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Segregated Sundays

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“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
—Ephesians 2:14

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
—Galatians 3:28

Why are our churches so segregated? Not just by race, although that is bad enough, but by political affinity? The early church was made up of people from all walks of life. There were rich widows and poor layabouts. There were Greeks, Jews, and barbarians. There were slaves and slave owners. There were young and old, rich and poor, male and female, smart and stupid, tall and short, native and alien, slave and free, extroverts and introverts, dark-skinned and light-skinned all in the same church. They had arguments and offenses and jealousies and lawsuits, but they still met together and worshiped together. Could it be that we have missed some central, unifying truth in the gospel?

I met Marv Sauers in 2006 a couple of years before he died. He was 80. He had been a pipeline technician (or engineer, I’m not sure what his job would be today) in northern Minnesota. He fought in World War II. He grew his own tomatoes and shared them with friends. (He grew and shared zucchini too, but—let’s face it—everyone who grows zucchini shares it.) We attended the same church, a nondenominational evangelical church near Hastings, Minnesota. He used to say that he was their token Democrat. When he died the church lost a little of its diversity. It became even more Republican.

I understand the need for a Credo. Without a statement of belief spelling out exactly what we stand for, the church could become a social club, standing for goodness in some unspecified way. Yet somewhere along the way being Republican has become a tacit tenet of evangelical faith. Why? It comes down to just one issue: abortion. Republicans are against it, and Democrats are for it. For many evangelical Christians, abortion is non-negotiable. If you are for it, it is like being for serial murder: you don’t deserve a voice in civil discourse about anything else. How can you vote for someone who favors killing babies just because they haven’t been born yet?

Yet there are plenty of liberal Christians who are also Democrats. They are brothers and sisters too. Some favor abortion—not, of course, because they favor killing babies—because they favor women’s autonomy. They see a world that wants to make childbearing the defining characteristic of women and use that characteristic to exclude them from full participation in other areas of life. Abortion may be an imperfect solution, but it is a solution within the control of the woman, and they favor letting a woman control her own destiny rather than letting others control it who do not have to bear the consequences of their decision. For liberal Christians, abortion is not a litmus test in the same way that it is for conservative Christians. It is one issue among many, not the one issue that defines a candidate’s—or a party’s—character. (It is plain, however, that a Democrat who opposed abortion would have as tough a time getting elected as a Republican who favored it. As with so many issues that divide America at present, there seems to be no middle ground, no room for imagining that those who disagree with you might have the best of motives instead of the worst.)

Our churches are as politically segregated as they are racially segregated. The same is true of economic class and, basically, any indicator by which we commonly self-segregate. The church is just like the world. The only difference seems to be that the Christians think they are better.

The reasons for this self-segregation are partly technological. In the first century, if you wanted to go somewhere, you walked. Everyone walked to synagogue. Everyone walked to church. Everyone walked to hear the latest theories discussed in the marketplace. If you went to church at all, you went to one that was nearby. For the same reason, people were more connected to their neighbors and communities. The people you lived near were the people with whom you worked, talked, celebrated, and worshiped. You were forced to get along with people who did not share your views. Our technology has made it possible to go to a church miles from where we live where the people are as like us as possible. Unless we deliberately seek out people who differ from us, we quite naturally drift into insular relationships that never challenge our prejudices about anything. Our churches even become adept at excluding difference merely by being unwelcoming to those who are not like us. This makes it possible to go to a church where you never encounter a dissenting political view to say nothing of different theological or philosophical views. We can go to a church where there are no feminists and talk about feminism as if it were hell’s agenda. Meanwhile across town a church of feminists is meeting and discussing how patriarchy is pure evil.

Somehow—and it can only be by conscious, deliberate effort—we have got to get out of our cocoons. We have got to accept that everyone who loves Jesus, no matter their theology or political party, is part of the family of God. I’m not suggesting we should not fight. Let’s fight among ourselves. Let’s bring to bear our best arguments and our strongest defenses. But let’s fight like brothers and sisters who love one another, not like warring camps who hate one another. Let’s open our minds and hearts to one another and learn that we might just possibly be wrong about some things.

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Choose Life

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In February of 2013 my son’s wife, Sarah, was diagnosed with a rare brain disorder called moyamoya. In an instant their world—their plans for the future, what they had considered “normal”—was overturned. Chad faced the prospect of having a wife with a permanent disability, perhaps even of having a wife who would require constant care. The prognosis is actually much better, and Sarah has mostly recovered, slowly but with great spirit and determination. But in those first few days when Chad was learning all he could about the disease, he had to consider worst-case scenarios, and sad as it would be to lose Sarah, that was not the worst case.

We humans are a feisty lot. We cling to life and hope. Our hero stories are about people who don’t give up, who may be beaten but never surrender. We all want to be Rocky Balboa—indomitable even in defeat. Of course, there is a dark side to this pluck. It can quickly slide into individual hubris, defiance, stiff-necked rebellion. Our worst qualities are our greatest talents gone awry. But let us consider only the bright side. We admire courage not because it is useful or efficient but because it is good. Courage is life-sustaining and hope-building. It takes courage to face a future that includes moyamoya. In fact, it takes courage to face any future, because no matter how we may try to minimize the risks, every future includes them.

When Chad proposed to Sarah, neither of them knew about moyamoya, not even that there was such a disease. If Chad had known, perhaps he would not have proposed. If Sarah had known, perhaps she would not have accepted. Such hypothetical ruminations are pointless, to be sure, but they expose our vulnerability. We cannot know what will happen in the future. In fact, knowing might paralyze us. We can only make choices at every turn that we hope will further our happiness. This might seem like unremitting selfishness, and it would be if our own happiness could only be secured at everyone else’s expense. But even when we make sacrifices for those we love, we do so knowing that to choose otherwise would bring us misery, not happiness.

I want to be clear about this from the outset: Everyone makes choices they think will make them happy. No one deliberately chooses misery and despair over happiness and hope. In fact, it is hope that often misleads us into making unwise choices. We go for some short-term gain, perhaps aware of the long-term consequences, but hoping they can somehow be averted. The whole credit card industry is built on this “buy now, pay later” concept, and huge sums of money are spent every year urging us to indulge ourselves now. It seems freeing at first, but it can turn into a terrible slavery.

In the same way, I don’t think any pregnant woman wants to have an abortion. Clearly, if abortion were something to be desired for its own sake, then women would get pregnant for no other reason than to have one. Rather, abortion seems like the best choice under the circumstances. Maybe the mother is too young for motherhood. Maybe the father forced himself on her. Maybe the pregnancy comes at a bad time for her education or career. Whatever the reason, she finds herself pregnant and not wanting a child now. Despite nearly 40 million abortions since 1973, the number of live births per woman has hardly budged. It’s not that women no longer want children. It’s that they want them on their own terms: when they feel ready for them. And we have the medical technology to make that happen. A woman who gets pregnant when she wants a child, when she has a caring and supportive partner, when she is part of a community that will help her with all the decisions and changes that having a child entails, is in a far different situation than a woman alone, feeling scared and vulnerable and not knowing what to do or where to turn for help. By  choosing abortion, women gain control over the most inconvenient aspect of childbearing: the when.

This control, however, comes at a great cost. It costs the father any say in whether his own son or daughter lives or dies. It costs the woman guilt and hardness of heart. It costs society indifference toward its most weak and vulnerable members. It costs the child its life.

The cultural battle over abortion has become so polarizing and polarized that it is virtually impossible to discuss it with civility. On one hand are staunch defenders of women’s rights infuriated that anyone should tell them what they can and can’t do with their own bodies. On the other hand are abortion opponents who see abortion as the moral equivalent of murder—killing for personal convenience. There seems to be no middle ground for compromise or debate.

I have friends on both sides of the issue. I’m sure many others do as well. I tend to keep quiet about my own convictions when the topic comes up. I do so partly to avoid strife and partly because I’m not sure my own position is unassailable. I have deep and real sympathy for those who regard abortion as a women’s rights issue. But I also regard the millions of unborn children whose lives were cut short to benefit someone else as an American holocaust, a tragic slaughter of innocents in which I and the rest of the American church are implicated. For what have we done to secure the rights that women ought to have?

It seems quaint nowadays, but I can remember when an out-of-wedlock pregnancy was a cause for real shame for a young woman, when she risked being cast off by her family for bringing disgrace on them. The stigma attached to unbridled sexual activity was real and shared by most middle-class Americans. Young women and girls would risk death to avoid it, and many who sinned lived in dread that their sins would be discovered. At the same time, men and boys, at least equally culpable in producing a pregnancy, could boast of it among their peers and feel no shame at all, or if they did, they covered it with bravado and coarse joking. Now the shame is not at having done something immoral but at having disregarded the many public cautions against unprotected sex, for sexual adventuring is now regarded as a normal and quite natural part of growing into adulthood. We now expect everyone to have had multiple experiences with various sexual partners before committing to marriage, and anyone who openly advocates for celibacy before marriage is regarded as a freak. Some cultural changes have been improvements; others have not.

Even today when so much has changed, the burden of pregnancy, birth, and having children falls disproportionately on women. Abortion empowers a woman to reject that burden until she is ready to carry it. She need not rely on her parents. She need not rely on a man. She can simply choose not to have a baby. All these same benefits, however, also apply to contraception. A woman who chooses contraception can usually avoid pregnancy altogether, and her decision does not claim the life of her baby. Of course, contraceptives also have a cost, and the Catholic church prohibits their use in recognition of that cost. But the cost is far lower than the cost of an abortion.

 

 

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