America at the Crossroads
The anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision, legalizing abortion on demand, has come and gone again. This year, however, there was little cause for hope in the pro-life camp. Even as pro-lifers rallied in Washington to stir the conscience of the nation, President Clinton swept aside regulations controlling fetal experimentation, abortions on military bases, and the use of tax-payer dollars for abortion and abortion “counseling” both here and abroad. A seemingly indifferent nation scarcely blinked an eye.
If it is true, as most polls suggest, that Americans are uncomfortable with abortion on demand, it is also an inescapable fact that they are not uncomfortable enough to do much about it. Whether from conviction, confusion, or consuming self-interest, Americans have in fact accepted Roe and the cultural mega-shift it represents.
If, then, abortion–and related practices such as fetal experimentation, infanticide and euthanasia–are to be woven into the very fabric of our national existence, let us at least be as clear as possible about what such a step really means, and where it will take us. Perhaps some careful thought along these lines will persuade us to think again.
In this article, I want to suggest that the abortion controversy is not only political in nature, as some would have it, but also spiritual. My thesis is that the ideology and practice of legalized abortion serves as a kind of window onto the American soul. Looking through the window, we see nothing less than an entire nation at a spiritual crossroads. We see America–indeed, all of Western Civilization–poised between two life-ways: Christianity or Paganism. And the choice we make is, appropriately enough, a matter of life and death.
By way of explanation, let us begin by viewing the life issues in historical perspective.
Though it is has sometimes been romanticized, serious students of history know that the pagan world was not a pretty place to live. Indeed, for women and children, it was often a deadly place. Whether in Persia, Greece, Egypt, Asia, India, Arabia or Rome, abortion and infanticide–especially of baby girls–were accepted practices. The abuse of the weak and innocent by the strong was acceptable routine.
In Rome, for example, a man might have one wife, but many concubines. If any concubine bore him a child, according to the tradition of paterfamilias he could kill it or save it alive, at his discretion. If the verdict was death, the child would be left on the city walls to die of exposure or be eaten by wild animals. Anyone who tried to save the child was liable to criminal charges.
Significantly, there was not a single pagan philosopher (unless we include Hippocrates in their number) who condemned such practices. Indeed, they recommended them, and callously described both methods and procedures.
Then, in the first century, a new philosophy began to spread throughout the Empire, a philosophy that would increasingly challenge the status quo. The followers of Jesus of Nazareth, guided by his teachings and those of the Hebrew Scriptures, began to proclaim that human life, being God’s highest and noblest creation, was sacred. Moreover, they solemnly warned and inveighed against its unlawful destruction by abortion and infanticide.
A crucial battle in this spiritual conflict occurred at the instigation of Basil of Cappadocia. In the course of his relief work among the poor of Caesarea, this pastor discovered a guild of abortionists called the sagae, who provided herbal potions, pessaries and surgical remedies for women who wanted to abort. The fetal remains were sold to cosmetologists in Egypt.
Appalled and outraged, he publicly condemned the sagae, and urged local officials to take action against them. He began to preach to his flock about the sanctity of life and exhorted them to open their homes to pregnant women and children. Finally, his tireless labors gained the attention of the emperor Valentinian, who later decreed that all parents must support the children they conceive, and that those who brutalize or abandon them should be subject to the full penalty of the law.
It was a pivotal moment in the history of the West, a triumph for the biblical vision of the sanctity of life. And from that time on, amidst all too many failures, countless earnest Christians–whether missionaries, pastors, doctors, feminists, lawyers, or just plain folk–have tried to show, by word and deed, the value placed on every human being by the Lord of life.
Their dedication–for which some paid the supreme price–has always been based on three simple biblical principles.
First, human life is both unique and sacred. This affirmation flows from the fact that God intended man alone to live in fellowship with Himself, and that He therefore created him, unlike the animals, in His own image and likeness, with special authority to rule over all other creatures (Genesis l:24-28, Psalm 8). We see the sanctity of human life even more vividly in the incarnation of God’s Son, who not only became a human being, but did so with a view to the salvation, not of animals, but of a new and eternal race of human beings (John 3:l6). In short, biblical teaching on the creation and redemption of man reveals both the uniqueness and infinite value of all people.
Secondly, the pre-born are fully human (though not fully mature) from the moment of conception. The Bible conveys this important truth in several ways. For example, it explicitly affirms that the soul–i.e., the seat of human personality–is the animating principle of the body (Gen. 2:7, James 2:26). Therefore, if a fetus is alive, it has a soul; and if it has a soul, it is indeed a little person. Not surprisingly, we therefore find the Psalmist speaking of the devloping fetus as a fully human being (Psalm l39). Along these lines, we also have the profoundly suggestive case of Elizabeth and Mary, whose pre-born children recognized one another while yet in the womb. Indeed, when little John (six months old) discerned little Jesus (one month old) in the room, he (John) not only recognized him, but leapt for joy (Luke l:39-44)!
Finally, God cares for all people at all stages of life, especially the innocent and the weak; moreover, He casts himself as their defender and avenger, ready to arise in judgment against all who would harm them (Exodus 22:22-24). In particular, He has laid it down as law that we must not kill the innocent (Gen. 9:6, Ex. 20:l3), but instead seek to protect them (Proverbs 24:ll-l2). The government–which is His appointed instrument of justice in the earth–bears a special responsibility in this regard (Romans l3:l-4).
In short, the distinctively Western conviction concerning the sanctity of every human life is rooted in a distinctively biblical world-view. This is expeically true of pro life people, whose ethical impulse usually arises out of a deep conviction that an infinite, personal, holy God stands as King and Judge over the creation He loves; and that we, having a small share in His dominion, must respect and defend all His creatures, most especially the sons and daughters of men.
The pagan world-view, on the other hand, is powerless to generate such concern. For the pagan, there is no living God from whom man ultimately derives his dignity, or to whom he is accountable. There is only matter in process, or perhaps an impersonal cosmic consciousness evolving towards some kind of mystical self-realization. In either case, it is man who is really in the driver’s seat. With no revelation of moral absolutes, pagan man is responsible to none but himself. He must create his own values, basing his choices on purely private determinations of what is desirable or useful or conducive to “personal fulfilment” and “quality of life.” Unfortunately, a Nero, a Hitler, a Pol Pot, or a Saddam Hussein may have one definition of “quality of life,” while their countrymen have quite another.
Here, then, is the deep, underlying significance of the abortion debate. More than a political crisis, the abortion controversy signals that we have now entered a profound cultural crisis, a crisis that forces us all to re-examine and redefine the very foundations of our corporate life, and then to choose the kind of future we want for ourselves and our children.
Though many will resist it, both the Bible and history assure us that in the end we really have only two choices. We can embrace the biblical world-view and the “sanctity of life” ethic that it generates, or we can embrace a pagan, humanistic world-view, and the “quality of life” ethic it generates. To put the matter more bluntly still, we can submit to the reign of the living God, or we can reign over ourselves. It is not a choice that we sinners have ever found easy to make.
Does the choice seem too narrow, and the options too few for our pluralistic, “live and let live” culture? Those who think so would do well to consider the following remarks of Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote about the brave new ideologies of his own era:
“There are those who believe that a new modernity demands a new morality. What they fail to consider is the harsh reality that there is no such thing as a new morality. There is only one morality. There is only true Christian ethics over against which stands the whole of paganism. . . All these blatant sham reformers, in the name of a new morality, preach the old, old vice of self-indulgence which rotted out first the moral fiber and then even the external greatness of Greece and Rome. If we are to fulfill our destiny as a people, then we must return to the old morality, the sole morality.”
Strong words, I admit, but amply vinidcated by the gulags, gas chambers, and killing fields that followed. And with 40 million innocent children now dead in Americas abortuaries, multitudes of our women scarred for life, and the last walls of legal protection crumbling all around us, perhaps we need some strong words.
Perhaps, before it is too late, we should reconsider our rich biblical heritage and the sanctity of life ethic that made Western Civilization and America great. Are we really prepared to discard them? What will happen to us and our children if we do? The warnings of Scripture, the dark course of modern history, and the un-pretty picture of ancient paganism supply a sobering answer.
Yes, America really is at a spiritual crossroads. And as for the nation, so for the individual: Each of us must choose. Therefore, since the hour is very late, let us hear afresh the word of God to every man, woman, boy and girl of every time and every place in the whole of this dark and tumultous world:
“Today I set before you life and death, blessing and curse.
So choose life, that you may live, you and your seed.”