Why YOU Should Love the Homeless–Breaking the Cycle of Rejection

This past Saturday, my friends and I met Leonard, one of many living on the streets of LA, as we were walking in downtown.  Leonard started a conversation with us after we smiled and nodded at him when we were walking by.  Leonard was different because he enthusiastically responded to our small acknowledgement.  Most of the other people we encountered simply stared or totally ignored us.  This “hardness” is a natural result of their homelessness.

In order to survive, humans “harden” themselves to adverse circumstances. This hardness, or choosing not to care, protects from potential and constant disappointment.  In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s father tells her again and again, “I cannot love thee.” At first, this made Catherine cry, but “then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed if I told her to say she was sorry for her faults(p43).”  Being rejected again and again hurts.  Better to be “safe” and closed off than to risk rejection by allowing other people’s actions to have sway.

Proverbs, too, sheds insight on this human response. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (13:12)  For people like Catherine, the idea is better to not hope at all than to hope and lose. In Catherine’s case, she initially craves her father’s love, but continual rejection leads her to adapt in a way so as to protect herself from continual hurt. So she chooses not to hope for her father’s love so as not to be constantly hurt by hope deferred.  For others, like Leonard, hope deferred can relate to a much broader spectrum such as hope of acceptance in society, a job, value, a place to live, or simply a place to stay the night. Rejection is an everyday occurrence in the life of the homeless, primarily that from passerby.  No wonder so many we passed simply ignored us—they are used to being ignored so choose to ignore so as to protect themselves.

Our actions have a cyclical affect.  Personal rejection leads to your rejection of others.  Being often ignored causes you to often ignore others.  Our own experience of the world is drastically shaped by other people’s actions toward us.  Just as bad put in, causes bad to be put out, a “good” action will likely have a similar effect.  Paying for a stranger’s coffee one morning will likely make them much more inclined to be extra nice and generous towards other people that day.  Our talking to Leonard (hopefully) brightened his day.  However, there is a substantial difference between short and long term cyclical effects.

It will take much more than a brief encounter to reach someone hardened by a life-time of abuse.  The Proverbs concludes by saying, “But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The desire to be loved and accepted is at the core of our being.  However much we may pretend otherwise, or harden ourselves from this desire, it is impossible to be “okay” without feeling loved and accepted.  This feeling can come in many different ways—from a stranger, from God, from a significant other, from a friend.  Constant love is needed to break a cycle of constant hate.

We cannot provide a constant source of love for every hurting individual we meet.  But we can constantly be showing love to every individual we meet.  We are able to do this because of Christ’s love in us.  We love because He loves us.  The ultimate fix to despair is the Gospel. I like to think that Leonard was different—”soft,” receptive, open— because he had the Spirit of God dwelling inside of him.  During our conversation, Leonard shared some verses he had just memorized that day.  Leonard had an eternal hope that affected his perspective.  Yes, his earthly circumstances did not suck any less because of his faith.  But his hope-based perspective allowed him to face the world with expectation instead of deferred born complacency.

This is not to say we should not be concerned about very tangible and earthly needs.  We are very much supposed to be concerned about physical brokenness! We can often love the hurting best by providing for them in physical ways.  While I am not sure this was the best possible way to love Leonard, my friends and I chose not to give him money but instead buy him some food from a nearby store.  I would have felt very convicted if I prayed for Leonard without addressing his physical needs (James 2:16).  Providing for the hurting in physical ways often substantiates our verbal proclamation of love.

Even though most people did not respond to my smile or friendly hello, I still think it was right to do it.  If I stopped saying hello simply because I would get spurned, then I, too, would become a part of the destructive cycle.  Don’t let other people’s responses determine your actions.  We are called to be cycle breakers!  Wherever you go, whether it be walking down the streets of LA or in your office, look for opportunities to show Christ’s love—both through word and deed.  Whether it be a simple smile and a hello or buying a meal for a person, your small action can help break the cycle of a hope-deferred existence.

*Quotes taken from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Penguin Classics.

*Image via Wikimedia Commons

An Insurmountable Obstacle

Did you know it’s estimated that in 2011-1012 about 7.1 billion people were considered chronically undernourished? Or did you know that the estimated number of orphans world-wide is around 1.5 billion? Statistics like these are often employed to raise awareness and are often effective in alerting an audience to the magnitude and importance of a problem. However, they can also have the unintended effect of overwhelming an audience. In light of solving a problem that seems hopeless, how are we supposed to respond?

a) walk away

Even when faced with a small problem, it’s tempting to leave it alone believing someone else will fix it or it will be resolved on its own. Dirty dishes in the sink? Maybe I can pretend I didn’t see them and my roommate will wash them when she gets home. Or maybe they’re not actually a problem at all; maybe she put them into the sink for a reason. As ridiculous as these excuses may sound, they still run through our mind and  cause us to realize there is a daily temptation to ignore and give up on the small problems.

When faced with a huge problem, especially one that doesn’t personally affect us, the temptation becomes even bigger to just walk away. Of course, nobody wants to admit this. Nobody would say, “I don’t care if global hunger continues” because theoretically, everybody wants the problem to end. While there are some who actively work to fix the problem, many seem content only expressing a desire to fix the problem and then ignoring the needed work.

b) settle for less

Sometimes when confronted with a large problem, sometimes one attempt won’t offer a solution so it’s necessary to begin by taking small steps. The small steps then offer a better approach by breaking the problem up into manageable pieces. This approach can be extremely useful and is often necessary to begin addressing the problem.

However with this option, there is a risk of contenting oneself with only the small steps and never resolving the larger problem. For example, removing a tree means the roots eventually need to be removed. Beforehand, sometimes its necessary to prune the branches which is an example of taking small steps to fix the problem. However, sometimes only the branches are pruned and the trunk is never touched. Similarly with a large problem, sometimes actions are only taken to relieve the problem and fail to follow through in solving the entire problem. This option is tricky because it follows the same lines as an appropriate response. However, this option becomes faulty when the small steps fall short of addressing the problem either at its core or in its entirety.

c) try harder

Especially for those plagued with guilt or self-doubt, trying harder seems to be the simple solution to an unsolved problem. We know that when we care about something, we will spend time and effort with it, so if we truly cared about an issue, it would then seem we should spend a maximum amount of time and effort. However, this mindset is a recipe for burnout since it usually doesn’t realistically view the problem’s extent or man’s ability.

Although these options differ in their approach, whether it’s overworking or underworking, they all fail to offer a satisfying solution because of one simple reason. They forget the basic truth that’s taught all throughout Sunday school: the right answer is Jesus. While it’s somewhat of a trite saying, in this case it’s the correct answer. As believers, we are now children of God and we are in the process of being fashioned like Christ.

Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” We are called to be obedient to this command in a way that mirrors Jesus’ love. Jesus didn’t abandon the world or settle for the minimum, but in His life and death, He fully engaged with life’s essential and daily problems. While we don’t have Jesus’ divine ability to completely fix the world’s problems, we do have the motivation and the ability to mirror His love. This doesn’t mean trying harder to solve immense problems but rather trying properly by pointing to the ultimate solution of Jesus.

Finally, in spite of our feelings of hopelessness, the truth is He has already overcome the world. Jesus loved us with a love that carried Him through the earth and the heavens and we have been shown this love. If we are filled with this love, our response to the world problems around us will not cause us to become overwhelmed or afraid. Instead, we will be able to act in a way that demonstrates Christ’s love and thus allows our love to be stronger than our fear.


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.

True Religion And The Welfare State

I recently had a conversation with a friend who I would consider part of the “Christian Left.”  As I’ve mentioned before, those on the Christian Left tend, generally speaking, to reject evangelical assumptions about Scripture, such as inerrancy or perspicuity.  Many, like my friend, are sympathetic to modern textual-critical scholarship and doubt the authenticity and authority of entire books of the Bible, especially those of Paul.  These folks are often referred to as the “red-letter Christians” since, in their view, the loving and tolerant teachings of Jesus trump anything else in Scripture.

One Biblical author who gets almost equal weight, though, is James, and it’s easy to see why.  James has little patience for playing at religion, and a lot to say about social justice.

In the course of dialoging with my friend about federal welfare programs, I quoted from James, perhaps to establish my social justice cred, and also to preemptively rebut potential accusations that I don’t think Christians have a duty to care for the poor.  When I looked up the passage I had in mind, to quote it accurately, I was a little surprised.  James 1:27 reads,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (NRSV)

Now, I always hear about the orphans and widows, but rarely hear about remaining unstained by the world, to the point that I forgot it was even part of the verse.  This prompted a thought.  While I believe it is certainly possible for Christians to support social welfare programs that demand more and more tax revenue and ever increasing government power, what happens when James 1:27a butts heads with James 1:27b?  In other words, what happens when our attempt at following the first half of James’ instruction ultimately forces us to compromise on the second half?  When Christians place the necessary responsibility of caring for widows and orphans in the hands of an increasingly secular entity whose goals are frequently in opposition to other important Christian beliefs, this dilemma is sure to follow.

A perfect example would be the recent HHS mandate, part of Obamacare, that requires Catholic and Evangelical institutions to pay for the contraceptive coverage of their employees or students.  This requirement runs directly counter to one of the most cherished (and assaulted) beliefs of Christianity, the value of the unborn child.  In essence, the government has mandated that Christian employers and academic institutions must financially support a worldly stain on their employees and students, and accept that stain by implication.  Thankfully, many of these institutions are fighting the mandate, but the fate of such legal cases is still far from certain.

If we ask, then, whether Christians ought to capitulate to the modern liberal ideal of the omni-competent state, the answer, I think, should be no. We cannot legitimately appeal to passages like James 1:27 to justify higher taxes and more welfare programs when the organization we have chosen to care for the widows and orphans is increasingly hostile to the other half of “pure and undefiled” religion.

An obvious objection is that we cannot refuse to aid the poor simply because the government is not as Christian as we would like.  But this turns on a false alternative.  We are not forced to choose between a totalizing welfare state or no welfare at all.  James is calling us as individual believers to live out this kind of selfless lifestyle daily and in the flesh.  In short, he is calling us to lives of charity.  Yet it should be obvious that allowing the government to tax you in order to theoretically spend some of that tax money on nameless, faceless people is not equivalent to a selfless life of charity.  James expects you to have more skin in the game.

You can give that same money to a mercy fund at your church, and not only will all of it go to actually helping the poor (since your Elders and Deacons are, or should be, unpaid volunteers), but you can actually put your boots on the ground and help to do the volunteer work yourself.  And it doesn’t have to be a church.  You can give your time and money to any small, volunteer-based group in your community.  The main point is that James is calling every Christian to personally engage in the work of charity, not to indirectly participate in the abstract idea of charity.  (I should add, this is especially true of those who fall into a low enough tax bracket that they do not end up paying any taxes, while eagerly voting to raise taxes on other, wealthier people).

Instead, I would argue that putting more money back in the hands of individuals enables them to do what James is calling them to do, without the potential excuse that paying taxes relieves them of responsibility.  Moreover, it takes that same money out of the hands of federal bureaucrats, who have a record of wasteful spending and mismanagement that helps no one, least of all the poor.

If we really want to live out the calling of James 1:27, we should work to rein in an out of control government and put the responsibility of helping the poor, widows and orphans back in the hands of our local churches and other community groups.

The flip side of that coin is that we must be willing to actually shoulder that responsibility.

Are we?


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.

Welcome Home, Gilad Shalit.

Gilad Shalit was welcomed home today after five long years in the Hamas prison system. (The Telegraph is live-blogging his homecoming for those interested.)

The 477 Palestinian prisoners who were freed today in exchange for Shalit are also celebrating their own homecoming, albeit under different circumstances. (The remaining 550 prisoners will be released in two months.) Though Israel hopes the terms of Shalit’s release will lead to renewed peace efforts, Gazans have already greeted their released compatriots with demands for more kidnapping and violence:

“The people want a new Gilad!” the crowd chanted, suggesting the abductions of Israeli soldiers would mean freedom for thousands more Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

…most of the 477 prisoners freed Tuesday had been serving life terms for killing Israelis, and their release violated a long-standing Israeli pledge not to free those with “blood on their hands”…

In his speech, Abbas praised the released prisoners as “freedom fighters.”

He suggested that his method of negotiations was also bearing fruit, saying that “there is an agreement between us and the Israeli government on another batch (of releases) similar to this batch after it finishes.”

His comments marked the first time he referred to an additional prisoner release, and there was no immediate Israeli comment.

The Boston Globe has some sobering (and gruesome) details about several specific Palestinian soldiers and the reasons they had been imprisoned. JTA has more here.

Even so, polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Israelis supported the terms of the exchange–likely because universal conscription means nearly all Israelis can strongly identify with the desire to leave no soldier behind.

Curiously, polls also indicate that 66% of Israelis have little hope for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflicts. 67% of those polled last month also said that President Netanyahu did not believe peace with the Palestinians is possible.

It’s as if Israelis are desperate for an end to the conflict, but have all but given up hope that an agreement will ever be reached. No doubt Palestinian families feel the same way, though many of their leaders seem bent on continuing the conflict at all costs.

Netanyahu noted this morning that “On this day, we are all united in both joy and pain.” That may be the best, most universally applicable summary of this situation yet uttered. And as Palestinians welcome home their loved ones today, no less loved for having blood on their hands, it’s hard to imagine a time when the pain and the joy will not be thus co-mingled.

Photo courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces


What if Spock Was Right: Gilad Shalit, the Many, and the One

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas announced yesterday that Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas since 2006, will be released.

In exchange for Shalit’s freedom, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, hundreds of them convicted terrorists, will also be released.

The lopsided nature of this one-for one thousand exchange has not gone unnoticed, especially since similar past exchanges have not worked out well for Israel. It’s generally agreed that Hamas is set to be the winner in this instance, and though many believe Israel ought to be commended for a renewed commitment to life and hope, it seems probable that the freeing of these hundreds of convicted terrorists will bring an end to many, many more lives in both Israel and Palestine.

Has Israel made the right decision? It’s hard to know.

Perhaps it’s trite, but I can’t help thinking here of two exchanges between Spock and Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies.

As Spock sacrifices himself at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he tells Kirk,

Spock:“Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…”

Kirk: “The needs of the few.”

Spock: “Or the one.”

Later, when Kirk and Spock are reunited after Spock’s rescue, Spock is puzzled—why was he spared when so much was at stake?

Spock: My father says that you have been my friend. You came back for me.
Kirk: You would have done the same for me.
Spock: Why would you do this?
Kirk: Because the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.

In the Star Trek universe, Kirk found a way to save both the many and the one. Spock sacrificed himself for his shipmates, and they in turn sacrificed themselves for him. It makes for a good story—but real world struggles rarely end so neatly. In buying Gilad Shalit’s freedom at an almost impossibly high price, Israel may end up sacrificing its own people for the sake of a compelling national narrative.

It’s bold. It’s risky. It’s what the “good guys” in the movies would do. But is it wise? Perhaps not.

This tension between the needs of the one and needs of the many is, by the way, an old problem for Israel. In John 11, when the chief priests and Pharisees are discussing what to do about the man whose actions threaten their own power, Caiaphas convinces them to simply do away with Jesus:

“…You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:49-50)

In the past, when Israel acted out of fear and favored the “many” over the “one”, Jesus died. (Of course, Gilad Shalit is not Jesus, and both stories are complicated. This is not a perfect analogy!) This time, though it’s easy to criticize the country’s desperation, they are at least moving forward boldly, and without obvious fear.

Maybe that’s good. Maybe it’s bad. I don’t know.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”—and pray for Gilad Shalit. That much, at least, is clear.


All For One, Not One For All: Thoughts on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy

“It is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.”

This age-old attitude is at the heart of the drama in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which begins with the international best-seller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

A confession: these are not the sort of books I usually read. I’m not fond of mysteries, and the phrase “international best-seller” usually puts my guard up. But after reading Lars Walker’s reviews of two of the books at Brandywine Books, I became intrigued.

The books deal with the story of Lisbeth Salander, a socially awkward (to put it mildly) young woman with a history of trauma. Over the course of the three books, the reader discovers that not only has Lisbeth been harmed by the very people who were put in place to protect her, but that the Swedish government decided that she was expendable to protect a certain State secret.

Fortunately, Lisbeth is not as alone as she seems. Idealistic journalist Mikael Blomkvist, having met Lisbeth in the first book, determines to expose the evil that Lisbeth has suffered, no matter the cost. Blomkvist is joined in his crusade by the staff of his magazine, Millennium, as well as several others. Over the course of the books, the lines are drawn between those willing to expose the truth and those who want to cover it up.

This is why, I suspect, so much of the story is spent with characters in the police force and the world of journalism. While these occupations often find themselves at odds, they are both fundamentally dedicated to discovering the truth and revealing evil.

This aspect of the story is slow to build, taking a backseat to a dramatic missing-person story and a double murder in the first two books. But Larsson never lets the theme be lost or obscured: by the end of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the reader can see plainly the horror of allowing a single innocent woman’s rights be trampled in the name of expedience, or national security, or any other lofty-sounding goal.

The main sense of horror in the trilogy comes not from  violence (though there is plenty of that), but from the slow realization that the organs of truth-telling, namely the police and the press, have utterly failed. In Salander’s case, they have even colluded to keep her story under wraps, to discredit her as a witness to crimes, and to keep her under federal supervision. Lisbeth refuses to speak to psychiatrists and police officers, because when she did so as a child, she was locked away in an institution to keep her from revealing a scandal. For 15 years, no-one digs deeper into her story, assuming her to be mentally retarded and incapable of interaction. Lisbeth allows the world to continue thinking of her that way because it is the only way that she will simply be left alone.

The climactic moment of the story comes, not when the murders are finally solved, but when Lisbeth Salander’s story is proven true in a public forum and all those who used her as a sacrifice on the altar of expediency are revealed.

There are problems with these books: the sexual morality, for instance, leaves much to be desired. But in the end, Larsson seems to want nothing more than to praise the costly telling of truth in the face of easy silence. And on that, we can agree.

(Note: there are sexual and violent situations in these books that may make them unsuitable for young readers. I don’t recall thinking that any of the sex or violence was purely titillating, though that is a very subjective judgement. Even with that caveat, I highly recommend these books.)

US Support for Yousef Nadarkhani Grows as Iran Denies Its Own Apostasy Charges

In a move more reminiscent of a badly regulated nursery than of a foreign power, Iranian officials have now denied that Yousef Nadarkhani is to be executed on charges of apostasy.

Instead, the young Iranian Christian will be executed on charges of rape, treason, and Zionism. Maybe.

Or maybe not; a statement on the Iranian Embassy site in the U.K. contradicts numerous reports—including official Iranian court documents—when it claims that no verdict has been issued:

The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in London renounces the published news regarding the death penalty for Mr. Yousof Nadarkhani and announces that the Court of Appeal in the Islamic Republic of Iran has not issued any verdict on his case. Accordingly, the allegations to the issue of the death penalty for the above mentioned, are unsubstantiated.

Iran’s wish to do away with Pastor Nadarkhani while maintaining an increasingly absurd semblance of legality has not received nearly the attention it deserves, especially when compared with some of the better known court cases that have crowded our news feeds. Mark Tapscott writes,

Unlike Troy Davis, for whom the evidence of his innocence was at best questionable, Nadarkhani is unequivocally innocent of wrongdoing. So why the seeming celebrity indifference to his situation and to the worldwide Muslim persecution of Christians?

Unfortunately, celebrity outrage reflects the multiculturalist mindset of our era, which places all minorities on a pedestal – unless that minority is a devout Christian. Celebrities flocked to support American Muslims’ right to religious freedom in the Ground Zero mosque controversy (a right which the mosque protesters were not even contesting). They decried the “state-sanctioned murder” of the black Troy Davis. But they can’t be bothered to take even a stand on Twitter for Pastor Nadarkhani, whose murder at the hands of an oppressive state is imminent.

Fortunately, as the expected execution is continually delayed, more and more people are beginning to take notice. Condemnations from the White House, numerous members of Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, advocacy groups like Amnesty International, and a few mainstream news outlets have made Iranian officials nervous enough to deny the findings of their own court system. Unfortunately, that may not be enough to save Nadarkhani’s life.

Yousef Nadarkhani’s case is particularly important because he is just one of the many Iranians suffering under increased religious persecution. No one has been executed for apostasy for Iran since 1990, but if Nadarkhani dies, many others will no doubt follow. Let’s hope that future martyrs will be enabled to keep the faith, as Nadarkhani has—and let’s hope the world will start to pay more attention.


Social Justice, the Body of Christ, and the Reputation of Christians

Over at the Huffington Post, Zach Hunter has written a piece about his work in the area of human trafficking. At only 19–and having started his ministry when he was only 12–his track record likely puts many other believers to shame, so to speak. In this article, he speaks on the theological truth that we should be presenting the Gospel with actions as well as with words, and I think he is spot on. They will know we are Christians by our love, after all, and Jesus’ final call to us is to ‘make disciples': a necessarily active and action-oriented statement.

Continue reading Social Justice, the Body of Christ, and the Reputation of Christians