Not Inhuman Yet

This is the photo that, ironically, proved that there was still a yuck factor among even the most ardent pro-choice advocates. That somehow, despite the one-way street of post-Christian Western ideologies, we haven’t jettisoned everything. Culturally we’re not completely inhuman. Not yet at least.

One day until full term (and with another child in tow at the protest outside the Supreme Court), Amanda Herring is quoted as saying that her Jewish faith informs her views on abortion:

“Judaism says that life begins with the first breath, that is when the soul enters the body.”

Well I guess the mix of Judaism that she espouses may say that, but the Jewish faith of the Old Testament Scriptures seems a long way from that rather odd mix of materialism and spirituality. The irony in this most secular age of there being a “magic” moment.

There was a visceral response to this photo, including from many horrified pro-choice advocates who took to Twitter to voice their concerns. There’s clearly something about the logical extension of the belief that a foetus is not human, until personhood is granted by the state, that jars even the most vocal supporters of abortion.

Is abortion a complex issue? Of course it is. And I’m wading into Roe with all of the unspoken (by me at least) caveats that a white, middle-aged Christian man is supposed to say. And fifty years after Roe v Wade the proof of those complexities is there for all to see. But I’m wading into this one as a human first and foremost because, well because that’s the common ground of that photo above.

We know that abortion is a complex pastoral issue. Christians who advocate no abortion ever, based on their theology, will have to demonstrate that their pastoral pockets are as deep as their theological ones. Yet we should take heart here , despite the naysayers who assert that most Christians only care about life up until the point of birth. The evidence in terms of financial support for welfare agencies, pregnancy support networks, the uptake of both fostering and adoption among people of faith compared to secularists flies in the face of these accusations.

But of course those Christians who are pro-choice need to demonstrate that their theological pockets are as deep as their pastoral ones. And I for one am not seeing that. In fact I’m seeing shallow pockets, that tend to get shallower. Watching on I see a lot of political theology going on, but not a lot of theology of the body. Which might seem strange for a culture so steeped in individualism, of which Christians are as equally marinated as unbelievers.

It surely goes without saying now, that the Bible is steeped in a theology of the body that is completely at odds with the current drift of what it actually means to be human. Historian Tom Holland asserts that the West is still tied firmly to its Christian moorings. Perhaps, but the ropes are starting to fray. And it’s fraying most markedly in the area of what it means to be a human being, from where such meaning derives, and who gives that meaning.

When it comes to a number of Christians I have read who speak about abortion all sorts of exegetical, linguistic and hermeneutical twists and turns to get away from what the Bible does say about the body, about autonomy and about what constitutes a human.

So, for example, there was this rather poor effort in The Conversation by Sean Winter, the Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Divinity in Melbourne, casting the Christian anti-abortion position, particularly in the USA, as purely political and cultural, with an assertion that the Bible nowhere mentions abortion.

This seems to me to be the most pharisaic interpretation of the whole biblical text, not to mention a complete and deliberate ignoring of the history of the church from the 1st century, when the followers of Jesus were defined by their love of all life, including the unborn. Murray Campbell has written a well considered theological response here.

Winter, if he holds to his conviction, would have to provide some sort of explanation as to why the early Christians took such an opposing stance to the culture of the day when it came to the full worthiness of life in the womb, if indeed Jesus, and Paul (and indeed the Old Testament) have no truck with abortion. The Roman pagans those early Christians lived among were not even as squeamish as the mother in the photo above (whose baby, due the day after the photo was taken, is now presumably “human” in her eyes).

And notice I said “worthiness”. This is not a question about whether or not the unborn baby is human. The hard end of the conversation has moved past that point. This is a question about which human should we preference over which other human.

Despite the intended radical nature of that wording on that swollen belly, it’s nowhere in the ballpark of the most radical in the abortion movement who completely affirm the humanity of the baby – even from day one – but refute the idea that it has equal rights to the mother who bears it. That’s the point at which the Christian rope has frayed to the point of separation. And the drift will only continue. And the “yuck” factor will drift away too. Even this daring photograph is proof that Amy Herring has to find a way to deny the humanity of her unborn child before she can posit getting rid of it.

Pre-Christian paganism had no such squeamishness. Romans would expose unwanted children on the hillside. It behoves Sean Winter to explain why the church took such a definite anti-cultural step, yet he doesn’t even attempt to do so. Surely this deep, radical commitment to the sanctity of the body – whether in rejection of abortion, the refusal to use power to obtain sex, or the value given to the weaker in the culture, (women, children and slaves) – by the early Christians, is not an accident of politics and culture, but a commitment to what it meant to be an embodied human, given shape and meaning by the embodied resurrection of Jesus.

But before even getting that far, the fact that Imago Dei springs from Genesis 1-2, and has become the basis of human rights across the Christianised West for centuries, would seem to be lost on Sean Winter also.

It actually intrigues me that Imago Dei has fallen off the radar so quickly in the past two decades. In the missional church movement’s early days all the talk was of Imago Dei as the foundational stone of our evangelistic/missional strategies. In fact it was assumed that even the most un-Christian person we met who had rejected the gospel, had value, dignity and worth because of it. Indeed there was a blurry line in the mind of some as to whether we even needed to evangelise at all, given this reality.

Yet now I hear very little about Imago Dei, and nothing at all from more progressive types. Perhaps it’s a little embarrassing in the current ethical debates. Perhaps it’s seen as “the wrong side of history” to allow any room for a theology of the body that reaches an apex in 1Corinthians 6:20, when the theology of the new body – the resurrected body – is infused into the theology of the old body:

 You are not your own,  for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Paul is speaking in the context of sexual immorality, which in the culture of the day, was also in lock step with where today’s modern culture has gone. Hence it’s an a priori “fact” in our culture that you are your own and that your body is yours to do with what you like. To even say that verse in the context of a conversation around Christianity seems like it would spell doom for our evangelistic efforts. It’s just a bridge too far. It will indeed – probably is already – viewed as violent and unsafe. Yet it’s central to the Christian ethic and must remain so if Christianity is to mean anything going forward.

But before we get on too high a horse about this, let’s consider our own theology of the body, when it clashes with those things that we want for ourselves, things that we consider to be neutral, but which are not. In his great book, “You are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World”, Alan Noble raises the spectre that we often give ourselves a hall pass when it comes to doing what we want with our bodies – even as Christian. And he does so by challenging our hard won autonomy in the West when it comes to work and how it both informs and shapes our individualistic search for identity:

In our quest to discover the right career, we turn inward, hoping to discern something about our personality and identity that will clearly point to an occupation. The focus of our decision-making process is ourselves. We consider our skills, our passions, our experiences. Other people figure into our planning only because they determine how marketable and competitive certain careers are. But their needs as people are unimportant.

When so much is at stake in terms of identity formation via the workforce, you may start to see why an unplanned pregnancy is seen by so many as fatal to a woman’s life. The language around babies in late modernity is how much of a risk they are to the careers of – usually – their mothers. How the gender pay gap is exacerbated by the time taken out to have a child. And when that’s the case, then the argument for abortion, not merely at the extremes such as rape or incest, takes on deep significance.

Noble observes that a Christian anthropology should radically change the way we think about careers in the West just as much as abortion. And that’s true for both men and women. it is NOT the case that men can have it all and that women cannot. Find me a man that has it all in terms of work and I will show you a man whose relationship trail exposes the folly of that conceit. I will show you a man, whether Christian or not, who has given up on the idea that his body is not his own.

Noble’s task is, er, noble. He’s not so interested in us winning the city – or the courts for that matter – back for our own causes, because he says that misses the point of not being our own. He states:

We must find ways of living in the contemporary world that insist we are not our own, but belong to God – ways of living that testify to our radical dependence on God for our existence and preservation…As soon as we start prioritising the most efficient ways to change society or the most psychologically effective strategies for evangelising, we won’t actually be representing Him in the heart of the city. We will be representing a fully integrated city-dweller who has accommodated Christianity to the sovereign self.

And how does the sovereign self live life? Inhumanely. The sovereign self is what designates the right to take a black Sharpie and write “Not Yet a Human” on one’s heavily pregnant belly. Yet as I am saying, that’s just the most extreme example; the telescoped conclusion of a set of ideas we take for granted.

In a far better piece written by the admirable Giles Fraser, the journalist and Anglo-Catholic priest makes the chilling observation that to say “Not Yet a Human” posits the reality of being able to say ‘No Longer a Human”. Or perhaps “Never a Human”, which was certainly a driving force of much of the 20th century’s atrocities.

I don’t agree with everything Fraser writes on this issue, but I totally see if we’ve created an inhuman world in terms of the role of work and identity and meaning and purpose, and a myriad other things that make up the non-transcendent trenches we inhabit, then it’s a bit of a gear crunch to say “no abortion ever for any reason.” We’re not going back there, we just aren’t. Our reflex about all of those other issues makes it complex enough for Christians to say that, never mind those who have zero theology of the body. My theology tells me it must be so. But it won’t be so yet. Until the day that it is in the kingdom that is coming (as opposed to the kingdom we are building), then the tensions will remain.

Fraser is at his best with this:

“Not yet a human” is a dangerous slogan, especially when we start to think about how its criteria for being might be rolled out — or denied — to others in very different circumstances, such as the seriously ill. “Not yet a human” is perilously close to the statement “No longer a human”… [T]he point about the religious attitude is that it insists that human life is not fungible, not fully replaceable with something that may share all of its outward characteristics. I absolutely believe in a woman’s right to choose. I do not believe in anyone’s right to deny the humanity of another. But we must not defend the former by insisting upon the latter. “Not yet a human” will always be a terrifying phrase.

And perhaps that pregnant belly, with its words equally pregnant with meaning, are a small wake-up call to those who, otherwise, cannot see the rock-strewn waterfall that the tethered moorings of Christianity are protecting us from. The inability of the secular social imaginary to completely wipe Imago Dei from our collective memory means the yuck factor remains, regardless of how poorly articulated it is.

How long will that memory remain? How long will the humanist societies around the West boast in their post-Christian ability to do good and be good, all while they squat on ground they did not purchase? Who know. The great and grumpy Stanley Hauerwas, never noted for his optimism said this:

I say that in a hundred years, if Christians are identified as people who do not kill their children or the elderly, we will have done well. Because that’s clearly coming.

I think we can do better. But it’s a start. The West is not completely inhuman yet.