A Final Word (for Now) on Abortion

I just finished working on a package of stories for our school’s alumni magazine about integration – a profile of the two men who integrated our college 50 years ago, as well as a sidebar about white students who pushed for integration years before it happened and one about race relations are like on campus now. The whole time I was writing these stories, I couldn’t help but think: “Wow, I have no idea what it’s like – and never will – to be black.”

This is not a new revelation, of course, but it’s made more painfully clear when I write about people in minority groups that I am in no way a member of any minority group. I’m white, I’m straight, and I’m male. And so I try to make it clear when I interview or when I advocate for racial and sexual minorities that I have no idea what it’s like to be in their shoes, so they’re going to need to help me out.

It’s not an overwhelming feeling, just a little tug – a healthy reminder that whatever I write, I’m doing it for others, people whose experiences I can’t ever truly know.

That tug has more recently shown up when I write, as I did last week, about abortion. Because while I often call abortion a human rights issue, it is also an issue that affects women far more than men. After all, who is actually pregnant? And who is going to be caring for the child, more likely than not? The old line is that if men could get pregnant, abortion would no longer be a controversial issue.

Continue reading A Final Word (for Now) on Abortion

Changing How We Approach Abortion

The political world is all atwitter (pun intended) this week with the comments of Senate candidate Richard Mourdock from Indiana, who made the mistake of saying what he really thought on the topic of abortion. Secifically, Mourdock was asked about any cases in which he would allow abortion, and he responded only in the case of the mother’s life being in danger, but not in the case of rape:

I struggled with it myself for a long time. But I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

Ensue kerfuffle.

There have been a lot of crazy things said about abortion and rape in this election cycle, but this really isn’t one of them. Mourdock’s belief that God “intended” for life to arise out of a horrific event like rape may not be theologically sound, but it’s not something we should be terribly surprised at hearing.

Amy Sullivan, like myself a former conservative evangelical who now has a not-so-passing interest in progressive politics, agrees:

Despite the assertions of many liberal writers I read and otherwise admire, I don’t think that politicians like Mourdock oppose rape exceptions because they hate women or want to control women. I think they’re totally oblivious and insensitive and can’t for a moment place themselves in the shoes of a woman who becomes pregnant from a rape. I think most don’t particularly care that their policy decisions can impact what control a woman does or doesn’t have over her own body. But if Mourdock believes that God creates all life and that to end a life created by God is murder, then all abortion is murder, regardless of the circumstances in which a pregnancy came about.

That last sentence is especially significant for this conversation; Mourdock simply is outspoken and consistent about the natural ramifications of his belief that abortion ends an innocent human life.

But the reaction to this impresses on me that perhaps we need a few more Christians, conservative and progressive, to do on abortion what people like Justin Lee and Rachel Held Evans are doing around the issues of homosexuality and women’s roles in church, respectively – that is, speaking out for a renewed effort to understand each other and foster constructive dialogue.

Because it should be clear by now that our national conversation about abortion is toxic. Both sides are to blame, though one side more than the other, and it’s not helping foster a constructive dialogue about how to fix what both sides agree needs to be solved – the fact that abortions are necessary in the first place.

Here’s how I see the current dialogue failing us. Continue reading Changing How We Approach Abortion

The Day Politics Seemed Trivial

The day our faith community found that Rex does not have long to live was the same day as the third presidential debate. One of my friends, who is very close with Rex’s family, and is not anti-politics by any means, tweeted: “Unless either candidate has a cure for cancer, I’m not really interested in what they have to say.”

I saw this after I’d spent the requisite 90 minutes yelling at the television screen every time Mitt Romney said something that was either completely untrue or completely the opposite of what he’s been saying since he started running for president in 2007, guffawing over President Obama’s “bayonets and horses” line and basically root, root, rooting for our household’s home team.

It was a sobering reminder that for some people that day, politics was simply not important.

Nor should it have been.

Continue reading The Day Politics Seemed Trivial

The Betrayal of God’s Silence

Seemingly since the moment we’ve moved back to town, our faith community has been deep in prayer for two little boys fighting against cancer for their lives.

Liam and Rex. Their names were tied together for month after month. One with leukemia, the other with a brain tumor. Their stories moved people from across the city to organize vigils and cover them with thousands upon thousands of hours of prayer.

Until Liam died. We’ve talked about that.

In the months since, Rex’s battle has taken center stage. It looked like he had beaten it, thanks to surgery, radiation and chemo, but after several cancer-free months, the tumor returned, this time in a place where surgery would do more harm than good. And yesterday, an MRI showed that the last-ditch experimental treatment Rex had been taking has failed to check the tumor’s growth.

After 10 years of life, Rex has four to six months of it left.

Continue reading The Betrayal of God’s Silence

An Inspired Thought for Your Friday

Ever since I learned last semester that some early Christian texts were thought by the church fathers to be inspired yet not canonical, it’s caused me to think about how we should use that word.

Inspired. All Scripture is inspired by God, or God-breathed, as the author of 2 Timothy writes. A lot of ink, and perhaps some blood, has been spilled defending various definitions of that word. And even though the author was only speaking of the Hebrew Bible – plus apocryphal books such as Enoch, if Jude’s citation of it means anything – it makes sense to extend it to the New Testament scriptures, as well.

But if early Christians made a distinction between was canonical and inspirational, then that seems like it would open the door for us to recognize the inspiration of God in the words and writings all through history. Important ancient works such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, which some did consider canonical; liturgical writings such as the Book of Common Prayer; and more modern-day texts, such as Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail – these all carry the breath of God, even if they’re not part of the sacred canon.

And perhaps this can include even writings – and, in our culture, speeches – we would not consider specifically Christian in scope. God is the God of all humanity, including human communication, and just as the Bible describes him speaking through the mouths of pagans like Balaam (or even non-humans, such as Balaam’s donkey), perhaps today he inspires others to give us the word we need to hear from him.

All of that is a really long introduction to the video I posted above of plane-crash survivor Ric Elias (h/t Shawn Smucker). What Elias has to say is short, but it is no less important for that – and to the extent his words improve the way we treat others, well, I’m willing to say Elias had a little divine help, whether he realized it or not. Have a great weekend, everyone.

Christians and the NRA

The AR-15 assault weapon used by Aurora, Colo., shooter James Holmes.

There’s thought among certain conservative circles – it lurks in the feverish swamps of chain emails alongside the notion of barack Obama’s secret Muslim identity and the upcoming court decision to turn America over to sharia law – that President Obama is just waiting until his second term, when he no longer has to worry about re-election, to spring his extreme anti-gun agenda on the country.

This is not so secretly encouraged by the leaders of the National Rifle Association, who have released documents with subtle titles such as, “Obama’s Secret Plan to Destroy the Second Amendment by 2016.”

If last night’s debate told us anything, it’s that gun owners don’t have to worry; Obama isn’t going to do anything to stem the rising tide of violence the NRA has done so much to promote.

Continue reading Christians and the NRA

Sex and the Single Doctrine of Original Sin

It’s not often I can link to a metal video when I discuss complex issues of theology, so I’m thrilled to introduce the band Theocracy, which often broaches complex theological matters in its songs, as it does in the video above, for its song “Hide in the Fairytale.”

The song blends several different strands of thought together to defend the notion that humanity is inextricably trapped in sin as part of our nature, and conversely that any notion of being inherently good, rather than evil, is unrealistic and unscriptural. Consider the first verse and chorus:

A child in sweet duplicity – for innocence, or slavery
To nature and the bents that haunt him straight out of the womb?
He doesn’t have to learn the things unseemly that his instinct brings
To carry like a burden from the cradle to the tomb.
You’ll never have to teach him how to lie!
If we are born in innocence, well, don’t you wonder why?
For selfishness already dwells inside –
The birthright of Adam, the curse of the old man.

Day and night –
Jekyll and Hyde in the fairytale;
This is much more frightening.
Darkness and light –
Feed the new man and tear the veil;
See the old man dying.

This more or less is an argument for the doctrine of original sin, which forms the underlying basis for most of modern-day Christian thought about our relationship to God and our understanding of ourselves. It has been this way now for about 1,500 years – ever since Augustine, bishop of the North African city of Hippo, developed it.

Yet, as this lyrical defense shows, the consensus surrounding original sin has begun to crumble – for two reasons, one scientific and the other philosophical.

Continue reading Sex and the Single Doctrine of Original Sin

John Chrysostom: Ahead of His Time – and Ours

This might be John Chrysostom week here on the blog, but if I have to read a whole book about him, I may as well take you along for the ride.

Chrysostom was by no means a liberal, at least not as defined by our modern context. He frequently called his Antioch congregation to forsake the customs of the secular culture and embrace a separation that recalled more the radical teachings of Jesus and Paul than the compromising practicality that arose in subsequent centuries. Consider his description of dancing:

For where there is dancing, the devil is also there. For God did not give us feet for this purpose, but for us to walk with discipline: not for us to disgrace ourselves, not for us to leap like camels. [159]

Any quotes from or summaries of Chrysostom’s sermons come from Jaclyn Maxwell’s Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and His Congregation in Antioch.

Even more entertaining, Chrysostom’s decision to go after fancy shoes. As Maxwell notes,

Chrysostom promotes a very puritanical Christian aesthetic in this section, condemning paintings and decorations, and especially the gaudy shoes some of the sandal-makers were producing. Weaving was fine, but not when it was too fancy, because shoes decorated so elaborately caused men to become irresponsible and effeminate. The audience’s reaction to this condemnation was evident in Chrysostom’s defense of himself:

“I know that to many I seem to be concerned with petty matters, meddling in other people’s affairs. I shall not stop on account of this. For the cause of all evil is this: that these sins seem to be petty and because of this they are ignored. And you say, ‘What sin can be more worthless than this, of having a decorated and shining sandal fitted on one’s foot, if it even seems right to call it a sin?'”

Either Chrysostom had heard his audience’s opinions, or he merely expected that the average Christian considered fancy shoes to be a very negligible sin, or maybe not a sin at all. The preacher even expected the congregation to be angry at him for denouncing these shoes. He later explained that their refusal to acknowledge that wearing fancy shoes was immoral had forced him to expound upon the subject. The possession of such shoes was cruel, not only because unnecessary luxury was sinful, but also because they were wasting money that could have been given as alms to the poor. [153-54]

So that’s a long way of saying Chrysostom was not particularly liberal. Yet he was ahead of his time, at least in a couple of key areas, where he remains a voice the church could use today.

One of those areas, as discussed previously and glimpsed above, is his overriding concern with the poor and how Christians should sacrifice much to help them. The other is rather surprising, given the excerpts quoted above.

John Chrysostom was rather liberal when it comes to sex.

Continue reading John Chrysostom: Ahead of His Time – and Ours

John Chrysostom and the 47 Percent

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it – that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

This week for class, we had to read Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity, by Jaclyn Maxwell, a book summarizing the many preserved sermons of John Chrysostom, the famed fourth-century preacher from Antioch, and using them as a way to describe how early Christian preachers attempted to “Christianize” their congregations.

One thing that stood out is that the Christian mandate to care for the poor has never been particularly well received – or easy to carry out. And whether we’re in fourth-century Antioch or 21st-century America, the demonization of the poor to relieve our own consciences is an ever-present temptation.

Continue reading John Chrysostom and the 47 Percent

Why this Christian Will Vote for Barack Obama (Part 3)

In Part 1, I laid out the negative case against Mitt Romney (the one who’s been campaigning since last year, not the one who suddenly showed up in Denver on Wednesday). In Part 2, I laid out the positive case for Barack Obama. Today, I want to address probably the strongest Christian argument against voting for Obama.

There are plenty of reasons various Christians have for voting against Obama, and many of them frankly are nonsensical. I simply have nothing to say if you believe, as many conservatives do, that Obama is a Muslim, or that he’s not an American, or that he’s a socialist. All of these things are blatantly and obviously untrue, but I’m not going to waste my time and yours trying to convince you out of something you are so deeply invested in believing.

I also find critiques of Obama’s presidency from the right generally to be baseless and unsupported by evidence. The most sweeping pieces of legislation Obama signed into law were based on ideas created and originally supported by Republicans, who then disowned them once they became associated with their political opponents.

The only persuasive argument from the right is about abortion, and I’ve covered in the past that simply stamping somebody “pro-choice” or “pro-life” is unhelpful if the actions they take belie the label. In short, Obama’s support of expanding access to contraception and encouraging steps to reduce unwanted pregnancies, which account for the plurality of abortions in America, will have far more success reducing the number of abortions than the typical conservative position of teaching abstinence only, defunding women’s-health providers and – in a rather bizarre twist – treating contraception as a product to be stigmatized rather than embraced.

Not surprising, I don’t really find any argument against Obama’s reelection to be terribly convincing. But there is one exception, and that is the argument from the left eloquently expressed by the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf.

Continue reading Why this Christian Will Vote for Barack Obama (Part 3)