On the Number of Zygote Deaths and the Meaning of Pro-Life

What does it mean to be “pro-life”? Judging by the recent conversation about contraception, it would be easy to think that the point and purpose of the pro-life position is to reduce abortions in the world.

But as important as that is to pro-lifers, it by no means encapsulates the entirety of the pro-life position. In a brief but punchy essay, Frank Beckwith sums up the point:

The truth, however, is that the prolife position is not merely about “reducing the number of abortions,” though that is certainly a consequence that all prolifers should welcome. Rather, the prolife position is the moral and political belief that all members of the human community are intrinsically valuable and thus are entitled to the protection of the laws. “Reducing the number of abortions” may occur in a regime in which this belief is denied, and that is the regime that the liberal supporters of universal health coverage want to preserve and want prolifers to help subsidize. It is a regime in which the continued existence of the unborn is always at the discretion of the postnatal. Reducing the number of those discretionary acts by trying to pacify and accommodate the needs of those who want to procure abortions—physicians, mothers, and fathers—only reinforces the idea that the unborn are objects whose value depends exclusively on our wanting them.

In a post that I’ve seen referenced a few places, blogger Libby Anne follows Sarah (last name not given) does a bit of math and contends that fewer zygotes wind up dead when women use birth control than when they don’t.  Here’s the conclusion from Sarah:

So let’s get this straight, taking birth control makes a woman’s body LESS likely to dispel fertilized eggs. If you believe that life begins at conception, shouldn’t it be your moral duty to reduce the number of zygote “abortions?” If you believe that a zygote is a human, you actually kill more babies by refusing to take birth control.

If it were the case that the pro-life view was simply constituted by the number of people who lived and died, then Libby Anne and Sarah might have a case. But there are qualitative moral differences between the two. Suppose that two people are nearing death. In one case, we do nothing at all. In the other, we act in such a way that we know will erode the conditions for their ongoing life. Perhaps we put something in the air conditioner that makes it hard to breathe, or put a clamp on the tube that is feeding them food. In both cases, the patients die—but one died without our involvement, and the other died within conditions that we created. It’s true that they both would have died anyway. But the analogy is meant to show that the life or death of the person is not the only criteria by which we judge the morality of the action.

Now, there are two things worth saying about the above analogy. First, someone might claim that by taking birth control they are not in fact intending the death of the zygote: they are only intending that any zygote that *might* have been created to not be created. And that’s a fair claim. Second, it is an analogy where we know (with considerable likelihood) that both people are going to die. In birth, we don’t know if we use contraception whether the zygote will continue living or be “flushed out.”

Happy pro-lifers for the win.

Happy pro-lifers for the win.

These two counterclaims, though, actually mean less than they might seem on the surface. For one, even if in the above analogy I am not intending to kill the person I’m still responsible for creating the conditions in which they died. And given that we do not know whether the zygote would live or die *without our involvement,* if the zygote dies we take on responsibility for the death that we would not have otherwise precisely because of our action in the matter. To put it bluntly, our intentional acting is what distinguishes the abortificient from the natural death and which creates a degree of moral gravity about the situation that would not occur otherwise.

That’s an argument, but beneath it stands the principle that we tried to establish at the beginning: the prolife position is not measured by the number of zygotes that survive pregnancy or not, but by the quality of our wills and decisions inasmuch as they relate to human life. Hypothetically, if a couple knew that by not using an abortificient every zygote they had would die and be “flushed out”, but if they used an abortificient and one of the children lived, using the abortificient would still be wrong. Why? Because the decision would have been one that would have been contrary to the presence of human life and because the morality of the decision is not determined solely by the consequences that result from it. To deploy the classic anti-consequentialist conundrum, if we could demonstrate that statistically killing one innocent person would save the lives of a hundred or thousand others, that would not make the intentional taking of human life right or good.

One final point: let’s suppose for a second that it’s simply uncertain whether in my analogy the person died because they were really old or because we put the hypothetical clamp on their feeding tube. Analogously, it may be uncertain when someone is on contraception whether any given zygote is “flushed out” naturally or because of the drug’s effect. (Again, statistics don’t matter—action and involvement does.) In such a case, a strong dose of ethical humility would entail that we should err on the side of not involving ourselves in the process, *even if* statistically more humans die as a result. Theologically, we can entrust ourselves and our decisions to the providence of God, and contend that we have knowingly kept ourselves free from even the possibility of intentionally creating the conditions that caused the death of human life—of doing evil that good may come. We cannot have too much integrity of the will in this world.

Update:  Guttmacher has a study out saying that the abortion rate has decreased to its lowest point since 1973 and credits contraceptives for part of that.  It’s obviously good news that the rate is dropping.  Predictably, it’s being deployed as a reason why the pro-life movement should support the contraception mandate.


The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence

It’s probably appropriate and wise to begin a review of Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros’ newly-released The Locust Effect by admitting my biases up front: I’ve been an unabashed supporter of International Justice Mission since the early 2000s, particularly after seeing IJM’s work highlighted on Dateline NBC in June 2003. I’ve applied to work for IJM, have attended the organization’s Global Prayer Gathering and Christmas Benefit gala, occasionally carpool with the CFO, and up until a recent re-allocation of our family’s charitable giving, have been a monthly supporter. So when you read me asserting that over the last fifteen years IJM has revolutionized how the evangelical community in the United States thinks about, talks about, and actually pursues, justice in the developing world, you should know that these are the words of a less-than-neutral observer.bookAngle-GalleryPage

The thesis of The Locust Effect is straightforward: without effectively addressing the “locusts” of “common, everyday, predatory violence” (50) and lawlessness that eat away at the politically and economically disenfranchised in the developing world, no amount of poverty-alleviation work is going to do any lasting good. (94-97) The world, argue Haugen and Boutros, has arrived at a “critical inflection point” where the total percentage of individuals living in dire economic conditions has dropped significantly from years past; however, due to a host of factors, there has been little change in absolute numbers (47-49).

The Locust Effect is meant to spotlight how in conjunction with continued poverty-alleviation programs aimed at well-known challenges of clean water, sanitation, public health, education (especially women’s education), and access to capital and seed money, there has to be concerted efforts at reforming public justice and law enforcement systems. “[P]eople,” the co-authors insist, “do not commonly see [violence] as intrinsic to the problem of poverty…poor people—by virtue of their poverty—are not only vulnerable to hunger, disease, homelessness, illiteracy and a lack of opportunity; they are also vulnerable to violence.” (50) In the developing world, the poor are decidedly more vulnerable to the predations of the strong and corrupt. The strong and corrupt must therefore be deterred, and the Locust Effect insists that deterrence arises out of functioning, non-corrupt law enforcement organs.

The book is structured in three distinct parts. First, in chapters one and two the authors provide a descriptive and typological analysis of the overall problem. The first chapter is not for the faint of heart; it is emotionally trying. The authors describe without apologies real-life cases including, among others, (a) an intentional police and local authority cover-up of a sexual assault/murder of an eight-year old girl in a Peruvian town; (b) the use of physical assault and rape in India to keep bonded laborers from fleeing a brick factory, followed by a litany of failures in the Indian court system. Chapter Two is a more systematic examination of sexual violence (including trafficking), forced/slave labor, “property grabbing” or land expropriation, and police abuse (particularly police predation, arbitrary detention and torture). Haugen and Boutros explain how physical and psychological coercion operate in each of these four categories, but they go into greater detail on how sex trafficking and forced/slave labor are business operations reliant upon deception (to lure economically-vulnerable victims away from the protection of their families and local communities with promises of better jobs or more pay) and violence (what they label the “coercive moment” that keeps victims from leaving and/or reporting).

With respect to police abuse, the chapter touches on extortion and torture, but devotes most space to the injustices associated with lengthy and often-capricious pre-trial detention: lost files, sclerotic legal systems, lack of sanitation, jail overcrowding, and, the longer-lasting damage this does to one’s family, livelihood and psyche. Chapters three and four round out this first part, reiterating the overall argument that this unrestrained violence, the “de facto lawlessness” (111) bred from an ongoing absence of enforcement, impedes human flourishing and cries out not just for attacking “root causes,” but for good policing.

In the middle section, Haugen and Boutros offer an entire chapter (five) describing the chronic infirmities that typically beset law enforcement and public justice in the developing world, and then, over the course of four subsequent chapters, they attempt to locate the origins of the more common political and organizational maladies. I found the discussion in these middle five chapters some of the most engaging of the entire book, particularly Haugen and Boutros’ careful outline of how systemic dysfunction proliferates throughout the three public justice branches (investigational, prosecutorial and judicial), and their analysis of how 19th and early 20th century models of colonial policing combined with late 20th and early 21st century proclivities for privatized corporate security to bring about the current state.

Take, for instance, their discussion of present-day, developing world police forces. It isn’t as simple as the stereotypical coterie of corrupt officers who shakedown the vulnerable and unwary in order to make up for their paltry salaries, arrest those who can’t pay up, and take bribes from those who they should be arresting. There is that, of course, which the co-authors characterize as a “bidding war” over enforcement. (128) But Haugen and Boutros don’t just stop there. Instead, they carefully outline a host of interconnected problems: politicos who aim their country’s scarce policing resources away from ‘poor neighborhood’ problems to protection of state (and, truth be told, often their own personal) companies and assets; little to no training when it comes to interviewing techniques, non-physical interrogation, evidence collection and storage, processing of both criminals and victims; and a woeful lack of infrastructure (i.e. paper, copy equipment, computer hardware, database management; archive retrieval). (123-132)

Chapter seven and eight show that colonial legacies and privatized security are part and parcel of the same problem – that of the relationship between law enforcement and political economy. As Haugen and Boutros clearly bring out, law enforcement in colonial settings was not oriented, in the main, at punishing or deterring colonial subject-on-colonial subject crime or predation, but rather was aimed at guarding and protecting the economic—and typically extractive—interests of the colonial power from labor interruptions, internal dissension, riots and espionage (all of which are encapsulated in Charles Gwynn’s 1934 treatise, Imperial Policing, as enforcement duties rendered in “aid of the civil power”). Indeed, if one can get hold of a library copy of Martin Thomas’ recently-released Violence and Colonial Order (roundtable located here), it makes for an excellent tandem read with these two chapters of Locust Effect. In the developing world, imperial political economy drove the evolution of law enforcement and public justice—the languages used, the way resources were allocated, the overall goals of local enforcement (166-167). The incoherent, rapid, and unprepared way by which former colonial police, intelligence and justice systems were taken over by newly-decolonized states fostered the vacuum one sees today, which, in turn, precipitated the growth of the private security industry. The overwhelming use of privatized security is simply a late 20th and early 21st century manifestation of the same political economy driver.

The last part of the book examines possible avenues for improving or reforming law enforcement in the developing world. Haugen and Boutros insist that when it comes to international aid (whether governmental or non-governmental in character), the program flavor du jour is overly focused on broad, “rule-of-law” approaches that often don’t get down to the nuts-and-bolts of law enforcement infrastructure or training. Moreover, because governments like the United States are (understandably) more interested in protecting citizens from threats which directly impact domestic well-being—terrorism and drugs, for instance—the emphasis on US foreign police training has been almost exclusively centered on counterterrorism and counternarcotics, with comparatively smaller amounts aimed at human trafficking.

In contrast, Haugen and Boutros talk in depth about IJM’s dual approach of “structural transformation” through “collaborative casework.” Over the years, IJM has honed its ability to identify jointly with local law enforcement concrete violations that can be investigated, brought to trial, and result in convictions. In the realm of sex trafficking, this can also include jointly-run surveillance, management and debriefing of confidential informants, undercover operations, and brothel raids. As the co-authors put it, by doing “collaborative casework,” one slowly identifies systemic and structural problems which can then be addressed— jointly—at the local, national or even international level. “Collaborative casework” builds trust and, just as importantly, empathy, between IJM personnel and national law enforcement and public justice officials on the ground. IJM’s Project Lantern—a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—funded initiative that successfully decreased the number of available children in the commercial sex industry in Cebu City, Philippines – gets top billing in this section (and I would recommend reading the project report in conjunction with Locust Effect).

Haugen and Boutros have no illusions about the existence of “magic bullets” or the possibility of overnight improvements to law enforcement in the developing world. One thing I appreciated as a historian about Locust Effect was the co-authors’ discussion about the time and effort it took to professionalize policing in the United States, and how such transformation was often undesired and only able to take hold in fits and starts.

This perspective is valuable because, I would argue, this effort is likely to inaugurate a new phase in IJM’s institutional evolution. In the conclusion, Haugen and Boutros call for both increased participation of law enforcement experts in development and human rights circles and for more local-level projects, and so I wonder if IJM’s organizational future in its role as a liaison broker and “standards protocol” or “best practices” provider. In this way, IJM and its field offices might act organizationally like the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs). Under the JTTF banner, the FBI leads, organizes, liaises with, deconflicts, strategizes, and trains up personnel from a myriad of government, state and local agencies, and as the number of actors—especially private actors—entering the law enforcement reform arena increases, IJM’s reputation, its institutional memory, its existing local footprint, and its methodologies will be at a premium.

This brings up a second, related point. The work and details involved with policing, prosecutorial, and judicial reform in the developing world may not be able to garner the same level of ‘movement cachet’ (or, for that matter, the theological comfort) for churches and individual evangelicals as has the organization’s rally cry for justice. If I could tweak the Gospel Coalition’s “theological famine relief” motif for a minute, I’d like to see churches or denominations adopt individual IJM field offices in order to stave off “law enforcement or justice famine.” I can also see where churches and denominations might be hesitant to do so given limits on resources and/or concerns about condominium with foreign government entities, negative impact on missionary efforts, and doubts about how such an effort directly connects to gospel outreach. I think it’s going to take greater effort to secure long-term evangelical interest in the subject matter of Locust Effort, and I’m curious if the “neo-Anabaptist turn” popular among the Relevant crowd could result in that “tribe’s” hesitancy about sustained, cooperative involvement with foreign law enforcement. One avenue of theological connection to that particular constituency might be found in some of the “just policing” literature, and I also wonder about a larger, positive role that might be played by Christian police associations and ministry groups (like Fellowship of Christian Police Officers, International Christian Police Fellowship, and Christian Police Association).

In conclusion, it is interesting and certainly understandable that Locust Effect was not directly written or marketed for just evangelicals. Haugen ‘s earlier books (Good News About Injustice, Just Courage, and Terrify No More) were directly aimed at the Christian market and were published by evangelical presses. In them, Haugen focused on imago dei as a justification for Christian involvement in the struggle for international justice and worked diligently (and I would say successfully) to overcome the common evangelism vs. social action dichotomy.

The Locust Effect is definitely more advocacy-oriented than other Oxford University Press books I’ve seen, but there is only one section that explicitly addresses IJM’s Christian character (226). And, honestly, I have zero qualms about this. It is exactly the type of book evangelicals need, and it ties nicely together with the current crop of intra-evangelical writing about vocation, “gospel at work” and ordinary vs. radical Christian lifestyles. What does it mean to involve oneself as a Christian in an arena where direct and explicit “workplace evangelism” may be impossible, but where substantial Kingdom dividends could accrue through longevity, steadfastness, and a commitment to what Richard Mouw has labeled “uncommon decency?” Police, crime analysts, detectives, prosecutors, paralegals — these are not the categories of Christian professionals that usually make the so-called “radical” lifestyle cutoff, but through the targeted application of their “ordinary” skill set (guided by organizations like IJM, hopefully in conjunction with a local church body), the Kingdom impact is immeasurable.

In the end, law enforcement and public justice reform in the developing world is going to require steady, disciplined, and trained expertise— Christians and non-Christians experts alike. It is going to require evangelicals who are just plain good at their jobs, and who are able to use their everyday skills for the common good, knowing that Christ is the Lord of all.

Brian J. Auten currently serves as an intelligence analyst with the United States government and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Government at Patrick Henry College. All non-attributed views, opinions and conclusions in the review are those of the author and not the US government, or any entity within the US intelligence community. This review is based on an advance reading copy provided to the author directly from Oxford University Press.

Evangelicals and Foreign Adoption

Editor’s Note:  I’m pleased to host this reflection on adoption by Maralee Bradley.  As longtime readers know, I’ve kept one eye on the evangelical adoption movement.  This is a very personal and very difficult subject for many people, and worth considering carefully.

As the parent of a child who lived for a year in a Liberian orphanage, Kathryn Joyce’s article about the evangelical adoption movement disturbed me. It gave me that sinking feeling in my gut. You know the one—like seeing your cousin’s mugshot pop up unexpectedly while watching the evening news. You knew your cousin was a little troubled, but you still feel protective of his reputation and by extension, yours.

Joyce has strong words about the ethics of the agencies and families engaged in international adoption. As an example of how that movement can go astray she speaks extensively about the adoption of children from Liberia. She details the mistreatment of those kids when they arrived in the US with more problems than their families were prepared to handle and how this led to children suffering in abusive homes, kids being shipped back, and eventually the shutdown of adoptions from Liberia entirely. This all strikes entirely too close to home for me.

You see, we’re one of those “crazy” evangelical adoptive families that anxiously filled out the paperwork, cried over the pictures of our little malnourished baby, prayed fervently when we heard he was hospitalized with malaria, and when it was all completed took a flight to Liberia to meet our son. We were shocked that within a few hours of being placed in our arms he was looking into our eyes with smiles and giggles. I cried with relief when he peacefully let me give him a bottle and rock him to sleep that first night. After four years of working with older boys from troubled backgrounds through houseparenting at a group home, we felt prepared for anything and expected our son to have struggles. We were aware that orphanage life in a war-torn country could be a recipe for attachment disaster and institutionalization issues. Before boarding the plane for Liberia we read books on bonding, adoption, and Liberian culture. We wanted to be as prepared as possible for whatever his needs might be and expected he might have trouble adjusting to life with us.

Interracial adoption

Apparently that thought process wasn’t shared by many of our fellow adoptive parents.

Which is why it’s hard to read Joyce’s article. She isn’t wrong when it comes to the sad situations some Liberian children found themselves in. They entered families who were woefully unprepared to deal with their issues and were shocked that this child wasn’t grateful to have been taken from their birth culture and everything they had known. These families did not have the coping skills needed and also lacked support from their agencies to help them work through the issues they encountered. There seems to have been a feeling that a child would be better off in US foster care than in a Liberian orphanage so the agencies were prepared to match a child with a waiting family even if they had an inkling that it wouldn’t last. And if they did try to explain to a waiting family that a child had issues, there was a pervasive belief among adoptive families that once they got the child home, love and good nutrition would fix all their problems.

When “love” wasn’t able to conquer those behaviors and adoptions had to be disrupted, families were devastated. Obviously the adopted child was hurt. But so were the biological or previously adopted children who may have lived in fear or experienced abuse at the hands of a child who had learned terrible coping behaviors in the orphanage. It has broken my heart to see these adopted children slowly disappear from family pictures and hear whispers about behaviors no one could manage and the trauma these families experienced.

And these behaviors shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone with an understanding of the events of Liberia’s recent past. Continue reading

The Morality of the Story

Alasdair MacIntyre is widely credited with restoring the category of ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ to the forefront of the discussion in meta-ethics. In his influential work After Virtue (1981) he set out his argument for the bankruptcy of most modern ethical theories such as utilarianism and Rawlsian contractarianism and the necessity of recovering an Aristotelian-Thomistic virtue-ethics set within a narrative framework. Among other things, MacIntyre argues that the virtues, those moral practices and habits that characterize the just person, only make sense within a narrative framework because all human action is essentially historical in character–it is historically-enacted and historically-motivated. That is an inescapable feature of human life–whether pagan, post-Enlightenment liberal, or orthodox Christian, we live out of the stories and narratives we tell ourselves. Even the most postmodern among us, suspicious of the various master narratives told to us by modernity, are still living in the sort of story that includes moderns trying to control us through master narratives. Indeed, it is commonly suggested by philosophers and sociologists that instead of the idea of the “worldview”, a narrative-identity is a more useful conception for understanding the comprehensive perspective through which we approach moral action in the world.

Now, none of this is all that new. Why bring it up? Simply to introduce a few loosely-connected notes on the importance of narrative for Christian reflection on the moral life that ought to be kept in mind. One is cautionary, the other couple are complementary and, after thinking on them, can be classified under the rubric of Creation, Sin, and Redemption.

The Story is About Something (Creation) - First the caution. Oliver O’Donovan alerts us against the sort of historicisms which take this emphasis on narrative and history to the point of forgetting that the story is about something. These types of approaches take MacIntyre’s point and run with it to a degree that essentially denies the category of ‘nature’ or creation as a relevant one for moral reflection at all. One thinks either of Hegelian historicisms, or even the biblical theology movement with its emphasis on the history God’s mighty acts, as opposed to the pagan gods of nature. Of such schools O’Donovan writes:Resurrection and the Moral Order

We cannot object to the idea that history should be taken seriously. A Christian response to historicism will wish to make precisely the opposite point: when history is made the categorical matrix for all meaning and value, it cannot be then taken seriously as history. A story has to be a story about something; but when everything is a story there is nothing for the story to be about. -Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline For Evangelical Ethics, 2nd Ed.  pg. 60

O’Donovan points us to the reality that creation, as a whole and in human natures as created, is the necessary pre-requisite for history as the stage of moral action–it is the set-up. Unless the human being is a certain sort of thing before the action, and the world is a certain kind of place, the things that happen within it lose their meaning. Without creation as the “theater of God’s glory”, to use Calvin’s phrase, there can be no drama of redemption. In other words, protology matters for eschatological ethics. Observed from a different angle, we must not forget that part of the story that the Scripture tells begins with a good Creator God, whose first ‘mighty act’ was to sovereignly make the world, and those things in it, in a particular way, for good reasons. The defacing effects of sin aside, moral reflection needs to attend to that fact before running ahead to the second or third acts of the drama and drawing our ethics entirely from the NT. It also means we know enough to say something substantial about the moral nature of things before the final act is concluded.

You Are Not the Only, or Main, Author/Character (Sin) Continue reading

Genetically Modified Food: Mark Lynas and Your Inner Luddite

Earlier this month, Mark Lynas, a leading environmental campaigner and erstwhile anti-GM food crusader, delivered a lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference that brazenly combined penitence and pugnacity, offering a public recantation of his own views on GM food while challenging those not so enlightened to “get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.”

Although sure to offend or dismay the localist and Luddite that resides deep within so many of us, there was much to admire about Lynas’s address: his honest admission of his own faults, and willingness to re-examine high-profile commitments in light of the evidence; his willingness to point out that a commitment to both environmentalism and humanitarianism requires trade-offs (we cannot feed the hungry, prevent overfishing, and oppose fish-farming simultaneously); his indictment of the self-satisfied aestheticism that lies at the heart of much of the organic food movement; his willingness to take human dominion seriously as part of the solution to, not merely the source of, environmental problems.  There was also much to complain about: his occasionally bullying tone; his declaration that “the only facts that mattered were the ones published in the most distinguished scholarly journals”; his careless lumping together of all “organic” farming under one heading and declaring that whatever it was, it had no health benefits; his enthusiasm for short-term solutions and inattention to possible long-term consequences.

Any of these points merit thoughtful consideration or critique, but I will confine myself in what follows to examining the last point of admiration and, more briefly, the last point of complaint, for these get to the heart of why so many people, perhaps especially the theologically-inclined among us, have a gut distrust of genetically-modified food.  If given a soapbox on which to pontificate for a few moments, my theologically-sophisticated inner Luddite might proceed as follows:

It is essential that we remember that we are creatures, and not gods, that God alone has established the course of nature and tasked us merely with tending, preserving, and overseeing it.  We have not been given the Promethean freedom to take nature into our own hands and refashion it into our own image.  Nature is not “raw material,” but material that has already been given form and structure by God, and we must respect this God-given form; this is particularly the case with living things.  If we do not, two things will happen.  First, we will harm ourselves physically, for God has created the world good; he has given us the fruits of the earth as food to eat, and he knew what was good for us, so if we try and improve upon it, we are trying to outsmart God and find that we have only decreased malnutrition at the cost of increasing cancer incidence, or whatever.  Second, we will harm ourselves spiritually, for we will lose all sense of our created limits, and of the inherent teleology within nature; we will conceive of ourselves and the world around us as mere products of our own will, human nature itself as clay to be shaped into whatever form we might desire.  At this rhetorical climax, I might quote liberally from C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, and would perhaps conclude by dolefully reciting some lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

Chastened by Mark Lynas’s address, what might we say in response to this pontification?


OGM – ADN (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, first, we might point out that it seems to be oddly silent on the subject of the Fall, a matter of no small theological significance.  If God’s good creation has been disordered by sin and the curse, we might well expect that simply “doing things naturally” would get us into some trouble.  Fact is, a lot of the things we try and eat can do us harm, or at any rate, can’t do us enough good to protect us all from disease and malnutrition.  To deny that we might need to take measures to avoid these evils of life under the sun would be tantamount to rejecting civil government because, as naturally created, we could live in harmony without it.  The fact of sin means that we cannot always have our cake and eat it too; maybe it would be nice to eat all-natural fruits and vegetables, but this might conflict with the imperative to feed the starving.

More fundamentally, though, this pontification distorts the Christian tradition’s understanding of nature and humans’ role in it.  God created the world with room to grow and mature, and the task of humans is not to curate a museum, but to enrich and perfect the garden we’ve been given to tend.  And simplistic attempts to dichotomize between “helping something grow to its natural perfection” and “intervening so as to force it in an unnatural direction of our own choosing” won’t help us much.  Humans have been intervening and imposing their will on creation since the beginning, to the point that much of what we would today think of as “natural” is actually our own creation.  Roses, potatoes, corn, dogs—all of these wear man’s smudge and share man’s smell, and are, most all of us would agree, very much the better for it.  Not merely “better for us,” mind you (though we might say this for the potatoes and corn, and given God’s desire for a well-fed human race, this is nothing to be scoffed at), but objectively better, better in themselves.  God rejoices in the wild dog, yes, but I would submit that he rejoices still more in the Golden Retriever and the Great Dane (though not, mind you, in the pit bull or the poodle).  When we decided that some plants qualified as weeds, to be removed rather than left alone, and that other plants were beautiful, worthy of being cultivated and bred, rather than left alone, we made determinations about what the “natural perfection” of creation was, and what it wasn’t, and “intervened” accordingly.  In many cases, such interventions have helped ensure or preserve, rather than distort and destroy, balanced ecosystems.

Once we recognize that genetic modification is simply a technologically-accelerated way of doing things that already happen naturally (in cross-pollination and random mutation), or that have already happened through human ingenuity (conventional breeding methods), the prima facie theological objection to it should fall to the ground.   Continue reading

Hamlet, Beauty, and the Case Against Abortion

William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, is a story of tragedy; a tragedy that results in part because of a stasis that Hamlet nurtures when he should be taking action to avenge his father’s death.  He has all the impetus one could need—his father’s ghost visits him early in the play urging him to “revenge his foul and unnatural murder” (I.V.25) at the hands of his brother, Claudius.  Yet rather than acting, Hamlet hems, haws, and monologues the play away, inventing opportunities to provoke his uncle’s conscience rather than openly confront him.  He even later finds Claudius in a moment of vulnerability as his uncle is at player, and delays even with a sword in his hand.

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season’d for his passage?


Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;

At gaming, swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t;

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damn’d and black

As hell, whereto it goes. (III.3.82-95)

Hamlet justifies his hesitation with the hope that catching his uncle in the midst of more sin will ensure his tenure in hell, whereas killing him at prayer risks sending him to heaven.  Yet this concern ultimately rings hollow given his constant inactivity and misdirection and, moreover, demeans the only motivation he should need—his murdered father.

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I, like Hamlet, have been so haunted and remained largely apathetic.

I remember a day from my undergraduate career at Biola University when the entire campus was seething with anger, and with good reason. Or so I thought.  Our passion was directed at a bi-plane flying above the campus trailing a banner with horrific images of aborted fetuses. My friends and I were scandalized, offended, and not a little self-righteous. What an audacious waste of money to hire a plane like that and brandish such images over a Christian campus. We all knew and believed abortion was wrong. We weren’t the ones who needed to be persuaded…right?

Not really.

The truth is, though I identify myself unambiguously as a conservative Christian, and though I affirm the sacredness of life, there’s a real sense in which I have been complicit in the abortion of children because I don’t actually do much to prevent it. And I’m not alone; I know many individuals who next month will go to the polls and console themselves with the belief that they have discharged their duty to the unborn because they voted Republican, just like they did four years ago.

Pro-life advocate Rolley Haggard recently wrote in Breakpoint Magazine, “pulpit silence on the abortion holocaust is nothing short of blasphemy.” But this silence is one shared, potentially, by every Christian—not merely our clergy—and so we all share in the blasphemy. So insular is my experience of Christianity that the last time I really had a discussion with someone about abortion was over ten years ago. This is America—you need never “inconvenience” yourself on account of your faith if you don’t want.

When I was in graduate school in 2008, a thunder-voiced rascal named Brother Jeb told everyone who passed by that voting for Obama would usher in the apocalypse (which I kind of thought he’d prefer). As something of an introvert, I have a strong aversion this type of vitriolic evangelism that, unfortunately, is widespread enough to be cliché.  These people embarrass the cause of Christ with their hellfire (not to mention give Obama too much credit).

But my real problem was that I’d thought about abortion too much. I had myself convinced that to persuade someone that abortion was abhorrent, I needed to deconstruct the sexual revolution—a problem so colossal that what I needed to do was write a book, not have a conversation.

Let me explain. Continue reading

How to Reduce Abortions: An Idiosyncratic Suggestion

This past spring, we spent a lot of time arguing against the notion that single evangelicals should take contraception to reduce abortions.  What we didn’t do, though, was talk about the positive case:  if not contraception, then how should we set about reducing abortions?

That’s the question that Kolburt Schultz put to me for his blog Faithful Politics.  My friend Eric Teetsel (go forth to his new blog) weighed in, as did a few others.  My contribution is, well, typically idiosyncratic.  Rather than address the issue head on, I tried to get beneath the surface to one of the core problems in the evangelical culture:  our understanding of children.


Yes, this is a shameless attempt to make you like this post.

Still, cultural transformation need not wait until we have every solution.  So let me propose one sideways suggestion, one idea that comes at the question not from head-on but through the back door.  I would like to see evangelical churches end “children’s church” and nurseries and keep all the crying infants in the services.  If we segregate infants because they “distract us” from our worship and learning, then we undermine our own imaginative resources to welcome distractions in other parts of our lives.  The posture of welcome to infants and children begins at the center of the universe, in the person of Jesus.  We ought not want a more professional and more distraction-free worship experience than he does, and if we look at the Gospels he seems quite interested in allowing the little children to mess up his plans.  If our worship on Sunday is a microcosm for the rest of our lives, then it seems deeply inconsistent to separate ourselves from children while singing only to claim that we want them every other moment.

Will that reduce abortions?  Empirically, probably not.  At least not right away.  But like all problematic ethical behaviors, the willingness in our people to abort their children is a sign of our deeper dysfunctions.

 I’d be curious to hear from you, dear reader, on this question as well.  What should we think about how to reduce abortions?


Eggsploitation: Giving Voice to the Women hurt by the Fertility Industry

Few issues are more sensitive than those surrounding infertility and our attempts to overcome it.

Because infertility is so rarely talked about (or talked about badly), it’s easy for younger married folks to assume the process will go smoothly.  Consider Facebook:  you see the baby photos and the birth announcements, but never the fertility test results.  Those friends from high school and college who show up in your stream, pregnant and overjoyed, may have been through all manner of things to arrive at that point.  But except in the very closest of friendships, we only see the results and only rarely the process.

But for many couples, the process of infertility brings them into a sector of society and the economy that is fraught with ethical perils.

It’s odd to speak of fertility as an industry, but that is precisely where we find ourselves.  In order to meet the demand for embryonic stem cells and for those couples who cannot conceive without help, women and fertility clinics have taken to buying and selling eggs.

It’s a messy business.  Not only is it a largely unregulated $3 billion marketplace (try getting away with that in any other industry), but the medical community has largely ignored the effects of superovulation and the extraction of eggs on the women who undergo the process.

Eggsploitation, a documentary by the Center for Bioethics and Culture, sets out to document the stories of several women who did so and experienced severe medical complications as a result.  The stories are painful and often disturbing, so the documentary isn’t for the weak of heart.  But by concentrating on the risks that such treatments pose for women–treatments, I would note, that nearly all women who participate in IVF undertake–the film opens up a set of questions that few evangelicals writing about the subject seem to ask.

Consider, for instance, this otherwise helpful article from The Gospel Coalition on the factors that couples should weigh when considering fertility treatment.   Notice what isn’t there?  Any consideration of the women’s health in light of the treatment.  In some ways, that’s understandable.  Ethicists have a responsibility to deliberate in light of the facts and if the medical community isn’t presenting a critical set, then the deliberation must go forward as it is.

But therein lies the dilemma that Eggsploitation faces:  now that fertility has industrialized, the profit incentive means that there is every reason to avoid studies that would be damaging to the industry altogether.  What’s more, the fertility industry has the added benefit of being backed by “science” and the widespread cultural blind-spot that invariably comes up when the word is envoked (usually with a mystical tone of voice, as though summoning a specter).  We understand this sort of argument when it comes to, say, Wall Street.  But our earnest and sincere desire to have children and our incipient scientism make critiques and cautions of the sort Eggsploitation makes rather more difficult to swallow.

That all sounds a bit conspiratorial and the truth is usually much more boring than all that.  And the film isn’t about the medical industry’s reluctance to study the question per se as much as the need to study it in light of the growing body of anecdotes raising problems.

But it does highlight the dilemma the viewer faces in watching Eggsploitation.  It is only one side of the story and has come under criticism for it (read also the comments, where Jennifer Lahl admirably defends the work).  But given the lack of studies and documentation around the women who have undergone the process, viewers are left with the dilemma of incorporating the anecdotes into their decision making process.

The film, then, is not itself an argument for or against so much as a strong caution and a means of introducing into the broader conversation a new set of questions and concerns around IVF and the buying and selling of eggs.  And as such, it is worth every penny of your support and every minute of your time.


Starbucks, Boycotts, and (Not) Buying Coffee: The Need for Theological Ethics

Maggie Gallagher and the folks at the National Organization for Marriage are taking on Starbucks for their position on gay marriage, a position that they outline in the video above.

The controversy has brought up the question about whether Christians should join in on the boycotting, er, fun.  This Russell Moore has answered with a resounding nein:  

A boycott is a display of power, particularly of economic power. The boycott shows a corporation (or government or service provider) that the aggrieved party can hurt the company, by depriving it of revenue. The boycott, if it’s successful, eventually causes the powers-that-be to yield, conceding that they need the money of the boycott participants more than they need whatever cause they were supporting. It is a contest of who has more buying power, and thus is of more value to the company.

We lose that argument.

The argument behind a boycott assumes that the “rightness” of a marriage definition is constituted by a majority with power. Isn’t that precisely what we’re arguing against? Our beliefs about marriage aren’t the way they are because we are in a majority. As a matter of fact, we must concede that we are in a tiny minority in contemporary American society, if we define marriage the way the Bible does, as a sexually-exclusive, permanent one-flesh union.

Moreover, is this kind of economic power context really how we’re going to engage our neighbors with a discussion about the meaning and mystery of marriage? Do such measures actually persuade at the level such decisions are actually made: the moral imagination? I doubt it.

I’ve no interest in starting a theological throwdown with the good Doctor, as he’d get the better of it blindfolded with an arm tied up.  And frankly, that last paragraph above isn’t only one that I wish I’d written:  it sounds startlingly close to a line of thought on this issue I have sketched out before.

Moore goes on to suggest that he’s “protecting marriage in law and in culture,” but also expresses worries about doing so by “lording over others with political majorities.”**  Persuasion, he contends, happens by “holding fast to the gospel, by explaining our increasingly odd view of marriage, and by serving the world and our neighbors around us, as our Lord does, with a towel and a foot-bucket.”

Moore’s case against boycotts is compelling, yet it raises more questions about the practice than it really answers.  While Moore grants he is not opposed to all boycotts by Christians, he has left little to no room for discerning which boycotts we should pursue.  Should Christians have, for instance, boycotted BP for their gross mismanagement of the clean-up efforts on the Gulf Coast?  Or if it turned out that Starbucks was sneaking venti cups of cash into the coffers of Planned Parenthood, would a boycott then be permissible?

What’s more, there is a harder question that Moore seems to answer in the final sentence of his piece:  whether Christians should buy Starbucks, even if they do not boycott Starbucks.   Continue reading

Christian Progressivism and a Principled Pro-Life Position

My good friend Tim King of Sojourners took the Rachel Held Evans stage after I did–an admittedly easy act to follow–as a Christian progressive.  His answers are precisely in line with those which I’ve come to expect from him:  thoughtful, considerate, and compassionate in the best sense of the word.

The section on being pro-life, however, pushed the eyebrows up involuntarily:

I won’t try to articulate here a prescriptive policy position, but a description of how I approach the issue more broadly.

My older sister is pregnant and this August, I’ll have a nephew. Really pumped to be an uncle. My sister told me that as a result of her pregnancy, she has never been so pro-life and pro-choice. This isn’t unusual. In fact, the Public Religion Research Institute has found that about two-thirds of all American’s identify as pro-life and pro-choice simultaneously.

I think that is for good reason. Most people don’t view a fetus as a clump of cells indistinguishable from any other clump of cells but many also don’t see that the state has the same interest in a fertilized egg as it would a three-year-old child. You describe well some of the tensions that I think many people feel when they think about the issue.

In resolving a complex ethical issue, while taking into consideration multiple and often competing demands, we need to ask, what’s the role of government? At what point is the state the best arbiter? Currently, the state registers and logs a record of all births. Should they instead try and register and log all pregnancies? Monitor women of childbearing age? What is the state’s interest in the 15 to 20 percent of known pregnancies that end in a miscarriage? What about the many more “chemical pregnancies”? What kind of interest does the state have in the health and habits of women of childbearing age as it effects their bodies’ ability to carry a child to term? What other practices and protections currently extended to those who have been born should be expanded by the state to include fertilized eggs?

I think most people recognized a gradation of responsibility. The interest of the state is not the same at the moment of conception as it is at the moment of birth.

This is what leads me to believe that the primary role of the state is not to dictate decisions around these complex ethical considerations and its primary role lies with preventative and supportive policy.

I appreciate Tim’s kindness earlier in the Q&A in signaling agreement with me on the importance of non-governmental organizations to solve social problems.  (Tim, if you’re trying out the conservative end of the pool, dive in.  The water is great.)

But on this pro-life business, well, I’m afraid we’re at odds.

For one, Tim describes the problem democratically.  “Most people” is a decent enough starting point for ethical and policy deliberations (Socrates made heavy use of the trope), but it’s not an ending point.  The fact that many of us feel tension on the position is a diagnosis, not a remedy.  More thinking and better thinking would be a good next step:  holding contradictory opinions on a question is okay as a temporary season, but eventually the question must be resolved.

What’s more, Tim frames the question as one of the state’s interest while dodging the metaphysical question:  is the fertilized egg a human person as the three year old child is, or is he not?   If he is, then the state’s purported interest can go to hell–precisely where it will end up if it fails to judge accordingly . The person has rights and ought to have the protection that comes along with them, regardless of what the people say.

Tim throws the series of questions up to muddy the facts of the matter and succeeds admirably at his task.  But the list also reveals the fundamental progressive instinct at work.  The fact that we have human rights doesn’t entail that the state is there to ensure that we live:  rather, they are there to safeguard us from the deliberate and intentional taking of our lives by another human person.  Presume that we come up with some way to reduce the number of miscarriages.  Well done, if it happens, for alleviating more pain and suffering in the world.

But because miscarriage is not a moral wrong, not an infringement of someone’s rights by an agent who can be held culpable, then the state isn’t obligated do anything at all. And the same goes for logging pregnancies, monitoring pregnant women, and the like.  Though the whole thing would give a rather new meaning to the phrase “nanny state,” which is exactly where Tim’s progressive instincts lead anyway.

(Apologies, Tim.  The joke was too good to resist.)

In short, Tim’s rhetorical questions are nonsensical unless we grant that the state’s interest in preventing abortion is the same as its interest in preventing death.  They might both be evil, but they are evils of a different sort.  And the state has responsibilities to act in one realm, and none in the other.

This “gradation of responsibility” that people recognize may be true enough, then, if we were taking a survey.  But as a matter of governing in anything approaching a pro-life manner, it simply will not do.

The metaphysics of the matter–the matter of the fertilized egg, to be specific–have to be evaluated and our ethical reflection and public policy brought into line accordingly.  Even within a liberal democracy, where our differences of opinion apparently extend even to our own minds, we must resolve the question of who will be admitted.  A principled pro-life position depends upon it.