I originally posted this to Facebook, but copied it here for easier sharing.
Wading into a conversation about abortion on Facebook isn’t perhaps the wisest thing to do. But given all of the misinformation making the rounds on FB — especially from Christians who are hellbent on distorting and misrepresenting basic facts — I sense an obligation as a pastor to say something. (Also I’m tired of “pro-life” Christians trying to take the moral high road for political gain even if it means bearing false witness when it comes to the truth surrounding super complex and nuanced situations.)
Be warned, this is a long post. If you wish to comment, please do so only after reading the full content of what I’m sharing here, including the linked articles.
Most of what I’ll be sharing was written by others.* But first, allow me to briefly share a personal story. I grew up in the church. I was always taught that abortion was wrong. Period. No shades of gray. So it’s no surprise that I understood myself to be a pro-life Christian (and still do today, albeit from a much more nuanced position than before). And I carried these perspectives into ministry. It’s not something I ever thought much about. It all seemed pretty simple — until it didn’t. (Life has a way of challenging us.) Many years ago, as a very young pastor, a newly married couple asked if they could privately meet with me. They were expecting their first child, and had been so full of joy. That’s why I was so surprised when they showed up at my office full of sadness and disappointment. The joy was gone. They had just learned that their baby wasn’t developing properly. I don’t remember all of the medical terminology, but the baby was developing in a way that not only threatened the life of the mother, but would’ve brought excruciating, excruciating pain to the baby when born. This family met with me in heartbreak and tears. The last thing they wanted was to lose their precious child; at the same time they had immeasurable compassion and love for their child.
As I continued in ministry, I encountered more stories like this. I share this story because it’s cruel and insulting to think that mothers and families are cold hearted when making the most excruciating, broken-hearted decisions of their lives. They’re not being casual, callous, thoughtless, or cruel. They are trying their best to do what they think is the most loving and compassionate thing to do, given the heartbreaking moment in which all their deepest hopes feel lost. I know some pastors who say that God can do miracles, and I’m aware that amazing things can happen beyond anything we can expect. But that is also the exception to the rule. I think it’s only fair, at the very least, to have understanding and compassion for mothers and families in these moments. Not to do so says far more about you than them. And the last thing anyone should do to a grieving family who has lost everything they dreamed of is to gloat that God did for you what God didn’t do for them.
The next reflection I wish to share is from Lindsey Erin:
“For all of you who think that New York is allowing these terminations after 24 weeks for people who don’t want their babies, you’re wrong. You are dead wrong. And your posts depicting perfect full-term babies that are supposedly in danger are nothing short of torturous…
I was 17 weeks pregnant when I found out that [my son] had a condition that would make him incompatible with life. It broke me in ways you will never understand until you experience it yourself. I hope you never do.
I wasn’t 24 weeks yet, but I already loved this baby. I named him. I had dreams of holding him, of kissing his little fingers and toes. Dreams of what his giggles would sound like. I wanted him, so very badly. How much worse must it be for women who have made it to 24 weeks or more?
I had to make a choice. As you can see [note from Phil: this FB post contained the last picture taken of Lindsey’s son], he was badly swollen. What you can’t see is that his organs were surrounded by fluid. He was going to drown in the substance that was supposed to keep him safe. I wanted to try to carry to full term so that I could donate his organs to a baby that had a chance. Unfortunately, doing so would have nearly guaranteed that I would have developed eclampsia, had fatal seizures and left my other beautiful sons without a mother. There was only a 20% chance that I would even have made it to full term, because of the severity, and if he had passed before that, his organs would not have been eligible for donation. I made the heartbreaking choice to terminate via induction of labor. My doctors moved quickly, but showed more compassion towards me and my son than many of the people who claim to be pro-life. I was given a chance to hold him and say good-bye.
My story is not uncommon. The stories of the women put in this position through no fault of their own are heart-wrenching. The new law does not allow for healthy full term babies to be aborted. It does not allow for murder, yes a life is ended but it is an act of mercy. The law protects the women who are forced to make the hardest decision of their lives and the doctors who care for them.
These babies are wanted. These babies are loved. These mothers aren’t murderers. These mothers are devastated. You are politicizing their pain and demonizing them.”
The following link is to an article by the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, pastor of the historic Riverside church in the city of New York. (She’s also a contributor to my latest book, Preaching as Resistance.) Here she shares her own heartbreaking and deeply personal story:
The next reflection is from my friend and colleague Yuki Schwartz, who shares her story of being a hospital chaplain:
“If you know anyone who is clutching their ideological pearls over various abortion laws being implemented or under consideration around the US, please send them this article [linked below] and invite them to think with compassion and within the bounds of reality, rather than going along with the hatred of women so many anti-abortion arguments are crafted around. What these laws do is place the authority for a medical decision in the hands of a patient and their doctor, not a governing body that is ignoring science in order to advance a religious agenda. Late-term abortions involve the loss of a wanted and expected child, whose survival is either not possible or whose birth threatens the mother’s life, or both. Anyone who pictures women gleefully lining up to kill a child that’s two minutes from being born are participating in a cruel and heartless politics that fundamentally hates women and disdains mercy and care for those in tragic circumstances. They are also willfully ignoring the fact that making abortions more difficult to get means depriving families of medical care and causing more trauma and suffering.
I did my chaplaincy training on the high-risk pregnancy floor at a hospital. I sat with families and helped them make decisions and funeral arrangements in the midst of a loss of their hopes and dreams for a life that couldn’t be saved. To deny these families and individuals the ability to make a hard decision with the help of a doctor’s advice compounds their grief. These laws lets doctors and patients take back their ability to make the decisions that are right for them in this difficult time, and stops religious fundamentalists from spreading their misery through the law.
We must call out the liars who seek to cause suffering just to satisfy their own sense of twisted self-righteousness. And also demand that people approach issues like this with compassion and education, and not with knee-jerk reactions to sensationalist propaganda.
H/t Violet Fenn
Article referred to by Yuki:
Lastly, there are many who will say these stories are exceptions to the rule, to which I respond in at least two ways: First, these are stories related precisely to the legislation in New York, which has been widely misrepresented. If people are going to try to figure out what they think about New York’s legislation (especially when the right is desperately trying to turn it into naked political gain) they need resources that directly apply to the actual content of New York’s legislation. I’m tired of people on the right saying those on the left are cold and heartless supporters of infanticide, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Secondly, the vast majority of those of us on the left who understand the necessary legal reasons for upholding Roe v Wade also do not take abortion casually. That too couldn’t be further from the truth. Which is why I wrote the following article a while back:
* Please note that each of these reflections were set to public on FB, or shared with the permission of the authors.
Here in the Bible Belt, it’s not uncommon for people to think that saying “Merry Christmas” — as opposed to “Happy Holidays” — somehow recovers the true meaning of the season. But this is hardly the case.
I don’t say this as a nihilistic cultured despiser of religion. I say it as a Christian pastor who very much loves the Christmas season and wants to recover all that it means.
The phrase “Merry Christmas,” on its own, expresses a beautiful sentiment of well wishes for others. It can be understood as a shorthand way of saying, “I hope the birth of Christ brings you hope, peace, joy, and love,” which are the Advent promises.
But here’s the thing. Nowadays, the phrase “Merry Christmas” gets used in very different ways, with very different connotations. Instead of saying that one hopes the birth of Christ brings hope, peace, joy and love to others (including those outside the Christian faith), it’s frequently weaponized. It’s fallen victim to the incessant culture wars that mark the increasingly surreal landscape of existence in modern day America. “Merry Christmas” has morphed into a positioning statement that has more to do with establishing one’s identity in the culture (usually as a conservative Christian) than in expressing what one hopes for others living in the culture (whether they identify as conservative Christians or not).
What’s more, “Merry Christmas” is often delivered as an opening salvo to anyone who dares challenge the power and dominance of the Religious Right in the history and culture of the United States. Instead of being connected to what the biblical stories about the birth of Christ actually say, this phrase is unplugged from the biblical tradition; it’s become a shorthand way of thumbing one’s nose at those who don’t celebrate Christmas (even though most non-Christians in the U.S., who comprise less than thirty percent of the population, are not in the least bit offended by those who do celebrate Christmas).
It’s cheap rhetoric. After all, it’s much easier to say “Merry Christmas” than to actually care about what the birth stories teach. It’s much easier to wage culture wars in the name of religion than to actually live by the principles at the heart of the Christmas narratives. It’s much easier to put up nativity scenes, even with big letters that spell “Jesus,” than to follow the way of Christ.
Much of the rhetoric surrounding “Merry Christmas” serves as a mask for avoiding the deeper implications of Jesus’ birth and what it means for us today.
Let’s not forget that Jesus and his family were refugees fleeing violence (recall Herod’s massacre of the infants and the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew). Yet in our culture today — in a cruel stroke of irony — it’s the Religious Right that is most hostile to refugees fleeing violence. In fact, conservative Christians in the U.S. represent the largest demographic that supports policies that tear gas refugees and place them in cages. Until we repent from sanctioning such inhumane policies, we can’t begin to say that we take the Christmas stories seriously. You can choose to support such inhumane policies all you want — that offense is on you — but you can’t claim to honor the meaning of Christmas when doing so.
If we wish to conserve the true meaning of Christmas — if we wish to be conservative in our reading of the biblical stories — we must remember that the birth of Christ was never about dominant groups using their religion to discriminate against others. Quite the opposite. Jesus and the Holy Family were marginalized from the beginning by the most dominant groups in society. Contrary to what Stephen Miller and the Trump administration may think, Jesus didn’t do the oppressing. It was the other way around. As O Holy Night recalls, in Christ’s name “all oppression shall cease” — not be amplified.
When reflecting on the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, as well as the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and the Magi’s visit to them, theologian Carlos Rodriguez summarizes the Christmas stories in a way that would come as an unwelcome surprise to the Religious Right:
“Christmas is about believing what a woman said about her sex life. Christmas is about finding safety as asylum seekers. Christmas is about a child receiving support from the wealthy. Christmas is about God identifying with the marginalized, not the powerful.”
If we wish to offer a Merry Christmas to others, then we at least need to have the courage to honor what the stories actually say. Otherwise it is we, the Christians, who are the true cultured despisers of religion – because we know what the stories say but we refuse to acknowledge them in order to serve our own self-interested goals. Which is the ultimate form of nihilism.
A few reflections on the inhumane treatment of migrants at our southern border, in no particular order:
(1) It’s not illegal to seek asylum in the U.S. It’s perfectly lawful. The migrants are not breaking the law in their attempts to do so.
(2) Tear gassing children is inhumane, unconscionable and cruel, full stop. This represents a total failure of leadership on multiple levels. If you wish to defend this practice by appealing to whataboutism, then you haven’t provided an ethical justification for it; you’ve simply heightened the ubiquity of the practice and the urgency of meaningfully responding to it.
(3) Anyone who wishes to say “we are a nation of laws” must first ask why our own leaders are violating our very own laws set in place for asylum seekers. The border was closed preemptively in order to keep the migrants from applying for asylum. You can call this shifting the goalposts or violating the laws of the land; both are unlawful.
(4) Those who say progressives are arguing for open borders fail to listen to what we’ve been saying all along (perhaps to a fault): all we want is for our leaders to follow the laws currently in place for migrants seeking asylum, and to provide proper resourcing to carry out these laws. We are asking for law and order. Protecting the border begins by protecting the laws at the border and making sure our country has the resources necessary to implement the laws in place. When we have to resort to other measures, we have failed. We are a nation of laws. When these laws aren’t fair, when these laws fall short of the call for justice, then we need to follow proper protocol in order for such laws to reform and reconfigure so they better align with justice, fairness, and dignity.
(5) The horrific systemic violence these migrants are fleeing is worse than what Saddam Hussein did to his people (just read the Amnesty International reports). Which makes me wonder: Why did so many Americans back then think it was noble and courageous for us to spend billions (trillions?) on a war to “liberate” the Iraqi people from the evils of Hussein’s regime (you’ll recall this was one of the most popular justifications made by those championing the war effort), but now, when it comes to tangibly helping people at our border who are fleeing traumatic violence that is far more severe, we are now hostile to the idea of investing paltry sums of money and resources (by comparison to the war effort) to help those who are most desperate right now? While this may sound like the height of hypocrisy, it’s perfectly consistent with a narrative of American aggression against people of color. This is a very ugly truth that is in the DNA of our country. Dominant power structures in the U.S. idolize violent aggression, especially against people of color.
Note that this also answers the question of why those most hostile to immigrants are usually and ironically the descendants of European immigrants who “founded” this country by (a) stealing land from indigenous peoples, (b) committing genocide against indigenous peoples, and (c) enslaving Africans: Again, the common denominator is aggression against people of color. The same is true today.
(6) Relatedly, I’m disturbed by the fact that no small number of people get a perverse pleasure in watching the suffering of others.
(7) Using pejorative language like “illegals” (or “illegal aliens”) is intentionally designed to dehumanize those seeking asylum in order to make the inhumane treatment of other human beings more palatable. It’s a classic form of “othering” that is historically connected to racism, discrimination, and genocide.
(8) As I think about the exchange between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Lindsey Graham, and the Auschwitz Memorial (which quickly shut down Graham’s mansplaining on Twitter), I keep wondering where we are in this narrative. Are we more like 1930s Germany, when Jews were being dehumanized and “othered”? Or are we more like those countries who refused to grant asylum to Jewish migrants fleeing certain death?
(9) Even though Facebook will be Facebook, I’m still taken aback at just how cold-hearted and calloused some people are. I understand if to a certain extent we disagree on best policies, but how can a person not have any sympathy for those desperate to survive? How does one take this so lightly, replete with lots of haha emojis that make fun of the suffering and sadness of real human beings??? This is truly awful. I suppose this is related to item 6 above.
(10) We can’t forget that our foreign policy (including the sale of arms) has contributed to massive amounts of suffering in Central and South America. We’ve supported numerous despotic regimes and propped up oppressive power structures for decades. Complaining that people are fleeing violence that we have no small hand in creating is akin to setting a family’s house on fire and locking the doors and blaming them for trying desperately to escape. Or tear gassing their house and when they try to find refuge in our house we tear gas them again to keep them out.
(11) I don’t know what your views are. You may or may not be in favor of helping desperate people flee from violence and find safety. Whatever. Just don’t use Christianity to justify your views. Especially at Christmas. Recall Herod’s massacre of the infants. Recall the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph, and Jesus) fleeing to Egypt to escape violence. If Egypt had the same policies currently in place at our southern border, it’s likely that the Holy Family wouldn’t have survived. And recall Jesus’ words to welcome the stranger. Hell, he even has a parable where those who don’t welcome the stranger go to hell. So just stop. Don’t. And if that’s not enough, recall Jesus’ tradition. He was Jewish. And the Torah (what Christians call the Old Testament) repeatedly talks about treating the foreigner and the immigrant as one of you. So please. Enough with the empty appeals to religion. All it does is cloak your discrimination in the name of God, which is a prime example of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Which goes against the 10 Commandments. So stop. If you want to be inhumane, own it your damn self. It’s your prerogative. But don’t go around saying Jesus supports your views when all the evidence shows he doesn’t.
(12) I close with the poem “Home,” by Warsan Shire, which has been widely shared as of late (TW: language and imagery):
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
[N-word] with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
In the wake of Donald Trump’s visit to Springfield, there’s a huge mistake constantly recurring in the rhetoric on the right. People keep saying that the left is hypocritical because they preach tolerance yet don’t tolerate opposing viewpoints, otherwise they wouldn’t have protested Trump’s visit to Springfield. So let me clear this up:
First, the left‘s goal is not “tolerance.” The left’s goal is justice, equity, and dignity. The left protests policies — not necessarily persons — that are intolerant toward others: policies that take life, rather than give life (i.e., policies that perpetuate patriarchy, racism, cishet normativity, economic injustice, etc.). If our society is tolerant of policies that destroy life, then we serve gods of death. The left’s commitment is to the flourishing of life and sometimes that means protesting policies that take life rather than give life.
This isn’t hard to see — just think about protests down through the years that were unequivocally intolerant of slavery, or women being denied the right to vote, or Jim Crow laws. The ethical integrity of each of these movements was directly linked to the level of intolerance for slavery, patriarchy, and racism. In these situations, being tolerant of slavery, patriarchy, and Jim Crow were the worst ethical positions possible, not the best. Again, this really isn’t hard to see.
Tolerance is the lowest common denominator and basically means that you can speak your mind without fear of arrest or danger to your life. But it doesn’t mean for one second that the value of your beliefs must be accepted, or that the import of your policies should go unchecked. Especially when support for such policies is precisely what leads other lives (black lives, women’s lives, LGBTQ lives, migrant lives, non-white lives, etc.) to be in danger.
It’s a mistake to equate God with absolute power. This sets up an authoritarian view of God, based on hierarchy and control. Which in turn teaches humanity that authoritarianism, hierarchy, and control are virtues instead of vices. When this is the case, God doesn’t just condone authoritarianism, hierarchy, and control, but models such things. **This is wrong. This is bad theology.** It leads to horrific abuse in religious circles and the valorization of authoritarian hierarchies in family and society. When authoritarianism and hierarchy are prized, powerful people take advantage of their position and harm others, especially the most vulnerable. A God (or institution) that sanctions such things is not worthy of worship but of condemnation. It’s little wonder that throughout history powerful people have appealed to an authoritarian God to justify all kinds of problematic hierarchies, saying they are just part of the natural order, whether it be slavery, patriarchy, segregation, homophobia, etc. This has to stop.
When we imagine God, let’s not begin by associating God with absolute power, for that is to chase a demon that destroys. If we need to speak of God, let us instead imagine God as one who comes in solidarity, mutuality, compassion, and love — which is a threat to authoritarian power and hierarchy (as Jesus was a threat to authoritarian power and hierarchy). From this perspective, God can be understood as a weak force with an affective appeal, coming from on low not on high. Here God is not imagined in terms of some sort of supreme omnipotent supernatural being residing somewhere above the universe controlling all things (enough with that image of God), but rather as the cry for justice that rises up from the ground, from below, leading us to question and challenge all things that harm rather than heal.
Simply put, any God that does not conform to the image of love cannot save. Such gods harm rather than heal. If we wish to practice theology that gives life rather than takes life, let’s begin with the premise that God’s love qualifies God’s power, not the other way around. It’s past time for the church to get this right, lest the church fail yet another generation.
There’s something deeply flawed in the way the church talks about the affirmation of LGBTQ persons — and it’s time for it to change.
For as long as I’ve been preaching (and of course long before), LGBTQ brothers and sisters and siblings have always had to be on the defensive, trying to provide all of the reasons why it’s not sinful for them to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Book after book, Bible study after Bible study, sermon after sermon, frequently trying to convince Nice Straight Cis Church People that it’s okay for LGBTQ people to be part of the church (how kind of Nice Straight Cis Church People to consider letting LGBTQ people be part of the club too, right?). I honestly can’t imagine how exhausting all of this must be for my LGBTQ friends and neighbors.
With this in mind, it’s past time for the church — especially Nice Straight Cis Church People — to repent.
Because here’s the thing. If the church wants to talk about sin as related to LGBTQ brothers and sisters and siblings, then let’s talk about the real sin at work here: the repeated and systemic oppression of LGBTQ people by the church.
Why should the LGBTQ community always have to defend themselves as being “okay in the sight of God,” when in fact the harmful (i.e., sinful) position — that which robs life rather than gives life — is found in *not* affirming LGBTQ persons as being beautifully made in the image of God? After all, it’s cis-hetero-normativity that is oppressive (which is to say, sinful). Instead of thinking about whether or not LGBTQ persons should be allowed to be fully included in the life of the church, the church should be celebrating who they are, made in the image of God, and celebrating the gifts they offer to the church.
As debates over the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church have played out over these many years, Nice Straight Cis Church People have perfected the art of oppression by constantly “discerning” (read: “delaying”) how the “spirit” (read: “personal opinion”) is leading them. But it’s an absolute travesty for LGBTQ people to have to constantly prove their basic humanity and worth — not to mention their gifts for the church — to Nice Straight Cis Church People who somehow think they’re the gatekeepers and spokespersons for God, because — newsflash! — they aren’t anymore than anyone else is, regardless of however much they might try to convince you they are (usually through their finely crafted mastery of what my theologian friend, Sarah Morice Brubaker, has technically and accurately classified as “theological blowhardism”).
There are a multitude of Christian books and resources that provide all kinds of reasons why faithful Christians should fully affirm LGBTQ persons — not in spite of one’s faith, but precisely because of it. As such, the burden of proof should not be on LGBTQ persons to defend their basic humanity; the true sin is found in Nice Straight Cis Church People who constantly require them to do so.
A few years ago, a pastor of a megachurch in a nearby town was fighting a local non-discrimination ordinance that protected the rights of LGBTQ persons (in other words, he wanted to discriminate against them). Yet he was quick to note that LGBTQ people are still welcome in his church. He said that their sin was like any other sin, and went on to list
“homosexual orientation and practice” with “anger, chemical addiction, gambling, slander, stealing, pride, lying, etc.” In so doing, he demonstrated a fatal (yet far too pervasive) flaw in Nice Straight Cis Church People’s understanding of sin. After all, sin is that which is harmful — that which takes life, instead of that which gives life. While the behaviors he named hurt individuals and communities, what actually hurts LGBTQ persons is the repression of their sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, if someone cheats on their beloved by committing adultery, that is harmful. If someone is struggling with opioid abuse, that is harmful. But if in a relationship neither partner cheats on the other, well, obviously, that’s much healthier for the relationship. If one is struggling with addiction, and gets sober, one’s life improves, it gets better. And if an LGBTQ person is able to fully live in to who they are — as beloved in the sight of God — their life improves, it gets better. It doesn’t bring harm but, conversely, healing. Which is the precise opposite of what sin does.
Affirming LGBTQ persons doesn’t harm, it heals. It saves. It’s not sinful to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. But it is sinful to oppress those who are. And it’s past time for the church to change its ways.