[Re : generation Quarterly, Fall 1998]
This speech was given at “Engaging Common Ground,” the second national conference of the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, held in Syracuse, NY on May 14-17, 1998. The Network was organized in 1993 and based in Washington, DC, and worked to enable discussion between pro-choice and pro-life advocates. The Network lost its funding in 1999 and had to disband.
The topic we were assigned for this plenary session was, “What is the broader context of meaning and beliefs in which we engage with the abortion issue?” Though I was in on the discussion to choose this topic, I now find myself in the embarrassing position of wondering “What in the world did we mean by that?” As a result, I’ve written several different versions of what I would say this morning, and last night when I got up for my regular prayer time I took one more look at the topic, threw out all previous versions, and started over from scratch.
This, then, is quite frankly what I believe—the “context of meaning and beliefs” for me. I know that by speaking frankly about what I believe I will offend some people here. I’m trusting the well-tested context of acceptance and honesty at Common Ground to be sufficient to cover any wounds.
As I thought about what I believe, it immediately occurred to me that every Sunday I get up in church and say, “I believe.” I’m a member of a church that uses the Nicene Creed, an Eastern Orthodox parish. Every Sunday we use the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which was written about sixteen hundred years ago. When we reach the point in the service where we say the Creed, we’re about halfway through; we’ve already had epistle and gospel readings, a sermon, and done a lot of singing and praying.
In the ancient church, something would happen at this point. The unbaptized were expected to leave, so that only those who had made a commitment to the faith, who could truly say “I believe,” remained. The deacon would then cry out, “The doors! The doors!,” and the church doors would be shut. We no longer require nonbelievers to leave at this point in the service—if you come for a visit, and I hope you will, you can stay till the end. But today, as then, the priest or deacon cries out, “The doors! The doors! In wisdom, let us attend!” At that moment we’re on our feet, and we immediately respond, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.”
The Nicene Creed, then, is in some sense a *private* creed, something we’re saying only in the company of other believers. That’s why it’s awkward to stand here publicly and say what I believe, because I know there are those here who don’t believe these things. It’s private. But surely there comes a time to say these things publicly, because, as you know, Jesus told his followers to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel.” So there’s a need to discern when to be silent and when to speak. When to speak, I have to assume, is when you’re invited to speak—when you’re invited to explain “What is the broader context of meaning and beliefs in which we engage the abortion issue.”
What I believe is private, but it’s not *personal*. It is what I personally believe, of course, but it’s not something I arrived at personally, by picking and choosing what seemed right to me alone. It’s corporate. When we say the Nicene Creed, we’re saying something that the community of believers, meeting in council, decided more than sixteen hundred years ago, something other believers have affirmed all through history and all around the world. It’s corporate—embodied in the whole community—rather than narrowly personal.
I believe that God loves each and every created person. I believe that we begin when our bodies begin; that each person lives the curve of a continuum, that the eighty-year-old grandmother sitting in a front porch rocker, holding her grandbaby in her lap, is the same person she was when she was sixty, when she was forty, when she was twenty, when she was eight, when she was three. She’s the same person over all that span, the same Mildred, whether that whole person is contained in a body the size of an adult, or adolescent, or child or baby. She was the same person when she was one year old, and on the day she was born, two months before she was born, five months before she was born, and in the very moment she was conceived, when her parents’ sperm and egg fused. That single cell was a complete human body; in that cell was contained all the genetic information she’d need for a lifetime. That cell was human, it was alive, and it was unique; its DNA was different from her mother’s and her father’s, a brand new human never before seen on earth. All that was there in that single cell, and its life is a continuum from that moment until the moment of her natural death.
I believe that where there is a living body, there is a soul. There is no such thing as a living body without a soul; I’ve never encountered such a concept outside zombie movies. You can’t, therefore, say that this living, unique human body suddenly becomes a person at six months gestation, or at birth, or some other time. Where there is a living human body, there is human life.
I believe that each life is valuable. We are our brothers’ keepers, our sisters’ keepers. I believe that we have a responsibility to protect the helpless: that it is wrong to shed innocent blood, and that we are obligated to speak against injustice. I believe that I am obligated to speak against it.
I believe that women and men have free will. We are not puppets; we can make choices and make decisions. I believe that some decisions are wrong. Some decisions are for violence. Some decide to use power that they hold—the power of being bigger or older, or the power granted by politics or money or society—to hurt those who are smaller and weaker. I am firmly convinced that this is wrong. I believe, I observe, I acknowlege as fact that people do have this power to make choices. I am not denying that choices exist. But some choices are for violence and death, and I believe that I am obligated to speak against it.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth; that’s how our Creed begins. I believe that God is a God both of justice and of mercy. It is a fallacy to separate those two elements; they are two facets of a single reality. Both compassion and righteousness are encompassed in the nature of God. I often hear people say, “Oh, I believe in a God of love, not one of judgment,” but that’s a misunderstanding of who God is.
I believe that, despite what we say, we don’t really want a God who looks the other way at injustice. We know that it is simply wrong when children are hurt. It’s wrong when women are raped and abused. I even believe it’s wrong when *men* suffer. We want a God who will make all things that are wrong right someday, because sometimes there is no making things right in this world. Some people escape justice on this earth.
About a year ago in a rural Virginia town two girls, the only children in their family, disappeared. They got off their schoolbus one afternoon and were never again seen alive. One girl’s backpack was found in the yard, and the other’s was in the house, and there was no clue as to who abducted them. The girls’ bodies were later found on a riverbank further downstate.
I don’t know what they suffered at the hands of their kidnapper, but I believe that there will be a Day of Judgment. I believe that on that day, every human who has ever lived will be assembled. This includes those two girls, who I believe are now in the presence of God: healed, restored, and loved, and God has, as the scripture says, wiped away every tear from their eyes. I believe that we will stand on that last day and the “books will be opened”—whatever that image will turn out to mean—and that every deed that their abductor did will be read aloud in our presence, and in the presence of God. And I believe that on that day God will dispense justice.
The truth is that we want a God like this, a God of justice as well as mercy. We don’t want to hear God say to this killer, “It doesn’t matter, come on into heaven anyway, take a seat by these girls, nobody cares.” We want justice to be done. This is not a matter of vengeance; when we’re injured it’s our task, Jesus says, is to “turn the other cheek.” Setting right the hideous pain and injustice already done in this world does not lie in our hands; that belongs to God alone. We work to prevent injustice, but we’re unable to put all the books right this side of the last judgment. I believe that God will be just, and he will execute justice on that day.
I believe that America is the wealthiest country in the world. It is the wealthiest country in history. We live in greater luxury than the world has ever know. Kings and emperors in ages past never experienced the kind of comfort, health, safety and entertainment that we do. All of our needs have been met and more.
And yet, I believe, we are killing our own unborn children. Although we have everything the world can offer, we have no room for our own children. We have killed 37 million of our own children. I believe that God is a God of justice. I believe that no innocent blood is shed that he does not see. And I believe that I am obligated to speak out.
I believe in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. I believe that we are all sinners. I know I am a sinner. I believe that no sin merits a worse penalty than any other—that any sin, no matter how small, including the the gossip I deal in and little lies I tell, is enough to forever separate me from the holy God. The wages of sin is death.
I believe we are drowning in our sins. Humans have been drowning in their sins since time began. The good that we know we do not do; we do not understand ourselves, as St. Paul says in Romans 7. We know what we should be doing, and over and over we choose to do something else. We habitually choose self rather than others, and those others get hurt, and the things we gain this way don’t please us long.
This results in a life of loneliness and alienation from each other: a life of fear, a life of hollowness, a life that is so painful that we attempt to drown it in shallow entertainment, flipping around the channels with the remote, trying to escape terrifying questions of ultimate meaning.
I believe that God has tried to reconcile us to himself and each other repeatedly through history. He made a covenant with Abraham, gave the law through Moses, sent the prophets to warn, and eventually sent war and disaster. I believe that, if all else fails to return his beloved to him, God will permit disaster.
In desperate cases of the hardest hearts, where a nation refuses him repeatedly, and deals in bloodshed as if there were no God, God does permit disaster. I believe that we, the most comfortable of any nation in history, have no promise that God will never again use disaster. His love for us will stop at nothing to win us back. Love is stronger than death.
I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Finally, as the Bible says, God sent his son. He sent Jesus to bring us back to him, by coming in the flesh—being a bridge of flesh, so to speak, between humans and God, and reconciling us to him. I believe that Jesus suffered for our sins; that no matter how large or small they are, they are wiped away by the blood of the Cross, put away as far as the east is from the west. When we take the hand of Jesus we can be one with God again, we can be forgiven and know peace in his life.
I believe that Jesus went into hell and destroyed death for our sake. In the Eastern Orthodox Church we have an icon that shows Jesus standing on the broken gates of hell. The doors are crossed under his feet over a yawning black pit—that place, Jesus said, where men weep and wail and gnash their teeth, that place of horror and eternal darkness. Jesus stands over that pit on the crossed gates of hell, striding like a superhero, and with each hand he grasps by the wrist an old man and an old woman. He’s pulling them up out of carved marble tombs, a startled old man with his beard all askew, a bent old woman with her long gray hair streaming. He’s pulling them up, Adam and Eve, our mother and father in the human race, pulling them up out of their tombs, conquering death by death. And standing behind him are King David, King Solomon, Abel, John the Baptist, all the righteous dead.
As your eye travels down the icon you see in the black pit fragments of chains, broken locks, iron instruments of torture in pieces, broken, discarded, tumbling into a vacuum of blackness. And at the bottom of that pit there is a figure in chains, a ghostly gray figure. It is Satan, our enemy, the one who hates us, the one who wants to hold us captive in that horror-filled place of loneliness and tears forever. And Satan has been chained in his own chains and bound hand and foot, and cast into the depths of that bottomless pit.
I believe that in his Resurrection Jesus triumphed over sin and death. This triumph is ours if we only put our hands in his, as Adam and Eve do. We are shrinking, afraid, weak, and frail, but if we put our hands in his this triumph is ours as well, and we will come up into the light.
I believe that I am a sinner. I believe that I am loved by God. I believe that I am saved at a great cost. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And so I am glad to say that I am a sinner, because that’s the only kind of person he saves.
I believe that life is short. I want to spend every minute serving God. I am convinced of the transparency of my life, that there are no hidden corners, nothing God doesn’t see, nothing he doesn’t write in his book. Therefore, my life must be consistent and clear in every part. I believe that my life is for others. I believe that I am called to do justice, to defend the weak, to resist the use of power to hurt or crush others, to call others to peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation in Jesus Christ.
I believe I am called to invite people to see Jesus Christ, to see his beauty, and to turn to him. I believe, as the scripture says, that “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” I believe that will happen on that last day, as Scripture says. There are some who will confess his name that day in great joy. There are some who will do it reluctantly and in fear. But on that day it will be no longer possible to refuse to see that Jesus is Lord.
As I conclude, I expect that most of you who hear what I say today, and who have not already responded to the call of Jesus Christ, will not respond. Most of you will not be moved by my words. There are probably some dear friends whom I have offended.
I believe that for those few who may respond it is urgent that they not walk that path alone. It urgent that you get into a community of faith, because you can easily lose your way trying to do it on your own, just me-and-Jesus. This is what the Church is for. I believe in the One, Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I believe that one treasure of this Church is two thousand years of wisdom about spiritual disciplines, fasting, prayer, and discernment. It is essential for believers to travel in the company of others as they follow this path toward union with God.
I believe that this path is not easy. The way of following Jesus, as he said, is strait and narrow; it’s difficult, and few they are that find it. Most will take the wide and broad way, he says, the way that leads to destruction. I believe that following the narrow way will not be an experience solely of comfort. It is not always comfortable, it is not always consoling, it is challenging and it is difficult. If you respond to the call to turn to Jesus, you are not going to find it easy.
I believe that we don’t need things easy. We don’t need more comfort. We live the most luxurious lives in history. We can stand a challenge.
I believe that we are big babies; we’re self-indulgent, we want everything given to us. I believe that we’re big babies, and that is why we think its OK to hurt little babies.
I believe that we are big bullies.
And I believe that God is just.