Thursday, March 20, 2008

Doesn't Faith Matter?

It seems to me that the news story about Martha Clark, the new general counsel for the PC(USA), illustrates a concern many of us share: Is this denomination just one more corporation, no different in practice and vision than just any old secular business?

Let me interject that I don’t know Martha Clark and have no bone to pick concerning her promotion. She sounds legally qualified and competent, and the search appeared to be thorough. I wish her well.

However, in reporting about Clark’s promotion, the news story reads no differently than if it were talking about a promotion at secular Humana, just down the street in Louisville, where Clark once worked. What do we learn of Clark’s spiritual competence for church leadership? Nothing. Does she believe? Does it matter? What do we find out about her theology of the intersection of secular law and Christian practice? Nothing from this news report.

What does Clark bring to the job? Experience, we’re told. Does she bring faith or congruence with our church purposes? We don’t know. She may well be spiritually mature and a pillar of her church, but we wouldn’t know it from this report, nor would we know if such qualifications were even considered germane to the search. Maybe they weren’t. Linda Valentine didn’t mention anything about spiritual qualifications for Clark.

Is this just another job for Clark, or is it a calling by God to a Christian vocation, a significant leadership ministry in a self-consciously Christian organization? We don’t know. Apparently such information is not important for such a news story, or maybe not important for such a staffing decision. But I can’t help but think that it should be.

The previous general counsel, Erik Graninger, came under fire for his harsh, take-no-prisoners contribution to the “Louisville Papers,” the legal briefs that counsel extremely aggressive and contentious tactics for presbyteries to grab the property of transferring congregations. Thus, the attitude and tactics of the general counsel do have bearing in this ostensibly Christian organization. An attorney who sees her calling to be pastoral as well as legal would probably operate with a different set of practices than one who makes it her job only to fiercely contend for worldly goods and power for the corporation.

I hope we have a new denominational general counsel who prays about her decisions, who looks to the good of the Body of Christ and not only to the secular ambitions of an institution, who seeks to live by Christian guidance and principles as she practices law with excellence, and who sees herself in a role of Christian responsibility and leadership. I hope this isn’t just a nice promotion, like one might get at Humana or any other corporation.

I can hope, but I don’t know, because the news story gives us no clue about the spiritual side of this decision. That, to me, seems odd, for a church.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Two Minds on Abortion ... Rights

My good friend and colleague Alan Wisdom and I agree in essence about abortion. We are, however, in friendly disagreement on the use of the phrase "abortion rights." Here are the two viewpoints in a point-counterpoint format. I'll start with my viewpoint and then give Alan the opportunity to bat cleanup.

Jim says: Abortion is a violent noun, not a handy adjective

I suggest that all who oppose abortion hereby swear off use of the phrase "abortion rights."

Abortion is a violent noun that stands in stark ugliness by itself. An abortion aborts—violently ends—a life that God intended to continue. Abortion is not an adjective, handy for political and rhetorical purposes to modify a so-called right that was created ex nihilo by the Supreme Court’s social engineering.

Using “abortion rights” in writings and speech implies that there is a right to abort a baby. Thus, it also implies that anyone opposing abortion is proposing taking away a fundamental right, such as freedom of speech or freedom of religion.

The widespread use of the phrase “abortion rights” by abortion friend and foe alike is one of the public-relations triumphs of the last century. The pro-abortion forces have cleverly gotten everyone to apparently concede that there is such a right, simply by making the phrase "abortion rights" the ubiquitous term used whenever people refer to the subject.

If you would do a word-association test with random people, my guess is that if you said "abortion," a large percentage of people would produce "rights" as the first word that comes to their mind. Abortion being a right becomes indelibly implanted in people's minds, simply by the repetitive use of the phrase "abortion rights."

I consider the PR coup akin to getting people to attach "dignity" to "incest," so that every time the subject of incest is brought up, people would talk about being for or against "incest dignity." Or how about "genocide privilege" rather than just genocide, so conscientious Christians would be working to revoke the "genocide privilege"?

Morally and biblically speaking, there is no right to abort—to kill—one’s children. For the past relatively few years, the Supreme Court has propagated such a made-up "right," but I find it impossible to concede that taking an innocent baby's life in the womb is a fundamental human right.

If the unfettered permission to abort one’s offspring is bogus, no "right" at all, then let's not buy into the language that automatically terms it a right and concedes a prime point to the pro-choice crowd merely by the framing of the language. Let's discuss abortion, rather than abortion rights. Let’s oppose abortion, not abortion rights. In measures before our church bodies, let’s work to end abortion, not abortion rights.

The naked term “abortion” is so much more appropriate than the now-ubiquitous “abortion rights.”

I have no desire to run around stripping rights from people. If I am said to be opposing "abortion rights," then the main thing is that I'm ostensibly opposing some right, and it's only secondary that the so-called right I'm opposing is the "right" to abort one's children. But I am serious about disallowing not legitimate rights, but rather abortion, which is not a right but a sinful tragedy.

So all you folks out there who also oppose abortion: Why not eliminate the bogus “rights” from “abortion rights” in your speaking and writing, and simply use the stark, ugly term “abortion” from now on? After all, there’s nothing right about abortion.

Alan says: Make them use the word abortion in their preferred phrase

I agree with my colleague Jim that we need to use the word “abortion” to remind people what’s at stake in this debate. But I believe that “abortion rights” is a useful phrase precisely because it contains that word “abortion”—the word that its proponents take great pains to avoid. (Remember how the “National Abortion Rights Action League” became “NARAL Pro-Choice America”?)

“Abortion rights” captures exactly what is at issue. Is abortion a right or is it not? Jim and I believe it is not a right. Therefore we are against “abortion rights.” Those on the other side believe that killing your unborn child is a constitutional right. Therefore they favor “abortion rights.” And they admit it when they agree to use that phrase to describe their position.

It is so important to have an agreed terminology that is honest and accurate, because we are talking about an act that makes even hardened consciences flinch a bit. That’s why those on the other side of the debate prefer to call themselves “pro-choice”—a phrase that obscures the issue by failing to specify the “choice” that confronts us. It’s also why they don’t want mothers and fathers dealing with problem pregnancies to look at ultra-sound images of their babies. As we all know from personal experience, guilty consciences strive mightily to avoid a straightforward consideration of the evil that they have done or plan to do.

The challenge for “pro-life” people is to find ways to prick the consciences of our fellow citizens, trusting that the God who gave them those consciences will do the convicting and convincing by his Holy Spirit. We must know that we cannot argue them into repentance by the force of our strong rhetoric. The purpose of our words must therefore be more modest and subtle: to cause our fellow citizens to examine their own consciences, to look into the mirror at what they are doing and advocating.

Many of the best efforts of the pro-life movement—the silent vigils outside abortion clinics, the billboards offering help in finding alternatives to abortion, the films with ultra-sound imagery, the legislation banning partial-birth abortion—have had this effect of pricking consciences. And recent polls suggest that some minds and hearts have been changing, especially among the young.

In this regard, however, the public shouting matches between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” people are not always helpful. The two sides often talk past one another rather than to one another. There is no common language that centers the discussion on a common concern. Neither side accepts the other’s self-designation. “Pro-choicers” would never agree that we are truly “pro-life.” (If we disagree with the liberal agenda on any issue ranging from the death penalty to welfare reform to Iraq, the “pro-life” label is dismissed with a sneer.) Nor would we grant that they merit the name “pro-choice.”

Even greater offense is taken at each side’s descriptions of the other. We don’t like being called “anti-choice,” when we have expended so much effort in offering better choices to those facing problem pregnancies. Likewise, the “pro-choicers” resent being called “pro-abortion.” Most of them deny that they believe abortion is a good thing to be encouraged. At least some of them are credible in making that denial. (Those who favor taxpayer subsidies for abortions, or forcing health care plans to cover abortions, or forcing health care providers to refer patients for abortions, or forcing pharmacists to dispense abortifacient drugs, are not credible in their denials. These folks are promoting abortions, and they can properly be called “pro-abortion.”)

The result is that each side perceives the other’s rhetoric as a hash of unjust accusations. They do not give a moment’s consideration to the accusations. Instead they reject them instantly and respond with a quick barrage of counter-accusations. This is not a debate that’s going anywhere. And, most seriously, it’s not a debate that’s likely to prick many consciences.

This is the point at which the phrase “abortion rights” can play a helpful role. The proponents of those “rights” accept the phrase as an accurate description of their position. The mainstream media—overwhelmingly favorable to that cause—also accept that phrase. And I am willing to accept it, as long as I am free to use other similar phrases (“those who exalt killing unborn children as a constitutional right”) that amplify the meaning.

This phrase gives us a framework for a debate that has at least a chance of engaging the real issue and thereby troubling some consciences. Any phrase that might induce the “pro-choicers” to acknowledge the reality of the “choice” that they are championing is a step in the right direction. Of course, they will probably prefer to say “abortion RIGHTS.” But we can emphasize that it’s ABORTION that they want to make a right.

The fact that they would turn something so manifestly evil—something that, in the most honest “pro-choice” arguments, is merely defended as a “necessary evil”—into a sacred right on a par with free speech and habeas corpus, shows how far they have twisted their consciences. Facing this fact may help a few of those consciences snap back in the right direction.

Of course, our argument against abortion rights is part of a larger necessary argument against the excesses of rights talk. Western societies have gone way too far in defining any desired good as an inalienable “right.” So we may need to raise an eyebrow and add a quizzical inflection to our voices as we say “abortion rights”—in the same way that we must cast doubt upon “gay rights,” “ordination rights,” “left-handed transvestite rights to use whichever bathroom they want,” and the like.

It also should be noted that talking about “abortion rights” can be a kind of jujitsu move, where we let the other side choose a label and then pin the new label on them, demonstrating that it still refers to the same ugly reality that the old label did. I think this is why the left keeps shifting its politically correct terminology so frequently—all the old “liberals” now want to be called “progressives”—because it can’t handle the underlying realities. So we just need to keep after them and remind them that “you can run but you can’t hide” from your conscience.

Et vous?
There you have it. So what do you think? Add your comments, and be sure to sign your full name, city, and state at the end.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Berkley's Theorem

When I was a young pastor, I came up with Berkley’s Theorem: “It’s a foul idea when the turkeys agree with you.”

I mostly kept it to myself. I didn't go running around calling people turkeys. But by the theorem, I meant that some people have their thinking completely lopsided, such as not wanting such an emphasis on God in worship, or on the Bible in preaching. Operating from outside Christian faith and devotion, they just don’t know what is good and acceptable and perfect.

When you run into people like that, you really don't want them agreeing with you. If they agreed with you and thought you were just ducky, there would be something terribly wrong with what you are doing! So their opposition is a good sign. You must be doing something right.

In a similar manner, it seems to me that John Shuck is giving me a high form of praise when he so sourly thinks he’s slamming me. I don’t want to be someone doing what he could commend. It would be all wrong.

If you look carefully at his recent blog posting in response to mine, the very things he thinks are terrible indictments against me are stands I’m proud to take: I'm opposed to homosexual practice, I'm against abortion, I don't think a Presbyterian missionary ought to lie her way through an interview, and so on. He thinks that in quoting me, it becomes self-evident what a dastardly person I must be; I think the quotations for the most part represent well the standards I try to uphold.

Shuck reads like someone noting that a particular leader is compassionate, honest, caring, and truthful—and isn’t that just awful! However, when I interpret John Shuck in the same way as I would Screwtape, everything makes sense again.

When you read The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, you have to keep remembering that everything Screwtape considers horrible is excellent, and everything he thinks is wonderful is horrendous. God is "the Enemy" to Screwtape. Sin is delicious, and righteousness is to be avoided at all costs.

When I keep a Screwtape orientation in my mind when I read Shuck, everything does make sense again. His "indictments" of me, I consider high praise.