The abortion debate we’re having in our generation is happening in the halls of history. We’re not the first to cross this bridge, nor will we be the last. The question we face today is about our community, and more importantly, what sort of community we will be. It demands an answer. Our future won’t wait.
The fundamental question of group survival vs. personal liberty has been laid at the feet of every human society since before recorded history. No, this isn’t an attempt to idealize the issue, nor sterilize the debate in the halls of academia. I’m a pastor, not a historian. We must recognize the stakes. As we debate abortion, we are debating our humanity. How we answer as a society will affect those who come after us, yes. But our collective answer also shapes us.
So, what sort of humans do we want to be and why? How do you begin to define a good society? American novelist Pearl Buck envisioned it this way in 1931: “…the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”* Prophetic, considering the shadow of Nazi Germany brooding a continent away.
Buck’s words are such a clear echo of Jesus, who identifies with the vulnerable in Matthew 25:31–46 when he says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” What we must reckon with today in our generation is not just what society we will be, but more importantly what is creating our picture of the ideal society.
Some say justice. Yet, the abortion debate has been framed as a justice conversation on either side. Pro-choice advocates can hold MLK Jr.’s sword just as pro-life advocates can, that “a threat to justice here (in the uterus) is a threat to justice everywhere.” Again, what we are fundamentally disagreeing on is where collective good (even survival) outweighs individual freedom.
You enter a society the moment your life depends in some measure on another person. Did you make the clothes on your back? The car you drive? Are any of us truly self-sustaining? Society requires cooperation, and it doesn’t require a choice. The first society you or I were ever a part of was in the womb. If our society refuses to protect this first society, we have chosen to forfeit the togetherness which gives us strength for the future.
The only way we can deny this basic scientific reality is to redefine it. Modern society creates the illusion of autonomy, but the simple reality is that we are made to be together. Our survival depends on it.
There has never been a point where my individual rights are able to be absolutely realized over and above others, that’s the cost of society and also the strength of togetherness. We’re also made to function that way, as human beings together. Cal Newport, in his book Digital Minimalism, concludes “we are not wired to be not wired [to each other].”
I think the Christian Scriptures are incredibly realistic, that’s one of the reasons that feeds my faith in Jesus. I believe at the end of a discussion on our shared humanity is Jesus who gave us that longing in the first place. The Scriptures give full glimpses of human devastation while also ushering in a vision of human flourishing through the death & resurrection of Jesus, one in which both the individual’s needs and society’s design are fulfilled. Imagine that, a satisfied heart and hearts, all in view of Jesus.
Revelation 7:9 pictures this individual and societal flourishing under the risen Jesus: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Does our world look like this? No. Will it? Faith and hope leads me to say, “yes” — because the tomb of Jesus is empty. Human flourishing is nothing to a King that dealt death itself a decisive blow. I believe the unborn are born again into this new and great society. In the here and now, every human being next to you needs love, grace, and courage today. It’s true, legislation doesn’t change hearts. But for our society, it can protect them and perhaps give us collective space to consider what a good society really is.
*This quote is wrongly attributed to Ghandi. Pearl S. Buck is responsible for it. She was a novelist & the first American female to win the Nobel prize for Literature. The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China, she was known for her advocacy of women’s rights and mixed-raced adoption. See: https://www.english.upenn.edu/Projects/Buck/biography.html