Sunday, July 18, 2021

Choose Life

The time: February 18, 2010, eleven years and five months ago today. The place: a 66-minute drive from where we are today. It was a medical clinic on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. Authorities had no idea they were about to confront a serial killer. They thought they were just uncovering prescription drug abuse. But by accident, they uncovered horrors they'd never imagined. You see, this medical clinic was, by and large, an abortion clinic – the clinic of one Dr. Kermit Barron Gosnell, M.D. Having opened up shop in his old home neighborhood even before Roe v. Wade, he bought this clinic in '79. But the health department didn't come check in on him for ten years after that. He got site reviews again twice in the early '90s, but each time, the inspector chose to ignore visible violations of the health code. In 1993, officials in the state administration decided that “inspections” of abortion clinics, treating them like other medical facilities, “would be 'putting a barrier up to women' seeking abortions,” and so they gave a secret directive to exempt abortion clinics from inspection.1 Even when complaints were made, they were ignored. The Pennsylvania Department of State did they same – even when confronted with details of the violations, their Board of Medicine refused to visit the facility or review any records, lest the results reduce access to the services of an abortionist.

So when authorities finally did raid the clinic, they were astonished to see firsthand what all the complaints were about: the unsanitary conditions, the stench, the flea-ridden cats, the corroded medical tubes, the broken-down equipment, and – eeriest of all – a shelf with a row of specimen jars, each containing a trophy: an itty-bitty foot.2 It was then uncovered, you see, that Dr. Gosnell's preferred method for larger babies was to have his staff induce labor, let the children be born alive, and then take scissors to their spines to finish the bloody job.3 Ultimately, he was put on trial and convicted, and is imprisoned for life at the state correctional institution in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Gosnell's methods were a bit much, even for 21st-century America. He would have fit right in, though, in the slums of ancient Rome. Because many of our assumptions about the preciousness of children, or of life in general, were not widely shared in the ancient pagan world. One second-century witness tells us that “among [pagans], I see newborn sons at times exposed to wild beasts and birds, or violently strangled to a painful death; and there are women who, by medicinal drafts, extinguish in the womb and commit relative-killing on the offspring yet unborn.”4 What's he talking about? A Roman father was thought to have absolute authority in his family, including authority in that first week or so to decide whether an infant child was worthy of acceptance into the family. If not, if for whatever reason he didn't like the look of the baby, he might simply kill the child himself; or, if that was too emotionally difficult, the parents could leave the child somewhere outside the city walls. They'd tell themselves they were innocent of blood-guilt because there was a chance that the child might be rescued, if the gods willed it; and then, if they wanted, later on they could reclaim the child if they so chose. Of course, for whatever reason, a Greek or Roman woman also had various methods – usually dangerous to herself as well – of inducing an abortion, either with a physical regimen or with a variety of drugs. And as the Stoic movement gained influence in the Roman world, it spread the idea that a “well-reasoned suicide” was a wise choice when faced with some problem like “unduly severe pain or... incurable illness.”5

That was the world into which Paul and others were traveling with the good news of Jesus Christ. Christians, the very first Christians, were completely united with their non-Christian Jewish neighbors in seeing the biblical witness against participation in this kind of culture – it was inhumane and ruled out by the word of God.6 As we explored last Sunday, God's commands prohibit murder because they come out of a vision of human life as created by God in his own image – as representing the extent of his empire throughout the earth, and thus each and every human life is sacred, and violence to human life is an attack on God, a sacrilege. Wrongful human death defiles, stains, pollutes the world's moral fabric and endangers the ability of a community to thrive and grow in God's gracious presence. And when Roman-era Jews and Christians alike looked out at the world, it was obvious to them that if human life is made in God's image, then that includes human life at its oldest and its feeblest as well as human life at its youngest and its least-formed. After all, the Bible's inspired language assumes that when a mother conceives a child, she conceives the same 'me,' the same personal self, who later lives as an adult member of the community (Psalm 51:5; Jeremiah 1:5). The Gospel of Luke outright uses the same word, 'baby,' for both the unborn and the newborn (Luke 1:41, 44; 2:16).

So the first generations of Christians were not on board with the prevailing Roman attitudes towards vulnerable human life. The oldest Christian writing outside the New Testament, written while the apostles were still alive, contains a description of how Christians were taught to live. It says, “You shall not murder a child through abortion, nor kill it once it is born.”7 After that, the first Christian attempt to picture hell, in a text written only a century after Jesus was crucified and rose again, pictures flashes of lightning being inflicted by aborted children (brought to life again) against those who aborted them.8 Twenty years later, a philosopher from Samaria who became a Christian and was killed for his faith in Rome – he told the emperor that Christians believe that “to expose the newborn” to the elements is “wicked,” because if they die, “that would make us murderers.”9 After that, an Athenian philosopher who became a Christian also wrote to the emperor to explain what Christianity is all about. He mentioned to the emperor that those “who practice abortion are murderers and will render account to God for abortion.” He said that Christians sincerely “regard what is in the womb as a living being and, for that reason, an object of God's concern.” He insisted that Christians are “the same and unchanging in every way at all times” when it comes to the defense of human life.10 And at the end of the second century, a Carthaginian lawyer who also converted to Christianity likewise insisted that destroying the unborn in the womb “is murder. It makes no difference,” he said, “whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth: it is a human being...,” and so in the eyes of Christians, “murder is forbidden once and for all.”11 So this stance is not some new idea, invented by a few people in the church to address a modern issue. From the very roots of our faith, Christians have been horrified by practices that attack human life at its edges where it's most vulnerable, even when those anti-life practices are protected by the laws of a corrupted world.

From the Bible, from their living tradition, they knew that a healthy culture is one that treats every human being as having intrinsic value, value in him- or herself, not just because of what somebody can do or what somebody can accomplish or where somebody is on the social totem pole, but simply for being human, for bearing God's holy image – that is enough to be valuable, that is enough to be a neighbor whose life cries out for love and protection in his or her growth from conception to infancy to adulthood to old age to eternity, being no more finished in the tomb than in the womb. 

And so the Christians of the early church were resolute in choosing and defending life. They challenged their pagan neighbors to reconsider their own hypocrisies. They found and adopted exposed infants (not as slaves, as was common among even pagans, but as cherished loved ones), raising them to be part of the next Christian generation,12 until finally, the Church was large enough to effectively disciple emperors into legally recognizing the value of human life. It was a revolution of love. The world has been vastly better for it ever since.

Today, socially, that revolution is unraveling. We now know scientific facts that ought to make it easier for the public today to recognize human life, full human life, in marginal situations – easier than it was in the Roman world. Today's embryology textbooks are emphatic in teaching medical students that, from conception onward, there exists “a new, genetically unique individual,”13 a “single cell” that is, in itself, already a new human “life.”14 Already in the first days of his or her existence, a human embryo is actively in control of his or her development – an immature but complete human organism. Human life beginning at conception is a scientific fact, and the same is true of its continuance even in the absence of some of the brain's higher functions.  We know all this now better than they did then.

In spite of that, abortion is nearly as fully legalized in America as it was in ancient Rome. Since its legalization nationwide by Roe v. Wade in 1973, an estimated 62 million abortions have been carried out. In 2018 alone, it's estimated over 620,000 children had their lives intentionally ended before birth. As of 2019, Pennsylvania itself had over 31,000 abortions per year, and while our county has no abortion clinic, 535 of those 31,000+ abortions were performed on expectant mothers from our county, our communities.15 Not only is abortion a legally protected form of killing human life, but our federal government is presently weighing a drastic expansion in the way that our tax dollars can be used to fund it. Increasingly, abortion is defended not as a necessary evil for rare occasions, but as a cherished right and positive benefit in today's death-hungry culture.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the life cycle, we see that physician-assisted suicide is legally provided for in ten states (ours is, thank God, not one of them). Under the pretense that we are masters of our fate and can gain dignity through grasping for control, medical professionals in those states are empowered to equip the hurting with the tools to do ultimate violence to themselves. For a glimpse where these trends might head, in 2016 in the Netherlands, there was an infamous case of a 74-year-old woman afflicted with dementia, whose family held her down while she struggled for her life against her doctor, who administered a lethal injection to her. Wherever death is an option and the lives of some are seen as inconveniences, there will be pressure from the strong for the vulnerable to 'choose' death for themselves – and sometimes, if the vulnerable won't choose death, those with power will make that choice for them. In the face of all this, one modern philosopher warns us:

Every previous division of humankind into two classes by versions of functional evaluation in which one half was permitted to dispose of the other at will – men exploiting women, whites selling blacks, the young dispatching the old, the rich utilizing the poor, the healthy overpowering the sickly – are nearly universally recognized as evil. Do we really have reason to believe that, for the very first time in human history, we are justified in treating some human beings as less than fully persons? Or will we be judged by history as just one more episode in the long line of exploitation of the powerful over the weak?16

The question cuts to the heart of the modern world. We'd like to think our nation is a great influence for good in the world. But consider all the Old Testament prophets who warned the nations about God's judgment and laid out the reasons why – all the social injustices allowed in their midst. In light of the injustices allowed in our own midst, can we be so sure America would be left off their list? Ringing in our ears are the words of God to Cain: “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:10). What have we done?

The church is called to respond now much as she did in the days of ancient Rome. And that means five things. First, it calls for a clear-sighted lament over the violent ways of the age. Friends, when we think of the number of vulnerable human lives attacked in our land and around the world – the elderly, the disabled, the unborn – we should be heartbroken. We do not, must not, cannot pretend that these practices are anything other than a culture of death that esteems some real human lives as being – to use the phrase invented a century ago in Germany – “life unworthy of life.” We have to see clearly and say clearly that this is violence, and that with such violence we cannot make our peace. We can never regard it as a matter for agreeing to disagree – not when lives are on the line. Violent injustice cries out to heaven for redress. We cry out with it.

But our response has to go beyond lament and outcry. The second thing it calls for is repentance – repentance of our complicity with the conditions that enable such callousness. Surveys suggest that among the top reasons why abortions are sought in the United States include people feeling financially unprepared to raise a child, that they don't want a child with that particular partner, or that they worry they'll limit their job opportunities if they have a child.17 Among other implications, that means we've built a culture where family and work are pitted against each other, where social ties have grown so thin that people don't know where to turn when they're in over their heads, and where those who have much might have very much and those who have little might have very little. To whatever extent we've contributed to such a culture, of course we must repent. To whatever extent we've spoken ungraciously, ignoring the conditions that make violence thinkable, we must repent. To whatever extent we've been more concerned to judge than to help people thrive, we must repent. And to whatever extent we've allowed our hearts to grow hard to the needs and infirmities of others, we must repent.

The third thing it calls for is forgiveness – the embrace of forgiveness for those who've broken God's commands in any and every way. We have to outline the road of grace and penance that heals souls as they uncover their own woundedness. Think about it: Given how common abortion, infanticide, and exposure were in the Roman world, and the fact that Paul suggests many of his converts had backgrounds of typical pagan morality (1 Corinthians 6:10-11), I'd bet that the earliest churches had their fair share of members who had taken part in those practices. There were likely early Christians who, in their pagan past, had aborted children in the womb, or abandoned them when born, or had aided in suicide for the sick or disgraced. And yet the repentant were welcomed into the holy church with open arms, given full cleansing in baptism.

By the fourth century, we even hear church leaders discussing the road of penance that might provide healing for the soul from the harm done by involvement in practices like abortion. It wasn't an easy road. It took work – the early church never believed in cheap grace. But it was worthwhile work. And that there was such work made it clear that they found even the most serious sins forgivable in this life. It wasn't a foregone conclusion that it would be so. There were loud voices in the church screaming that nobody would take the church seriously unless she cracked the whip, shunned her fallen children, and denied second chances to those who'd crossed the clearest lines, such as Christians who'd committed murder. But even there, even when it was hardest, mercy won out in the ancient church.

So must mercy win out among us. While being clear about sin, never should we give the world the impression that sin is anything but the sinner's enemy – and an enemy that can be beaten, once grace enters the equation. Forgiveness and healing must always be our loudest word. For too long and too often, we've trained people to expect us to condemn, to shun, to smugly lecture about personal responsibility and suffering the consequences. We have not as often trained people to expect serious forgiveness, serious help, and serious healing at our hands. But that's what we have to offer. “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). We live the command by raising up those who've fallen afoul of it, if they're willing to accept the loving hand of the church as the loving hand of Christ.

The fourth thing the situation calls for is living in a new way – a way that values life all the way to its utmost edges. The early church was so unsettling and so appealing to the Romans because they just didn't fit in. They could be mocked as lunatics, but there was just something about these Christians. The church was radical because it, it alone among popular movements, dared to see human life with the eyes of Jesus. Not only did they think it and say it, they actually lived it out, treating their neighbors and even enemies with compassion, caring for them when they were sick, providing for them at their own expense, rescuing children abandoned to die. On the pagan world's terms, none of this made any sense. It was disturbing, often infuriating, to see that people could really live like that. But by God (literally!), they could and they did.

And if the church wants to be faithful today, we need to rediscover that too. For too long, American Christians have had vastly more in common with non-Christian Americans than with non-American Christians. We have not shown the world a real difference that we're serious about living. (And if we aren't prepared to start, then we might as well just give up and stay home.) But by God, we can live in ways that disturb, ways that might even infuriate our neighbors. We can treat them with unearned compassion. We can go out of our way to love when it hurts. We can be foolish in the eyes of the world, so extreme can we be in embracing those otherwise cast off by society. We can be a living sign of contradiction. As one theologian is fond of saying these days: “In a hundred years, if Christians are known as a strange group of people who don't kill their children and don't kill the elderly, we will have done a great thing.”18

And finally, the fifth thing we're called to do is to issue a prophetic challenge to our surrounding culture, much as the spokesmen for the early church did to the Roman culture. We can challenge them, first of all, on terms they can understand. They don't want to hear about so-called 'religion'? Fine: To whatever extent they believe that any human life has value, we have an opening. We can gently cut through the rationalizations used to avoid the real heart of the question. And we can do it in accordance with the law already written in their hearts (cf. Romans 2:15). We can explain, without even mentioning reasons they'd recognize as 'religious,' why, if human life has any value, then every human life needs protecting, including the most vulnerable people of all, those most readily and tragically discriminated against: prenatal persons, unborn human life.19

But then, to the extent our neighbors are willing to listen, we can also issue that challenge in the name of Jesus. We can boldly proclaim Jesus Christ as “the Author of Life” (Acts 3:15), the One who shelters all life under his wing, the One who gives each and every life as sheer gift, who stamps every human life with his image, calling it toward a destined fullness far greater than eye can see or ear can hear or mortal mind can ever imagine. For this very Jesus came, not to kill us or to destroy us or to judge us or to condemn us, but to give us life; and not only life, but life to the full, life abundant, life overflowing, life running over the brim of the cup, flooding out from the heart of his Church to all creation (John 10:10). He laid down his human own life so that our lives might be filled with his life, might be reshaped and re-patterned by his love. He took his human life up again so that we might learn how to cherish life (ours and others') and yet be unafraid to die – for the sake of living, especially for the sake of others' living.

In Jesus, through Jesus, life itself has become a message of good news. Every spark of conception – good news. Every first heartbeat (and latest heartbeat) – good news. Every first breath (and latest breath) – good news. Every being – good news. Life is become good news. In all ways, let us choose it. Let us choose it for our neighbors, for the youngest and the oldest and all who live in between. Let us choose it for those who cannot yet or cannot any longer speak for themselves. Let us choose it for ourselves. And best of all, let us choose it for eternity. For Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Glory to the Life! Let us speak the Life's truth and live the Life's way of love. Amen.


Lord God of Life, you are Love, eternally complete.  Knowing all things before, you did not make death, nor do you rejoice in the destruction of the living.  Rather, you fashioned all things so that they might exist, and the creatures you made, they are good.  Fearfully and wonderfully have you made each one of us, weaving the fabric of all our days.  It was our wickedness that then invited death into the world.  Lord, have mercy; Lord, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.  Forgive us our wickedness, Father, for your Son's sake.  You set before us Jesus (who is Life) and all things outside of him (which are become death), and you bid us to choose life or death, blessing or curse.  Turn our wills unceasingly to Jesus, unceasingly to grace and to blessing, unceasingly to life and to love.  Make us fearless to bear witness to life's goodness and to the good news of eternal life for those forgiven who endure in your grace.  Cause our cups to run over with life, that we might taste and know that you are good beyond every created thing, yet your goodness is reflected in the being of each created thing.  Reshape us to live in this world like Jesus, and fit us for deeper union to Jesus beyond this world.  In his name we ask for life, for ourselves and for all.  Amen.

1  R. Seth Williams, Grand Jury Report In Re Misc. No. 0009901-2008, 17 January 2001, <,%20Grand%20Jury%20Report.pdf>, page 9.

2  R. Seth Williams, Grand Jury Report In Re Misc. No. 0009901-2008, pages 2, 45-50, 74.

3  R. Seth Williams, Grand Jury Report In Re Misc. No. 0009901-2008, pages 4-5, 103-116.

4  Marcus Minucius Felix, Octavius 30.2

5  Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 7.30; cf. Seneca, Letters 58.32-34

6  Josephus, Against Apion 2.24 §202 (“It [i.e., the Law] gave orders to nurture all children, and prohibited women from causing the seed to miscarry and destroying it”); see also Philo of Alexandria, On the Special Laws 3.110-117, and On Virtues §§131-132.

7  Didache 2.2

8  Apocalypse of Peter 8

9  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 27.1; 29.1

10  Athenagoras of Athens, Legatio 35.6

11  Tertullian of Carthage, Apology 9.6-8

12  See, e.g., Augustine of Hippo, Letters 98.6

13  Junaid Kashir, et al., “Fertilization and egg activation,” in Kevin Coward and Dagan Wells, eds., Textbook of Clinical Embryology (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 98. See also T. W. Sadler, Langman's Medical Embryology, 12th ed. (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2012), 37.

14  Samuel Webster and Rhiannon de Wreede, Embryology at a Glance, 2nd ed. (Wiley Blackwell, 2016), 2.

16  Christopher Kaczor, The Edge of Life: Human Dignity and Contemporary Bioethics (Springer, 2005), 47.

17  Sophia Chae, et al., “Reasons Why Women Have Induced Abortions: A Synthesis of Findings from 14 Countries,” Contraception 96/4 (October 2017): 233-241.

18  Stanley Hauerwas, repeated in assorted interviews.

19  For making this case, see Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007); Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2007), chapter 4; Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, 2nd ed. (Catholic University of America Press, 2010 [1996]); Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, 2nd ed. (Witherspoon Institute, 2011 [2008]); Stephen Napier, ed., Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments (Springer, 2011); Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2015 [2010]); and O. Carter Snead, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics (Harvard University Press, 2020), chapter 3.

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