Christian Ethics, War, and Abortion
Sixth Sunday after Easter
John 14: 23-29
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
26 May 2019
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength and Our Redeemer. Amen.
“Those who love me, will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them,” says John 14 verse 23. More literally the verse can be translated, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” Jesus is telling us that obedience issues from love. One might infer Jesus to be saying also, “If anyone doesn’t love me, he won’t keep my word.” Disobedience issues from the absence of love.
What we learn from, “If any one loves me, he will keep my word,” is that the Christian moral life is not just about following Jesus teachings, commandments, or rules in themselves, but rather that our obedience to Jesus’ Word springs from our relationship with him. If we have a deep and abiding relationship with Christ, where we let Christ love us first so we know how to love him back, then following his Word and his teaching will be a natural outgrowth of that relationship. Our obedience to the Word of God is a form of love and is an outward and visible demonstration of that love. Our disobedience to Christ’s Word is a form of rebellion and an outward and visible demonstration of that rebellion.
The point is that the coherence of the Christian moral life cannot be abstracted from the actual lived relationship that is ongoing between God and his creation as a whole, and God and us individually. Severed from Christ as its source, Christ’s teachings can not be effectively abstracted into universal rules and interpreted by an outside source and still maintain their ultimate intelligibility for us.
At my very first meeting with my tutor at Oxford in October 2002, I was given the task to answer the following question. “Is Christian Ethics a 3rd Way between Kant and Mill?” For those unfamiliar with the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, the question was essentially asking whether Christian Ethics was a way in between a rules based ethic (that’s Kant) or a utilitarian or outcomes based ethic (that’s Mill).
In a rules based ethic, upholding moral rules is always the morally right thing to do, even though the outcome would be bad. For example, in a rules based ethic, you do not drop bombs directly into civilian populations, even if it would give you a military advantage. So, for example, a rules based ethic evaluates dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as morally wrong because the bomb directly intended to kill 10s of thousands of innocent people. Even if dropping the bomb led to Japan’s surrender, a rules based ethic would insist that this doesn’t matter, you don’t do it. It’s a war crime. Those who want to prohibit abortion on the grounds that it is murder, no matter what good outcomes might be achieved by having one, are applying a rules-based argument.
In a utilitarian based framework the morality of the act is determined by whether or not the greatest good is achieved for the greatest number. Using our bombing example, the concern of a utilitarian is not about whether the prohibition against murder is violated, but is more concerned with what the murder of 10s of thousands of people may achieve. In the case of using the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States was wagering that killing 10s of thousands of civilians was worth ending WWII and perhaps preventing even more 10s of thousands of people being killed. In the abortion debate, utilitarians argue that an unwanted pregnancy is not good for anyone, the mother or the child, therefore it is OK to kill the unborn child for everyone’s benefit, both now and in the future.
Most moral arguments today usually revolve around these two frameworks. To put it in an oversimplified way they are, “follow the rules, no matter what the consequences” or “do what ever yields the greatest good for the greatest number, even if it violates a rule.” Because each framework prioritizes different aspects of the moral act, i.e. one prioritizes moral rules as most morally important, and the other prioritizes collective outcomes as most morally important, both camps very quickly come to an impasse when deliberating about difficult moral cases.
Each framework has its difficulties. For example, in a rules based framework, we don’t know what to do when two rules conflict. In medical ethics, in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, the doctor is bound to preserve the life of the mother, but in doing so would need to kill the developing unborn child in order to do it. That is a true moral dilemma. Kill the unborn child and save the mother’s life, or do not kill the unborn child, and they both die. No matter what the doctor does a rule will be violated. On what basis does the doctor choose? How does the doctor prioritize and adjudicate between conflicting rules? Unless one has a singular supreme rule, which interprets all other rules, then a rules based framework often produces many moral dilemmas.
Using a utilitarian framework for moral reasoning is also not so straightforward. For example, how do we quantify and measure the greatest good for the greatest number? In the case of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the totality of the effect has to be taken into account. Was the outcome good for all sides or just the Allies? Can the negatives of killing 10s of thousands of civilians, devastating cities, and the long term effects of radiation on a country and the planet, offset whatever goodness was achieved by ending WWII at that time?
In the abortion discussion, utilitarians have the same difficulties. How can one say what the consequences for a mother or a child will definitely be, good or bad, since the future hasn’t happened yet? And, what sorts of things are being traded off? How do you trade off the life of an unborn child and the real actual life of a living mother? How do you quantify these things? The problem with utilitarian ethics is that not all things are commensurate with other things and we are not fortune tellers. For example, the Allies were lucky that Japan didn’t double down after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and continue fighting with a renewed sense of commitment and vigor.
My professor gave me two weeks to go away to write that 10 page essay. Off I went to read about Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Christian ethics, trying to puzzle my way to answering the question about what Christian Ethics was all about and how it is different than these two other moral frameworks.
What I discovered was that the Christian moral life is concerned both with rules and with outcomes, but it is neither a rule-based ethic or utilitarian one either. Rather, the Christian moral life has love as its central organizing principle. And the Christian principle of love can only be interpreted theologically in the light of what we say about who God is, who human beings are and why we were created, and who the person of Jesus Christ is, why he was born, why he lived, why he died, and why he was resurrected. In other words, where Immanuel Kant was trying to articulate an ethic of reason based on the abstract idea of a Categorical Imperative and rules, and John Stuart Mill was trying to argue that you can quantify incommensurable goods, so long as you submitted the question to a panel of experts, I saw that Christian ethics was an entirely different approach.
What Christian ethics gives us are not abstract rules, but theological categories used to think with to interpret various rules in order to decide what to do and to achieve an outcome that is pleasing to God. Christian ethics asks us to think about our actions in terms of salvation history, creation and redemption, sin and grace, reconciliation, and community; and to carry out those decisions with the virtues of courage and patience and perseverance that spring from faith and hope and love. I didn’t find these categories in Kant and Mill. What I discovered in Christian ethics was a much richer and complex tradition, with what seems to me to be a more realistic view of human nature and the human condition. It is also a much more difficult, complicated and challenging tradition which continues to challenge Christians to this day.
We know that Jesus tells the Pharisees that the greatest commandment is “to love God with all our heart, mind and strength” and the second is like it that we are “to love our neighbors as ourselves. On these two commands hang all the law and the prophets.” This is the starting point for all Christian moral deliberation and it is also the goal of all Christian moral deliberation. How do we take this an apply it to a concrete problem?
For example, how can war be an act of neighbor love? This is the question to which St. Augustine applied himself, and out of which the classical just war tradition came into being. If you read Augustine’s thinking on war, he is considering the question entirely within a theological framework. Theological categories guide his thinking, to include the reality of sin, the provisional nature of earthly justice and human government, the goal of war to achieve peace and reconciliation and so forth. Also, and perhaps most importantly, Augustine never let us forget that war was always a tragedy and a result of human sin. Soldiers, Augustine believed should always wage war with grief and in tears.
In light of current events, I think an attempt to address the question of abortion in the same way Augustine addressed the problem of war might prove more fruitful for us as a church. How do we think about the issue of abortion more theologically? For example, what if we asked ourselves whether or not abortion can be viewed as form of neighbor love and a love for God? If so, how? If not, why not? What sort of theological categories might be deployed to make the discussion one more suited to Christian commitments rather than secular ones? What do Christians have to say about creation and being made in the image and likeness of God? What do Christians have to say about sex and responsibility? About sin, and compassion and the realities of sexual violence? What do Christians have to say about patience and redemption? About imperfect human justice and flawed human government? How should Christians live in a secular and pluralistic society? What do Christians have to say about the nature of tragedy? About the role of community? What does it mean to be part of the body of Christ? What is the nature of the moral relationship that exists between parent and offspring? Between men and women? Between church and society? How do we make faithful moral decisions in the face of fear and uncertainty? These seem to me to be important theological questions which might inform our thinking on this subject. But these are not questions our secular, religiously plural society is designed to take on in any helpful way. Such a society is incapable of answering these questions which will satisfy the demands of God and the Christian moral life. These are questions for individual Christians to have in conversation with the wider Church.
I don’t expect that everyone would reach an agreement on the answer to these questions, but at least the discussion would be framed more theologically, in terms of who God is, who Christ is, and what it means to be part of the Body of Christ and a church community. This is an alternative starting point than the one secular society has offered, which tells us that we have to look at men and women and unborn children as isolated and autonomous “rights bearers” disconnected from any meaningful moral relationships. This is the basic human anthropology that both the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps start from. (The only thing they seem to agree on!) The secular debate tells us that one has a right to life or a right to chose, but not both. This is a false choice. Our Christian tradition tells us that we are not isolated, autonomous “rights bearers” who exist independently from all other moral relationships. If we are to take the doctrine of creation seriously, we can say that from the moment of our existence, we are always already in relationship, with God, with Christ, and with each other and these relationships can’t be morally fragmented. Therefore, the two positions the secular debate offers to us can not be the starting point for discussion for Christians.
As Christians the starting point of our moral life is the reality that that we are loved by God first. God shows us in Christ, that love is the beginning and the end of the Christian life. From that starting point, we love God back, albeit imperfectly. We are called to follow the teachings of Christ, not by blind obedience to abstract moral demands or by doing only yield good outcomes. The Christian life cannot be understood in any meaningful way if it is disassociated from the being of God and the person of Christ.
Our task is to be mature followers, who exercise moral judgments in the context of a lived faith and relationship with God and Christ. We are called to be faithful to the principle of love in a redeemed creation which has not yet been brought to its fullest perfection. We do this in the midst of the moral ambiguities and complexities of 21st century life. And, when we are forced to make morally difficult choices, we can only pray that God will have mercy on us and grant us the peace that the world cannot give.