Sacred Choices

“You have to pick. That’s the fundamental problem. And one interest has to prevail over the other at any given point in time, and that’s why this is so challenging, I think.”[1] – Justice Brett Kavanaugh during opening arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, Dec. 1, 2021

Where is the voice of liberal religion in the spiritual debate about abortion?  Is liberal religion only concerned with the secular question of personal liberty and autonomy?  For liberal religion, does reason vacate any sense of the divine?

The insistence by some people to have a secular argument about something that is a uniquely spiritual question for others is always problematic.  The primary basis for the anti-abortion argument is the religiously motivated question of when life begins.  Either there is life, or there is no life.  This is what sits subtly behind Kavanaugh’s statement.  The definition of “life” may be scientific, but the impulse to raise the question is, for most religious conservatives, deeply spiritual.

Liberal religion has the potential to be a powerful spiritual language in this conversation and would do well to reclaim some of its power of persuasion at the table.  Liberal religion is woefully thin when it boils itself down to reason only; indeed, when it does so, it stops being religion altogether and becomes politics.  What is most useful about liberal religion as it has evolved in today’s world is its capacity to hold complexity.  Within these spaces and communities and theologies, there is not just the space for reason but also the ability to fully embrace divergent religious belief, diverse embodied experience and conflicting political agendas.

These are ethically expansive spaces where humanity in all of its variation is held at the center.  As a result, liberal religion calls us to a deeply nuanced understanding of what it means to create life.  It asks us to think about the fact that people who are able to become pregnant hold incredible responsibility.  But more than responsibility, they hold immense power that informs us all what it means to be alive.  Within their bodies is not only the ability to bring life into existence (for no fetus ever willed itself into being) but also, the ability to end that life, either by naturally occurring or artificial means.  It is this dual potential for life and death that becomes an embodied expression of human wholeness.

Indeed, birth does not come without death.  We “learn” death from the fact that we are born.  Once you are born…even once a being is conceived, it is capable of death…and the death of the body is inevitable.  This is at the heart of human being…even in the most God-centered religious beliefs.  The ability to create life from within the body (whether you believe it comes from God or science or both) does not come without the inevitability of the end life.  This is the awesome power of one of the most important theologies of womanhood* that is so often missed in a male-dominated phallocentric society.

The pro-choice movement is not doing itself any favors by totally secularizing the argument.  Our embodiment is not exclusively political or governmental.  It can’t be.  Embodiment is emotional, sensual, ethical, individual, communal and by extension for some, spiritual and profoundly religious.  As I look at it, the pro-choice movement actually has a much stronger spiritual argument than the anti-abortion movement because it can embrace the fullness of the spiritual mandate that is embodied in the potential to create mortal life.  In fact, the pro-choice movement is more pro-life than the pro-lifers. Women and people who give birth are the only ones who introduce every single human to the fragile balance between life and death that we call “being.”  Denying them the totality of that power, responsibility and the divine genetic script because of politics or narrow enforcement of human imposed orthodoxies is a violation of their total humanity.

People who believe that the spirit animates us from conception and who insist that intentionally ending pregnancy is a crime (against God), are not wrong.  But they must remember that their definition of life that is based on their religious view of the world is not shared by everyone.  Nor can it be, nor should it be.  Alternately, people who do not adhere to a religious framework and who insist that the right to one’s body is an inalienable right that can never be infringed upon in a secular society are also not wrong.  But they must remember that we co-exist with the kaleidoscope of ways in which each of us (sometimes individually and sometimes in community) make sense of knowing we are alive while also knowing that we will die.  This is knowledge that is most often answered in our world by religion.  Liberal religious perspectives provide language and frameworks to carry both.

I will pray that the current debate about a woman’s right to choose the arc of pregnancy is decided in such a way that embodied, spiritual or human rights are held with greatest care.  From a liberal religious perspective, I believe it is possible.  Despite what Justice Kavanaugh and other conservatives on the court say, it is not a choice of one or the other, but really must be a “both, and.”  Sadly, the courts have never done “both, and” well (think Plessy v. Ferguson.)

One thing is for sure, although all of us know we will die, none of us knows that we will be born.  That is a sacred, exclusive conversation held between God and/or being and those who are blessed with the bodies in which we are conceived. No court or law required.

ALD

[1] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, p. 106.

* Here I am referencing womanhood that is not defined by birth or assigned gender…rather womanhood that can contain both.

Being

Original photo by Martin Schoeller for Forbes

Capitalism and the free-market economy are based on the exchange of value and the key freedom of participation.  One is free to work; one is free to pursue economic ends; one is free to do and create things in exchange for compensation or other value.  On its surface this is simple.  It is in many ways the commodification of doing.  But the ethics of the free market slide into another realm when we look at the fact that this same system in the United States also accommodated slavery.  In slavery, not only is the capacity to work, or produce goods commodified, but ones very existence becomes a tradable, marketable value.  The capacity to procreate, to express (or suppress) emotion…i.e. docility, malleability…even basic human will becomes of value in the marketplace.

The ethical horror of American slavery includes many ills: rape, torture, family separation, etc.  But the great sin (and I use that word deliberately here) that sits at its heart is the non-humanization of human beings.  Slavery in the United States is* based entirely on the commodification of being.

Democracy has tried in the past to be a stopgap to this tragedy.  The early failures of the original framers of the constitution to erase the commodification of being, were given some course correction by the combination of executive action followed by legislation…after a vicious and tragic war.  Sadly however, the poison runs deep.  It is evident in how there continues to be a lively trade in anti-blackness, both domestically and abroad.  No amount of legislation seems capable of fixing the sickness of anti-blackness that is held both by those who are not black and sadly (and I say this as a very proud black man) by those who are.  Still democracy tries.

More importantly, activists, organizers, legislators, teachers, businesspeople, children, most of them black and some who are not…try daily to portray blackness through lenses of pride and worthiness; dynamic expression and ingenuity; creativity, beauty and brilliance.  It is not that the people who were brutally brought here from the African continent starting in 1619 didn’t have any of these same qualities…one need only to look at the list of technological and other advancements for which they were responsible to recognize that.  The problem is that their being as opposed to their doing was turned into value.  If you do not outright own your own being, you have nothing.  You are nothing.  This is what sits at the heart of anti-blackness.

I am not against a free market or capitalism. However, I do believe capitalism needs to always be checked by ethics.  Slavery and its progeny anti-blackness are the best examples of this.  The Civil War was a bizarre ethical conundrum: white men fighting white men over the power of their whiteness over black people.  A war over the “freedom” to commodify being that summarily denies freedom to others.

Now THAT is meta.

I encourage everyone who engages this brief reflection I’ve written to think carefully about the technology that Mark Zuckerberg has used to create wealth.  The means and technology are different, but the ethics are the exact same as what created the slavery industry and subsequently led to the deep seeded anti-blackness we live with today.  My greatest concern is not just the damage that is done by any kind of commodification of being (Zuckerberg’s business model is based on algorithms that do exactly that) but as a theologian and someone invested in the ethics of being, I worry what equivalent of anti-blackness will result from this failure of our democracy to act?  Anti-Asian? Anti-woman?  Anti-elder (think Logan’s Run)?  Anti-faith?  Anti-poor?  Anti-disability?  In truth, if you have engaged Zuckerberg’s work at all, you have probably experienced the potential for any of these already.

How quickly we forget that the abuse of freedom has consequences.  The freedom to put people’s being in chains against their will is a lesson I thought we had learned.

Apparently not.

ALD

*I refer to slavery in the present tense because we continue to live with its shadows and echoes in anti-blackness.