A religious matter–where are the men? Matthew 23:13-16
Last week I was struck by something with the force of a blow to my solar plexus. When I heard about the Supreme Court’s leaked opinion on abortion, I doubled over. The image immediately arose before me of a blood sacrifice. I saw in my mind Agamemnon’s ritual sacrifice of his own daughter Iphigenia to bring favorable winds that would take their warships to Troy—. It was blind, it was desperate, and death-dealing.
And for what? a war. Agamemnon launches his warships with the wind procured by his daughter’s life. A man throws away his daughter. There it is, the exact parable of the Supreme Court abortion opinion. They would sacrifice women’s lives, their self-determination to keep the male prerogative sacrosanct.
Don’t know the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice? Here is a more recent parable for you, a novel published in 1925, where an ambitious young man with his sights on socialite hotties lets his working-class pregnant girlfriend drown in a boating accident. Rather than the abortion that the pair considers, this man takes an expedient of his own and sacrifices two lives for the sake of his next sexual exploit. This is so common a commonplace that we dismiss such behavior with cliches like boys will be boys. This boy will pay with his own life, ultimately executed for murder, another life sacrificed. Blood blood everywhere and nobody cries foul, despicable waste all in the name of the male prerogative to consume females with impunity. The name of the novel? An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser. In it people saw our tragic society.
May I draw it out for you? The Court finds women dispensable. Women are apparently not people who have personal aspirations that deserve to be honored. Experts and the professional classes debate whether she has the right to take the life of the fetus, without considering that the fetus is taking the life of the woman. But rights are fine points I am not qualified to adjudicate. I appeal this morning not to rights but to facts that lead you directly to ask the religious, the ethical question–where are the men? Men just don’t want their precious lives encumbered either by women or wives or unintended pregnancies.
I submit to you three facts. Fact #1–sexual reproduction is overdetermined in nature. Fact #2–there is no foolproof contraception. Fact #3–all ethics are contextual including the ethics of abortion.
Fact #1–sexual reproduction is overdetermined in nature. That’s fine for turtles and oak trees and dandelions like the one on your bulletin cover page. But sexual temperance has always figured in civilization’s survival, either to avoid births without family support or to avoid births that threatened the survival of the family. There have been contraceptives and abortifacients and infanticide since before recorded history. It is right to ask, when is abortion justified? But fact #1 remains–sexual reproduction is overdetermined in nature, and humanity has always striven to control our fertility.
Fact #2–there is no foolproof contraception. Early on, family and social mores and religious restrictions applied the brakes to sexual activity–that was the original contraception. It didn’t always work, progressively weakening over time–the 1920s, the 1960s when sexual activity came to be viewed as part of a healthy life, married or not. More sex meant more danger of pregnancy, at least until the pill arrived, but the use of that was not uniform or foolproof. So, the ancient anxiety about unintended pregnancy has never been overcome. Very few people regard having a baby without family support as a good thing, although clearly lots of single moms have made a success of it. Economic conditions determine survival–poverty, health care, health insurance affect white and black women. And most importantly, the absence of the father directly impacts the survival and quality of life for the newborn. Fact #2, the original and the modern contraceptives are not foolproof, so unsustainable pregnancies do occur.
Fact #3–all ethics are contextual, including whether or not to keep a pregnancy. Because a baby can’t live on oxygen alone, the social and family reality surrounding each pregnancy matters, and has to be individually assessed. Everybody wants the baby to survive. If it is known that it can’t, then best not bring it to term. Some people want to call this homicide, pure and simple. Or, they deem it equivalent to the holocaust. They are wrong to think so, because the law puts every human act in its context, all acts deemed criminal are evaluated according to the situation and the intent, whether it’s car theft, embezzling or murder for that matter. People love to watch Perry Mason shows or Judge Judy and crime movies with trials, where part of the drama involves establishing the context. When it comes to homicide, there are five different categories, each defined by context, and each of those is even more finely worked through in the sentencing phase. Nevertheless, abortion is tragic because human life is inherently tragic. Fact #3–all ethics are contextual, and that applies to abortion.
Let me tell you this story. A huge survey of Christian families done in the 1970s was conducted by the Methodist Church and found that kids of religious families were as sexually active as those of non-religious families. Here’s what I think. Evangelical Christians couldn’t control their children’s sexual activity, so they want to employ the government to do it. That is, Christian men couldn’t control their families, so they figure laws will put fences around people’s minds and their sexuality.
But people of the “Christian” Right have duped themselves and many other Americans with their Bible about every issue: race, sexuality, gay rights, marriage, guns, Putin, and also abortion and contraception—it’s been a thoroughgoing whitewash out of white male fear, excuse the play on words. Those Christians see the Bible as a blueprint for society, when in fact it is no such thing but rather a prescription for getting right with God. Over millennia, through revelation, consensus, legislation, custom and culture, the human condition has steadily realized what it means to be human. We are now watching the brakes being put on the hard-won humanization of humanity through this violent, arbitrary decision, blind to the facts.
Christ had nothing good to say about the scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, blind guides. The scribes and Pharisees were just examples–there are religious hypocrites everywhere. We are hypocrites to the extent that our behavior doesn’t line up with our profession of faith. Today we heard only two of the six woes Jesus laid on us, but it’s quite enough to understand his fierce complaint. “Shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.” “You make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” “Blind guides.” Another day we will put ourselves under Christ’s microscope, but today belongs to the Christian right–“you strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.”
The good news is that God always takes us back, even you and me, as we painfully learn from our errors and sins. The forgiveness of God is perpetual.
American Evangelicals have made of human life an absolute where that has never been done before. If that were done, to be consistent every newborn would be awarded a $100,000 bond, adjusted for inflation make that $500,000. Or at least guarantee the support of both parents. Why don’t Christians bring back the shotgun wedding? Because men’s freedom would be limited. And because our society has given up on holding men responsible, it will shift the burden entirely and solely to one person, where two were involved. There is the clearest rationale for permitting abortion–to even the playing field.
We want, the world should want, every mother to want to be a mother. If motherhood is forced on women when they can't afford it, or don't have the physical and moral support of the father, or face their own medical complications, and certainly if they are victims of rape or incest, no one should stand in the way of a pregnancy termination. I trust women to make this decision, and polls show that most Americans do too, even when they don't agree with the decision.
The Supreme Court will pull women and our whole society down with this mortal sacrifice. None of today’s formal public statements can remotely approach the tragic direness of this decision. Yes, if they go through with this, we have made our blood sacrifice of women. Maybe the bulletin image symbolizes the treatment of women by American society, tragically consigning them to drift in the breeze to live or die wherever they may fall.
It is right to ask, when are abortions justified? It is always right to answer: consider the context. It is a matter of religious integrity to ask, where in that context are the men?