Abortion, Continued…


[Note: Since I think Joe is busy flying back to the mainland, I’ll post the first set of remarks from Hauerwas following the sermon posted below for the possibility of continued discussion…]


I wanted to read that sermon because I suspect that most of you ministers have not preached about abortion. You have not preached about abortion because you have not had the slightest idea about how to do it in a way that would not make everyone in your congregation mad. And the reason that you have not known how to preach a sermon on abortion is that you thought that you would have to sake up the terms that are given by the wider society.

Here you see a young minister who knew how to cut through the kind of pro-choice and pro-life rhetoric that is given in the wider society. She preached a sermon on abortion that derives directly from the Gospel. Her sermon is a reminder about what the church is to be about when addressing this issue in a Christian way. That is the primary thing that I want to underline this evening: the church’s refusal to use society’s terms for the abortion debate, and the church’s willingness to take on the abortion problem as church. This sermon suggests that abortion is not a question about the law, but about what kind of people we are to be as the church and as Christians.

Abortion forces the church to recognize the fallacy of a key presumption of many Christians in this society–namely, that what Christians believe about the moral life is what any right-thinking person, whether he or she is Christian or not, also believes. Again, that presumption is false. I want to underwrite what I call the Tonto Principle of Christian Ethics. The Tonto Principle is based on the Lone Ranger and Tonto finding themselves surrounded by 20,000 Sioux. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “What do you think we ought to do, Tonto. Tonto replies, “What do you mean we, white man?” We Christians have thought that when we address the issue of abortion and when we say “we,” we are talking about anybody who is a good, decent American. But that is not who “we” Christians are. If any issue is going to help us discover that, it is going to be the issue of abortion.

Beyond Rights

Christians in America are tempted to think of issues like abortion primarily in legal terms such as “rights.” This is because the legal mode, as de Tocqueville pointed out long ago, provides the constituting morality in liberal societies. In other words, when you live in a liberal society like ours, the fundamental problem is how you can achieve cooperative agreements between individuals who share nothing in common other than their fear of death. In liberal society the law has the function of securing such agreements. That is the reason why lawyers are to America what priests were to the medieval world. The law is our way of negotiating safe agreements between autonomous individuals who have nothing else in common other than their fear of death and their mutual desire for protection.

Therefore, rights language is fundamental in our political and moral context. In America, we oftentimes pride ourselves, as Americans, on being a pragmatic people that is not ideological. But that is absolutely false. No country has ever been more theory dependent on a public philosophy than America.

Indeed I want to argue that America is the only country that has the misfortune of being founded on a philosophical mistake–namely, the notion of inalienable rights. We Christians do not believe that we have inalienable rights. That is the false presumption of Enlightenment individualism, and it opposes everything that Christians believe about what it means to be a creature. Notice that the issue is inalienable rights. Rights make a certain sense as correlative to duties and goods, but they are not inalienable. For example, when the lords protested against the king in the Magna Charta, they did so in the name of their duties to their underlings. Duties, not rights, were primary. The rights were simply ways of remembering what the duties were.

Christians, to be more specific, do not believe that we have a right to do with our bodies whatever we want. We do not believe that we have a right to our bodies because when we are baptized we become members of one another; then we can tell one another what it is that we should, and should not, do with our bodies. I had a colleague at the University of Notre Dame who taught Judaica. He was Jewish and always said that any religion that does not tell you what to do with your genitals and pots and pans cannot be interesting. That is exactly true. In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals. They are not your own. They are not private. That means that you cannot commit adultery. If you do, you are no longer a member of “us.” Of course pots and pans are equally important.

I was recently giving a talk at a very conservative university, Houston Baptist University. Since its business school has an ethics program, I called my talk, “Why Business Ethics Is a Bad Idea.” When I had finished, one of the business-school people asked, “Well goodness, what then can we Christians do about business ethics?” I said, “A place to start would be the local church. It might be established that before anyone joins a Baptist church in Houston, he or she would have to declare in public his or her annual income.” The only people whose incomes are known in The United Methodist Church today are ordained ministers. Why should we make the ministers’ salaries public and not the laity’s? Most people would rather tell you what they do in the bedroom than how much they make. With these things in mind, you can see how the church is being destroyed by the privatization of individual lives, by the American ethos. If you want to know who is destroying the babies of this country through abortion, look at privatization, which is learned in the economic arena.

Under the veil of American privatization, we are encouraging people to believe in the same way that Andrew Carnegie believed. He thought that he had a right to his steel mills. In the same sense, people think that they have a right to their bodies The body is then a piece of property in a capitalist sense. Unfortunately, that is antithetical to the way we Christians think that we have to share as members of the same body of Christ.

So, you cannot separate these issues. If you think that you can be very concerned about abortion and not concerned about the privatization of American life generally, you are making a mistake. So the problem is: how, as Christians, should we think about abortion without the rights rhetoric that we have been given–right to my body, right to life, pro-choice, pro-life, and so on? In this respect, we Christians must try to make the abortion issue our issue.


10 Responses to “Abortion, Continued…”

  1. Sandi Says:

    Hi Al, very interesting. I am just as critical of the “rights” approach as the next person because it often gives short shrift to responsibilities. On the other hand, I wonder how it would be possible to compel people to act ethically or morally — wouldn’t that undermine the “ethical” and “moral” part of it, i.e., doesn’t morality (if it is real) imply that we choose to act in a moral way?

    Nonetheless, excessive privatization is definitely a concern. I would argue that one place we see this is in our living arrangements, i.e. the decline of extended families living under one roof. (Not that I want to live with my parents or anything, but maybe this is more a symptom of the problem than it is the problem itself). This relates directly to the abortion issue — if extended families typically lived together, economies of scale would reduce household costs such that not everyone would have to do wage labor and children could be raised by their relatives collectively (it takes a village, anyone?). The financial incentives would be totally different. The only additional thing we would have to do is remove the stigma/shame associated with out-of-wedlock childbearing (which still exists, incidentally, if in more muted form) and the idea that women with children are “damaged goods” when it comes to marriage or relationships. Oh, yeah, and that pesky notion people have of children as their property. We’ve gotta get rid of that. It has deleterious manifestations that go far beyond the abortion context. In fact, I would argue that the consequences of that to born children are much greater in terms of actual suffering than to fetuses of any age. (For reasons having to do with consciousness, the ability to suffer mentally as well as physically, and the duration of the suffering).

    But a return to a more communcal life seems unlikely to happen. We’ve gone too far down this privatization road to go back now, and although I have concerns, it seems like most people like it and have no desire whatsoever to go back.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Sandi. Hauerwas is eventually going to get to the children discussion by honing in on that “unwanted child” phrase, one he will use to call into question all of our reasons given for “wanting” children. He will claim that he can’t think of anything worse than being a “wanted” child. Property definitely factors in. (But I’m getting ahead of myself!)

    Other thoughts anyone?

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Interesting. There’s no denying that, historically, America’s “rights” talk is derived from private property talk. And I absolutely agree that children are, by and large, seen as the private property of their parents (especially by Evangelicals), and that leads to all kinds of fouled up thinking (especially by Evangelicals). But I’m not sure Hauerwas offers us anything to do about it.

    That is the primary thing that I want to underline this evening: the church’s refusal to use society’s terms for the abortion debate, and the church’s willingness to take on the abortion problem as church. This sermon suggests that abortion is not a question about the law, but about what kind of people we are to be as the church and as Christians.

    Well, that’s great in terms of what the church is going to do as church: IOW, internally. But it is the very antithesis of an ethic for political engagement. That is, unless one is presupposing an ethic of political withdrawal, in which case what the church does internally is all the church does.

    I know Hauerwas depends greatly on the church’s internal modeling of Kingdom having an influence on the world around it, so maybe that’s where he’s headed with this. Still, it’s an ethic of withdrawal — wider influence is just a [possible] side-effect.

  4. Al Sturgeon Says:

    To your “internal modeling” observation…

    “For Christian beliefs about God, Jesus, sin, the nature of human existence, and salvation are intelligible only if they are seen against the background of the church – that is, a body of people who stand apart from the ‘world’ because of their peculiar task of worshiping a God whom the world knows not. This is a point as much forgotten by Christian thelogians as by secular philosophers, the temptation being to simply make Christianity another ‘system of belief.’ Yet what was most original about the first Christians was not the peculiarity of their beliefs, even beliefs about Jesus, but their social inventiveness in creating a community whose like had not been seen before. To say they believed in God is true but uninteresting. What is interesting is that their very understanding that the God they encountered in Jesus required the formation of a community distinct from the world exactly because of the kind of God he was… The flabbiness and banality of contemporary atheism is, thus, a judgment on the church’s unwillingness to be a distinctive people.” (Hauerwas, “On Keeping Theological Ethic Theological,” 1983)

  5. Al Sturgeon Says:

    BTW, I mentioned Warren Carter as one of the seminar speakers (who, btw, bears a striking resemblance in both voice and appearance to one, Austin Powers).

    He was my favorite seminar speaker overall (though Hauerwas gets the award for the best one-liners).

    Here’s a wikipedia entry on Carter and his unique approach for anyone interested in a brief overview: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_Carter

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Yet what was most original about the first Christians was . . . their social inventiveness in creating a community whose like had not been seen before.

    I’m not sure what he’s referring to, precisely, but as a general matter this statement strikes me as demonstrably false. There were many religious and philosophical movements in the 1st century that had communities that looked quite a bit like the early Jesus communities. Paul’s letters even reflect this.

  7. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Being ignorant, I don’t disagree with you.

    I assume he’s still referring to his belief that the “world” won’t know it’s “world” unless the church learns to model its distinctive call to be something other than world.

  8. juvenal_urbino Says:

    But that’s hardly original or inventive on the part of the first Christians, either. I mean, without even leaving Christian scripture, the notion of a called-out exemplar community is at least as old as God’s covenant with Abraham.

    Regardless, I still have difficulty seeing how the direction Hauerwas is traveling in can lead to something other than a withdrawal stance.

  9. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Makes sense.

    If no one minds, I’ll keep delivering this lecture from Hauerwas one piece at a time – I’m mostly thinking that if it was all posted at once, I wouldn’t have read it! 🙂

    I know Terry is fan of all things in serial form (especially Frosted Flakes).

  10. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Post, away! (I, too, am a fan of cereals Post. Er, serial posts. Whatever.)

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