December 28, 2014 The Feast of the Holy Innocents
Jeremiah 31:1-6, 15-16, Psalm 8, Revelation 14:1-5, St. Matthew 2:13-18
A month or so ago I made an unscheduled trip to Farmington to pick up provisions at Sam’s Club. En route I lost control of my car. Whenever this obstinate vehicle enters Farmington it acquires a mind all its own and steers the well-worn route to Pinon Hills Golf Course.
Powerless to resist, I rode along . . . and stuck a tee in the ground. I was put with three local lads, and a companionable group they were. We engaged in the usual golf-course banter: Where are you from, what do you do, why are we here . . . and other existential imperatives.
One fellow, upon learning that I’m a minister, revealed the evangelical denomination in which he has spent his entire 50 years or so. This man – we’ll call him Joe – steered the conversation next to abortion, a topic on which he holds a settled opinion.
Once, with his co-religionists, he had held abortion to be utterly and inevitably wrong. But no more. Joe has ascended to a higher consciousness in which abortion may serve the greater good.
In Joe’s world love conquers all . . . and any child allowed to live must be loved. Ergo, any child who will not be loved should not be allowed to live.
Joe has become a naturalized citizen in the realm of the yes-buts: Yes, abortion is wrong, but . . . This is a vast and growing nation populated by men of all stripes: pagan, Protestant, Catholic, agnostic . . . Anglican.
They immigrate to this mystical kingdom because of the tax benefits: They can support abortion, as all good children of the Enlightenment do – at least in some cases -- with nothing to tax their conscience.
Yes, but in the case of rape. Yes, but in the case of incest. Yes, but in the case that the life of the mother is endangered. But Joe’s yes-but, to my mind, is the most elegant of all. Yes, but the most loving act for the child may be to kill the child.
I find myself respecting, in an inverted sort of way, King Herod’s position. He killed the babies because, yes, one of them might threaten his throne. No but. In the matter of killing babies, he was a man of less delicate sensibilities than so many in our day.
Some will protest, of course, that in Herod’s case the babies were born and in the case of abortion today that is not so. And this quibble ushers us into the heart of the matter. If all life is of God, life at every stage of development is of God.
The child’s position in the womb or out of it is scarcely an issue.
If life is of God, there are no accidental conceptions, incubations or births. Not in the case of rape . . . Not in the case of incest . . .
And, yes, but . . . in the exceedingly rare case that a live birth might pose a threat to the life of the mother, she – or those nearest and dearest to her – may face the daunting question of whom to save. But we are dithering now in the nether reaches: How many angels will fit on the head of a pin?
The question is an urgent one that can only be answered in the context of the moment and we will pop open no umbrella to cover every manifestation of it.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose, that the Joe Proviso, the most elegant yes-but of all, is also the most repugnant of all: Spare an unwanted child a life without love.
Are we God? Do we know that loving parents will not meet their end in a car wreck in the first week of their child’s life? Do we know that an unwanted baby will not land with adoptive parents who will swaddle him in love?
Let me mention here that in the preaching trade the foulest of dirty words is “eisegesis.” It is the opposite of “exegesis,” which is how we interpret the Scriptures and other ancient texts. We use knowledge of the original language and the culture and customs of the time to draw out the meaning.
In eisegesis, the preacher brings an agenda to the text and reads meaning into it. This is a favorite device of both liberals and fundamentalists in creating, for example, study Bibles and commentaries.
If the agenda is to advocate for women, we will come to “Jesus wept” and learn from the footnote that the Lord was lamenting unfair and even abusive treatment of women.
If the motive is to discourage drug and alcohol abuse the same verse will mean Jesus was distraught over all the suffering addiction has caused. I may overstate the case a bit but you get the point.
I do not wish to practice eisegesis so I will not force an exegetical connection between the slaughter of the holy innocents in Herod’s day and the practice of abortion in ours.
I say simply that infanticide is not in our culture an issue on anything like the scale of abortion and that the goal and the result are the same, the destruction of innocent life for the purpose of eliminating a person who might prove a hardship for the one who decides in favor of destruction.
And I would note one other similarity. The New Testament scholar R. T. France explains the absence of any accounts of that first-century massacre outside the Scriptures by noting that Herod, protecting his throne, murdered three of his own sons and “several large groups of actual or suspected conspirators . . . in one case with their families.”
Given the size of Bethlehem at the time, the number of boys under age 2 would likely have been no more than 20. France concludes, “It is thus not improbable that the fear of a potential rival should lead him to kill a few babies in Bethlehem . . . It was a minor incident in a period full of atrocities, and the absence of clearly independent accounts in secular history is not surprising.”
I must say that I sometimes feel vaguely foolish preaching against abortion. You are not children and I do not suppose you are deluded on this question. But I find I must press the case and here is the reason. Like Herod’s slaughter 2,000 years ago, the taking of life by abortion in our time has become entirely unremarkable.
Those who live in a war zone cultivate a numbness that allows them to continue to shuffle forward. In an era in which abortion is pandemic we run the risk of appraising it as lamentable . . . but usual. Better to harken to the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Each and every one of us has a soul ravaged by sin. Joe once denounced abortion unequivocally, but no more. We cannot remind ourselves too often of the evil of negotiating with evil.
I want to give you an example of where relativism can take us.
A Planned Parenthood lobbyist, Alisa LaPolt Snow, testified against a Florida bill that would mandate that abortionists provide emergency care to an infant who survives an abortion. She fielded the question:
“If a baby is born on a table as a result of a botched abortion, what would Planned Parenthood want to have happen to that child that is struggling for life?”
She answered, “We believe that any decision that’s made should be left up to the woman, her family, and the physician.”
She was asked again . . . and she repeated her answer.
An eruption in the conservative media ensued and Planned Parenthood issued a statement that in the “extremely unlikely and highly unusual” event that a baby were born alive the agency would “provide appropriate care to both the woman and the infant.”
Are we relieved? Are we comforted? A Planned Parenthood counselor had already been caught on tape admitting that the organization leaves infants born alive after a botched abortion to die. And it seems fair to ask: If Planned Parenthood provides such care, why was it lobbying against a bill requiring such care?
When cynicism on this scale finds its way into the water supply it infects millions.
Two bioethicists, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics entitled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?”
They wrote: “When circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible . . .
“We propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus . . . rather than to that of a child.
“Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.”
So, if the abortion fails to produce the desired death – a possibility that is not as rare as Planned Parenthood would have us believe – killing the child born alive is an equally valid outcome. This is how our culture of death justifies itself. It tortures the language until it yields terms like “after-birth abortion.”
In the real world, a child born alive cannot be aborted. The solution is to dispense with the real world. But the irony is that in the end the moral equivalence is justified: Destroying a child before birth and after birth both amount to murder.
The “personhood” question is another rhetorical ruse. Historically, whenever the personhood of any subset of mankind has been called into question the intent has been nefarious:
- 1858, Virginia Supreme Court: “In the eyes of the law… the slave is not a person.”
- 1881, American Law Review: “An Indian is not a person within the meaning of the Constitution.”
- 1928, Supreme Court of Canada: “The meaning of ‘qualified persons’ does not include women.”
- 1936, German Supreme Court: “The Reichgericht itself refused to recognize Jews… as ‘persons’ in the legal sense.”
- 1997, Supreme Court of Canada: “The law of Canada does not recognize the unborn child as a legal person possessing rights.”
Why do I preach against abortion at every opportunity? Because even those of us who oppose it dismiss it from our consciousness for hours and days and weeks and months without end. We know we abhor it but we cannot keep it front and center in our minds day in and day out. Would we not drive ourselves insane?
So we would. You may have seen those anti-war films that ram home the point that ongoing exposure to senseless slaughter either numbs us to the carnage or transports us to an alternative reality where we are not required to face it.
If we dwelt non-stop on the holocaust that is abortion, if we spent our days thinking on gender-selection abortion in China and designer-baby abortion in America, we would indeed go mad.
We turn aside from the abject horror of it to safeguard our reason . . . and that is why we must stop, now and again, and stare evil in the face. If we cannot obsess on it, neither can we consign it to the fringe of consciousness where it never roils our thoughts.
And so I must call your attention back, from time to time, to the monstrous evil that is abortion. We serve, you and I, the God of life . . . even as we inhabit the culture of death. We must never lose sight of our Lord’s priorities, which must be our own.
All the while, we must remember that He is the God of forgiveness. At any opportunity, we must minister His compassion and love to anyone who has undergone an abortion. The way of repentance is open to her as it is to every other sinner.
I do want to sketch one additional connection between the murder of innocents in Herod’s time and in our own. Our gospel text pulls forward the message of the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt I will call My son.” And so God did.
He commanded Joseph to take his son and his wife into Egypt to escape the carnage Herod would order . . . and when the danger was past God called His Son back to Palestine. Having been spared in the way Moses was spared in a previous onslaught against innocent baby boys, Jesus has led millions and billions out of death and into life.
God redeemed that day . . . as He will redeem our day. How will He do it? I have no idea . . . just as those wailing mothers 2,000 years ago had no idea how God would bring good out of evil.
We enter – once more – into the realm of faith. We know God will use man’s vile decisions to bring about good because He says He will. His name be praised! Amen.