As any longtime reader of my blog knows, I am passionately opposed to abortion. My views on the matter crystalized about 10 years ago, when my daughter Macy was stillborn. As I struggled to come to terms with my loss, one thing became clear to me. Life is a gift from God. He is the One who holds the power to kill and make alive in His hands. When we take that power upon ourselves, we put ourselves in the place of God and usurp His authority. We wade in waters that are too deep for us.
I’ve also written a considerable amount (though with less passion) about my concerns with making political action (particularly on a national stage) a substitute for discipleship. I don’t have any problem with Christians taking pro-life political positions. In fact, if I believed that political efforts to defeat abortion in America had any likelihood of success, I would join them.
However, I do think that we have to be careful to be dedicated primarily to the flourishing of human life as individuals. When I care for the poor, the needy, and the helpless, that makes me more like Christ. Pulling a lever in a voting booth doesn’t. According to the terms of 1 John 3:18, voting looks more like loving in word than like loving in deed and truth. Loving in word is fine; loving in deed and truth is vital.
As a result, I was very interested when this retread article showed up on my news feed a few days ago. Basically, the nun quoted in the article (nun = moral authority, I guess) argues that most pro-life politicians (and pro-life supporters, for that matter) are hypocrites. They advocate for laws that protect children in utero, but they’re opposed to laws that provide for free lunches or medical care for children who have already been born.
The argument is a forceful one, and I’m sure it gets lots of amens from progressive types, but there are several problems with it. The first is that it’s a knife that cuts both ways. If being pro-life means that one is both staunchly opposed to abortion and staunchly in favor of all sorts of government programs, few if any legislators qualify.
The essence of the pro-choice position, after all, is that sexual autonomy is so important that it’s acceptable to kill to protect it. That isn’t exactly a spirited defense of human flourishing! Is it any more principled to celebrate the slaughter of the unborn, then offer free lunches to the survivors? At most, then, the article could prove that all lawmakers, progressive and conservative alike, are equally hypocritical. Yea, none are righteous, not even one.
Second, though, I think it’s Biblically defensible to combine opposition to abortion with opposition to various government child-welfare programs. Romans 13:3-4 reads, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
According to Paul, then, the primary purpose of government is to deter and punish wrongdoing. Under a godly government, the innocent will have the freedom to live quiet lives, while those who injure others (note, by the way, that “injury” comes from the Latin word for “unlawfulness”) are punished. I suppose that a government may do more than that, but it must do at least that. As a result, it makes perfect sense to argue that the government should protect the unborn from injury too.
Outside of this central role, though, the New Testament is silent about the affirmative responsibilities of government to care for the governed. 2000 years ago, it would have been laughable to argue, for instance, that the Roman Empire ought to provide health insurance for children. Things like that simply aren’t part of the Biblical worldview.
Certainly, one can take commandments directed toward individual disciples (like James 1:27) and apply them to the state. However, as I’ve observed before, this is a problematic process. First, the Christian system of ethics depends on love and on the desire of the disciple to put love into practice. True discipleship cannot be coerced, but government action is always coercive. Any attempt to turn Christianity into a legal code, then, at least runs the risk of perverting it rather than promoting it.
Second, once we start down the road of codifying Christianity, where do we stop? James 1:27 is part of the law of Christ; so too is Ephesians 4:25. Does that mean that the government should criminalize lying? If not, how does one distinguish between the individual commandments that should be universally applied and the ones that shouldn’t?
In the face of that, it seems entirely principled to me to argue that the government should do its thing (protecting people, including the unborn, from those who want to injure them) while leaving individual Christians to do their thing (caring for the needy and making the world a better place). Certainly, I have much more faith in the ability of disciples to do lasting good than I do in the ability of any institution to do lasting good, and that includes the government!
In all this, I don’t mean to critique the good-faith political convictions of any Christian, liberal or conservative (though I have trouble seeing how it’s possible to be a logically consistent pro-choice Christian). Instead, I want to refocus us on what matters. We don’t primarily do good through political partisanship. We do good where we have the power to do good, when we take advantage of the opportunities God gives us to make the lives of others better. We are leaven in an unleavened world. It is through our own patient, invisible labors that the kingdom of heaven must come.