It is not surprising that the conservative reaction to the recent Planned Parenthood scandal has been varied. Some are hopeful that these videos will have substantive effects. Others are more cynical. In either case, the footage is iconic– making plain what technocratic medical-speak really sounds like behind closed doors. One could reduce “It’s a baby” or “another boy” to the morbid humor that is common to medical professionals, but there is likely more going on. It is not too much to read into the situation to see the emergence of suppressed conscience– a tacit sense of the real beneath the artifice of a combined technical-speak and scalpel.
If this suspicion is correct, it is appropriate to wonder at the psychological state of these persons. How can one really know (even “deep down”) what this is and do it anyways? This is a natural question. But if one looks behind the veil of this great evil, one will not find a monster, but rather a mirror.
One does not need to go to Germany to find a culture that dehumanized others for the sake of personal gain (sanitizing the unsavory elements of their system with shallow justification). We can find this in our own history, in the treatment of African slaves, in the treatment of the American Indians. There is no doubt that many at the time(s) found such topics uncomfortable, and, all things being equal, did not want to deal with these problems. But their vision of the good outweighed these considerations– or at least gave them enough inertia to keep them unmotivated. We humans do not care for discomfort, especially when it costs. The Native American’s loss was our gain. The slave’s loss was our gain. And the aborted babies’ loss is our gain.
Again, all things being equal, nobody wants this. President Obama has been very clear in the past that abortion is always a tragedy. And so why do we pursue it? We have pointed out several times here that abortion is American. Indeed, it is really American. What sells abortion is not the oft-cited tragedies of rape and incest. And what sustains it is not the needs of women in hard circumstances (though these exist). What really sells abortion is the American myth of individual freedom, agency, and opportunity. If you could disaggregate all of the truly tragic cases, the doors of abortion clinics would still be open because we “don’t want to be tied down,” “it is not the right time,” and “you can always do this later.” Abortion is technology. And the fruit of the womb is a commodity filtered through the singular value of our “choice.” Choice trumps all.
In Germany, the concept of German “brotherhood” and national solidarity were deeply moving themes. The native Americans were collateral damage to the myth of the New Jerusalem and its supposed Manifest Destiny, a myth which a great many Anglo-Americans found inspiring . And the culture of the South and its “aristocratic” values were directly tied to the institution of slavery. This does not change when you get to abortion doctors. Some of them are evil, no doubt. But many genuinely see themselves as doing the mother and the baby a great and sacrificial service. Better to not live at all than to live a life of restriction and poverty. I recall seeing an interview with a woman who had been severely injured when her abortion clinic was bombed. She went right back to working in the clinic, and she did this because she felt she was fighting for a good. It was for her a transcendent cause. It would not be surprising if most abortion doctors fancied themselves as “for women” rather than “against babies.” They are in love with a certain narrative of the good life, and they see it as loving to guarantee this life for others – even at great risk to themselves.
And here’s the catch. This is a very powerful narrative. It drives each of us far more than we are aware. And, frankly, we justify many things in its name. The capacity of humans to justify evil in the name of their evangel is as old as time. And these false gospels are not shallow. Tied to them are transcendental, aesthetic, and moral drives. Our deepest identities are tied to these things. People sacrifice and die for their distorted moral visions. In this case, the doctors who are “for women” find that this necessitates an unsavory task, abortion. But the narrative and its inflection in the freedom of women trumps the babies, and so the latter are “de-humanized” and the doctor, oddly, is the one who “makes the sacrifice.” We must realize that this narrative is real and it is powerful. It is not perceived to be an excuse, but rather as the implication of a very basic good (more important, in many cases, than one’s own safety).
As I’ve talked about abortion with those who affirm it, it is clear to me that this narrative is the main thing. No one likes the simple reality that humans are getting killed. They know this. But it’s repressed. It’s weightless. It’s rendered invisible by the goodness of the good which undergirds the whole project. Often, the response to the claim that these babies are humans is simply, “nuh-uh.” Sure, people can debate and use empty standard arguments. But this is not a fundamentally rational battle. It is about a vision of the good which, when smashed against reality, produced the sort of cognitive dissonance with which, to stay comfortable, one must be satisfied with “nuh-uh.”
To get at how “in our bones” this story is, imagine the following. Imagine that the doctor who said “Another boy” is given a chance to defend themselves. Imagine that the “pro-life” side speaks first. They will speak of callousness. They will speak of evil. They will speak of a monster who kills babies even though “they know” that “it’s a boy.” And we’ll all feel our blood boil. But then imagine that the doctor is given a chance to speak. And imagine that they say this: “What you witnessed was the sort of humor that goes on in the medical profession because such morbid humor is a coping mechanism for those of us who are tasked with a very unsanitary service for our disadvantaged neighbors. But the fact is this. I’ve been accused before. I’ve been yelled at before. I could be making more money elsewhere. I’ve even had death threats. But I do this because I believe that society depends upon the freedom of women, upon their ability to shape their own future, and upon their ability to correct their mistakes and heal the sexual assault that has often been afflicted upon them. These are incredibly difficult decisions, and I do not believe that we can sit in the seat of the judge and tell these unfortunate souls what they should do with their own bodies. You may think it is wrong. But this is the point. What you think does not matter. This is their life. And I will fight anyone who tries to tell them that their simple black and white imposition on this very gray world should determine a woman’s life.” The audience would cheer. Indeed, many of us would be tempted to cheer. Because the story is us. And we are it. The monster is a mirror.
What are the implications for Christians? In my judgment, three things stand out.
First, we must admit the “goods” in this narrative while showing that they cannot be ultimate. Freedom and agency are goods. Options are good. And our own narrative cannot pendulum swing from this. What must be recovered is the language of idolatry. What is desired in desiring idols is a good thing in a bad place and in a bad manner. Freedom is great, but it is not our ultimate goal and it cannot be ultimately found in taking it away from others. This will always come back to bite us. Provocatively, the pen-ultimate status of freedom is the only way to keep it from committing suicide. If it is an idol, it will lead to bondage. Or, in other words, “seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” This is because our freedom is fundamentally “for” the love of God – the vision of Whom enraptures the human being so that we find ourselves in another, so that we found our freedom in being servants of God.
One can see this tension in the practice of abortion. While itself supposedly justified by values of choice and freedom as ultimate ends, many of its practitioners actually sacrifice quite a bit so that others may enjoy these goods. They are made for holy war, and their own nature demands a crusade which is, paradoxically, the achievement of “freedom” for another rather than themselves. Sages of the past might have called this the inflection of a restless heart which was not made for the idol of choice but rather choice for the service of God.
Second, the question of justice looms large here, but our own sense of things is easily distorted. The problem with a sort of legal and cultural vigilante mentality is that it easily becomes more about us than about justice– and therefore it can never be about grace. It would be easy for us to reduce abortion providers themselves to non-persons (an ironic move). The exercise of judgment is good inasmuch as justice is maintained, but always tragic in the sense that, like God, we should take no pleasure in punishment in the abstract. The Christian calling is to maintain both the joy and the tragedy of justice. What does that look like when staring into the face of abortion? It means that our singing of imprecatory Psalms should be met with the prayer that God’s judgment would turn Saul into Paul. Saul, you will recall, killed Christians. And it would not have been unjust for the church to pray for his judgment. And judge Saul God did, in the substitute of Christ. Then God turned Saul into Paul and used him for great good. You see, for Christians, judgment and redemption are often found in exactly the same place. And we cannot pray for one without praying for the other, because it is only their unity that is our own hope. In Psalm 143, David writes:
LORD, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
come to my relief.
Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no one living is righteous before you. (v. 1-2)
Here is an incredibly irony. In context, David invokes the Lord to destroy his enemies and immediately asks the Lord not to apply those same canons of judgment upon David himself. David appeals, as one author put it, to God against God. Similarly now, we cry out for justice. But we cry wrongly if we imagine that we’d want it for ourselves. This is reconciled in Christ. We want the saving righteousness of God (both justice and mercy) to get rid of Saul, but hopefully by making Paul. And this leads to my third point.
If there is anything missing in the recent discussions, in my judgment, it has to do with appealing to “the good” in others. I realize such a statement might raise eyebrows. Does not the doctrine of total depravity teach us that there is no “good” in others? Not quite. In fact, it teaches that the evil in others is evil precisely because human beings are, in fact, good things as creatures. Human beings in all their physical and psychological makeup are a “good” thing. What sin has done is direct that good thing toward an evil end. But what emerges between the cracks of created good and fallen evil are echoes of God’s original design. These we sometimes call “conscience.” They are preserved by what theologians refer to as “common grace.” This is that grace wherein God preserves the created structure of a person so that sin does not so distort them that nothing even vaguely human remains. Does not, for instance, a father know how to give good gifts to his children?
And so when I refer to “the good” in others, I am not referring to some remaining inclination toward God above self or some potential to actually believe in Christ. I am referring, rather, to the remaining vestiges of human structure which shine forth despite themselves – indeed, despite ourselves. Think of David when he was in his greatest sin. Nathan approaches him with a story about a lamb. And the appropriate sense of justice within the quite sinful David welled up with fury at the story. And it is only then that the surgical Nathan declares, “Thou art the man.”
Perhaps one of our greatest tasks, if we actually want to be persuasive in this moment, is to play the role of Nathan. Almost no one actually wants abortion as such. No one actually likes that it exists. What they like is something else, and there are good things about that “something else.” But that “something else” is also demonstrably empty as an ultimate love. It is a cistern that hold no water. And we can even go further. The “desire” in each desire is God Himself. The human structure still craves God even if the human will suppresses this. What is desired in desiring a future? In desiring freedom? In privileging choice? What is “the good life?” In each of these scenarios, we crave a God Whom we nevertheless insanely refuse to worship. But like Nathan with David, this can be pointed out. What is more, there is much good about the human structure that is sacrificed on the altar of these idols. David’s sense of justice was good. The drive to help the oppressed is good. National solidarity is good. A wife is good. Children are good. The zeal of Paul was good but mis-directed. It was directed against Christ, but consider what happened when God directed it toward the messiah.
What is needful in this moment is to love that good just as much as we hate any evil. Show others that distorted loves let them down. They force us into situations wherein we have to choose between our love for freedom and the life of an infant. We don’t want to be in this situation, but we also want our idols. The job of Christians, at least as it pertains to thinking of these individuals, is to recognize the same battle that goes on in each of us. And therefore, we can play Nathan. We can say, “Your love of freedom is good. You have tremendous capacity to help or to support the help of the oppressed.” But then try to lead them to the objective recognition that making certain idols nevertheless lead to the distorted situation in which they find themselves. That is to say, first gain their agreement, and then show them that “they are the man.” This can happen because these people are living in the real world. It does not mean that they will love Christ or stop being idolaters, but the confrontation with the real world cannot but be a right thing. If nothing else, it might lead to the restraint of evil. And the restraint of evil is our most immediate task. Legislation and string operations are necessary, but we must think ahead. And without persuasion, we will only strengthen the opposition. They are characters in a story. And we must recognize the objective goods in that story, incorporate them into ours and, like Nathan, ask them to honestly evaluate a story in which freedom is a good, but not the greatest thing. In other words, we must simply narrate reality to them, the reality that they really live in and for which their human nature is actually made. Eden’s echo cannot be finally suppressed.
And at the moment that they are angered that we ever left it, we can say “Thou art the man. And so am I.”