Thursday, August 16, 2012

Apologetics toolbox: Abortion and the silence of Jesus

[Vice-President Joe] Biden is not wrong on gay and abortion, Jesus NEVER took a stand on either of these issues.  Jesus only talked about love and a belief in him, you people better take a deep look into yourselves because he is coming back soon and not loving your neighbor and not taking care of the poor and the less fortunate goes against everything my lord taught and if you do not do the same you spit on him and I would hate to be in your shoes.

This combox entry appeared in Carson Holloway’s piece, “Paul Ryan, Joe Biden and Liberal False Equivalence”, on  Of course, besides our anonymous troll’s factual error — that Jesus talked about much more than love and faith in him is easily demonstrable from the Gospels — s/he also commits an argument from Gospel silence.  Such arguments, as I’ve said before, can become ad ignorantiam fallacies unless the argument to be made from the silence is consistent with what came both before the Gospels (pre-Christian Judaism) and after the Gospels (the New Testament letters; the writings of the Church Fathers).

And yet, there are those who will insist that Jesus the Compassionate would have understood, and implicitly given his approval to, a woman’s desire to abort her unborn child … especially if she were young, poor and in some sense downtrodden.  Not only is this argument hard to sustain without Scriptural proof-texts, it perfectly illustrates why asking “What Would Jesus Do” is bad moral advice: it invites us to turn the Lord into a sock puppet telling us to do what we want to do anyway.

But there’s another factual error: properly speaking, we don’t know that Jesus said nothing about abortion.  “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).  “To [the apostles] he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God” (Ac 1:3).  Again, it’s a mistake to think that the New Testament is an exhaustive study of everything Jesus and the apostles taught; Saint Paul said that Scripture was “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17) … but he didn’t say Scripture was itself complete or sufficient.

There are, then, three different ways we can reasonably read Jesus’ “silence” concerning abortion:

1)        The subject didn’t come up.  Jesus didn’t come “to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17); that is, his mission was not to redefine sin but to make salvation possible for sinners.  So while he did at some points mention some common sins by way of reinforcing that they were (and still are) sins, he never went through a comprehensive list of “no-nos”, considering those of the Law to be sufficient background.
2)         The teaching was never recorded. Jesus did speak about abortion, but the Gospel redactors (assuming they weren’t the traditional authors) had no access to any traditions or source material that included it; either that, or they left out the teaching to keep the amount of material manageable.  Again, the Bible is not an omnibus catechism of the faith.
3)         Abortion was rare in first-century Judea.  Many mitzvoth of the Law protected all people without regard to sex, age or condition.  But the Law and the prophets speak with a special loathing for the worship of Molech, which involved child sacrifice, and for witches, who among their other distrusted practices produced abortifacients.[*]  And there was a mitzvah that penalized men for striking a woman hard enough to induce an abortion (Ex 21:22-25).  The Jews regarded children as blessings, and barrenness and sterility as misfortunes;[†] “Be fruitful and multiply” is still taught by the Orthodox not as a blessing but as a positive commandment, a mitzvah itself.  Given first-century Judaism’s “cult of purity”, with its strong emphasis on protecting the reproductive act, odds are most women who availed themselves of induced abortion were either already on the social margins — adulteresses and prostitutes — or feared social retribution for wrongful sexual liaisons.

The last argument is reinforced in the New Testament, as St. Paul mentions sorcery (pharmakeia) as one of the “works of the flesh” whose practitioners “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21); the Alpha and Omega tells St. John, “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (Rev 21:8).  Taking answers 1 and 3 together, it stands to reason that Jesus was more interested in addressing the behavior that led to undesired pregnancies by reclaiming these women for God:  “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. … I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:12-13).

Sometime between the composition of Galatians and that of Revelation another Christian work, The Didache, was written (ca. 70).  In it we find one of the first, if not the first, positive commandment against abortion in all of Western civilization: “The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (Didache 2).  The unknown author may have been the same person who wrote the letter attributed to St. Barnabas: “You shall not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shall you destroy it after it is born” (Letter of Barnabas 19).

St. Athenagoras, addressing co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, refuting the charge that Christians are murderers:

Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you?  But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles.  How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?  And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder?  For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it (A Plea for the Christians 35; bold font mine).

And Tertullian gleefully tears apart the false oak-and-acorn distinction between unborn and newborn:

How many, think you, of those crowding around and gaping for Christian blood,— how many even of your rulers, notable for their justice to you and for their severe measures against us, may I charge in their own consciences with the sin of putting their offspring to death? … In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the foetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance.  To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.  That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed (Apology 9:8; bold type mine).

Since the Christian teaching against abortion appears almost right at the beginning, it’s almost impossible to presume that Jesus and the apostles taught anything different, or that the Judaism from which Christianity sprang held it to be morally neutral.[‡]  For that reason, the argument that “Jesus/the Bible doesn’t say anything about abortion” won’t wash: Scripture is not the “sole infallible rule of faith”, and never was.

The sad fact is that abortion isn’t compassionate.  Rather, at best it’s moral cowardice, an attempt to sidestep the tough choices at both the individual and social levels and try to get social justice “on the cheap”.  It leaves the poor woman still destitute, the rape victim still outraged, and the incest victim still in the clutch of her abuser, while scarring the bodies and minds of them and countless other women. At worst, it’s the worship of Molech all over again, under the guise of Physical Autonomy and Sexual Freedom.

Bottom line: While not directly taught in Scripture, the Christian position against abortion is as old as Christianity itself, and is most likely directly rooted not only in the teachings of the apostles but in the Holy Spirit of God, who considers child sacrifice a defilation of His sanctuary and a profanation of His holy Name (Lev 20:3).

[*] See for examples Ex 22:18; Lev 18:21, 20:2-6; Dt 18:9-13; I Kgs 11:7-13; II Kgs 23:10; Is 57:3-9; Jer 32:35.
[†] See for examples Dt 7:13-14; Ex 23:25-26, Ps 127:3-5.
[‡] I’m not entirely certain what modern Judaism teaches on the matter.  I do know that Orthodox and Hasidic groups show up at pro-life marches.