Thoughts from Fr. Marshall - All Saints Episcopal Church




I was listening to the radio in the car yesterday. It was an anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. I do not hesitate to say that I believe passionately in a woman's right to choose. I have always, however, known that the issue of abortion is not one of black and white, good and evil. It is an issue that, in my opinion, can only be looked at clearly by considering the context of the very complex set of circumstances that form and deform the way we live together in this culture at large and certainly within the Church.

I actually think that very, very few people inside the Church and or other religious establishments, or out for that matter, liberal or conservative, pro-life or pro choice are looking at the whole picture.

I believe that by and large we are very immature and confused about human sexuality. We are flat minded and actually do not understand how truly powerful and important sexuality is and so our responses to issues that arise on the subject are usually addressed in relatively shallow and reductionistic terms that often miss the most important and central truths of the situation. I believe this applies to almost all popularly taken positions.

Sexism, sex role expectations, sexual orientation, are all part of one mystery. All ethical and moral considerations that relate to our sexuality are by their very nature issues of community and collective identity. What concerns one or a minority must ultimately concern all and it is in the best interest of all that health and wholeness is made possible for every member of our society.

Abortion is no exception. The conception of a child and its birth are among the flowers of human sexuality. In order to reflect upon child conception and birth or the morality of interfering in this process we must understand the complexities of human sexuality in general and in the context of human community.

As the Book of Common prayer says in the wedding service, producing and nurturing children is a gift along with the fulfillment of the couple's mutual affection and the reaching out in love and concern for others that it should produce. This defines some of the larger context we need to examine.

The wedding service envisions relations confirmed by a solemn vow that will last and be healthy and strong. In this context we will bring children into the world and raise and nurture them. This is one ideal. Perhaps there are others of equal value.

Of course, the above ideal represents the lived experience of fewer and fewer of us and if the truth be known about our whole sexual histories, almost none of us. It never has. I suspect that at this point very few people are prepared to take solemn vows of marriage with much clarity or with mature judgment.

Sex role ideals and sex role expectations in our society often insist that we act in ways for which we are not suited nor prepared and actually have never meshed with the truth about how we live our lives. Those of us who did not or do not know this have available to us the overwhelming research evidence of Dr. Kinsey and many other researchers through the years.

We have not been living with an honest and truthful anthropology that reflects our true nature and behavior. The truth is not in us.

This fact of incongruence is no surprise nor is it a reason to abandon the ideal, but, it is cause for us to examine our foundational assumptions and to ask ourselves what we really know and deeply believe about human sexuality and human relationships. Are there a variety of possibilities all of which contain ideal potential? On what basis do we teach morality to our children and what standard do we as a society hold up for ourselves? What is the balance of autonomy and law that we should impose in response to issues arising from questions of human sexuality. Is coercion, legal and social, a loving or even a practical response to disagreement or confusion arising in this relationship we share as human community?

While I don't know or 'believe' much and while I have more questions than answers and therefore don't feel qualified to dictate morality to others with rigidity, I can actually speak from my own experiences. Certain general principals seem to me to be applicable.

The rule is the rule of love. How do we define love? In the Christian tradition, everything proceeds from the relationship, the Love, among the persons of the Blessed Trinity therefore everything proceeds from, is sustained by and is called back to Love--into the life and community of the Trinity.

How did we, in the Christian tradition, get from that to the shame and guilt version of morality that is our stock and trade?

How did the message and invitation into the life of Love and Grace--how did it get reduced to a bunch of politicized  and often angry, condemning and hateful issues and rules?

I'll cut to the chase, if we really loved with the love of the Trinity, in who's image we are all created, we would respect one another enough to listen to one another. We would examine our assumptions and listen humbly, especially when one of us is speaking from her or his own unique experience. Even after listening and still disagreeing, we would love and not condemn nor reject, punish, exclude nor judge.

In this context, that is in our failing to love with the Love of the Trinity, the polarized moral climate surrounding abortion looks more like a collective failure and therefore addressing it at its root becomes a collective responsibility based on the desire to build healthy relationships, not to legally dictate or judge.

Of course, the protection of children and a love for all life, including the unborn is part of our obligation. We must make working judgments in order to protect and to maintain a safe and peaceful society but this does not give us an excuse to disenfranchise or stop loving those who disagree with us.  We must respect their autonomy as far as possible and be willing to examine and not act from our prejudices when we extend acceptance, if not agreement. This applies even when we act legally to restrain our sisters and brothers for the protection of society and of those not able to protect themselves. It ends the punishment industry among other things.

While the unborn may indeed be seen as not able to protect themselves and fully deserving our societies protection, I believe the reality is more complex (actually, more foundational and in a sense simpler). I will address it by first asking, how do we teach morality to our children after they are born?

What would happen if we were to be honest and to teach sexual ethics to our children by teaching them to truly act lovingly. We would not teach them to deny the passion and pleasure touch and embrace can bring but we would teach them the responsibility of being truly loving before or when engaging sexually. We would not teach them to hide and deny their feelings or to feel such shame if their choice of partner does not meet with social approval that they may think their lives to be untenable. We would teach them not to be ashamed when they make a mistake but to lovingly learn from their mistakes in order to become stronger, wiser and more loving people.

In this kind of world the context in which we are discussing abortion would be radically changed. Our society would be one in which the birth of a child is always a cause of joy and not of shame even if the conception was not accomplished in the most responsible or loving way. Our society would be so truly committed to life and to love that no mother or father would ever have to worry about the support and nurture of their child. We would all share in the responsibility.

In my opinion, an abortion is never a happy nor an ideal response, except when the life of the mother is at risk, but until we mature into a truly loving society I frankly don't think legal coercion, nor harsh judgment and condemnation has any place in the discussion.

Respecting a woman's right to choose, even if we think the choice is wrong, is in a very real way a necessity brought about because of the hypocrisy of our false and unloving society and religion. Religious people in particular should look to the plank in their own eye first and help create a true environment of choice grounded in a recognition of our corporate responsibility as our brother's and sister's keepers.

Coercion would not be an option in any case. A profound respect one for another, a mutuality in relationship is foundational to true, Trinitarian love. What we can do is insure that we truly allow one another a sense of real choice. I believe that most people will make the loving one in a loving society.

So, I can hear the cynical, "yeah, like this is going to work!" Well, is what we are doing now working?

Love and light,
Lewis Marshall

2/14/2011 02:23:53 am

Thank you for this eloquent post, Lewis! It is a tall order to aspire to teach our children love as "love" is meant to exist, when many of us can't fathom "love" ourselves.... but that's the value in aspiring. In aspiring to be good teachers for our children we learn about ourselves and become good teachers for us, too.

Debby Harberson Ward
2/14/2011 08:46:23 am

Lewis, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject of abortion. I have always been wishy-washy on the topic. The gift of life is a treasure, yet I personally want the right to choose. Daily, I try to teach children about love. Daily, I have to wrap my mind around new concepts. Tolerance and acceptance of others has to be modeled and taught. That love comes in many forms must also be taught and modeled.
Enjoyed your making think more about my position on the topic.

2/14/2011 10:38:43 am

Jane and Debbie,

Thanks for the feedback. It makes me happy to know the two of you who are actively forming children for our common future.

Debie, Jane is a thoughtful mother of Jaden and Jane, Debbie has her own children I think and teaches grade school.

My feelings on the subject have always been that a woman must have the right to choose over her own body but it is a complex issue. The more I have thought about it the more I think the solution must be found at a different level and that the larger context of human sexuality and culturally held sex roles must be examined as must the very basis of our morality.

Thanks for reading my junk. I am honored!

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