At the moment, I’m quite busy working on my New Year’s talk, but I wanted to share with you a sermon I found by the Presbyterian minister the Reverend Terry Hamilton-Poor. I came across this gem while doing comprehensive research on the issue of abortion. In 1991, Stanley Hauerwas (Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School & Professor of Law at Duke University) gave a talk on abortion titled “Abortion, Theologically Understood” at the annual conference of The United Methodist Church. To start his talk, he read this sermon by Pastor Hamilton-Poor. It’s short, and not comprehensive, but it gives what I believe to be an excellent example of how Christians and the church can (and should) respond to the issue using the gospel. It also includes some powerful and real responses to abortion toward the end. (Richard B. Hays, who is the Professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School, gives another even better workup of the issue from a gospel paradigm, but I’ll incorporate the content of what he argues in a future post. If you want to read it ahead of time straight from the source, you can find it in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. I don’t agree with all of his or Hauerwas’ arguments as I think the biological and personhood issues need to be addressed, but in terms of understanding the issue theologically and from a gospel mindset, both are par excellence.)
As a Christian and a woman, I find abortion a most difficult subject to address. Even so, I believe that it is essential that the church face the issue of abortion in a distinctly Christian manner. Because of that, I am hereby addressing not society in general, but those of us who call ourselves Christians. I also want to be clear that I am not addressing abortion as a legal issue. I believe the issue, for the church, must be framed not around the banners of “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” but around God’s call to care for the least among us whom Jesus calls his sisters and brothers.
So, in this sermon, I will make three points. The first point is that the Gospel favors women and children. The second point is that the customary framing of the abortion issue by both pro-choice and pro-life groups is unbiblical because it assumes that the woman is ultimately responsible for both herself and for any child she might carry. The third point is that a Christian response must reframe the issue to focus on responsibility rather than rights.
Point number one: the Gospel favors women and children. The Gospel is feminist. In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus treats women as thinking people who are worthy of respect. This was not, of course, the usual attitude of that time. In addition, it is to the women among Jesus’ followers, not to the men, that he entrusts the initial proclamation of his resurrection. It isn’t only Jesus himself who sees the Gospel making all people equal, for Saint Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
And yet, women have been oppressed through recorded history and continue to be oppressed today. So when Jesus says, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40), I have to believe that Jesus includes women among “the least of these.” Anything that helps women, therefore, helps Jesus. When Jesus says, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me,” he is also talking about children, because children are literally “the least of these.” Children lack the three things the world values most– power, wealth, and influence. If we concern ourselves with people who are powerless, then children should obviously be at the top of our list. The irony of the abortion debate, as it now stands in our church and society, is that it frames these two groups, women and children, as enemies of one another.
This brings me to my second point: the issue as it is generally framed by both pro-choice and pro-life groups is unbiblical because it assumes that the woman is ultimately responsible both for herself and for any child she might carry. Why is it that women have abortions? Women I know, and those I know about, have had abortions for two basic reasons: the fear that they cannot handle the financial and physical demands of the child, and the fear that having the child will destroy relationships that are important to them.
An example of the first fear, the inability to handle the child financially or physically, is the divorced mother of two children, the younger of whom has Down’s syndrome. This woman recently discovered that she was pregnant. She believed abortion was wrong. However, the father of the child would not commit himself to help raise this child, and she was afraid she could not handle raising another child on her own.
An example of the second fear, the fear of destroying relationships, is the woman who became pregnant and was told by her husband that he would leave her if she did not have an abortion. She did not want to lose her husband, so she had the abortion. Later, her husband left her anyway.
In both of these cases, and in others I have known, the woman has had an abortion not because she was exercising her free choice but because she felt she had no choice. In each case the responsibility for caring for the child, had she had the child, would have rested squarely and solely on the woman.
Which brings me to my third point the Christian response to abortion must reframe the issue to focus on responsibility rather than rights. The pro-choice/pro-life debate presently pits the right of the mother to choose against the right of the fetus to live. The Christian response, on the other hand, centers on the responsibility of the whole Christian community to care for “the least of these.”
According to the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Order, when a person is baptized, the congregation answers this question: “Do you, the members of this congregation, in the name of the whole Church of Christ, undertake the responsibility for the continued Christian nurture of this person, promising to be an example of the new life in Christ and to pray for him or her in this new life?” We make this promise because we know that no adult belongs to himself or herself, and that no child belongs to his or her parents, but that every person is a child of God. Because of that, every young one is our child, the church’s child to care for. This is not an option. It is a responsibility.
Let me tell you two stories about what it is like when the church takes this responsibility seriously. The first is a story that Will Willimon, the Dean of Duke University Chapel, tells about a black church. In this church, when a teen-ager has a baby that she cannot care for, the church baptizes the baby and gives him/her to an older couple in the church that has the time and wisdom to raise the child. That way, says the pastor, the couple can raise the teen-age mother along with the baby. “That,” the pastor says, “is how we do it.”
The second story involves something that happened to Deborah Campbell. A member of her church, a divorced woman, became pregnant, and the father dropped out of the picture. The woman decided to keep the child. But as the pregnancy progressed and began to show, she became upset because she felt she could not go to church anymore. After all, here she was, a Sunday School teacher, unmarried and pregnant. So she called Deborah. Deborah told her to come to church and sit in the pew with the Campbell family, and, no matter how the church reacted, the family would support her. Well, the church rallied around when the woman’s doctor told her at her six-month checkup that she owed him the remaining balance of fifteen hundred dollars by the next month; otherwise, he would not deliver the baby. The church held a baby shower and raised the money. When the time came for her to deliver, Deborah was her labor coach. When the woman’s mother refused to come and help after the baby was born, the church brought food and helped clean her house while she recovered from the birth. Now the woman’s little girl is the child of the parish.
This is what the church looks like when it takes seriously its call to care for “the least of these.” These two churches differ in certain ways: one is Methodist, the other Roman Catholic; one has a carefully planned strategy for supporting women and babies, the other simply reacted spontaneously to a particular woman and her baby. But in each case the church acted with creativity and compassion to live out the Gospel.
In our scripture lesson today, Jesus gives a preview of the Last Judgment. “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to men (Matthew 25:34-40).’”
We cannot simply throw the issue of abortion in the faces of women and say, “You decide and you bear the consequences of your decision.” As the church, our response to the abortion issue must be to shoulder the responsibility to care for women and children. We cannot do otherwise and still be the church. If we close our doors in the faces of women and children, then we close our doors in the face of Christ.