Feb. 5, 2017
A few months ago a friend and I talked about the ethics of abortion and reproductive freedom. And as we talked, he pressed me, “Where in the Bible do you find support for the pro-choice position?” The question came from a sincere place, a real desire to know. And the question made me think. I realized that in twenty years as your pastor, I have not talked about the spiritual or theological reasons I’ve come to be pro-choice. And so this morning I want to think with you about our faith and what it teaches about moral questions like reproductive choice.
At the beginning I want to say that abortion - like questions about homosexuality and racism and many more - are issues we struggle with that didn’t occur to the authors of the Bible. Or at least, didn’t occur to them in the way that we ask our questions. We will not find our answer by looking for that one chapter and verse. Instead, we must find a scriptural rudder to guide us into our new waters; not a Biblical citation but a Biblical concept.
We also need a Biblical concept instead of just a citation because advocating for reproductive choice or LGBT rights or that Black Lives Matter is a long struggle. Back in the 1950’s, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about his work as a “stride toward freedom.” King worked on the long stride; it was not a dash to freedom, not a 50-yard sprint. If you’re making a sprint, then perhaps a Bible citation will do. But King faced a marathon; he needed spiritual power. To keep up the pace, we need more than the quick hit of a citation; the long race requires concepts of spiritual power.
A marathon runner gets power for the long race by carbo-loading. Pasta dinner, rice, potatoes, energy food. I need to carbo-load too for the stride toward freedom. To spiritually carbo-load. I need communion.
I grew up Catholic; we had communion every week. I remember my parents preparing me to receive communion for the first time. We practiced with goldfish. I would walk up solemnly and my dad who give me a goldfish. It was important to be quiet, reverential. Number one rule: don’t drop the goldfish. I was ready when I first received communion. But now I look back on the lesson - don’t drop the wafer - and realize what it meant spiritually: there’s the sacred and then, as far removed as we can make it, the profane, the world. Such a spirituality separates the “Holy” from the “messy.” Such a spirituality worries about purity, keeping the sacred from touching the profane.
Growing up there was a choice. The priest could put the wafer in your hands - you brought it up without touching it again - or the priest could put it in your mouth - which was the more pious way. Even before I knew any theology, I got the spiritual message: our bodies are dangerous, our bodies can profane the holy. These messages about the holy and the body, the sacred and the profane, shaped so much of our religious tradition.
And yet, how odd, because when Jesus gathered with his disciples one last time, he said to them, “This is my body.” For two thousand years we’ve gathered at tables, to celebrate the holy mystery of a body . Which means all our separation of the sacred and the profane, of the holy and the body, must be a distortion of what Jesus meant. For he said, “This is my body.” A bodily spirituality, that’s what I need as we strive toward freedom.
A spirituality embodied; a spirituality in the world; a spirituality grounded; one professingly profane.
Paul and Isaiah both point to such an embodied spirituality. Recall Paul’s critique. It didn’t matter to him how piously the church celebrated communion if they ignored the hunger and poverty of their brothers and sisters. No solemnly sung “Alleluia” should distract them from the body of their neighbor. Paul made clear, “ For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.” The most sacred ritual of our faith demands we discern the body. And not just some mystical Body of Christ, but the bodies around us: “When you come together,” Paul said, “it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”
In a similar way, Isaiah called people to see the bodies around them instead of getting lost in chanting Amen’s. Isaiah heard God say, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
Even before talking about a current question like abortion, I want to take as my Biblical rudder a bodily spirituality, an embodied faith. So that when I come to wonder about a question like abortion, I come knowing the answer will be tied to Jesus’ words, “This is my body.”
I said before that there wasn’t any one citation that can make sense of the abortion question. But that’s not quite right. For there is, as far as I can tell, one verse in the Bible that talks about abortion or in this context, a physically induced miscarriage. It comes in the midst of legislation about slavery. First - this is in Exodus 21 - the Bible lays out the regulations about what happens if a master beats a slave, making a distinction between if the slave dies immediately from the beating or if he dies a day or two later. The Bible moves from this question to that of abortion; it says that if a man beating a woman causes the death of a fetus then the penalty will be assessed by the father of the fetus. Then the Bible moves on to consider what happens if the beating of a slave leads to the loss of an eye or a tooth.
A few things stand out. First, the woman in this case has no voice. The father of the fetus determines if there is a penalty. And second, this comes right alongside of other people who do not have a voice over their own bodies, slaves. Passages like these are why we’re not Biblical literalists.
Over the years, I’ve struggled with the question of abortion but I keep coming back to this bedrock: people must have a voice over their own bodies. In no moral sense can our bodies be the property of another to command and control. We have to be able to say, “This is my body.”
Our autonomy over our own bodies - our inalienable right to our own body - was never self-evident in American history. The defenders of slavery found many Biblical proof texts to quote in support of their control of another person’s body. But chapter and verse did not make it right.
It came to an end because African-Americans boldly said, “No, this is my body.” The first African-American poet widely published in this country, Phyllis Wheatley, said it in her poem about being brought as a six-year old captive from Ghana. She wrote in part:
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negro's, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
She knew all the evil that comes when one person tries to control the body of another: stolen from her home, sent on the Middle Passage, sold like an animal, under the threat of bodily harm, all by people who dismissed her body and its worth. Wheatley pushed back. “I’m taking my place in the angelic train.”
Frederick Douglass, even more clearly, spoke against the control of black bodies by white people. (Not everyone seems to know this, but Frederick Douglass has died). During his lifetime, he spoke defiantly for the freedom of his people and acted as a conscience to politicians like Abraham Lincoln. He treasured his own autonomy; as he said, “ I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”
At time when most white Americans thought it made sense for a man to control the body of another person (both women and people of color), Douglass asserted his own command over his own body. In a powerful letter to his former slave-owner, Douglass reminded him what was done to his body. “ You well know that I wear stripes on my back inflicted by your direction; and that you, while we were brothers in the same church, caused this right hand, with which I am now penning this letter, to be closely tied to my left, and my person dragged at the pistol's mouth, fifteen miles, from the Bay side to Easton to be sold like a beast in the market, for the alleged crime of intending to escape from your possession.” Douglass throughout the letter made clear the evils of slavery and asserted his own autonomy over his own body and the right of all people to have control over their own person too. He ended it, “I am your fellow man, but not your slave.”
We’ve learned in this country all the harm that comes from denying people autonomy over their own bodies. People need to be able to know, “This is my body.”
And yet there is in our country a movement to restrict the ability of women to control their own body, to decide for themselves reproductive questions. The costs of trying to control another’s body add up. A few years ago, the then governor of Indiana Mike Pence signed a law defunding Planned Parenthood clinics in his state. No state money. He celebrated this as a victory against abortion.
The loss of funding closed 5 clinics in the state of Indiana. None of them provided abortions. But they did provide health screening, HIV testing, and other reproductive and women’s health services.
In the year after the clinics closed, a health crisis developed in Scott County. HIV outbreak. The rural county witnessed the largest HIV outbreak per capita since the intensity of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Within a few months, 1% of population of Scott County became HIV+.
The clinic which would have caught this outbreak at its first emergence had been closed by Mike Pence’s attempt to limit women’s reproductive choices. When we start controlling the bodies of other people, our whole society gets damaged.
Some of those opposed to abortion articulate what they call a “consistent ethic of life.” This ethic then brings together opposition to abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia.
A commitment to bodily autonomy leads me to embrace a different kind of consistent ethic. I’d call it a consistent ethic of freedom. For I believe people ought to be free over their own bodies - women free to make their own reproductive choices, people free to choose their sexual and gender expression. I even see our contemporary struggles about race under this rubric, for what is white supremacy but another effort to continue the degradations of slavery under another name? And what is the Black Lives Matter movement but an effort to say like Frederick Douglass, “This is my body.”?
As a child, I learned to keep the sacred and profane separate: don’t drop the wafer; keep the holy apart from the body. But now that I’m an adult, I’ve put aside this way of thinking. Because I follow a messiah who said, “This is my body.” A messiah who embraced an embodied spirituality. A messiah who paid attention to the hungry, hurting, hoping bodies around him.
This embodied spirituality teaches me that every person ought to have autonomy over their own body, each woman able to make her own reproductive choices. To be able to say, “This is my body.”
Alleluia and Amen.