Peace With People Amidst a War of Ideas

I have observed two kinds of tyranny in the media and public forum when it comes to moral, religious, or political conflict.  The first kind is a tyranny of bigotry which takes firm held beliefs about politics, religion, ethics, etc., and attempts to coerce or shame others into agreement.  It disregards the humanity and dignity of those with whom it disagrees.  The second kind is a tyranny of tolerance.  This tyranny regards “tolerance” as the highest (if not the only) virtue, and then attempts to coerce or shame others into a malleability of all other beliefs besides tolerance.  It is as though anything but indifferent relativism is a hate crime.

Continue reading Peace With People Amidst a War of Ideas

Children, God, and Human Nature: How Being a Nanny is Teaching Me About the Universe

In my day job, I work as a nanny for three adorable children. The brother-sister twins are almost a year and a half, and their older brother, Sam, is four. I’ve learned some things that I more or less expected to learn after taking this job: how to change a diaper, how to prepare bottles, how to spot from across the room a baby chewing something he’s not supposed to chew. However, I’ve also learned some things that I didn’t expect as much. Continue reading Children, God, and Human Nature: How Being a Nanny is Teaching Me About the Universe

“Even tough guys need Jesus,” a review of “Fight Church”

“Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?”

The question was posed to a camera in the documentary Fight Church. The film takes a look at a recent surge of interest in fighting for sport within the church. There are an estimated 700 churches in the U.S. participating in various forms of martial arts, according to a statistic near the end of the film.

As a documentary, the film certainly succeeds. There are some strong opinions from various perspectives offered throughout, even if the majority of the speakers land in the firm “Yes, MMA fighting is good to participate in” camp.

Here are the two sides, so to speak:

The first views this entire thing as sport: much like you can participate in football, basketball, soccer, tennis, or any other sport as a Christian, surely you can participate in martial arts. And what would prevent a preacher from doing so, in particular, if it is not barred for your average, everyday Christian? For these fighters, this physical activity isn’t an act of violence, at least by their own telling: one pastor/fighter describes his training as a form of worship, and another describes it as an art form. One even goes so far as to write off the term “violent” as a descriptor: “violence” is to violate somebody’s rights, and a cage fight is two adults who have consented to participate in the ring in a contest of skill.

The other side comes from two primary perspectives. The first is from an Episcopal priest, who stands now and has always stood against the violence displayed in cage fighting. He argues that the Church is to respect the dignity of the human person, and that cage fighting is intrinsically at odds with that. He goes on to compare the violence of cage fighting to war, saying: “War hurts; war demeans. Violence makes us less than we should be.” The other perspective that still lands opposed comes from a former MMA trainer. As he continued in his study and devotion to Christianity, he became convinced that the two were not compatible. He ended up pursuing a PhD in Philosophy of Religion, and spends his time producing apologetics training videos.

I’d like to get to those two sides a little bit more deeply, but first a quick comment on the quality of the film. Not only is the documentary well shot, it also manages to present each person’s position fairly. While many of us will cringe at some of the displays of violence, others may cringe at the closed-mindedness of the priest. But the film shies away from none of this, offering the conflicted perspectives of spouses, the bizarre mentality of children and early teenagers, and the quirky, quip-filled fighters who joke about having the gift of laying on hands. The fights are presented in their brutality, and the participants are presented in their moments of joyful loss and joyful wins, and the events are presented just as they are run. I couldn’t guess from the framing of the film where the filmmakers stand, since I can levy evidence both for and against each position. That’s a good thing.

So what do we make of this sort of church-sponsored event?I tend to land closer to the second camp than the first; that is, I tend to suspect that the sort of violence inherent in cage fighting is incompatible with Christian doctrine.It seems to me that the majority of the reasoning behind the participation of the sport equally applies to other sports. That much I find myself in agreement with the fighters, as far as it goes. But the analogy fails when we consider the sort of things being compared. The defense of sports rests on the intrinsically harmless nature of the purpose of sports; most sports involve injury, but tangentially. The injuries are accidents of the sport, not features. These accidents can be abused, of course: a football player with an insatiable thirst for blood is, of course, sinning in those desires.

One fighter, when speaking about his favorite MMA competitor, says “He’s the best. He’s malicious. I want to be just like him.” Any sport that prizes maliciousness is incompatible with Christian virtue. One man argues throughout the film that we need a ‘warrior ethos,’ something he claims we’ve lost in America. There’s a section of the documentary where this man is showing his children–who appear to be somewhere between the ages of 6 and 12–to use handguns. The children are very much frightened of the weapon (as is healthy), but this doesn’t deter the father from teaching them.Another clip in the film shows the training of kids and young teenagers. They are all drawn in by the cool factor–which is certainly forgivable, given their age. But one kid admits that he just likes fighting for the sake of fighting. When he mentions that the trainers “do this for Jesus,” he says so with a shrug of slightly-confused indifference. Another kid prepares for his first match, and says he’s going to “rip [the other kid’s] head off.” This is hardly the loving view that the sport allegedly fosters.

One of the MMA-fighting pastors finished up his remarks with the following challenge:

“I double-dog dare any Christian to go through the preparation to get into the cage. Not to actually get into the cage, but to go through the preparation. I guarantee you they will change their views.”

If “preparation” means spending months training one’s body to be in peak physical condition, then the only reason we ought to eschew that advice would be if it hindered our spiritual lives in some way. Physical fitness is important–something I myself slack in, much to my own detriment–but there is such a thing as taking too much time on, well, anything.”Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?” I struggle to answer this in the affirmative. Even in the context of sport, where some injury is bound to happen, acting to intentionally bring an opponent to submission, with an aim to incapacitate, strikes this viewer as against Christian ethics.

There may be a theoretical place in which you can participate in a sport centered around harm and do so out of love. I’m open to that possibility, but if this film is any indication, that loving embrace is difficult to hold to. The harm on display is not limited to the physical–even if it were, we ought to pause and reconsider. Aside from the physical harm, though, is the intense emotional experience of fighting. The thrill of the testosterone, the instinct to fight, and the rush that comes from it seems to bring out the worst in a large number of the men displayed in the film.

Lionsgate is releasing the film on iTunes and most all other On Demand and Digital HD platforms starting today. You can also purchase the DVD from their website.

Note: I was sent a copy of this film in exchange for a review. Much thanks to Bryan Storkel for sending it along.

Even the Holocaust is Open to Skeptical Manhandling

Openness is a form of vulnerability. Openness to question, openness to explore, openness to reach bold conclusions and overturn tradition: all the graybeard warnings about change are, to some extent, right. Openness and vulnerability are not necessarily good things, taken by themselves. In the Rialto Unified School District, somebody came up with a debate assignment on whether the Holocaust was real. Like as not, it was just a devil’s advocate argument taken in very, very poor taste. Nevertheless, it proves that even that today’s most ardent beliefs (hate, racism, and genocide are evil) are open to future questioning and skepticism. Though doubt is natural, openness to it is not uniformly virtuous, and can even be wicked. Continue reading Even the Holocaust is Open to Skeptical Manhandling

Society is No One: When You Have Society’s Approval

Society is no one. It is the no one who sits in judgment over an activist’s appeal. It is the nobody standing in support of a preacher’s morality. It is the no one who cares for and supports you in your personal growth. Of course, everyone together is society, and good society demands good people to make it up. Society is so much a little bit of everyone that it is very little of anyone and is a dry reed ready to splinter and stab anyone who leans on it for support. And yet, society is something.

If everyone ditched trousers in favor of kilts, “but everyone’s doing it!” would be a meaningful appeal. Although traditional clothing can have deep and significant meaning, monks with manuscripts are no match for punks with printers. Mindless manufacturing is efficient, so whatever the original pattern is, it wins. People just copy, and to a point, they don’t mean anything by it. Copying is a glandular function, not an intellectual one. When I look at pictures of old Mormon homesteaders, all I really see is a bunch of people dressed like pioneers with a surplus of wives. What everyone did covered all the bases the Mormons cared to clothe, but the ideas on the inside were what mattered, and it was for those ideas that the Mormons’ neighbors drove them out.

G. K. Chesterton said something about agreeing to live in peace with each other so we could settle the theology, and he rejected the notion of agreeing on the theology to support settling down to live together. For instance, I consider whether I have a girlfriend to be more lastingly meaningful to my spiritual life than whether women should be ordained, but I refuse to throw up my hands with a resigned “C’est la vie!” so I can get on with romance if society judges one way or the other about women’s ordination. Society says do this and do that. Society thinks this and that. Society has the intellectual depth of a bowl of dog sweat.

Now for a gay marriage reference. If gay marriage supporters say society supports them and it does not, they are liars. If gay marriage supporters say society supports them and it does, they nevertheless commit themselves to perpetual evangelism because opinions come in and out of style just as much as they think they do. If they win the externals without the conversions of hearts and minds, they are going to lose. In the push for gay marriage, as in any other thing in society, there is an A Team of thinkers somewhere doing the intellectual heavy lifting. When they die out, others will come after to continue the push, but good leaders do not keep the mob going so much as they fashion individuals out of the proletarian dust, breathing life into their hearts and minds.

I think that everyone should think the same things that I think. Even if their ways of thinking are different, they should reach the same conclusions and arrange them in the same places that I do. If I have not thought about something, I should hardly dare to call anyone to agree with my position on it. If I am wrong about something, I should hardly dare to surrender when we change the subject and I am right about the new topic. How is it possible for me to demand agreement from others while still calling upon them to do their own thinking? How can I believe in agreement, which builds society, if society is no one? The individual, the lone man or woman, has free will. Society only has momentum.

There are, from time to time, individuals who incarnate their societies’ values and interests. Kings, priests, prophets, scholars, poets, philosophers, entertainers: they live differently than all their family and friends, but they are accepted as part of society, even essential members worth the sacrifice of many lives of ordinary people. The Church has its own catalogue of exemplary people, and in some Christian traditions, they are the Saints. You know, with the capital S. Saints achieve in their lifetimes the reality toward which the Church is struggling and striving, that being union with God and the active revelation of him in every aspect of their lives. Not everyone gets to be a capital S Saint and painted into icons (or for evangelicals, have books and movies made about them), but everyone does get to choose who they will imitate. What is more, they have the choice to imitate a way of life or just drift with the dispassionate tides. Tides care about nothing. Saints care about the smallest things. Free will exists, but my free will and yours are not the only two in existence.

Call it God, call it powers and authorities in the heavenly realms, call it your mother in law’s dead hand strangling you from beyond the grave: all of these wills are working on you. References to society as some sort of authority are like references to a rickety canoe as some sort of stability. That canoe keeps us out of the water, but currents and cataracts work no matter how much we argue about where and how we should go. Society is no one, and we have free will. Society is everyone, and we have duties. “Society says” is a “shut up, stupid” against disagreement and forms a poor argument and even worse proof for anything. Society demands named individuals to stand up and be counted as examples and authorities to be cited. Society demands that something other than society should speak, because society has no will. Society has only momentum. Society is no one.

Rooted in Love–What We Can Learn From the Flowers

Humans have an innate appreciation for nature.  Except for the occasional bee sting or troublesome allergies, nature often enchants all of our senses.  Smelling the crisp scent of evergreens, tasting the salty sea air, feeling the soft grass against our toes, hearing the chirping of the birds, and seeing the beauty of God’s creation around us are a few examples of how we experience and enjoy nature.  It is natural and good that we thank God for giving us these good things.  But to stop with gratitude would be to limit ourselves to self-centered appreciation of God’s creation.  We should step away from our own experience of nature and engage with something much bigger than ourselves.  If we allow ourselves to listen, the flowers remind us of the vanity of our own existence and the reality of our eternal value in Christ.

Christina Rossetti, a 19th century poet, is widely known for her gloomy, yet biblically centered poetry.  Hope and despair are prevalent themes in her writing.  While Rossetti often despairs about earthly griefs, she remains grounded in her eternal hope.  In her poetry, Rossetti constantly uses nature to re-ground herself in her hope. In “Consider the Lilies of the Field (p24,25), she writes:

“Flowers preach to us if we will hear…
Men scent our fragrance on the air,
Yet take no heed
Of humble lessons we would read…”

Anyone can smell the flowers and take pleasure in it.  However, very few actually learn from the flowers.  Learning from the flowers takes humility and a willingness to experience nature in a way much bigger than our own personal enjoyment.  It is easiest to view the flowers in their relation to us.  “Thank you God for allowing us to enjoy these beautiful flowers.”  And that response is perfectly acceptable.  However, the flowers can teach us so much more rather than just reinforcing a me-centered existence.

It is the natural human tendency to think of our existence in terms of ourselves.  Well, duh, you may say, we are the ones existing.  However, in a God-centered universe, we are never the main focus.  We may be the ones doing the actual living, but nothing we do can give value to our lives.  Yet we are never perfect at living a God-centered life.  We forget how fleeting and invaluable we are on our own.

This is not a new problem.  In Psalm 90:12, the Psalmist asks God on behalf of the Israelites, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  Israel forgot how short their life was.  Disobedience to God’s commands is the natural result of forgetting your place in eternity.  After experiencing punishment for embarking on a self-centered lifestyle, they come crawling back to God asking him to help them remember.  In a God-centered universe, a self-centered lifestyle does not satisfy.  Especially when you are being directly punished by God!

Isaiah says, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades… surely the people are grass… but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). The quickly fading flower reminds us that our “blossom” is but a brief moment in eternity.  Hopeless can often be the result of this realization if we view our brief existence simply in terms of our life here on earth.  However, investing in an eternal hope through Jesus Christ allows us to live a hope-filled life while here on earth.  We live full lives here on earth, all the while knowing our ultimate value is not found in this world.  Nature can remind us of how small we are on our own and allow us to re-ground ourselves in truth—that true value can only come through God.

But the flowers’ teaching does not stop there.  They remind us of something much greater than our own insignificance.  They remind us of God’s great love for us in spite of our puny existence.  In Luke, Jesus says “If God so clothes the grass.. how much more will he clothe you(Luke 12:28).”  Nature IS beautiful! Even though a flower only blooms for a short time, it is none the less beautiful! So it is with us.  Even though we are seemingly insignificant, God values us.  Even though our life is but a moment, God concerns himself with the details of our life.

In her poem, “Consider the Lilies of the Field,” Rossetti continues,

“Flowers ….
Tell of his love who sends the dew,
The rain and sunshine too,
To nourish one small seed.”

The flowers do not just tell us truths about ourselves, but truths about God, too!

Contrary to what you may be thinking, this is not just a happy go lucky post.   Life is not just daisies and roses.  Even with a firm understanding of your eternal value and God’s love for you, life sucks sometimes.  Sadness is a natural part of life.  From Rossetti’s poetry, it seems like she was seriously depressed most of the time.  We would be lying to ourselves if we tried to never experience sadness.  Even Jesus wept.  But at the same time, we should never be guided by our emotions.  When experiencing despair, we should always anchor ourselves in our eternal hope.  Rossetti got through her darkest moments because of her eternal hope.  So also should we, in moments of despair, cling to the One that can never be taken away from us, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Taking a moment to listen to the flowers can help reground you in what is truly valuable.

Whether it’s in the simple hustle and bustle of everyday life or one of your darkest moments, grounding yourself in Christ’s deep love for you gives you strength to carry on.  However, being reminded of your true value in Christ is worthless if your actions do not change.   Taking a moment to listen to the flowers can help you live your life in a meaningful way.

So next time you are outside, stop and listen to the flowers.  What are they saying to you?

“In this world you will have tribulation.  But take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

*Quotations taken from “Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems.”  Penguin Classics.




Autumn in the Sovereign Zone: Why “It’s My Body, I Can Do What I Want” Won’t Do

Autumn in the Sovereign Zone[1]

Anyone who has ever heard a conversation about abortion has heard pro-choice statements like:

  • “My body, my choice.”
  • “You can’t tell another person what she can’t do with her own body.”
  • “The fetus is part of her body.”
  • “The fetus is inside her body.”

When a pro-life advocate hears statements like these, a common impulse is to respond by saying, “But it’s not her body; it’s another body!” or “If the fetus is part of her body, does she have two heads and twenty toes?” or, perhaps, “But the unborn is a human being, here’s some evidence for that…”

Not so fast.  The pro-choice statements above are ambiguous.  If the pro-choice advocate is confused about whether the unborn is a separate organism from the mother, then graciously giving him an impromptu biology lesson might be helpful.  In many cases, though, the pro-choice advocate is intending to communicate that the woman can do what she wants even if the fetus is a human being.  Many pro-choice advocates don’t know how to articulate this argument in a way that helps pro-life advocates understand.  The pro-life advocate hears, “The fetus is not human,” but the pro-choice advocate means, “It doesn’t matter if the fetus is human.”

Pro-life people generally think there is one question to answer in order to determine the morality of abortion: “What is the unborn?”  Generally speaking, there is merit to this idea.  For instance, when a pro-choice advocate says abortion should be legal because some women are too poor to have a child, he is begging the question.  He is assuming the unborn is not a valuable human because (presumably) he wouldn’t say women should have the right to kill their toddlers if they are too poor.  If the unborn is human, like the toddler, then we can’t kill the unborn in the name of poverty any more than we would kill a toddler.  In contrast, attempting to give a reason that the unborn is not a valuable human being would make a better argument.[2]

One might be tempted to think that all pro-choice justifications can be accurately summarized as either 1) assuming the unborn isn’t human or 2) arguing that the unborn isn’t human.  But as Trent Horn[3] has pointed out, there is a third type of pro-choice justification, one that 3) admits the unborn is human and says that the woman can kill it anyway because of her bodily rights.

Learning to Recognize Bodily Rights Arguments

When I first heard this distinction, it seemed foreign to me.  Why would anyone admit that the unborn is a valuable human being and say it’s okay to kill it?  Then I started thinking about all of the conversations I’d had in which pro-choice people made references to the woman’s body and how it didn’t seem to matter to them when I demonstrated that the unborn is a separate human organism.  Could I have simply been misunderstanding them all along?

So I went on the lookout.  If someone made one of the above pro-choice statements, I would clarify if he was arguing that the unborn isn’t human or if he was making a bodily rights argument.  For instance, when someone said the unborn is part of the mother’s body, I asked:

“I want to understand you, but it sounds like you might be saying one of two different things.  Do you mean that the unborn is literally a part of her body, like a functional part or something; or do you mean that because it is inside her body and connected to her body that she has the right to kill it because she can do what she wants with her body?”

Almost every time I have asked this question, the pro-choice advocate has said that he meant the latter.  I ask a similar question when people say that the unborn is inside the woman, such as:

“I want to understand you, but it sounds like you might be saying one of two different things.  Do you mean that the unborn is not a valuable human being because it is inside the woman; or do you mean that even if it is a valuable human being, that a woman has the right to kill it because it’s inside her and she can do what she wants with her body?”

Almost every time, he responds by saying he meant the latter.  Since I began asking for clarification on this, I have found that bodily rights arguments are much more common than I had previously thought.

The pro-life mind is generally oriented towards the unborn: the unborn is a human being, and it should be illegal to kill human beings, so abortion should be illegal.  But pro-choice people are generally oriented differently.  Even if they don’t believe that the unborn is a human being, sometimes they don’t think that issue matters.  The important thing is that women can do what they want with their bodies, no matter what.  If this is the perspective of one of your pro-choice friends, then biological or philosophical arguments that the unborn is a human being are not likely to change his mind about abortion.  Some pro-choice people truly don’t care what the unborn is; the unborn is in the woman’s way, and that’s all that matters.

Pro-life advocates need to get in the habit of asking these kinds of clarification questions.  If we do not clarify, but merely assume we know what the pro-choice advocate means, then it’s likely our conversation will get stuck and neither person will know why.

Some might think, “What’s the use in trying to persuade people who think it’s okay to kill humans?  They’re so unreasonable.  A lost cause.”  I strongly disagree!  While I’ve found some hardcore moral relativists almost impossible to persuade, the pro-choice advocate focused on bodily rights is different.  He is right about something very important: we do have significant rights to our bodies.  Yet it is not difficult to make a persuasive case that our bodily rights don’t extend as far as most pro-choice advocates think.

Distinguishing Between Bodily Rights Arguments

Trent Horn has distinguished between two types of bodily rights arguments: the Right to Refuse Argument and the Sovereign Zone Argument.[4]  The Right to Refuse Argument states that even if the unborn is a human being, a woman has the right to refuse to allow the unborn the use of her body.  I will not address that argument here; if you are interested, I recommend “De Facto Guardian and Abortion: A Response to the Strongest Violinist,” Steve Wagner’s summary of the discussion of Justice For All’s philosophy team.

The Sovereign Zone Argument states that even if the unborn is a human being, a woman should still be able to have an abortion because she has the right to do anything she wants with anything inside the sovereign zone of her body. Notice that this is a much more extreme claim than that of the Right to Refuse Argument.  The Right to Refuse Argument says a woman has the right not to be forced to do something, while the Sovereign Zone Argument says she has the right to do anything, as long as it’s to something within her sovereign zone.

If you say something like, “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins, and abortion kills a baby,” you won’t be addressing this pro-choice person’s concern.  Remember, she has acknowledged that the unborn is a human being.  She doesn’t believe a woman’s right to bodily autonomy gives her the right to kill a toddler, or swing her fist into her neighbor’s nose.  The unborn is different because it is in her territory, in her sovereign zone.  While I haven’t ever heard a pro-choice person use the term “Sovereign Zone” to explain this view, I have talked with many who hold the position I’ve described.  And, it’s an integral part of their pro-choice perspective.

Dismantling the Sovereign Zone Argument

The most obvious problem with the Sovereign Zone Argument is that it entails something that is indefensible: a woman should legally be allowed to do anything to her unborn child, even if it is a human being.  Once I’ve clarified that I am dealing with the Sovereign Zone Argument, I respond with some version of a story I call The Five Years of Autumn to help the person see the problem and hopefully abandon the view.[5]  If the pro-choice person wants to continue to defend abortion with the Sovereign Zone Argument, he will have to “bite the bullet” in five progressively difficult scenarios.

I want to be clear that this story is not intended to mock anyone, and I don’t ever approve of pro-life people mocking pro-choice people.  I also don’t ever approve of pro-life people attacking straw men instead of actual pro-choice arguments; on the contrary, I think we should go to great pains to make sure we understand pro-choice people’s views and respond to the most plausible versions of them.  I’m not intending to imply that pro-choice people are like Autumn or that they should approve of her actions.  I think a pro-choice person who agrees with the Sovereign Zone Argument should consider the implications of that view as illustrated by Autumn.  If someone justifies abortion with the Sovereign Zone, I do not think he can consistently claim that Autumn should not at least have the legal right to do what she does.

The Five Years of Autumn

Autumn has just completed her doctorate at the age of thirty.  She is pro-choice and has fully embraced the Sovereign Zone Argument.  She believes the unborn is a valuable human being, but that abortion is justified because women have the right to do anything they want with anything inside their bodies.

In the First Year after completing her doctorate, Autumn becomes pregnant.  Her boyfriend is supportive, and she’s excited because she’s always wanted a baby.  Well, that is, she’s always wanted a baby boy.  Her doctor orders an early amniocentesis test at twelve weeks because of factors discovered during genetic counseling with Autumn and her boyfriend.  Though the child appears to be normal, Autumn’s heart sinks when the doctor tells her that it’s a girl.  She wrestles for a few days, and finally decides to have an abortion.  She doesn’t want to have a girl, and her body is her sovereign zone after all, so she shouldn’t have to justify to anyone what reason she has for getting an abortion.

Autumn gets pregnant again soon after and this time at twelve weeks she is relieved to find out that she’s having a boy.  She and her boyfriend eagerly anticipate the birth, until around eight months into the pregnancy when they break up.  Suddenly Autumn goes from being excited at the prospect of raising a baby boy with her boyfriend to the terrifying reality of raising a child all by herself.  She thinks eight months is awfully late to have an abortion, but she considers the sovereign zone of her body.  If it’s her sovereign zone and she has the right to do anything she wants with anything in her body at twelve weeks, why not at thirty-five weeks?  Her state happens to allow abortion up until birth, and she convinces the doctor that her mental strain is sufficient to qualify her for abortion in this late stage.  After she goes through with the abortion, she tells herself that it was the right thing for her.

In her Second Year after completing her doctorate, Autumn starts dating a physician.  She becomes pregnant, and she is somewhat happy about it, but her excitement is quickly overshadowed by a terrible case of morning sickness.  One day her ever-attentive new boyfriend brings home some white pills he has illegally acquired for her.  He tells her he has brought her thalidomide, which will help her to feel better, but could cause their baby to be born with very severe birth defects.  He may be born without arms or without legs.[6]  She thanks him for his compassion for her, but declines the pills.  After suffering through three straight days of morning sickness though, she decides she can’t take the discomfort anymore and starts taking thalidomide.  She fears for what may happen to her baby, but she decides that those possible effects shouldn’t stop her from doing what she feels is necessary.  After all, she tells herself, “My body, my choice.”  When she sees her deformed baby for the first time, she realizes just how severe the consequences of her actions are.  But, she thinks, at least she gave him a chance to live, and if he decides later that he would have preferred death to being handicapped, he could make the choice to end his own life when he is old enough.[7]

As she goes into the Third Year after completing her doctorate, she discovers that she doesn’t mind so much having to take care of a deformed child.  Her community doesn’t know she took thalidomide, so they all think she’s a hero for being so strong for him.  When she becomes pregnant again, this time with a little girl, she fortunately doesn’t experience such a bad case of morning sickness, but she still has some of those little white pills left.  She considers the bond her kids would have if they went through the same challenges together, and the way her community would support her and admire her.

She thinks about her deformed infant son and how hard his life will be, and feels selfish for even thinking of deforming another child.  But then again, she considers what her abortion doctor told her about abortion procedures.  If she had the right to have a doctor pull her baby apart while killing it through a dilation and evacuation abortion,[8] why shouldn’t she have the right to take a drug to deform it?  Having an arm pulled off seemed a lot worse to her than just not growing one properly, so if her sovereignty over her body gave her the right to do the one, why not the other?

She considers the possibility that some might argue that it is worse to maim someone than to kill him.  But if people really thought that, why didn’t they go around killing maimed people to help them out of their misery?  She knew happy handicapped people.  And even if it is worse to be maimed than to be killed, who are they to judge her for doing what she wants to with what’s in her body, especially if they’re pro-choice?  She concludes that she doesn’t have to justify to anyone her personal decisions about what she does with her body.  After all, it is a private medical decision between her and her doctor.  She takes the remaining thalidomide and when her baby girl is born, she is pleased to see that she turned out deformed.  She has second thoughts about her decision from time to time, and sometimes even feels like she’s a pretty mean person.  But she tells herself that even if it were immoral, surely no one could tell her it should be illegal.

In her Fourth Year after completing her doctorate, she decides to take an art class at a local university.  She was always artistically talented and had even considered pursuing an art degree when she was in high school.  She seems to have the skill to succeed, but she struggles to come up with ways to make herself really stand out as an artist.  One day a pro-life group comes to her campus with graphic pictures depicting the results of abortion.  The pictures don’t really bother her, but it does occur to her that they are very controversial and attention-grabbing, and this gives her an idea.

She gets herself pregnant three times and has three early abortions, having already agreed with her doctor that she could keep the bloody remains of the embryos and placentas so she can use them for her art.[9]  She succeeds at getting a lot of attention when she unveils her project, though more of it is negative than she expected.  When one critic asked her how she could do such a thing, she fired back at her, “Who are you to tell me what I can do with my body?  What business is it of yours how many abortions I have, when I have them, or why I have them?  It’s my body, so it’s my choice.”

At the beginning of the Fifth Year after completing her doctorate, Autumn breaks up with her physician boyfriend and falls madly in love with a very pro-life man.  She doesn’t tell him about her abortions, her role in deforming her children, or, heaven forbid, her recent art project.  Before they start sleeping together, they agree that if she becomes pregnant, she won’t have an abortion.  She becomes pregnant after a few months, and shortly thereafter, her new pro-life boyfriend cheats on her.  Fueled by her desire for revenge, she forms a plan.

She goes back to her abortion doctor and tells him of her situation and he agrees to help Autumn carry out her plan.  He devises the cruelest possible ways he can hurt a late-term fetus without killing it.  They wait until thirty-eight weeks, then Autumn goes to her doctor’s clinic, where he tortures her child for as long as possible until finally the child dies.

She reflects afterward on how much suffering she caused her child, but reminds herself that her right to do what she wants with her body is absolute.  While many would surely disapprove of her decision, no one, not even the child’s father, has a right to stop her from doing anything to her baby as long as it is inside her sovereign zone.

Cognitive Dissonance with the Sovereign Zone

There is only one question this story is intended to ask the pro-choice person: should Autumn’s actions be legal?  My argument is very simple: if abortion should be legal on the basis that women can do whatever they want with anything inside their bodies, then Autumn’s actions should also be legal.  One could consistently believe abortion should be legal and believe that Autumn’s actions should not be legal, but only if he doesn’t rely on the Sovereign Zone Argument to justify abortion.

As a conversational tool, sometimes it is easier to simply point to the five implications of the Sovereign Zone Argument, rather than walk through a detailed story.

Five Implications of the Sovereign Zone Argument:

1: There can be no restrictions on abortion at any stage or for any reason.

2: A pregnant woman can take thalidomide to treat her morning sickness even though it will deform her fetus.

3: A pregnant woman can take thalidomide to intentionally deform her fetus.

4: A woman can have multiple abortions for the sole purpose of using the results for an art project.

5: A pregnant woman can do anything to her unborn child, including having it tortured to death.

In my experience, most people aren’t willing to accept the third “year” or implication of the Sovereign Zone Argument.  Most people do not think a woman should have the right to intentionally deform her child, even if they think she should have the right to intentionally kill it.  They know intentionally deforming a child is wrong, so when confronted with the third year, they either try to make a distinction to save the Sovereign Zone Argument, or they abandon it entirely and move on to a new argument.  Every now and then, they change their minds about abortion altogether.  Only on very rare occasions have I met someone who has agreed that fetal torture should be legal.

When I’m in a conversation in which I can tell the pro-choice person advocating the sovereign zone is struggling with her view, especially after discussing thalidomide, I often ask her if she knows how abortion procedures are done.  Often she has no idea.  After describing an abortion procedure, such as suction abortion or dilation and evacuation abortion, I gently ask one of the following questions:

  • Why should a woman have the right to dismember a child if she shouldn’t have the right to deform him?
  • Why is it okay for her to have a doctor rip her child’s limbs off with a suction machine or with forceps, but it is not okay for her to take a drug that causes her child to not grow limbs?
  • Why does she not have the right to cause her child to have a harder life, but she does have the right to deprive him of life completely?

The cognitive dissonance this line of argument creates is extremely powerful.  I suspect that pro-choice views are often driven by a sort of wishful thinking.  Many pro-choice people want abortion to be okay, so they rationalize it in their minds.[10]  They think: “It’s not really human anyway,” or, “it’s basically a part of her body,” or even, “maybe it’s wrong, but it should still be legal.”  But while they have spent years rationalizing that killing fetuses is justified, they have not gone through a similar process of telling themselves that it is okay to deform a fetus.  Their moral compasses still function properly once we step away from abortion for a minute and talk about doing something else to an unborn child, something that is obviously immoral.  When we bring up the case of thalidomide, we force their rationalization of abortion to come into conflict with their view that it is obviously wrong to deform a child with thalidomide.[11]

[1] Many thanks to Trent Horn, Steve Wagner, Rich Poupard, Scott Klusendorf and Josh Brahm for their excellent work, and for helping me to understand the Sovereign Zone Argument.  I heartily recommend their web sites and their work.  Additional thanks to Steve Wagner for serving as my editor. Image courtesy of Justice For All.

[2] For examples of this focus on the question, “What is the unborn?” see Greg Koukl’s article “Only One Question,” and Scott Klusendorf’s article “Only One Issue.

[3] See Trent Horn, “My Body, My Choice,” in Abortion: From Debate to Dialogue – The Interactive Guide, ed. Steve Wagner (Wichita: Justice For All, 2013), p. 95.  Trent is a former Justice For All intern.  See Trent’s blog,, for more information about Trent’s current work with Catholic Answers.

[4] See Trent Horn, “My Body, My Choice,” in Abortion: From Debate to Dialogue – The Interactive Guide, ed. Steve Wagner (Wichita: Justice For All, 2013), pages 95-106.  Trent’s observation that there are two distinct forms of bodily rights arguments was, in my opinion, a groundbreaking development for the pro-life movement.

[5] Thanks to Steve Wagner for the ingenious idea to take the five points of this argument and tell it as a story.

[6] I believe Rich Poupard of the Life Training Institute was the first to utilize thalidomide in an argument against the bodily-rights-based arguments for abortion.  See his post “Do No Harm (Except For That Killing Thing)” here.  Trent Horn applied it specifically to the Sovereign Zone Argument.

[7] I don’t think words can do justice to the effect thalidomide has on a child.  A simple Google image search on the term “thalidomide” illustrates this.  Warning: The pictures are disturbing.

[8] To learn about abortion procedures, see or “What Are the Facts?  Frequently Asked at Justice For All Events” (

[9] Unfortunately, this is based on a true story.  Aliza Shvarts, an art student at Yale, allegedly had multiple early abortions intentionally so she could use the remains for her art project.  When I talk about her in conversations with pro-choice people, I’m careful to specify that it isn’t clear whether she actually did this or not, but that she claims she did it.  I heard of this story as a response to bodily rights arguments from Scott Klusendorf of the Life Training Institute on pages 199-200 of The Case for Life.  Trent Horn applied it specifically to the Sovereign Zone Argument.

[10] For the record, I am not claiming that self-deception only exists on the pro-choice side.  I am making a specific comment about how self-deception affects pro-choice people, and how that impacts their response to thalidomide.

[11] For a printer friendly version of this article, use this link.

Non-Denominationalism and Epistemology: Why Some Things Can’t Be Learned by Simple Study

For the last couple of weeks, my reading has been dominated by discussions of denominationalism. It all started when Nathan discussed the “feeling” of a doctrine. The key sentence, in my estimation, is this one:

Non-denominationalists might condemn denominations because they alienate real Christians, but I condemn non-denominationalism because it gets rid of history and tradition while opening people to unconscious shifts in theology, and some of that is my gut feeling about non-denominationalism.

This led to some backlash, privately if not publicly. Multiple people contacted both myself and Nathan regarding the post; this seemed like a strong attack on something many Christians believe is the best way to go about things. Non-denominationlists tend to believe that they are simply advocating unity over division, rather than attempting to avoid any controversial topics in their own personal belief structure.

Readers were right, in this case, and Nathan agreed. He spent a little time reminding readers (and, I suspect, himself) about the virtues of non-denominationalism. He wasn’t finished telling us of the problems, however:

 For the accomplishment of specific goals, I believe non-denominationalism is a very useful way to work. As a normal way of running church, I believe that it produces some ill effects and has subtle weaknesses that denominational structures help to prevent.

Most recently, Kevin White joined the conversation. He did so by chance–this wasn’t a direct response to Nathan–but it was appreciated nonetheless. Kevin is one of my favorite writers, full stop. Here’s the relevant passage to our discussion today:

You cannot find a generic human being.  People are not abstractions; they are startlingly concrete and specific. Families, likewise, exist in the world of experience, not the realm of the Platonic Forms. Yes, we can describe and explain families through abstraction and general concepts. But Motherhood can’t call you on the phone, only Mom can.

And the church is the same way. We don’t need abstract teachers, but concrete, specific ones. That is why Paul calls for churches to be led by overseers who “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9, ESV)

The implicit argument in each of these posts, perhaps made most explicit in that last one, is that there are certain ways that we learn that are limited when we refuse to commit to a particular denomination or way of thinking. It’s tempting for us to assume that all knowledge is equally accessible, with only the right sort of research required, but this is not the case. There might just be certain bits of knowledge that could never make sense to us, unless we actually lived within specific and particular traditions.

If Christianity is a stumbling block to the Gentiles, how do we ever convert anyone? It must not be through rational discourse, at least not all of the time. Perhaps this is where the ‘feeling’ of a doctrine comes into play, but I suspect there’s something else going on.

It may sound cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: Christianity takes a leap of faith. You’ve got to, sometimes, dive into Christianity head first before it all makes sense. A professor of mine once used this as an evangelism technique: he’d participate in debates where mostly atheists would show up. He would challenge those who were interested in Christianity to attempt to live it out for 30 days. Go to a regular Bible study, read the Bible every day, seek to live out the commands of Scripture to the best of your knowledge, etc. What he found was that anyone who attempted this and stuck it out either converted or was extremely sympathetic to the belief system; suddenly, parts that hadn’t made sense became comprehensible.

There’s a lot of value in that sort of exercise, and the main reminder is simple: some beliefs only make sense in certain contexts, no matter how true the belief is. You may be right when you say that premarital sex is sinful, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense if you don’t also believe a lot of other things about marriage. Research can only go so far: at some point, some nested beliefs will be outside of what can make sense to you.

Back to the discussion of non-denominationalism, I think nested beliefs are the core of the arguments Nathan and Kevin worked through above: sometimes, abstractions cannot be our teachers. In the same way, neither can arguments devoid of any tradition or context. The ontological argument may be the best example of this, especially when read directly from Anselm. He seems to be speaking absurdly when he says he can prove God by simple word-play. But without understanding the cultural background, especially the philosophical assumptions of the day, you can’t actually understand why his argument even could make sense.

It’s a small leap from lack of cultural knowledge to lack of cultural experience. We say today that you cannot know something unless you’ve experienced it, which is a half-truth. Some things you can know by research, and others you can only know by experience. Perhaps some doctrines require some sort of experience.

What if a Doctrine Feels Wrong?

When universalists look at the idea of people going to hell, they often have an emotional reaction. The idea of people going to hell ought to provoke an emotional reaction, and the number of missions agencies and the fact that people continue to join them and support them shows just what people are willing to do as they respond to that reaction. The universalists, rather than increase their missionary support and go to the mission field, decide instead that eternal damnation is not true. Universalists’ feelings are not wrong, but their doctrine is. Even so, what if a doctrine feels wrong? Does that indicate anything? Continue reading What if a Doctrine Feels Wrong?

Spiritual Warfare is Guerrilla Warfare

Spiritual warfare is hardly a neat war between the uniformed armies of equal countries, snapping up this bit of land with all those nice mines and factories in it or grabbing up that lucrative trade route. Spiritual warfare is guerrilla warfare. Satan is in a rebellion against God, so he can hardly sign a peace treaty and must fight to the bitter end, with dire consequences for humanity. Although we are bound up in an irregular war that defies neat solutions, although Christians are on the legitimate side and have to follow rules that the enemy does not, and although the smallest failure is a setback for the kingdom of God, Christians are free to pursue unconventional solutions, rely upon power that the enemy will never have, and the smallest victory is a step forward for the kingdom of God. Continue reading Spiritual Warfare is Guerrilla Warfare