“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.

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.

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, www.trenthorn.com, 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 http://www.abort73.com/abortion/abortion_techniques/ or “What Are the Facts?  Frequently Asked at Justice For All Events” (www.jfaweb.org/Facts).

[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.

The Gay Marriage Round-Up: Thoughts from Around the Web

Same-sex marriage has been a major topic of discussion across the web, especially in evangelical circles. I thought it might be helpful to give our readers a round-up of some of the best and most interesting stuff around the web.

A flurry of posts immediately followed The Atlantic‘s story “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss,” so that’s as good a starting point as any. In it are a number of arguments, many of them speculative, considering what sorts of things a gay couple may be able to teach a heterosexual couple. There are lots of statistics from various surveys and studies, but many of the claims for future knowledge come down to separating the sexes in order to learn what is ‘uniquely male’ and ‘uniquely female’ in relationship settings.

In direct response, First Things offered up the similarly titled “What We Can Learn from Same-Sex Couples.” Here, Glenn Stanton works through the research behind the provocative story from The Atlantic, in order to tease out the implications. The findings are less optimistic than the Gay Guide would have us believe, to say the least.

The Atlantic may just have been capitalizing on the topic, but they followed up The Gay Guide with a piece written by a gay member of the Catholic Church. She speaks to the difference between believing in God abstractly and believing in God concretely; the former is likely not tied to any particular church, while the latter has some visible historicity and beauty to it. Even as an evangelical, I certainly understand and appreciate the point of view.

While I don’t agree with the position of the person being interviewed, John Corvino still makes some really important points regarding debate, broadly speaking. Especially worth noting is his rejection of the idea that all positions are equally valid–a common yet absurd notion–which is an important reminder in fields other than gay marriage (often, same-sex marriage debates agree on but one thing: both sides can’t be right, and one position is clearly superior to the other).

If you’re not familiar with the topic at all, however, the above may have been overwhelming. Joe Carter offered up some definitions regarding LGBTQ issues, which are helpful for those who haven’t researched any of it. He also works through the positions of those who have embraced gay-marriage while still holding to some form of Christianity.

Not every question is new, however. On the topic of giving up the fight against gay marriage, at least publicly, Timothy Dalrymple simply asks: when is the cost too high? In answer to the question, Matthew Lee Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy points out that not every socially conservative movement has looked bleak; in fact, he argues that we should learn the right lessons from the pro-life debate, which is gaining traction. While there are clear differences between the movements, there’s something to this approach. Brad Littlejohn also addressed the question of a tactical withdrawal, but argues for a shift in those tactics, rather than running away entirely.

That’s a lot of reading. And some of it is pretty heavy. While I stand with the traditional Christian view on homosexuality, I also recognize that a lot of the ways that Christians have interacted with the gay community have been harmful, and I’d like to find a way to change that without sacrificing what I believe is Biblical truth. We should be known for our love, after all.

Are Dolphins Persons?

India has banned holding dolphins captive for entertainment purposes. The act doesn’t concern me, at this point; I’m unsure how to tease out our relationship with creation, especially in terms of captivity or the ‘taming’ of animals. Christians may be able to encourage captivity of animals under the clause of “[ruling] over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” We could also argue that part of righteous rule is loving our ‘subjects,’ so to speak, and that captivity is intrinsically against this idea.

But the fascinating bit of the decision—as is often the case—is the reasoning behind it. The Central Zoo Authority of India had this to say about dolphins:

Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose.

I’m  not sure what a non-human person is, but that seems to be the hinge of the argument. There are other pragmatic concerns (dolphins are more likely to die in captivity, for instance), but those are less concerned with the necessary reality of captivity; that is, a practical concern is one that we can learn to overcome, while the nature of the thing (i.e., a ‘non-human person’) would make all captivity immoral. Questions of personhood are familiar to proponents of the pro-life debate, and those who have entered into serious science fiction might have dealt with the questions as well (clones, aliens, any number of other fictional possibilities). But we don’t often deal with the question outside of humanity, at least with living creatures here on earth.

So what makes a person? Well, Chisholm helps us frame the question:

An answer would take the form “Necessarily, x is a person if and only if …x …”, with the blanks appropriately filled in. More specifically, we can ask at what point in one’s development from a fertilized egg there comes to be a person, or what it would take for a chimpanzee or a Martian or an electronic computer to be a person, if they could ever be. (See e.g. Chisholm 1976: 136f., Baker 2000: ch. 3.)

If I were to argue against dolphin personhood, it is tempting to simply fill in “human” for x above. Unfortunately, this question begging doesn’t really end up taking us anywhere. Ultimately, we’d end up setting up ‘human’ and ‘person’ as essentially equivalent in the initial definition, which removes even the possibility of discussion of other candidates for personhood. It is possible that ‘person’ is best defined as human, to an argument for personhood can’t start there.

So let’s assume that we have to define ‘personhood’ using something deeper than just ‘human.’ The first obvious fact of personhood is that any given human must be classified as a person. We grant rights, and some we believe are inalienable, to all persons, but no one disputes that humans are persons (or shouldn’t; we’ve got a bad history with things like slavery, but we’re making progress). So if we came up with a definition of personhood that wasn’t fluid enough or broad enough to include a human, we’ve failed in our definition.

But is it possible that personhood is bigger than just humanity? That’s at least the assumption behind the dolphin argument. I’ll start by saying this: if you asked me on the street what endowed human beings with personhood, as it were, I’d likely say something akin to “all persons are made in the image of God.” Any and every bearer of the image of God is deserving of certain rights and graces, or at least we should be offering those rights to them. This answer necessarily precludes anything non-human, since only humanity is made in the image of God. There is a sense in which God has personhood, of course, but it’s a source relationship as much as anything; the image of God is derivative of God, and so personhood is derivative of something, perhaps some sort of divine personhood.

But I wonder if we can make the argument sans the image of God. Starting with naturalistic evolution, do we have good reason to refrain from granting personhood to dolphins, chimpanzees, or any other intelligent non-human life?

One criterion, tacitly offered by the dolphin argument, is that intelligence is sufficient for personhood. The primary argument for personhood, after all, is that “cetaceans are highly intelligent and sensitive,” and so they deserve some rights as non-human persons. While some argue that intelligence is a poor measure of personhood on the basis of the clear exceptions (those in a vegetative state may appear to lack any intelligence, even if they once had it; more powerful is the example of certain sorts of mental handicaps or deficiencies), but it will be more helpful to deal with generalities rather than exceptions. You can say a family is kind and mean it, even if there’s an unkind uncle. Perhaps not every member of a species is intelligent, but that shouldn’t preclude the species from being classified as intelligent. There will always be outliers.

But is intelligence enough for us to grant personhood? Science fiction has been asking this for years, though usually in terms of artificial intelligence. Should we grant rights to the appearance of intelligence that we see in computers or holograms? Perhaps one day AI technology will reach a point where we have genuine intelligence (though I have my doubts about the viability of this), and if that happens we’ll find ourselves asking the same questions. But a dolphin is different in significant ways. For starters, there is no feeling of ownership that can come with artificial intelligence. We didn’t create the dolphin, so we don’t have the same rights over it that we might over a mechanical intelligence.

Some might extend ‘intelligence’ to mean something like an ability to plan and put into motion various plans. Others might classify it as the ability to engage in abstract thought (a quick counterargument: do we have a way of confirming that dolphins, who appear to have other intelligent actions, are not capable of abstract thought?). Still others would rest on the issue of the image of God, as my own instincts guide me.

Personhood is difficult to define, that’s certain. It’s an important process to go through, for a variety of reasons. The pro-life movement is one of them, but so are many claims of victimization or oppression. Anytime someone claims that they are treated as sub-human, we have to ask how we treat sub-humans, which usually means identifying some sub-humans. While I remain unconvinced that we should treat dolphins as non-human persons, I recognize that the majority of the strength of my position comes from my religious convictions. I don’t think that weakens them, but it does offer less assistance when arguing in the public sphere.

Body Modification and Ethics: A Helpful Framework

If you aren’t reading Mere-O Notes, you really ought to be. Perhaps it is presumptuous to use an ‘ought’ so early in a discussion of ethics, but so be it. Really, go check it out. It is some of the best content curating on the web from an evangelical perspective.

How do we evaluate body modification in certain extreme cases? One woman has decided that she wants to gain weight for the express purpose of livestreaming herself on the web, either eating or otherwise. Her purpose for gaining weight is simple: there’s a market for “big, beautiful women,” and she can make more money by increasing her size. Jake ends his brief article on the subject with a question:

hope that Christian readers will be disturbed by this story and agree that this isn’t an ethical way to modify the body. But the counter-argument for good moderns will be, “It’s her body, she’s not hurting anyone but herself, and she’s finding a way to actually make a living from it… so what’s the problem?” What’s the appropriate response for thoughtful evangelicals?

The comments are helpful. Two readers ran with the same argument: the body isn’t ultimately ours. We are stewards of the body, and the body is a temple. The above example makes it pretty clear that stewardship has gone out the door, and any reverence due a temple seems missing. I added my own thoughts, which I’ll quote here:

I think the issue gets a little trickier when we start to discuss the issues in the public sphere. Arguments like “the body belongs to God” doesn’t hold much weight with people who either don’t believe in God or don’t think God has any pull in our day-to-day lives, or even from people who hold to other religious beliefs, potentially.

I don’t think that means we can’t make the arguments, though.

On the one hand, I might be tempted to just say we shouldn’t worry about making the arguments. We can’t morally police everyone who isn’t within the fold, so to speak, so why try?

But if we were to make a run at it, I might start by arguing that our bodies are actually more public than we often recognize; if they are indeed our extension into space, it follows that our presence is shifted by the shape and state of our bodies. Perhaps people think they are only harming themselves, but (at least in the above example), there’s certainly the issue of encouraging others (how many people might see this method as a way to make money, and then damage their own bodies in desperation to pay their bills?). There might even be something worth arguing about the strangeness of finding unhealthiness intrinsically attractive (rather than finding someone attractive who is unhealthy, it seems these people are attracted to the act of making oneself less healthy, which strikes me as pretty problematic).

The other arguments we’d have to combat (happiness is the leading/best reason that people should be allowed to do things; ownership is reason enough to justify any action; we are our own greatest authorities, and are sovereigns of our own bodies) are trickier to work through, sans Christianity or some other religious appeal, but I’m not sure they’re impossible.

I won’t repeat myself, but I did want to take some time to advance one of these arguments a bit further. If there’s interest, perhaps I’ll work through some of the others.

That second-to-last paragraph is what I want to hone in on; in particular, I want to talk about the intrinsic public nature of bodies. I’ll admit right off the bat that a lot of my thoughts on bodies, especially theological thoughts, have been influenced by Earthen Vessels, written by Matthew Anderson.

In one sense, our bodies are private: we cover them, and only reveal them in intimate moments (most of us, anyway). But for the most part, our bodies are absolutely public: people look at us and see us, we smell and touch others, we live in the world as embodied beings. So when we make decisions about our bodies–from the food we eat to the people we see to the places we go–we’re acting in a way that, by definition, doesn’t stay with the self.

And so it gets tricky when we start to look at something like intentionally making ourselves unhealthy. While the story cited above may give us all a similar reaction (perhaps it doesn’t; I’d like to hear from you, if that’s the case!), what about when we go and eat fast food, or skip exercising, or avoid vegetables? These are moments when we act against the body, in a way. The counter argument, and the one most of us will probably quickly jump to, is to say something like “Well, pleasure is an important part of life as well. If we don’t all like vegetables, we should sometimes enjoy stuff that isn’t so good for us, because we enjoy it.”

If we push that further, however, we get to the point where we gorge ourselves for the sake of enjoyment, rather than practicing stewardship.

So what do we do to evaluate our own actions in regards to our bodies? What framework should we use; what questions should we ask?

I think the stewardship line is a helpful one to explore. We should take care of the temples we have been given. While it feels like this will immediately lead us all to rigorous diet and exercise schedules, I think we should stretch the analogy a bit more. A temple that is crafted and decorated and chiseled until it looks absolutely perfect may be beautiful, and it may even be functional, but it will also be cold. A place of worship–a church–that discourages people from experiencing emotion or from opening up their very souls is a poor place of worship.

The analogy gets muddled there (I was tempted to say that lots of people frequent the church building, but I’m certain I don’t want to push that line), but the point is this: sometimes we should spend our time attending to things other than temple maintenance. Sometimes it is appropriate to eat something for the pleasure of it, even if it isn’t the healthiest thing we can find. Enjoyment is valuable, as are exercise and vegetables.

But the question should always be one of stewardship.

“Who Sez?” The Place of God in Moral Philosophy

On Tuesday, Dennis Prager made a comment on his radio program that without dogma (specifically religious dogma) there can be no rational argument against selfishness and cruelty.

A young man called into the program, describing himself as a Libertarian and an agnostic, to say that you don’t need dogma to be moral.  “I never said that”, responded Prager.  He then asked the young man a simple question, “What would you say to a rich slave owner?”  The young man answered that it causes him intense discomfort to see other human beings suffering.  Prager responded that it doesn’t cause the slaver owner any discomfort.  Continue reading “Who Sez?” The Place of God in Moral Philosophy


I hate it when I check my food order after I pull out of the drive through, and I have to walk inside to ask them to fix it.

How does that complaint strike you?  Mildly amusing?  Ironic?  Or are you offended at my callousness toward those who are actually suffering?

The Twitter hashtag #FirstWorldProblems is a popular one.  It typically follows a comment like the one I just wrote.  As you can imagine, then, it is used primarily to highlight the irony of such a statement, to point out that it is not in fact a real problem.

A recent ad campaign from the organization Water Is Life uses this Twitter meme to great effect.  Here is the video:

The ad is generating a small bit of controversy.  I think we need to keep a few things in mind before rushing to one conclusion or another.  First, as Time notes, even the Haitians featured in the ad understood the joke, even laughing at some of the tweets.  As I said, it is supposed to be ironic.  Whenever this hashtag is used, the person sending the tweet is acknowledging that their problem is not really a problem, all things considered.  Phone charger won’t reach?  Be grateful you have a cell phone.  They gave you pickles?  Be thankful you can afford fast food whenever you want it.  In essence, this is the sort of moral exhortation that the hashtag is implicitly giving to us.  Water Is Life is merely taking that exhortation and expanding it, and then providing you with an immediate and tangible way to help people.

Second, to push back, we do need to be careful that our amusing irony doesn’t simply become callous and unthinking.  There may be nothing wrong with the meme in itself, but a person who tweets 5 of their first world problems every day should probably find something more constructive to do.  Not unlike people who post pictures of every meal.

There is a time and a place for ironic self-deprecation, but note that Twitter effectively abolishes any notion of “place.”  Our tweets potentially reach anyone with an internet connection.  When you cannot control your audience, you need to take even more care with the words you use.  Moreover, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of letting a hashtag justify anything we feel like saying.  Acknowledging beforehand that we’re about to be petty and shallow does not in fact give us permission to be petty and shallow.

Third, we should also remember that people in the so-called first world do in fact experience genuine suffering.  We don’t want to be callous in either direction.  Cancer, mental illness, unexpected deaths and poverty are all realities in America as much as they are in the third world.  Exhibiting too much high-minded irony towards the problems of first worlders actually betrays one of the major problems of the first world, that we are materialists.  We consume and consume, hoping in vain that the next iPhone will finally make us happy.  Compared to someone who does not have an iPhone, how could we possibly experience real suffering (which is defined, of course, as not having an iPhone).

In the end, this ad is just smart marketing.  It really shouldn’t offend anyone, because if you’ve ever used #FirstWorldProblems in a tweet, this should have been the very point you were trying to make.  Now when you forget your Dr. Dre Beats at home and are forced to suffer the indignity of using the standard earbuds that came with your iPhone 5, you can use this meme to give your followers a chuckle and actually help contribute to a worthy cause at the same time.

Cause and Effect

A while ago, a good friend of mine who was struggling with agnosticism and came to me with a question about Christianity. Some people, he said, claimed that Christianity’s “morality” wasn’t truly moral because God used heaven and hell as a system of punishment and reward. True morality, the argument goes, requires nothing more than itself to serve as motivation. You do something because it is right, or you don’t do something because it is wrong. But God goes farther than that: sin, and go to hell; don’t sin, and go to heaven. Continue reading Cause and Effect

The End Of Abortion

Evangelical Christians have lost  gay marriage. 

This is my humble yet controversial opinion.  I could be wrong, I’m no prophet, but when the social conservatives are also the party of unyielding individualism and liberty, it’s very hard to make the rhetorical pivot to being against what appears to most people to be a matter of individuals exercising their  liberty.  Beside that, in my opinion, we are still losing the narrative debate.  Traditional marriage defenders have been, so far, pretty lousy at providing the alternative positive story of marriage in contradistinction to the “I just want the equal right to marry whomever I love” story that resonates with most people of good will.

Here’s the good news, we’re winning abortion.

The positive story has been on our side for a long time now, and it resonates powerfully.  The striking parallels between the abolition of abortion and the abolition of slavery are also persuasive.  When abortion becomes a human rights issue, as it is, both right-wing individualism and left-wing concern for social justice meet in common cause.  To oppose that cause is to take up a fool’s errand.

Moreover, when the proponents of abortion are forced to continuously admit that abortion itself  is “tragic” and “should be rare”, well, it’s easy to see a lost cause.  Can you imagine gay activists admitting in solemn tones, “We all know gay marriage is tragic, and should be a rare occurance, but gay people should still be free to choose in those extreme instances when it’s necessary”?

One thing that always puzzles me about the Left is how they mock and deride those who argue that the shifting sands of their own moral foundation will eventually eradicate all standards of right and wrong.  They cry “Oh, that’s just a slippery slope!”  This is one of those moves that Facebook Philosophers like to make.  Look up a list of logical fallacies and throw a few out in an argument so that you appear educated and skilled at critical thinking.  What puzzles me about this, though, is that when, lo and behold, the sands start shifting a little too fast for the current tastes of the Leftist elite, they profess shock and disbelief, yet no hint of an apology to that wise man or woman whom they had accused of peddling hysterical logical fallacies just a few moments earlier (in fact, they may simply lash out and deride him or her even more).

This is just what’s happened over at Slate, where William Saletan begins with this lament:

Just when you thought the religious right couldn’t get any crazier, with its personhood amendments and its attacks on contraception, here comes the academic left with an even crazier idea: after-birth abortion.

Here is a man who clearly hasn’t been paying attention.  The Pro-Life movement has been arguing for a long time now that there is no substantial difference between an infant and a fetus.  And Peter Singer has argued for infanticide for years.  I suspect Mr. Saletan is merely nervous, and his nervousness leads him to open the article by reminding everyone how crazy the other side is.  This is important, because Mr. Saletan provides no answers for those Pro-choicers who are repulsed by infanticide, he merely raises unsettling questions. 

His article is actually quite insightful.  He goes straight to the assumptions, so often taken for granted without argument, that underpin the whole Pro-choice position.  He calls each of these assumptions into question because they seem to lead logically to the acceptability of infanticide.  This can’t be, however, because Mr. Saletan realizes that infanticide is “crazy.”  Here are the assumptions:

1. The moral significance of fetal development is arbitrary.
2. Prior to personhood, human life has no moral claims on us.
3. Any burden on the woman outweighs the value of the child.
4. The value of life depends on choice.
5. Discovery of a serious defect is grounds for termination.

Without these assumptions, the Pro-choice position completely collapses.  Mr. Saletan’s challenge in this article is for Pro-choicers to confront the logic of the “after-birth abortion” position head-on and explain how any of these assumptions can remain intact for an unborn fetus and yet not apply to the newborn baby.  He concludes:

The challenge posed to Furedi and other pro-choice absolutists by “after-birth abortion” is this: How do they answer the argument, advanced by Giubilini and Minerva, that any maternal interest, such as the burden of raising a gravely defective newborn, trumps the value of that freshly delivered nonperson? What value does the newborn have? At what point did it acquire that value? And why should the law step in to protect that value against the judgment of a woman and her doctor?

Unbeknownst (I assume) to Mr. Saletan, who is after all a Pro-choicer himself, he has just articulated the presuppositional argument against abortion.  And it is telling that he makes no attempt to provide any response.  I believe that’s called a deafening silence. 

All Mr. Saletan can do is nervously proclaim that he just knows (and after all, doesn’t everybody?) that infanticide is “crazy”, and remind us that the other side is just as crazy, so whatever we do we certainly can’t join up with them.  I don’t blame him, really.  I’d be nervous too if I felt myself slipping down the side of a steep slope I was quite sure wasn’t there.

Image via Slate.