Slow To Speak (a reflection on reactions to the NY abortion law)
I’ve been troubled for the last few weeks. It began with the announcement of the late-term abortion law in New York and the ensuing wave of social media reactions and counter-reactions, particularly by my Christian friends from different streams. So many weighed in that it became overwhelming. And honestly, the tone of so much of what was said seemed judgmental, accusatory and often just mean… in both directions.
I often hear or feel tremendous pressure that I need to be saying something, about something. As a Christian. As a pastor. As someone with a platform. There’s a spoken or unspoken expectation that I will speak out, and a sense that if I don’t speak out I am sending the message that I don’t care.
At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I found these past few weeks a good opportunity to practice something the Bible teaches that seems unpopular today.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.James 1:19-20
I want to make it clear I’m writing from my personal perspective as a pastor, and to those who call themselves followers of Christ. I am not an expert on legislation, or on women’s health issues, or the complex history of the US church on this and other ethical issues. But I do what Christ-like disagreement looks like. And I do know that it doesn’t only matter whatwe say, it matters how we say it. You can be “right” and bewrongat the same time.
More Responses, Less Reactions
Taking a few days to process, pray and respond seems sadly unusual in the current climate. What if we chose responding instead of reacting? Many of the most outspoken pro-life voices followed up their initial posts in the days following with clarifications and the addition of compassion to their condemnation of abortion. I think it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that I’ll still offend some with this response but my knee-jerk reaction, my visceral unfiltered views certainly would have, and for what? To be the first responder on social media? My raw reactions are rarely the best representation of what I really believe and how I feel. More importantly, they often wouldn’t represent the heart and wisdom of God for my day. Is it my role as a Christian leader today to offer real-time commentary and soundbites on current events as they happen? Do I have to be the first to market with my opinion? Personally, I need the time to process, to reflect, to listen, to pray, to seek counsel.
In times like these where I am constantly bombarded with current events and opinions on social media, the counsel of James 1 seems more timely than ever… to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”. It’s worth highlighting that I sometimes need a moment to discern the true source of my anger since “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires”.
It helps to remind myself that I have a privileged life. I have four beautiful kids. I don’t fear for my life, or theirs. I don’t worry if I am going to be able to feed them. Or whether they’ll be safe because of the color of their skin. And many people do not have that luxury. I should be slow to jump to judgments from that place.
What Moves Me?
People were clearly moved by the law being passed, and I think they should be. Yet I want to point out that other things should move us too. I sat with a pastor last week who is a person of color, and he shared his grief that so many who spoke without hesitating on abortion were silent on Charlottesville. Silent when people of unarmed people of color were killed by police. Silent when families were being separated at our borders. Are we willing to speak up for other injustice in all its forms? I’m not suggesting we need to speak out about everything. I get it; we can’t post about every event in our nation. Yet the imbalance isn’t lost on the world watching on, and it isn’t lost on those for whom the subject of abortion conjures up deep pain, grief, and even shame.
Rather than post about the new abortion law, I first spoke with my sons. It was a hard conversation and a good conversation. For one thing, we should talk with our sons since it seems we easily forget that men, not just women, are also responsible for the conception of all these unplanned pregnancies.
One of them didn’t know what abortion meant. So we talked about it. His first reaction was, “That’s wrong”. I didn’t disagree. Then we talked a little about the world we live in and the fact that many people don’t follow Jesus like we do, or believe what we believe. Their visceral reaction was honest, as was their embrace of the complexity of different scenarios. One of the boys asked, “But what if she’s only a teenager when she gets pregnant? Or what if she doesn’t have money to feed her baby?”. And so we talked about the fact that although I agree that abortion is wrong, life is also complicated. I explained what incest is, and what rape is. What if the momma’s life was threatened by the pregnancy?
Yet some would use exactly these kinds of examples to vilify so-called “radical Christians” for their opposition to abortion under all circumstances, in an attempt to prove a lack of compassion. But I wonder what percentage of the approximately 600,000 abortions in our nation last year was of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or to save a mother’s life?
I told my boys, “Some Christians are saying mean things about people who have had abortions. How does God feel about women that have an abortion?” and without hesitating they responded, “God loves everyone”. That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Are any of us qualified to throw the first stone?
And by the way, these conversations are complicated for those who have suffered miscarriages too and are desperate to havea baby. And for those who want more than anything to have the privilege of adopting a baby.
Labels And Judgments
It’s really only as adults (and especially in the USA) that we turn this into a conversation about something else. In the blink of an eye, the conversation is not about these babies or their mothers in a valley of decision, it becomes about labels and judgments. Suddenly we are talking about Republicans and Democrats. White Evangelicals, the “religious right”, liberals, and radicals. It’s easier to judge a group of people when we can lump them all in a box together – when we can make sweeping generalizations about “them”. I listened to a great podcast last week on Christianity and culture wars and Ed Stetzer said, “You can’t be at war with someone and reach them at the same time“. But we so easily resort to polarizing and shaming instead of conversation and seeking understanding.
I heard someone say last week, “The more we try to make a point, the less we make a difference”. The context of our conversation was the urgent need for empathy in our world and, sadly, in the church too. Is there a risk that our obsession with freedom of speech (which by the way is a constitutional right but not a theme of the gospel) has clouded our judgment on whether we are impeding the mission of God to reach our world?
Abortion Is A Tragedy
In case someone has gotten this far and wondered if I am supportive of abortion, I am pro-life. Every two years we lose more American lives to abortion that we have ever lost to war in the entire history of our country. Worse, the World Health Organization estimates that over 50 million babies are aborted worldwide each year. That’s a tragedy on an enormous scale. There’s a lot of talk about our rights but rights need to extend to babies too. How does life not start when our heartbeat does if life ends when our heartbeat ends?
And yet my view of abortion is not conveniently one-dimensional. It’s a tragedy andso are some of the situations that drive women to make this unimaginable choice.
If you would say you are “pro-life”, what do you mean by pro-life? Are we for alllife? Are we swift to condemn those who abort their babies but quiet about children dying in custody at our borders? Do we claim to be pro-life and yet would fight legislation to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill?
I do believe future generations will judge us harshly for our choices normalizing something that clearly causes such pain. And I don’t just mean the pain for the baby. I have close friends and loved ones who have had abortions. When I hear their stories, their grief, and pain, I’m mindful of them when I speak on this. I don’t want to be careless, bringing shame or condemnation. And yet it strikes me too that their pain should motivate me to pray that over half a million morewomen, in our nation alone, won’t experience that pain this year like others did last year.
To be honest, I reacted badly to the photo that circulated of our NY Governor signing the bill into law. I couldn’t reconcile the way he was smiling as he did it with the reality of so many unborn babies whose lives hung in the balance. If only laws and governments existed to protect the vulnerable, instead of protecting the interests of the powerful. There’s hardly a more vulnerable state than an unborn child. While I believe in freedom, liberty and personal rights, I do not believe those values should ever be held above the right to life itself for another. I realize that similar laws already existed and so some would like to minimize the importance of this. Yet I have come to believe that for better and for worse, what comes out of New York affects the nation, and what comes out of our nation affects the world. As a pastor, my hope is to influence for good a city that influences the world.
I don’t believe it’s the government’s job to legislate the morality of the bible for all of society. I don’t expect the world to live by God’s design (though I do believe God expects his followers to). But even in our secular society, we espouse “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. There’s that word life again. Yet in our day it feels that our liberty has taken precedence over life for others.
Where governments and laws come up short there should always be the Church, ready to act with compassion.
Jesus is profoundly about life. It’s the bottom line of his ministry and mission. We have an enemy whose mission is to steal, kill and destroy, but Jesus came to give life, and life more abundantly. The message of Jesus boils down to life and not death. So it’s difficult for me to understand how I could be expected to reconcile the deaths of 600,000 babies in our nation alone each year with some passive, politically correct version of that message of life. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I believe that as a follower of Christ and as a man, I’m supposed to be a defender of the vulnerable. I just need to realize sometimes both the woman and the baby are vulnerable, and both need to matter to me.
Jesus Loves People And So Should The Church
Let’s be real. The church has so often failed to love people well. It’s wrong that the church has shamed and judged those who have had abortions. It’s wrong that people have threatened the lives of those who perform abortions and that some have done it under the banner of Christianity. It’s also wrong that there is so little accountability for the men also responsible for these pregnancies. We need to apologize for the ways in which we have heaped guilt, and pain and burdens upon others. I don’t see that in the way Jesus handled the hurting. I need to be a person of compassion, and perhaps take a moment to imagine the burden it must be for many women to wrestle with this enormous decision. Can I fight for these babies and love those mothers wrestling with their fate at the same time?
There’s no doubt that on these issues and others the church has often had a dismal record. But the imperfect record of the church does not make abortion ok. Nor does it disqualify Christians from speaking up for life. I just pray that it will cause us to pause and consider our witness, speak with humility, and speak truth soaked in the unconditional love of Jesus.
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.Colossians 4:5
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