Sunday, January 01, 2006

Jeremiah and Abortion: Morality in a Plural Society

Ever since I wrote "Boldly Going Where No Man Ought to Go" I've been in the uncomfortable position of defending a practice which I find at the very least distasteful. Personally, I believe that abortion is, under most circumstances, morally impermissible. In that post, however, I made the claim that abortion is also an extremely complicated moral issue which is not easily reducible to a tasty sound-bite such as "abortion is murder."

This debate over abortion illustrates the problem with discussing moral issues in a plural society. If everyone (and I do mean absolutely everyone, down to the last person) in a community agrees on a particular moral issue then it is easy to make that position normative for the whole community without any sort of critical discussion. But abortion is not such an issue. There is no uniform consensus, even in the community of faith which claims that the Judeo-Christian scriptures are authoritative, on the moral value of abortion - no matter what the bumper stickers say.

Additionally, our community of faith - even if it could reach a consensus on abortion - does not exist in isolation, and does not have the authority to impose its position on any issue onto the broader secular community in which it finds itself. In America, as in any plural society, there are a great many communities which are attempting to come together to form a common moral and legal code. For any one of those communities to seek to impose its will on the others without serious collective discussions would be to violate the mutual cooperation which keeps the peace in any plural society.

Yet this violation, this imposition, is exactly what the culture war is about. The culture war is an attempt by evangelicals to impose their morality on all of the other communities within our plural society. This attempted imposition is not made through rational argument which focuses on some common ground, but rather through political force.

So, within the evangelical community, while I personally do not like the practice of abortion in most cases, I defend abortion. This is because I understand that just because I find something distasteful that does not give me the right to make a moral norm which prevents anyone from doing it. When we try to make moral norms for a plural society we have to bring the voice of every community into the discussion. That is the price we pay for living in peace.

But, even given the assumptions of evangelicals - particularly the authority of the scriptures - there is still no obvious reason to hold that abortion is in all cases morally wrong. The argument has been advanced that Jeremiah 1:4-5 demonstrates that in abortion a person with a soul is killed, and it is assumed that all such killing is wrong because were it not then any one of us may at any moment be killed without recourse.

But, I have to ask, what (if anything) does that passage from Jeremiah say about abortion? Let's look at it. Jeremiah 1:4-5, in the Jewish Study Bible, reads

The word of the Lord came to me [Jeremiah]:

Before I created you in the womb, I selected you;
Before you were born, I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet concerning the

I chose the Jewish Study Bible because, personally, I think that it is the best translation of the Hebrew Bible (though I am no expert). I also chose it because I thought that perhaps looking at an unfamiliar translation might help us see some of the main points of this passage, apart from the way in which it has been highjacked by the culture warriors.

This passage, understood in its cultural, textual and historical context (or even, properly speaking, understood literally) has nothing at all to say about abortion, as far as I can tell.

To make this passage speak to abortion you have to yank it out of its context and interpret it per some modern assumptions. You first have to assume that, rather than speaking merely to Jeremiah as the text indicates, the Lord is actually addressing the metaphysical nature of all humans. Because the Lord "selected" or "knew" (as in the more familiar translations) Jeremiah "before" he was in the womb, the soul must precede birth. If this is the case then killing a fetus is killing an ensouled being.

But, first, the passage is addressed only to Jeremiah, and we will get to the reasons for this later. Also, there is here no mention of soul for the obvious reason that there is no concept of soul in Judaism before it came into contact with Hellenism. The idea that we are principally souls trapped in corruptible bodies is a Greek idea, not a Hebrew idea. Jeremiah would have held, like any other Jew, that human beings are physical bodies, not eternal souls.

This emphasis on the body carries on into early Christianity. The apostle Paul was so concerned with the doctrine of the resurrection of the body because for him that was the only hope for eternal life. To Paul the notion that we are souls which are freed at death from our bodies was neither Christian nor Jewish, though it might be heresy.

Of course this does not mean that we don't have souls, or even that I don't believe that we have souls. Watching my wife's ninety-year-old grandmother's body slowly betray her reinforces in me how comforting the notion of a soul is. Surely the essence of this saintly woman is not limited to her quickly deteriorating frame. I certainly hope that in that frame there is an eternal soul which will leap for joy to be freed from its mortal coil. But soul is a theologically bothersome concept, as it leads us to de-value the body. It is also a concept which is not essential to Christianity, and would be foreign to Christ or Paul, much less Jeremiah, who surely had never been exposed to Greek philosophy.

So, whether or not we are, in fact, accurately described as ensouled bodies, Jeremiah certainly had no concept of soul. Therefore the passage from Jeremiah which has been used to argue that abortion destroys an ensouled body cannot possibly really say that. The meaning of Jeremiah 1:4-5 has nothing to do with abortion or souls.

So, what does this passage mean, and why is it such a shame that it has been (like so many other passages of scripture) highjacked by culture warriors and made to speak to issues which it was never intended to address? To answer that question we have to understand what it is that the passage is saying, so that we can then understand its significance.

The passage is at the very beginning of the long book of Jeremiah. The purpose of this introduction is to give the rest of the book some kind of legitimacy. Verses 1-3, which immediately precede the passage that we are considering, tell us a little bit about who Jeremiah was, what stock he comes from, and roughly when he lived. These verse also tell us that the words which follow are Jeremiah's own words, a statement designed to give the text itself as much authority as the prophet.

Verses 4-5, which we are considering, are the beginning of a kind of dialogue between the Lord and Jeremiah. This dialogue can be seen as the calling and commissioning of Jeremiah as a prophet.

"Prophet" is a word which is often misunderstood. Nostradamus, for instance, is often hailed by the secular world as a "prophet" because it is claimed by some that he could see into and predict the future. Because of this view of prophets as seers who predict the future, and prophesy as a kind of foretelling people often look to the Biblical books of prophesy as divine premonitions of "end time" events. But, understood Biblically, prophets are those who speak for God. In this passage Jeremiah is called by God to be the voice of God in the world, which is why so much effort is put at the beginning of this book into legitimizing Jeremiah as a prophet. This passage, and the context around it, is designed to convince us that Jeremiah is a messenger from God, and that this, his book, speaks for God to us.

This dialogue between the Lord and Jeremiah doesn't just speak to our doubts, it also speaks of Jeremiah's doubts. Verse 6, immediately after the verses we are considering, says:

I replied:
Ah, Lord!
I don't know how to speak,
For I am still a boy.

Jeremiah feels neither worthy nor able to carry the Word of God to the nations. The Lord then puts Jeremiah in his place, ordering him to do as he is told and to live up to his calling. Verse 9 then cements the character of prophesy:

The Lord put out His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me: Herewith I put my words into your mouth.

Thus, understood in its textual context, Jeremiah 1:4-5 immediately speaks to two things:

1. The majesty and sovereignty of the God who knew Jeremiah even before there was a Jeremiah to be known.

2. The unique and special calling of Jeremiah, who has been appointed and anointed by God to carry the Word of God to all the nations.

Jeremiah 1:4-5 tells us, then, that there is a God whose awesome majesty extends beyond even the wildest powers of our imagination. This God knows beings, such as Jeremiah, who have not yet even been made. This divine foreknowledge speaks to God's eternal plan for creation, a plan in which Jeremiah, by virtue of his divine calling as a foreknown prophet, has the privledge to take part. These two verses also tell us that this God chooses to speak to us through us. Jeremiah is a human, yet he has been called by God to carry the Word of God to the nations. God respects humanity enough to use humans for divine purposes. This is (as I taught for my entire ministerial career) not because God needs us, but because God desires to bless us by making us feel useful.

This Word of God is so much more spiritually vital than the way in which it is misused to speak to a contemporary moral debate. The Bible ought not be taken captive by those who would use it to out "proof-text" those who disagree with them. Passages from it ought not be taken out of their context and robbed of their riches so that spiritual bullies can claim that God agrees with them. The Bible - and all of the stories, songs, poems, sermons and collected sayings in it - ought to be respected as one of the ways in which God speaks to our spiritual community and many of the spiritual communities which came before us.

Abortion is a serious and complicated moral issue. There are no verses in the Bible which speak directly to it, though it is possible that some insights from the Bible can be used to help us treat abortion properly. But for the Bible to speak to abortion it must be allowed to speak as the living Word of God, understood properly in context rather than as a collection of fragments which can be yanked around to support what we already believe.

Abortion is also a problem not just for our spiritual community but for our entire plural society. We who hold the Bible to be the Word of God must respect those around us who do not see the Bible the same way. Therefore, even if it were possible (which it isn't) to pick a single verse out of the Bible and say that it demonstrates that abortion is in all cases morally impermissible, we would still not be justified in imposing that view on others in our society who do not hold the same assumptions we do.

For Christians to be able to live in peace with our neighbors we must stop trying to impose a Christian ethic (if there is such a thing) on a plural society which contains many non-Christians.

If you really wish to stop abortion, don't try to change the law without the consent of those governed by it. Instead try to change the hearts, minds and circumstances of those who might be tempted to have abortions. And, when you do, remember, as the character from the movie Saved so famously put it, "This [the Bible] is not a weapon!"

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