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Archive Civic Polity Steven Wedgeworth

Pro-life Rhetoric in Civil Society: A Reply to Karen Swallow Prior

The recent shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs has generated a lot of media discussion, even though we know very little about the specifics of the situation at this time. The shooter may or may not have been motivated by pro-life activism, and he may or may not have been moved by overheated rhetoric. We don’t know, and, as we are finding out, it doesn’t matter. The media has invited a conversation about the issue, and many articles have been written about it. Some are better than others. Some come from places of informed opinion and others don’t. But they all have a shared concern: certain pro-life rhetoric, especially of late, shares some responsibility for the violence.

Professor Karen Swallow Prior has offered an article to this effect coming from a uniquely Christian perspective. Much of it is helpful and on the right track, though I do find it to be an ultimately confused argument that fails to ask some basic questions. There was one line which really took me back. At the bottom of the first page, Prof. Prior writes:

On the other hand, referring to abortion providers as “abortion ghouls,” clinic volunteers and workers as “deathscorts” or “bloodworkers,” and women who obtain abortions as “murderers” is worse than inflammatory: it is unchristlike. Calling legal abortion “murder” when it isn’t (it is, to our shame, lawful) is to say what isn’t true, at least in a civil (not church) context.

The original version lacked some of qualifications in the final clause, and this served as the occasion for a lengthy Twitter discussion between Prof. Prior, myself, and others. Through that discussion the nature of the disagreement became clear, and a number of related questions were raised as well.1

What I would like to argue here is that irresponsible rhetoric is indeed a problem, but that confrontational truth claims are not. We have Biblical justification for harsh prophetic speech, and as Christians we have a particular duty to use this speech, in the appropriate context, in order to bear witness to God’s truth. Indeed, one crucial part of the pro-abortion position is that it is a private matter on which people can agree to disagree. So long as neither party becomes violent, then the arrangement can and should continue. However, the pro-life position is that abortion is an essentially violent act and that maintaining the status quo is maintaining institutionalized violence, including legalized murder. Christians who love their neighbors must speak truthfully about this situation.

Pro-life Rhetoric and Responsibility

The main point of Prof. Prior’s essay is that Christians must be responsible for their speech and those effects of their speech which can be reasonably anticipated. Prof. Prior is herself pro-life and believes that abortion is wrong, even the unjust taking of life. She is clear about this, writing:

The purpose of language, its God-given raison-d’être, is to reveal truth, eternal and unfailing. It needs not the props of exaggeration or distortion of our feeble words. The truth about abortion demands no inflammation or embellishment. It is, rather, the purveyors of abortion who must veil the truth with charms. The hurt abortion causes to women and children and society can be communicated in plain terms.  ….As we affirm the truth that abortion ends a precious human life, we cannot do or support wrong—wrong words or wrong deeds—to achieve right.

Prof. Prior also believes that pro-life Christians can and should engage in political activism to bring about change, and she does not believe that simply speaking out against abortion in “plain terms” is an error that causes violence.

However, she does believe that some rhetoric can become inflammatory and even “unChristlike.” She does not limit this to explicit calls for violence, or justifications of that violence, but extends it to what she sees is hyperbolic and abusive speech. Whether or not we should call abortion-providers “ghouls” or “deathscorts” seems to be a question of propriety.2 There is no question of fact in dispute. It has to do with one’s larger philosophy of critical and acerbic language. But it seems like an entirely different matter to question whether or not abortion should be called “murder.” That is precisely a matter of revealing truth, and it makes us ask ourselves how we should speak when the truth contradicts what is accepted in the civic arena.3

As I said earlier, I do think I agree with Prof. Prior in many ways. Christians should not promote violence as a means to achieve their political goals, and if they did, they would be responsible for anyone who followed their teaching. 4 But this really should be limited to explicit calls for violence. Short of this, we are discussing prudence, tact, and charity. This last term seems to be Prof. Prior’s real concern. Can pro-life Christians be charitable while calling abortion “murder” and those who provide and procure them “murderers”? Prof. Prior thinks that the answer to this is “no,” but I think that it has to be “yes” in order for the pro-life position to have any logical consistency and persuasive force.

What is Murder?

In the Twitter exchange, Prof. Prior explained that her concern was that “murder” was a strictly legal term. Only “illegal killing” qualifies as “murder,” and for pro-life Christians to say that abortion is murder would be to suggest that pro-choice proponents are supporting and potentially engaging in activity which lacks legal justification and therefore deserves extreme and immediate action. Since it is actually the legal status quo, we ought to accommodate our speech accordingly.

Stipulated definitions are perfectly appropriate, and I don’t think that many people have difficulty grasping the fact that abortion is currently legal in America. In fact, that’s actually a big reason why pro-life activists want to use the term “murder.” They are calling attention to the fact of an injustice that is presently enshrined by law. Our legal system is, on this point, immoral, and we have a case of systemic violence that is protected and justified by legal language which is inconsistent with the natural law. American law is law, to be sure, but it is human law and in this case unjust. It might be true to say that abortion is not murder in light of the American law code but it is profoundly untrue to say the same when speaking in terms of divine law. Abortion is a violation of the Sixth Commandment (and the casuistry of the Westminster Catechism would support this interpretation; see WLC 135-136). The incongruity between human law and divine law in this case is precisely the tension that should be highlighted.

We can consider an analogous scenario to make this clear. Slave-owners in the American South could, making use of Prof. Prior’s reasoning, legitimately say that they were not in the business of “owning persons” or depriving anyone of their rights. After all, the law of the land had made it clear that slaves were not legal persons and thus had no such rights. Indeed, in the case of slavery, the Supreme Court did not even have to overturn legitimately-passed legislation. Whereas Roe v Wade overturned the majority of the States’s laws and forced abortion upon the whole country in a most contentious manner, Dred Scott upheld and confirmed the political will of its day. Slavery was fully legal in that time, and any argument that it violated principles of justice would need to go beyond human civil law.

Yet I am confident that Prof. Prior believes the situation in the 19th century to have been a moral travesty and that the anti-slavery advocates were justified in calling attention to this fact, pointing to the realities of the natural law which all men know because of their being created in the image of God. I am sure that she would be comfortable saying that the slave-owners were actually treating human persons like chattel and this was the root of their evil. But if that is the case, then she should examine her argument more carefully and wrestle with the moral reality presented by our current political situation. If our law is written in such a way as to deny the truth of the moral situation, then ought it not be challenged? And shouldn’t this begin with how we speak of it? After all, names shape opinions. What ought the definition of murder to be?

The pro-life argument is in fact that abortion is the unjust taking of human life. It is an act of violence where a person who might be relatively weaker than other humans nevertheless is relatively stronger than the human life they are terminating. They carry out the abortion through the use of technological procedures which cloak the reality of the action. The fetus is human, it is alive, and in nearly all cases it has a beating heart and functioning nervous system. These are actually scientific facts. And abortion kills the fetus. This is not an opinion or a political commitment. It is a matter of fact.

Abortion is a case of human life that is presently alive being terminated because of a competing desire on the part of another human. There are additional layers to the dilemma, as all informed participants in the controversy know, but once they are accounted for, the basic fact remains. A human life that has committed no crime and participated in no violence against another is subjected to violence and killed. In any other scenario we would call this murder, and it was legally considered murder prior to 1973. The fact that it is no longer considered murder is at the heart of the dispute.

If pro-lifers do not believe that abortion is murder, then they really do not have a very strong ethical argument. They can say that abortion is a less than ideal scenario that is to be mourned, and a choice that they would not make, but they will not be able to argue that it is something that should be considered illegal (which would then make it a crime). They cannot make a compelling case that abortion is a matter of public justice which demands a certain amount of coercive legislation to prevent. In other words, if they cannot call abortion murder then they cannot win their case politically.

And so if pro-lifers wish to see abortion illegal, then they not only can say that abortion is murder, but they must. They do not need to use this language at all times, and they shouldn’t use it with malice, but they must be able to use it at the right times.5 They must argue that abortion is an activity that is morally equivalent to the murder of humans at other stages of life and therefore deserves the same kind of prohibition. This is the legal argument in its most basic form.

Psalm 94 as Prophetic Voice  

But can Christians really be so aggressive? Shining the light on systemic violence is awfully radical and can be interpreted as hostile and combative. Is this compatible with a Christlike demeanor?

This question brings us face to face with the unfortunate reality of most American Christian piety. Through an uncritical sentimentalism and the dominance of a certain false definition of “spirituality” and “love,” the majority of both mainline and Evangelical Christians have committed to a piety that is in stark contrast to what is found in many places throughout the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, sin is presented as a public evil, and sinners are presented as engaging in wickedness. The New Testament does present the solution to this problem, and it does teach us that only God can give it through His grace in Christ, but it actually does not call on Christians to change the speech they use in denouncing sin. It also does not tell them to adopt a disinterested or quietistic posture towards public injustice, as if the Old Testament was social and public but the New is now individual and private. No, the New Testament actually expands the teachings of the Old. Certain elements are transformed, to be sure, but justice is never restricted to a matter of internal reality.

Observing this does not justify any overreactions in the other direction, of course. Brutish behavior is still brutish behavior, and the Bible does condemn intemperance and all cursing of one’s fellow man. The wrath of men does not bring about the righteousness of God (James 1:20). Tact is still important, and competency demands that we interact with each individual in their own context and with their own burdens. Mature Christians must take all of this into account. But still, Christians who are committed to the Bible will quickly see that God’s people do use harsh language in serious situations. Jesus Himself does this on occasion, namely when confronting hypocritical religious leaders, and the prophets also engage in it,6 sometimes to a shocking or obscene degree (for instance, Ezekiel 23). Perhaps the most relevant biblical texts for our current point, however, can be found in the psalms, especially in those psalms where David calls for God to judge his enemies.

The imprecatory Psalms are controversial among Christians, and I do not have the time to settle that dispute. Instead, I would like to focus on one relevant psalm, Psalm 94. It is a plea for God to judge public evil, and it highlights the problem of unjust laws which evil rulers sometimes establish. Psalm 94:20 says this, “Shall the throne of iniquity, which devises evil by law, have fellowship with You?” This presupposes that it is possible to pass laws which nevertheless support and protect evil activity, and the preceding and following lines make it clear that God detests such situations. Moving back towards the beginning of the psalm, we see an example of such evil laws:

They utter speech, and speak insolent things;
All the workers of iniquity boast in themselves.
They break in pieces Your people, O Lord,
And afflict Your heritage.
They slay the widow and the stranger,
And murder the fatherless.
Yet they say, “The Lord does not see,
Nor does the God of Jacob understand.” (Ps. 94:4-7)

Here we see clearly that the evil rulers kill the weak. The Bible has no trouble saying that these men “murder the fatherless.” Does the fact that the wicked rulers devise unjust laws to justify such behavior change the perspective of the Psalmist? Hardly. He goes on to add some hard truths:

Understand, you senseless among the people;
And you fools, when will you be wise?
He who planted the ear, shall He not hear?
He who formed the eye, shall He not see?
He who instructs the nations, shall He not correct,
He who teaches man knowledge?
The Lord knows the thoughts of man,
That they are futile. (vs. 8-11)

He is calling them to reckon with reality, with God’s truth and the fact that God is presently watching and condemning them.

Is this Christlike speech? I suppose that depends upon who you think the true author actually is. If Psalm 94 merely expresses the frustration of primitive humans in desperate situations, then it may well be a sin against charity. But if Psalm 94 is the inspired word of God, then it shows His truth, which is one throughout the whole Bible. Evangelical Christians, then, must uphold the fact that God’s salvation is bound up in His judgment, that He highlights evil and eventually brings it to an end. This is the thing that God is going to do when He shows up. He is going to judge the world in righteousness. The hope of the gospel is that we can be spared the terror of this judgment through grace, but that grace always requires repentance. We must confess the reality of our sins and forsake them. And that is part of the Christian testimony in condemning abortion.

I also cannot help but wonder if we would have as much trouble with this kind of language if we restored the Psalms to regular use in our personal prayer and devotional practices and in the singing of corporate worship each Sunday. If we as the church were accustomed to asking God to bring justice to this world, using His own words, then I think our assumptions about charitable speech and the bounds of reasonable rhetoric would change significantly. Our standard for judgment would be quite different.

We do want to see laws changed, but more than that we want to see hearts break. We want pro-choice advocates to be brought face to face, not with a political program or social strategy, but the stark truth of reality. God sees what we do, and God will correct us. On a deep level, we know as well. We may have layers of confusion which distract us, and, in fact, we do. That is precisely why God’s people should sound a clear voice! Indeed, we must speak this truth in order to love others. If sinners are allowed to continue deceiving themselves, then they will face a terrible fate. To enable them in their unjust choice of abortion will result in at least two terrible outcomes. An innocent life will be taken and a person will commit an evil which might damn them for eternity. What is the loving response to this situation? It can only be to call them to their senses. Just think of what could happen if we don’t try.

Conclusion

None of what I have written is a denial of the complexity of crisis pregnancies and the situations which occasion women to have abortions. Prudence requires Christians to take this seriously, and we should evaluate the propriety of our speech in each specific scenario. We need to know whether we are in the right relationship to the situation to say what we are saying. We should anticipate effectiveness. And we should allow for multiple strategies from various angles. Religious ideas are not actually political strategies, after all, and no amount of prophetic speech will achieve appropriate legal changes on its own. Statecraft will still be necessary. Incremental progress must be embraced. The entire matrix of social issues must eventually be addressed to create a full culture of life.

But the one thing that we must not do in all of this carefulness is silence the truth. We certainly cannot try to do this in the name of love. If Christians do not call abortion murder, then they actually give up their moral argument in favor of individual convictions, which is to say, they grant the primacy of “choice.” And if they believe that it is murder but refuse to call it so, then they are allowing a misguided sense of etiquette to prop up and enshrine violence in our society.

To do this would be an entirely new vice, a species of moral cowardice. It would contradict the quest for justice and the teaching of Scriptures. It would fail to protect the most vulnerable, and it would mislead others into harming themselves and society. Indeed, it would fail to offer a Christlike-love towards our neighbor.

  1. I hasten to say that I have much admiration for Prof. Prior’s work and am also aware that she has been the subject of much unfair criticism online. I do not intend any of this in my engagement, and I enjoyed and profited from the conversation I have already been able to have with her. Readers should understand this as a conversation between friends. I don’t want to distract from the argument in either way, and so I won’t be piling up qualifications and waivers. The topic of conversation is the interest here, and I do believe that it is important for a wider audience.
  2. While this language may simply be abusive in some instances, there are certain cases where it seems wholly appropriate. The very ghoulish Kermit Gosnell immediately comes to mind, but he is not the only candidate. Orlando-area abortionist James Pendergraft also has a shocking record. See, for example, here and here. These are cases where the truth of the situation does seem to warrant extremely condemnatory language.
  3. I do not believe that Prof. Prior has explained her position on the relationship between the civil and ecclesiastical realm in any detail, and I will not be trying to construct a theology for her brief words to support. We have written a great deal on this topic at TCI (see here or here), and I will be assuming a general Evangelical consensus position on the issue.
  4. Historical jurisprudence still holds true, of course, and I do believe that violence has a place in statecraft—just war theory, for instance (and Joe Carter has a very helpful post here connecting Just War Theory with abortion jurisprudence)—but Christians can never call for vigilante activism or the use of violence as a redemptive tool. Pro-lifers probably do need to brush up on their own political theology, of course, but that would be a topic for another essay. Ross Douthat’s essay on this same point is very good and worth the reader’s attention as well.
  5. The appropriate manner of conversation at a counseling center should be different than that in front of an abortion clinic. In crisis pregnancy centers, for example, there is time for extended conversation. Gentleness is appropriate, and the strategy is supportive and therapeutic. At an abortion clinic, however, no such time is available, and the strategy should be different. The activists there are trying to rescue and deliver mothers and children from the brink of disaster, but they must also warn the mothers, as well as the doctors and staff, about the nature of the evil they are about to commit.
  6. It has always been curious that political theology of a left-wing variety is readily accepted as “prophetic,” whereas identical words and phrases, when employed for right-wing purposes, are deemed “extreme” and “fundamentalist.”

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.