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God's Politics

Thirty-four years ago today, on January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade, arguing that most abortion laws violate the constitutional right to privacy.

Waking up on this icy morning in Virginia, I might have forgotten the anniversary if not for the little map on page B4 (Metro section) of The Washington Post, outlining the route for the yearly “March for Life” protest. Page B4? There was a religion piece on the front page of today’s Post: a story about Christian dieting. The diet feature began with a Baptist pastor preaching ethics to his congregation: “About 40 percent of you need to lose weight. When you love potluck more than God, it’s serious.”

No doubt some will accuse the Post of “liberal bias” by ignoring Roe vs. Wade and by making Christians look ridiculous by reporting on the Web site “FatFree4Jesus.org.” But I think that the Post‘s choice of these two stories is indicative of something beside liberal bias. It reflects the failure of the Christian community to understand abortion in the context of theology and practice – and the equal failure of Christians in accepting the secular framing of abortion ethics.

To commemorate the day, I decided to re-read some Stanley Hauerwas (Duke Divinity School ethicist) essays on abortion. After spending Monday morning with Stanley, it is difficult to fault the Post for not carrying a story about Roe vs. Wade. As Hauerwas noted in 1981, “Essays of the morality of abortion, whether they be anti or pro, have begun to take on a ritualistic form. Each side knows the arguments and counterarguments well, but they continue to go through the motions. Neither side seems to have much hope of convincing the other.”

Even though Hauerwas wrote those words 26 years ago, nothing much has changed. Like the editors of the Post, I can hardly imagine what “news” might come from yet another “March for Life.” Protesters and counter-protesters yelling at each other – the same “pro-life” and “pro-choice” arguments they have been shouting since 1973. A very stale ritual. No wonder most Americans sigh, turning a deaf ear to what seems a political and social stalemate.

But, for Christians, abortion remains an important ethical issue, one that is surprisingly difficult because we have given up the theological dimensions of the discussion in favor of those two ritualized (and politicized) positions. I can relate to the words of Presbyterian minister, Rev. Terry Hamilton-Poor: “I believe that it is essential that the church face the issue of abortion in a distinctly Christian manner.” She continues, “I believe that the issue, for the church, must be framed not around the banners of ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life,’ but around God’s call to care for the least among us whom Jesus calls his sisters and brothers.”

Stanley Hauerwas framed his seminal 1991 essay “Abortion: Theologically Understood” with Ms. Hamilton-Poor’s sermon. From the starting point of “the least among us,” Hauerwas reflected on the responsibilities of Christian discipleship, the language of abortion, and baptism as it relates to the church as family.

Nowhere, however, is Hauerwas more provocative than in debunking both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” positions. He reminds pro-lifers: “Christians do not believe life is sacred.” Indeed, he points out, “Christians took their children with them to martyrdom . . . Christians believe there is much worth dying for. We do not believe that human life is an absolute good in and of itself” (Pope John Paul II also made this point in Evangelium Vitae). As for “pro-choice” advocates, he attacks the idea that abortion is individual and private, arguing instead that Christians must embody “the kind of community” that can “sustain the practice of hospitality to life.”

Finally, Hauerwas states that abortion is intrinsically linked to Christian sexual ethics: “The church has to make it clear that sexual relations are relations of power.” From that perspective, he states that abortion is not primarily a women’s issue. Rather, abortion starts with male sexual promiscuity, “nothing but the exercise of reckless power.” He claims that until the church clearly addresses male sexuality, which it appears loath to do, Christians will continue to misunderstand the ethical dimensions of abortion and its proper theological context. Male promiscuity, an expression of sexual power, victimizes both women and children.

On this January 22, I am reminded that the Christian community has, for the most part, failed regarding abortion. Certainly, there are isolated examples of Christian care for the least when it comes to abortion. For the most part, however, we have given in to slogans and untenable philosophies. We do not bear transformative witness of hospitality to the “least of these” or prophetically challenge the disordered “relations of power” that plague our lives, churches, and society. Until we live in hospitality and justice, the world will continue to ignore abortion – thinking instead that Christians are more concerned with the ethics of potlucks than with the oppressed and powerless.


Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) holds a Ph.D. from Duke University in Religion, where she specialized in church history, but where all her friends studied ethics with Stanley Hauerwas. She is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco), a Publishers Weekly best book of 2006.

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