One of the significant (and surprising) responses to my recent comments about gun violence has come from persons concerned about abortion. Their concern went something like this: “If you are so agitated about gun violence, why are you not equally adamant about preventing the deaths of thousands of innocent children that occur through abortion?” I am grateful for the question, and in one instance it has resulted in an ongoing conversation with a colleague about abortion as a form of violence.
These conversations coincided with an essay about abortion in The Christian Century, a leading journal for mainline church leaders. In “Safe, legal and rare,” the journal’s editors asserted that most Americans are “morally uncertain about abortion.” While granting that absolutists exist on either side of the divide, today — 40 years after Roe v. Wade declared abortion a right — “most people occupy an uneasy (and unspecified) middle ground: they want abortion legal in most cases or illegal in most cases, but either way they want to qualify their stance in some way.”
It might surprise some that this unease is true for the majority of Presbyterians. According to the essay, over the years the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) declared that “the strong Christian presumption is that … all life is precious to God [and so] we are to preserve and protect it.” Furthermore, even among those who describe themselves proudly as pro-choice, “churches that backed legalization did not want abortion to be a routine means of birth control.”
While statistics can be misleading, according to the article abortion rates in this country are the lowest they have been in 40 years. That’s good news. Nevertheless, abortion rates in the United States are higher than in many countries in Europe.
It is likely that someone reading this will have experienced an abortion or know of someone who has who is less than comfortable with that decision. Why this is so warrants the kind of conversation that my parishioners and colleagues urged upon me, for which I am enormously grateful.
This all reminded me of “the seamless garment,” a phrase first used by in 1971 by Eileen Egan, an ethicist, to describe a comprehensive reverence for life. The phrase is a biblical reference from John 19:23 to the seamless robe of Jesus which his executioners did not tear apart.
“The protection of life,” said Egan, “is a seamless garment. You can’t protect some life and not others.” Her words were meant to challenge those members of the “pro-life” movement who were in favor of capital punishment. The seamless garment, she and its proponents argued, includes militarism (unjust war), euthanasia, economic injustice, abortion, capital punishment and gun violence; each is countered with a morally principled ethic that values the sacredness of all life.
It’s important to remember that prior to Constantine, the early Church only baptized soldiers if they agreed not to kill and be closely mentored after baptism. Abortion was considered murder (see: “The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity” by Robert Louis Wilken, Yale University Press).
In the 1980s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, along with Father Daniel Berrigan, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Sister Helen Prejean, Professor Harvey Cox, activist Jim Wallis and others, continued the seamless garment moral tradition now known as the “consistent life ethic.” It is a demanding way of life that few follow in every aspect, but its rigor does not take away from its value.
In my opinion, Christians should be at the forefront of society, a beacon of light, proclaiming life in every possible way. I don’t believe Christians have to be perfectly clear on each of these issues, or in total agreement, to enter into a serious moral conversation prompted by pervasive gun violence and unease about abortion as a routine form of birth control.
ROY W. HOWARD is pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Rockville, Md., and the Outlook’s book editor.