Abortion, Theologically Understood

(Obviously there is much to this issue that I don’t get around to even touching. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive theological treatise on abortion but an attempt to make a good first step.)

In the near future Ireland will legislate for some form of abortion rights. In the last ten years, by allowing American war-planes and war-combatants to be serviced at Shannon airport, the Irish government has ended what little form of neutrality we could claim for ourselves. In the end of our pro-life stance, Ireland will finally move into fundamental alignment with the other Western powers.

That this is greeted as a sign of liberation should be the final stake in the heart of every lingering Christendom-conviction in the Irish church. It was never our place to dictate moral positions to the wider world and to whatever extent some people convinced us that it was, that is over now. There are banners hanging from bridges on the motorways into Dublin that read: “Say No To Abortion”. Presumably they were hung by Christians who believe that their job is done if they maintain a political stalemate where abortion isn’t legal in this jurisdiction.

Even though the ban on abortion was about as virtuous as our so-called neutrality (we were glad to export abortion, we were glad to import military power), Christians have settled for a situation where we can talk about the sanctity of life without ever actually having to, you know, take in children, care for mothers in distress or spend lots of money to soften the situations that can make abortion seem like a valid idea.

So theologically, Christians in Ireland must recognise this:
Now is the time we get to actually be pro-life.

What I am going to say here is just a regurgitation of the famous argument Stanley Hauerwas makes in his essay, “Abortion, Theologically Understood” which is the last essay in the Hauerwas Reader but since no one reads books any more, I am probably safe from charges of plagiarism.

When I say that the legislation of abortion means Christians can now be pro-life I obviously think that being pro-life means something more than having a general sense that life is lovely. There isn’t a Christian on the island of Ireland who denies the image-bearingness of human beings. But that still hasn’t meant that our churches embody any coherent or theologically plausible pro-life habits.

All too often we let pro-life serve as the painless political opinions that counter-balance our metaphysical convictions (the sort of thing that arises from taking Psalm 139 seriously). This leads to the apparent disjunction between me having dozens of fellow pro-life Christians in any church service but I’ll be all alone on the pacifism question.

So we assert that the embryo is a person and therefore argue for their rights. This seems like a good argument to us (because we rarely consider the gaps) but it always looks ridiculous to people who are pro-choice (who rarely consider the strengths).

Now if the argument was biblically and theologically where it’s at, I’d be more than willing to be the subject of scorn from people who disagree with me. Heck! I still get called a MISOGYNIST for being pro-life! So there is no way to hold the position that Christianity implies without enraging those who think it inherently unjust, obscurantist and irrational but there is a way to hold the position in the fashion that Christianity implies. When we get our theology right, our practice will follow (the same holds true if we go the other way and start with practice but it is much more difficult!).

Sanctity of life is something we all agree on. It is not theologically compelling. You can reject the incarnation of God and still hold to some plausible understanding of “sanctity of life”. As Christians, we understand abortion in a different key.

Our opposition to abortion is grounded in grace and is directed by hope. This is what we now get to embody. Our opposition to abortion is not based on misogyny, or obtuse traditionalism, or even the sanctity of life. It is based on the basic conviction that all our lives are gifts from God. We don’t need to claim our right to life, because we have already been given life, as a gift from God.

So while I hold that from conception, an entity that can be called “person” exists and so abortion is wrong and I hold that life is sacred and so we shouldn’t kill, below all of this I recognise an even stronger, sounder argument. Hope. We don’t have to argue for personhood or for rights, which are ultimately legalistic conversations. Christians are people who legitimately hope that every conception becomes a child, a person and ultimately, a friend of God.

So life is gift. And our assertion of that is a hope. And this is the substance of our pro-life conviction.

All the other arguments can be slotted in on top of this foundation if you so please. But now that we can’t resort to some legislative bulwark that saves our churches from actually making space for life, we can get busy embodying the grace and hope of the Gospel. In Hauerwas’ great article he fleshes out some of these applications and we can talk about them.

But before we jump to “So, what’s next?”, we need to rest in the beauty of this position and let it lead us to praise and prayer. We don’t need to launch some ill-conceived ad-campaign. We don’t need to initiate borderline-illegal publicity campaigns. We need to remember that we worship a God who was born illegitimately to an unwed teenaged mother.

Christians in the West have furrowed brows as they try to discern what mission God has called them to take up as all our comfortable assumptions are torn to pieces. Here is one thing: we are to be pro-life communities. That doesn’t mean politically agitating for laws that will never be passed. It means that we hope for, pray for and structure our lives in such a way (including but not limited to our sexual lives) that new life will be welcomed in all its forms. Able bodied and disabled, planned and unplanned, healthy and sick, even the product of violence – we hope for new life not because of some deluded sentimentality about children but because our hope is in God. And every newborn child is a reminder that the God who came as a newborn child has not yet lost hope in us.

As Hauerwas puts it: “As Christians we can have a hope in God that urges us to welcome children. When that happens, it is an extraordinary testimony of faith.” This is a subversive and counter-cultural and missionally potent calling to the Western churches. Across the developed world, babies with disabilities and special needs are not being born because of abortion culture. To claim to be pro-life is to be willing to nurture life that the wider world is increasingly inclined to call untenable. This is what God calls us to. Down this road will be life, and life to the full.

Your Correspondent, The punchline is that we were never actually in control

2 Replies to “Abortion, Theologically Understood”

  1. I read a book called “Spiritual Midwifery” (which I recommend) about a midwife who lives in a community called “The Farm” (http://www.thefarm.org/). For a long time they invited pregnant women who were considering abortion to come and stay with them for the duration of the pregnancy. When the baby was born the mother could choose to leave the baby at The Farm, but without ever giving up the child for adoption. At any time she was free to come back for her child. I was very convicted by the uncompromised generosity of it.

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