Sunday, January 22, 2012

Musings on Being Pro-Life

I was working on my last speech for my senior-year public speaking class, a stack of books beside me, determined to prove that gay marriage should be legalized on a federal level.  In sharp contrast to my politically liberal project, the student using the computer adjacent to mine was researching pro-life arguments, a pet theme of political conservatives (especially those here at Cedarville).

The image burned into my brain, the two of us on such opposite sides of the political spectrum, and I wrote angrily in my journal:  conservatives will fight so rabidly for protection when it pertains to unborn children, but once you leave the womb, you’d better not turn out to be gay or they will fight just as hard to keep you from equal protection under the law.”

I have been exposed to a good deal of writing and rhetoric from pro-lifers.  In the abstract, without all the political brouhaha usually connected with the term, I would say that I am pro-life.  I love life – human life, animal life, plant life, just about every type of life there is. And I’m not just for quantity of life, I’m for quality of life too.  I am for the very best life possible for everyone.  It’s just too bad that hardcore conservatives have hijacked the term “pro-life” and attached it to their narrowly defined crusade against abortion (and, at times, against family planning in general).

If I were to offer suggestions for the improvement and development of the pro-life stance, I would offer the following:

1)   Instruction on safe sex should be part of the pro-life agenda.  Many religious pro-lifers would prefer every person on earth to abstain from sexual activity until marriage.  That’s a personal  commitment tied to spiritual belief, and it cannot be required or imposed on others.  It’s a fact that many teenagers (even committed Christian teenagers) are sexually active.  Access to safe and uncostly birth control methods, accurate knowledge of proper use, and guaranteed privacy about safe sex choices could greatly decrease the amount of unplanned pregnancy among teenagers and adults alike.  Safe-sex education programs include education on abstinence as well as various methods of birth control and STD prevention.  Pro-lifers should be able to partner with pro-choicers in the fight for educating teenagers on safe sex.  We cannot expect that most teenagers will choose abstinence, but we can expect that most teenagers will choose safety over the risk, expense, and stigma of teenage parenthood or abortion.  And safe sex habits begun in teenagerhood lay a foundation for safe choices as an adult.

2) I am glad that so many pro-lifers find that their spiritual beliefs inform their political opinions.  However, the connections between spiritual belief and political opinions can be so overdrawn that other people of faith feel that they are being attacked if they do not hold the same political opinions.  Also, some of these pro-lifers will turn the conversation into a religious argument rather than a political argument, an approach which is not helpful at all.  Don’t misunderstand me – I think it’s okay to say “my belief in the teachings of Jesus lead me to believe that abortion is wrong.”  It’s not okay to say, “God has revealed that you are going to hell because you want first-trimester abortion to be legal.”  Radicalizing the conversation in this way leads to uncharitable dispute and advances no-one’s political agenda.  Also, it makes pro-lifers look a little crazy.  So please, stop dragging religion into the discussion.  America is not and never will be “founded on the Bible,” thus the Bible is not relevant to a discussion of Roe v. Wade.

3) In general I really, really wish that pro-lifers would approach politics with a more holistic viewpoint.  I am especially addressing Christian pro-lifers here.  I have heard so many Christians talk as though abortion and gay marriage (opposing both, that is) are the only two issues that matter.  What about education? What about labor? What about the environment?  What about corporations?  What about women’s rights? What about equality in general?  There’s so much more to politics than the classically conservative hot-button issues.  And each one of these issues allows for voting pro-life.  Not pro-quantity-of-life, necessarily, but pro-quality-of-life.  Pro-love, pro-justice, pro-peace, pro-any other virtue you can think of.

I am pro-life, I suppose, in that I hope for pregnancies to end in the delivery of a human being into this world instead of premature termination.  Making abortion illegal, however, will not stop it from occurring.  It will only make it more dangerous and risky when it does occur.  And at this point I think making abortion illegal is impossible, anyway.  But I hope it becomes more and more rare, that people will choose to have safer sex in the first place and choose adoption or parenthood over abortion.  But this is not a single flag that I wave in the air, challenging any and all comers to duel me over every particular.  Rather it is just one piece of the puzzle, a part of my overall worldview.  It’s right next to my belief in women’s rights, gay rights, the value of multiculturalism, the importance of interacting responsibly with our planet, my skepticism about the values of the corporate machine, my vegetarianism, and a whole pile of other viewpoints, beliefs, and values.  I want my political views to affirm the whole spectrum of human life, along with all the other types of life found on our planet.  This makes it impossible to pigeon-hole me into any particular political party, but that’s okay.

I know a lot of you will disagree with parts of what I have said here, and that’s okay too – a real democracy values dissent.  Feel free to comment.  The more voices that join a discourse, the better, especially if they can do so charitably.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Abuse of Religion, Part 2

In my last post I wrote about people who abuse religion by using it as an escape from real life and an excuse to not deal with their problems.  But that’s not the only way people abuse religion.  There’s another kind of abuse which I have seen almost as often: people abuse religion to gain power for themselves, to manipulate other people, and to sanction their judgmental attitudes.

I am always troubled when people in positions of authority spend a long time and a lot of Bible verses proving that they should be obeyed and respected.  This is one sure-fire sign of an abuse occurring.  Real leaders behave in such a way that most people do respect them and are willing to follow their lead.  And real Christian leaders have enough humility, grace, and general Christ-likeness that they are willing to go without the benefits of a leadership position rather than bully people into giving them those benefits.  When a leader has to remind you constantly that he (or she, though “she’s” in Christian leadership are still very rare) is in a position of authority, you start wondering whether they just like the power trip that position gives them.

Christianity centers around Jesus, who gave up his divine power and forewent the authority he could have summoned in order to humbly accomplish his mission of redemption.  On several occasions he was in a position to be made king, yet he chose every day to be a servant instead.  Every single person who uses Christianity to gain power for themselves, to bolster their position of authority, is spitting on the name of the God who chose to be humbled to the point of death.

Closely related to this first subtype of abuse is the second, manipulation.  Those who use religion to manipulate others often sound better than the power-grabbers, because they tack on holy-sounding phrases like, “this is what God wants you to do.”  But in the end they are still using religion to gain power over someone else.

Manipulators often have their one set idea of what a Christian life looks like.  They then summon all the persuasive force inherent in religion to get those around them to conform to their ideal lifestyle.  “God is not happy with you when you watch violent movies,” they will say, or, “if you persistently continue [doing something I’m not a fan of] you will be cast into everlasting darkness.”  They are deeply concerned for your spiritual well-being when you step off their narrow path.

There is difficulty in discerning the difference between manipulators and people who sincerely have your best interests at heart.  The really sad part is, some manipulators are no longer aware that they are being manipulative and really do think they have your best interests at heart.  Many manipulators are parents who are convinced that by using this manipulation they are raising their children correctly.  But at bottom, whatever the motivation, manipulators are abusing religion by using it to support their own constructed way of righteousness.

Finally, there are those who use religion to sanction their own judgmental attitudes.  This category is very often blurred into the manipulators category.  It’s fine to judge others, these people think, as long as it’s God’s standards I’m judging them by.

Yes, and as I write about this category I feel a little stab of conviction because in this case there are definitely three fingers pointing back at me.  I find it so easy to start judging people as soon as I’m convinced that I’m judging them to some purpose.  “it’s okay to judge people who are racist and sexist,” I might think to myself.  Or, “I only judge people who are judging other people!”  Which is actually not true, sad to say.  There’s this cool verse in Matthew where Jesus goes, “Judge not.”  Just that.  He doesn’t say, “judge not unless they’re wealthy elitist capitalist fat-cats oppressing the 99%.”  Or any one of the other varieties of judging I find myself likely to fall into.  Bottom line, do not condemn other people.  It’s just that simple.

I thought I was writing these posts about “people out there who abuse religion.”  I turned on the spotlight and scanned the crowd, and I found that front-and-center was my own familiar face.  I hope that I am changing for the better, but I still too often abuse my faith.  Forgive me, and let’s move together away from these things which only wound.  Jesus died to give the world healing, and wholeness, and all that is the opposite of abuse.  Regardless of what I and others do in his name, he still wants to reconcile everything and everyone to himself, to the fullness of all the best that we are supposed to be.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Abuse of Religion, Part 1

The media explodes every time a scandal pops up about some well-known religious figure.  Whether it's embezzlement or sexual abuse, everyone stops for a moment in stunned silence when someone who was supposed to be a spiritual leader is exposed as a self-serving fraud.

But there is a deep, persistent abuse of religion which rarely receives any attention, which doesn't stop us in our tracks, which goes on every single day.  Scandals may turn away some, especially from certain forms of organized religion, but this kind of abuse turns away many from even the simplest form of faith.

I'm talking about people who use religion in a way it was never meant to be used - as escapism, as an excuse to remain ignorant and irresponsible.

I often hear Christians speak as though their faith makes everything automatically all right.  I understand where they're coming from - I thought this way too for a long time.  The train of thought goes something like this: "Yes, this particular matter is troublesome, even heartbreaking, but I am rising above these negative emotions.  This book I've been reading has many biblical passages arranged into a solid argument as to how God is in control of everything and everything is turning out for good.  Therefore, this situation is not really bad at all and I only have to keep smiling and see the good in it."  I used trains of thought like this to defend myself against the pain of loved ones dying, against the doubt that accompanies knowledge of great evil and suffering in the world, and against the suspicion that my view of "God's chosen" was probably too narrow.

The problem is, when I relied on other peoples' reasoning and out-of-context Bible verses to escape the normal emotions and questions that we as human beings face on a regular basis, I essentially was using Christianity as a shield against the painful process of maturity.  No teenager should feel guilty for grieving at the death of her grandmother, yet I did because clearly there were verses in the Bible that said everything works together for good.  So why was I sinfully doubting God's goodness?  Instead of dealing with life circumstances, I reasoned them away by forcing them into pigeon-holes I had created (or had been created for my) based on faulty religious reasoning.

When I began to study philosophy in college, I began to notice more and more that the nice handy little Christian phrases people like to use are often nothing more than laziness.  There is nothing like a good Christian phrase to short-circuit an intellectual discussion.  "God has this under control" means "I'm planning to be irresponsible about this."  "God said..." means "A lot of good Christian people think this and I don't have the time to go investigate for myself" (used most often in debates about gay marriage).

Please don't hear me wrong.  There are many Christians who are mature and responsible people, actively engaging in their lives rather than trying to escape from them.  These people usually have come to terms with the fact that not everything is clearcut, that no one person has all the answers (themselves included), and that they must come to terms with their lives for themselves rather than regurgitating arguments someone else wrote in some appropriately spiritual-sounding book.  The immature, irresponsible escapist contingent are abusing religion, they are not automatically made immature, irresponsible escapists by being religious.

This is a real world we live in.  We just finished celebrating Christmas which is really a celebration of Jesus coming down to this real world and living a real life with all of its ins and outs, all of its scary emotions and grayscale situations.  Christianity should not be about some Victorian-era dream of shedding this earth and achieving mystical peace in a land of rose-tinted clouds and baby-like cherubs.  It is about here and now.  Trying to escape will only stunt my character and in the end shortchange me on life, because this life was meant to be lived, fully and unapologetically, with tears as well as joy.  I have to learn to be okay with questions and with tension.

I used to say, "I just can't wait for Jesus to come back."  I thought if only he returned to earth tomorrow, all of my problems would disappear and I would be happy forever.  But if I don't see Jesus in the day-to-day grind of life, how would I expect to recognize him when he appeared in person?

No-one's ever going to write a headline news article about the abuse of religion by using it as a means of escape, but it's a scandal nonetheless, and its results are poisonous.  Escapists frequently wonder why their children "get out into the world" and then stop going to church.  It could be because the discovery of real life is incompatible with escapist religion, and thankfully many of my generation have finally figured that out.