stumbling-block and to try to impose it on the larger culture in this manner is bound for failure.

Our nation, built on Enlightenment principles of personal autonomy, was an experimental application of a new social theory which began with the autonomous person as the starting point. Once we started down the path of individual autonomy and personal rights, one person’s rights would inevitably bump up against another person’s rights. In the fallen world, ultimately might makes right, so the rights of the weakest (the unborn, the handicapped, the frail or nearly dead) will be the ones whose rights are first to go for the sake of the larger good.  The Enlightenment inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not so obvious when those very rights are in conflict with each other.

It is critically important to understand that those Enlightenment ideals have nothing to do with Christianity. The only real right of man is to bow before his creator. The only inalienable reality is that we are made in the image of God and are called to be his slaves. Of course the grating harshness of that reality is offset by the promise that when we do accept that offer, we are made children rather than slaves, but this glorious end doesn’t change the stark starting point in the least bit.

As Christians we need to recognize that there is a very real sense that the United States was, for the most part, founded by Christians with very bad presuppositions. and as a result the nation began on a godless footing, for there can be no true divine presence apart from community and there can be no true community when we begin with the autonomous individual who demands their unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By starting with the autonomous individual rather than the community, the founding fathers undercut any authority (other than arbitrary rules) by which authentic human dignity could be maintained.

In short we have inherited a political environment in which Christian truth is one of many arbitrary opinions that is constitutionally circumscribed by the preeminent doctrine of personal autonomy. In this environment it is extremely difficult to effectively argue that a baby’s rights trump a mother’s rights. Rather than yelling the responsibility mantra a little bit louder, it would profit us to step back and take a fresh look at why we’re in the rhetorical mess we’re in and find a fresh approach. I’ll broach that subject in the next essay.

But for a Name

Natural England (an organization in England) recently had a competition to name ten endangered species. (Here are the ten species in pictures from the BBC.) Prior to the competition these species only had Latin names. Evidently it was felt that if the creatures had common names rather than just the Latin terms, it would help in their preservation.

I suppose it’s not a lot different than naming a fetus “Emma,” or “Jacob,” or “William,” or “Chloe.” Or simply giving it the common name “baby” instead of the Latin, “fetus,” for that matter. If we did that, maybe it too would be less endangered.

The Manhattan Declaration

Here is a link to a worthy document. It’s called “The Manhattan Declaration: A Call to Christian Conscience.” It is not so much a pro-life declaration as it is a declaration that the signers are willing to face the consequences of refusing to participate in government mandated program that promotes the ending of life. Here’s an excerpt:

“We will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriage or the equivalent or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.”

The declaration can be found at http://www.demossnews.com/manhattandeclaration/press_kit/manhattan_declaration_signers