This originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 20, 2006.
Those who seek to outlaw abortion often use the rhetoric of “protecting the most vulnerable and helpless” in our communities. Many of them are Christians who see their opposition to abortion rights as inextricably linked with their faith and their understanding of Christian ethics. After all, wouldn’t a God of love and life want us to protect life wherever we found it?
If only it were that simple. In practice, there are other questions we must ask. Does a God of love and life ever support war? Does such a God understand that some innocent civilians will die when we fight to protect our freedoms? In other words, does God approve when we make the decision to kill other people to protect our quality of life? What about when we kill to prevent genocide? Does God have a holy balancing scale that weighs intangibles like “intent” and “the greater good,” or one that compares the number of innocent lives lost against the number of innocent lives saved?
We do not know. For every Christian with a “God Bless Our Troops” sticker on their bumper there is another with “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” on their rear windshield.
If my experience as a pastor is any indication, it is unlikely that the driver of either car would be making their point from the kind of complex theological arguments I learned in seminary. In practice, our upbringings and our biases and our circumstances have much more to do with what we believe God thinks; and we are often inconsistent. How else could we re-interpret Jesus’ teachings, which were widely regarded as purely pacifistic in the Early Church, as an argument for violence in some cases and an argument against it in others? How else could we spend millions of dollars to oppose abortion – despite no clear biblical argument for or against it – and ignore the overwhelming number of biblical texts that explicitly command us to care for the poor.
For the vast majority of Christians, it is not about consistency – it is about convenience. Even those of us who speak passionately about protecting the weak often forget that our willingness to purchase cheap goods produced by exploited workers sentences children to poverty, disease, violence and death. The cars that we drive, the food that we allow to be marketed to children, the tax breaks we support or oppose, they all have a life-or-death impact on the most vulnerable among us. It is not only in war that we make decisions to value one life over another. Consciously or not, we do it every time we go to the supermarket.
The issue of abortion is not about whether life starts at conception. There are convincing arguments either way. The issue is which carries more weight: the life that may be in the embryo or the life and needs of the woman in whose body that embryo was conceived?
After spending time in women’s health clinics, I have come to realize that the “most vulnerable and helpless” who need our active protection are the women and couples who are faced with the agonizingly difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. As a Christian pastor, I strongly support protecting the right of women to make this decision. Other Christian pastors have chosen otherwise, and our division on this issue is proof that there is no Christian consensus here.
The far-right, however, has been able to set the issue of abortion apart from all of the other controversial, life-or-death decisions we make every day. Abortion is not a special case; and I pray that the guardians of our Constitution will continue to protect our freedom to choose our own priorities in all of these weighty matters. The beliefs or prejudices of some, regardless of who has a majority, should not be used to take the choice out of the hands of the woman who will be the main bearer, perhaps the only bearer, of the consequences of her decision.