©1991 Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, Inc.
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Serious theological and moral reflection during a session of a United Methodist annual
conference is about as rare as a March snow at Cape Hatteras. The word is rare, not
During the l990 meeting of the North Carolina Annual Conference of The United Methodist
Church, rarity (reflection, that is, and not snow) became reality. At the invitation of
the Evangelical Fellowship of the N.C. Conference, Professor Stanley Hauerwas, who teaches
theological ethics at Duke University Divinity School, lectured on abortion and the
church. Hauerwas' lecture was delivered on the second night of conference, a tropical June
14th, in the Science Auditorium of Methodist College. Since Hauerwas' presentation was not
a part of the "official" agenda of the conference, he did not begin speaking
until the official program of the day had ended--at approximately 10:00 p.m. What follows
is an edited text of the lecture that theologically and morally challenged a group of
North Carolina Methodists to reconsider the problem of abortion from within the faith and
life of the Church. It is hoped that this lecture will serve as a starting point for
strengthening our churches' ministries with regard to abortion.
Thanks is due Ms. Carole L. Stalnaker, the Secretary of St. Peter's United Methodist
Church in Morehead City, North Carolina, for her faithful labor in transcribing the
lecture. Thanks also to the Pastor of St. Peter's Church, The Reverend David A. Banks,
who, as President of the Evangelical Fellowship, oversaw many of the logistics in setting
up this important and unique event.
Reverend Paul T. Stallsworth, President Lent 1991
Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality
Professor Stanley Hauerwas
You are blessed indeed to be here,
listening to this, at this time of the night . . . Since you have had a long day at annual
conference, I will try to be as brief as I can.
I'm going to start with a sermon. Every once in a while you get a wonderful gift. About
a month ago a former student, who is now a Presbyterian minister, mailed to me a copy of a
sermon on abortion. This evening I could not do better than read you this sermon and then
give you an ethical commentary on it. [The author of the following sermon is The Reverend
Terry Hamilton, formerly the Chaplain of Queens College, Charlotte, NC, and now of Kansas
TEXT AND SERMON
The text for the sermon is Matthew 25:31-46. I will be reading from the Revised
Standard Version. "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with
him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations,
and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the
goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the
King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the
kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave
me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was
naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to
me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee,
or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or
naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' And the
King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my
brethren, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'Depart from me,
you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry
and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you
did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not
visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or n
stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?' Then he will answer
them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not
to me.' And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal
"As a Christian and a woman, I find abortion a most difficult subject to address.
Even so, I believe that it is essential that the church face the issue of abortion in a
distinctly Christian manner. Because of that, I am hereby addressing not society
in general, but those of us who call ourselves Christians. I also want to be clear that I
am not addressing abortion as a legal issue. I believe the issue, for the church, must be
framed not around the banners of 'pro-choice' or 'pro-life,' but around God's call to care
for the least among us whom Jesus calls his sisters and brothers.
"So, in this sermon, I will make three points. The first point is that the Gospel
favors women and children. The second point is that the customary framing of the abortion
issue by both pro-choice and pro-life groups is unbiblical because it assumes that the
woman is ultimately responsible for both herself and for any child she might carry. The
third point is that a Christian response must reframe the issue to focus on responsibility
rather than rights."
Gospel, Women, and Children
"Point number one: the Gospel favors women and children. The Gospel is feminist.
In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus treats women as thinking people who are worthy of
respect. This was not, of course, the usual attitude of that time. In addition, it is to
the women among Jesus' followers, not to the men, that he entrusts the initial
proclamation of his resurrection. It isn't only Jesus himself who sees the Gospel making
all people equal, for Saint Paul wrote, 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither
slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus'
"And yet, women have been oppressed through recorded history and continue to be
oppressed today. So when Jesus says, 'as you did it to one of the least of these my
brethren, you did it to me' (Matthew 25:40), I have to believe that Jesus includes women
among 'the least of these.' Anything that helps women, therefore, helps Jesus. When Jesus
says, 'as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me,' he is
also talking about children, because children are literally 'the least of these.' Children
lack the three things the world values most-- power, wealth, and influence. If we concern
ourselves with people who are powerless, then children should obviously be at the top of
our list. The irony of the abortion debate, as it now stands in our church and society, is
that it frames these two groups, women and children, as enemies of one another."
The Woman Alone
"This brings me to my second point: the issue as it is generally framed by both
pro-choice and pro-life groups is unbiblical because it assumes that the woman is
ultimately responsible both for herself and for any child she might carry. Why is it that
women have abortions? Women I know, and those I know about, have had abortions for two
basic reasons: the fear that they cannot handle the financial and physical demands of the
child, and the fear that having the child will destroy relationships that are important to
"An example of the first fear, the inability to handle the child financially or
physically, is the divorced mother of two children, the younger of whom has Down's
syndrome. This woman recently discovered that she was pregnant. She believed abortion was
wrong. However, the father of the child would not commit himself to help raise this child,
and she was afraid she could not handle raising another child on her own."
"An example of the second fear, the fear of destroying relationships, is the woman
who became pregnant and was told by her husband that he would leave her if she did not
have an abortion. She did not want to lose her husband, so she had the abortion. Later,
her husband left her anyway."
"In both of these cases, and in others I have known, the woman has had an abortion
not because she was exercising her free choice but because she felt she had no choice.
In each case the responsibility for caring for the child, had she had the child,
would have rested squarely and solely on the woman."
Reframing With Responsibility
"Which brings me to my third point the Christian response to abortion must reframe
the issue to focus on responsibility rather than rights. The pro-choice/pro-life debate
presently pits the right of the mother to choose against the right of the fetus to live.
The Christian response, on the other hand, centers on the responsibility of the whole
Christian community to care for 'the least of these.'"
"According to the Presbyterian Church's Book of Order, when a person is
baptized, the congregation answers this question: 'Do you, the members of this
congregation, in the name of the whole Church of Christ, undertake the responsibility for
the continued Christian nurture of this person, promising to be an example of the new life
in Christ and to pray for him or her in this new life?' We make this promise because we
know that no adult belongs to himself or herself, and that no child belongs to his or her
parents, but that every person is a child of God. Because of that, every young one is our
child, the church's child to care for. This is not an option. It is a
"Let me tell you two stories about what it is like when the church takes this
responsibility seriously. The first is a story that Will Willimon, the Dean of Duke
University Chapel, tells about a black church. In this church, when a teen-ager has a baby
that she cannot care for, the church baptizes the baby and gives him/her to an older
couple in the church that has the time and wisdom to raise the child. That way, says the
pastor, the couple can raise the teen-age mother along with the baby. 'That,' the pastor
says, 'is how we do it.'"
"The second story involves something that happened to Deborah Campbell. A member
of her church, a divorced woman, became pregnant, and the father dropped out of the
picture. The woman decided to keep the child. But as the pregnancy progressed and began to
show, she became upset because she felt she could not go to church anymore. After all,
here she was, a Sunday School teacher, unmarried and pregnant. So she called Deborah.
Deborah told her to come to church and sit in the pew with the Campbell family, and, no
matter how the church reacted, the family would support her. Well, the church rallied
around when the woman's doctor told her at her six-month checkup that she owed him the
remaining balance of fifteen hundred dollars by the next month; otherwise, he would not
deliver the baby. The church held a baby shower and raised the money. When the time came
for her to deliver, Deborah was her labor coach. When the woman's mother refused to come
and help after the baby was born, the church brought food and helped clean her house while
she recovered from the birth. Now the woman's little girl is the child of the
"This is what the church looks like when it takes seriously its call to care for
'the least of these.' These two churches differ in certain ways: one is Methodist, the
other Roman Catholic; one has a carefully planned strategy for supporting women and
babies, the other simply reacted spontaneously to a particular woman and her baby. But in
each case the church acted with creativity and compassion to live out the Gospel."
"In our scripture lesson today, Jesus gives a preview of the Last Judgment. 'Then
the King will say to those at his right hand, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit
the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you
gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I
was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came
to me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry
and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and
welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and
visit thee?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it
to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to men (Matthew 25:34-40)."
"We cannot simply throw the issue of abortion in the faces of women and say, 'You
decide and you bear the consequences of your decision.' As the church, our response to the
abortion issue must be to shoulder the responsibility to care for women and children. We
cannot do otherwise and still be the church. If we close our doors in the faces of women
and children, then we close our doors in the face of Christ."
AN ETHICAL COMMENTARY
I wanted to read that sermon because I suspect that most of you ministers have not
preached about abortion. You have not preached about abortion because you have not had the
slightest idea about how to do it in a way that would not make everyone in your
congregation mad. And the reason that you have not known how to preach a sermon on
abortion is that you thought that you would have to sake up the terms that are given by
the wider society.
Here you see a young minister who knew how to cut through the kind of pro-choice and
pro-life rhetoric that is given in the wider society. She preached a sermon on abortion
that derives directly from the Gospel. Her sermon is a reminder about what the church is
to be about when addressing this issue in a Christian way. That is the primary thing that
I want to underline this evening: the church's refusal to use society's terms for the
abortion debate, and the church's willingness to take on the abortion problem as
church. This sermon suggests that abortion is not a question about the law, but about
what kind of people we are to be as the church and as Christians.
Abortion forces the church to recognize the fallacy of a key presumption of many
Christians in this society--namely, that what Christians believe about the moral life is
what any right-thinking person, whether he or she is Christian or not, also believes.
Again, that presumption is false. I want to underwrite what I call the Tonto Principle of
Christian Ethics. The Tonto Principle is based on the Lone Ranger and Tonto finding
themselves surrounded by 20,000 Sioux. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, "What
do you think we ought to do, Tonto. Tonto replies, "What do you mean we,
white man?" We Christians have thought that when we address the issue of abortion and
when we say "we," we are talking about anybody who is a good, decent American.
But that is not who "we" Christians are. If any issue is going to help us
discover that, it is going to be the issue of abortion.
Christians in America are tempted to think of issues like abortion primarily in legal
terms such as "rights." This is because the legal mode, as de Tocqueville
pointed out long ago, provides the constituting morality in liberal societies. In other
words, when you live in a liberal society like ours, the fundamental problem is how you
can achieve cooperative agreements between individuals who share nothing in common other
than their fear of death. In liberal society the law has the function of securing such
agreements. That is the reason why lawyers are to America what priests were to the
medieval world. The law is our way of negotiating safe agreements between autonomous
individuals who have nothing else in common other than their fear of death and their
mutual desire for protection.
Therefore, rights language is fundamental in our political and moral context. In
America, we oftentimes pride ourselves, as Americans, on being a pragmatic people that is
not ideological. But that is absolutely false. No country has ever been more theory
dependent on a public philosophy than America.
Indeed I want to argue that America is the only country that has the misfortune of
being founded on a philosophical mistake--namely, the notion of inalienable rights. We
Christians do not believe that we have inalienable rights. That is the false presumption
of Enlightenment individualism, and it opposes everything that Christians believe about
what it means to be a creature. Notice that the issue is inalienable rights.
Rights make a certain sense as correlative to duties and goods, but they are not
inalienable. For example, when the lords protested against the king in the Magna Charta,
they did so in the name of their duties to their underlings. Duties, not rights, were
primary. The rights were simply ways of remembering what the duties were.
Christians, to be more specific, do not believe that we have a right to do with our
bodies whatever we want. We do not believe that we have a right to our bodies because when
we are baptized we become members of one another; then we can tell one another what it is
that we should, and should not, do with our bodies. I had a colleague at the University of
Notre Dame who taught Judaica. He was Jewish and always said that any religion that does
not tell you what to do with your genitals and pots and pans cannot be interesting. That
is exactly true. In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals.
They are not your own. They are not private. That means that you cannot commit adultery.
If you do, you are no longer a member of "us." Of course pots and pans are
I was recently giving a talk at a very conservative university, Houston Baptist
University. Since its business school has an ethics program, I called my talk, "Why
Business Ethics Is a Bad Idea." When I had finished, one of the business-school
people asked, "Well goodness, what then can we Christians do about business
ethics?" I said, "A place to start would be the local church. It might be
established that before anyone joins a Baptist church in Houston, he or she would have to
declare in public his or her annual income." The only people whose incomes are known
in The United Methodist Church today are ordained ministers. Why should we make the
ministers' salaries public and not the laity's? Most people would rather tell you what
they do in the bedroom than how much they make. With these things in mind, you can see how
the church is being destroyed by the privatization of individual lives, by the American
ethos. If you want to know who is destroying the babies of this country through abortion,
look at privatization, which is learned in the economic arena.
Under the veil of American privatization, we are encouraging people to believe in the
same way that Andrew Carnegie believed. He thought that he had a right to his steel mills.
In the same sense, people think that they have a right to their bodies The body is then a
piece of property in a capitalist sense. Unfortunately, that is antithetical to the way we
Christians think that we have to share as members of the same body of Christ.
So, you cannot separate these issues. If you think that you can be very concerned about
abortion and not concerned about the privatization of American life generally, you are
making a mistake. So the problem is: how, as Christians, should we think about abortion
without the rights rhetoric that we have been given--right to my body, right to life,
pro-choice, pro-life, and so on? In this respect, we Christians must try to make the
abortion issue our issue.
Calling a Spade
We must remember that the first question is not, "Is abortion right or
wrong?," or, "Is this abortion right or wrong?" Rather, the first question
is,"Why do Christians call abortion abortion?" And with the
first question goes a second, "Why do Christians think that abortion is a
morally problematic term?" To call abortion by that name is already a moral
achievement. The reason why people are Pro-choice" rather than Pro-abortion" is
that nobody really wants to be pro-abortion. The use of choice rather than abortion
is an attempt at a linguistic transformation that tries to avoid the reality of
abortion, because most people do not want to use that description. So, instead of abortion,
another term is used, something like termination of pregnancy. Now, the
church can live more easily in a world with "terminated pregnancies," because in
that world the church no longer claims power, even linguistic power, over that medically
described part of life; instead, doctors do.
One of the interesting cultural currents that is involved is the medicalization of
abortion. It is one of the ways that the medical profession is continuing to secure power
against the church. Ordained ministers can sense this when they are in hospital
situations. In a hospital today, the minister feels less power than the doctor, right? My
way of explaining this is that when someone goes to seminary today, he can say, "I'm
not into Christology this year. I'm just into relating. After all, relating is what the
ministry is really about, isn't it? Ministry is about helping people relate to one
another, isn't it? So I want to take some more Clinical Pastoral Education courses."
And the seminary says, "Go ahead and do it. Right, get your head straight, and so
on." A kid can go to medical school and say, "I'm not into anatomy this year.
I'm into relating. So I'd like to take a few more courses in psychology, because I need to
know how to relate to people better." The medical school then says, "Who in the
hell do you think you are, kid? We're not interested in your interests. You're going to
take anatomy. If you don't like it, that's tough."
Now what that shows you is that people believe incompetent physicians can hurt them.
Therefore, people expect medical schools to hold their students responsible for the kind
of training that's necessary to be competent physicians. On the other hand, few people
believe an incompetent minister can damage their salvation. This helps you see that what
people want today is not salvation, but health. And that helps you see why the medical
profession has, as a matter of fact, so much power over the church and her ministry. The
medical establishment is the counter-salvation-promising group in our society today.
So, when you innocently say "termination of pregnancy," while it sounds like
a neutral term, you are placing your thinking under the sway of the medical profession. In
contrast to the medical profession, Christians maintain that the description
"abortion" is more accurate and determinative than the description
"termination of pregnancy." That is a most morally serious matter.
You must remember that, morally speaking, the first issue is never what we are to do,
but what we should see. Here is the way it works: you can only act in the world that you
can see, and you must be taught to see by learning to say. Again, you can only act in the
world that you can see, and you must be taught to see by learning to say. Therefore, using
the language of abortion is one way of training ourselves as Christians to see and to
practice its opposite--hospitality, and particularly hospitality to children and the
vulnerable. Therefore, abortion is a word that reminds us of how Christians are
to speak about, to envision, and to live life--and that is to be a baptizing people which
is ready to welcome new life into our communities.
In that sense "Abortion" is as much a moral description as
"suicide." Exactly why does a community maintain a description like
"suicide"? Because it reminds the community of its practice of enhancing life,
even under duress. The language of suicide also works as a way to remind you that even
when you are in pain, even when you are sick, you have an obligation to remain with the
people of God, vulnerable and yet present.
When we joined The United Methodist Church, we promised to uphold it with "our
prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service." We often think that "our
presence" is the easy one. In fact, it is the hardest one. I can illustrate this by
speaking about the church I belonged to in South Bend, Indiana. It was a small group of
people that originally was an E.U.B. (or Evangelical United Brethren) congregation. Every
Sunday we had Eucharist, prayers from the congregation, and a noon meal for the
neighborhood. When the usual congregation would pray, we would pray for the hungry in
Ethiopia and for an end to the war in the Near East, and so on. Well, this bag lady
started coming to church and she would pray things like, "Lord, I have a cold, and I
would really like you to cure it." Or, I've just had a horrible week and I'm
depressed. Lord, would you please raise my spirits You never hear prayers like that in
most of our churches. Why? Because the last thing that Christians want to do is show one
another that they are vulnerable. People go to church because they are strong. They want
to reinforce the presumption that they are strong.
One of the crucial issues here is how we learn to be a people dependent on one another.
We must learn to confess that, as a hospitable people, we need one another because we are
dependent on one another. The last thing that the church wants is a bunch of autonomous,
free individuals. We want people who know how to express authentic need, because that
So, the language of abortion is a reminder about the kind of community that we need to
be. Abortion language reminds the church to be ready to receive new life as church.
The Church as True Family
We, as church, are ready to be challenged by the other. This has to do with the fact
that in the church, every adult, whether single or married, is called to be
parent. All Christian adults have a parental responsibility because of baptism. Biology
does not make parents in the church. Baptism does. Baptism makes all adult Christians
parents and gives them the obligation to help introduce these children to the Gospel.
Listen to the baptismal vows; in them the whole church promises to be parent. In this
regard the church reinvents the family.
The assumption here is that the first enemy of the family is the church. When I taught
a marriage course at Notre Dame, I used to read to my students a letter. It went something
like this, "Our son had done well. He had gone to good schools, had gone through the
military, had gotten out, had looked like he had a very promising career ahead.
Unfortunately, he has joined some eastern religious sect. Now he does not want to have
anything to do with us because we are people of 'the world.' He is never going to marry
because now his true family is this funny group of people he associates with. We are
heartsick. We don't know what to do about this." Then I would ask the class,
"Who wrote this letter?" And the students would say, improbably some family
whose kid became a Moonie or a Hare Krishna." In fact, this is the letter of a fourth
century Roman senatorial family about their son's conversion to Christianity.
From the beginning we Christians have made singleness as valid a way of life as
marriage. This is how. What it means to be the church is to be a group of people called
out of the world, and back into the world, to embody the hope of the Kingdom of God.
Children are not necessary for the growth of the Kingdom, because the church can call the
stranger into her midst. That makes both singleness and marriage possible vocations. If
everybody has to marry, then marriage is a terrible burden. But the church does not
believe that everybody has to marry. Even so, those who do not marry are also parents
within the church, because the church is now the true family. The church is a family into
which children are brought and received. It is only within that context that it makes
sense for the church to say, "We are always ready to receive children. We are always
ready to receive children." The people of God know no enemy when it comes to
From the Pro-Life Side: When Life Begins
Against the background of the church as family, you can see that the Christian language
of abortion challenges the modern tendency to isolate moral dilemmas into discrete units
of behavior. If that tendency is followed, you get the questions, What is really wrong
with abortion?," and "Isn't abortion a separate problem that can be settled on
its own grounds? And then you get the termination-of-pregnancy language that wants to see
abortion as solely a medical problem. At the same time, you get abortion framed in a
When many people start talking about abortion, what is the first thing they talk about?
When life begins. And why do they get into the question of when life begins? Because they
think that the abortion issue is determined primarily by the claims that life is sacred
and that life is never to be taken. They assume that these claims let you know how it is
that you ought to think about abortion.
Well, I want to know where Christians get the notion that life is sacred. That notion
seems to have no reference at all to God. Any good secularist can think life is sacred. Of
course what the secularist means by the word sacred is interesting, but the idea
that Christians are about the maintenance of some principle separate from our
understanding of God is just crazy. As a matter of fact, Christians do not believe that
life is sacred. I often remind my right-to-life friends that Christians took their
children with them to martyrdom rather than have them raised pagan. Christians believe
there is much worth dying for. We do not believe that human life is an absolute good in
and of itself. Of course our desire to protect human life is part of our seeing each human
being as God's creature. But that does not mean that we believe that life is an overriding
To say that life is an overriding good is to underwrite the modern sentimentality that
there is absolutely nothing in this world worth dying for. Christians know that
Christianity is simply extended training in dying early. That is what we have always been
about. Listen to the Gospel! I know that today we use the church primarily as a means of
safety, but life in the church actually involves extended training in learning to die
When you frame the abortion issue in sacredness-of-life language, you get into
intractable debates about when life begins. Notice that is an issue for legalists. By that
I mean the fundamental question becomes, How do you avoid doing the wrong thing?
In contrast, the Christian approach is not one of deciding when has life begun, but
hoping that it has. We hope that human life has begun! We are not the kind of
people that ask, Does human life start at the blastocyst stage, or at implantation?
Instead, we are the kind of people that hope life has started, because we are ready to
believe the at this new life will enrich our community. We believe this not because we
have sentimental views about children. Honestly, I cannot imagine anything worse than
people saying that they have children because their hope for the future is in their
children. You would never have children if you had them for that reason. We are able to
have children because our hope is in God, who makes it possible to do the absurd thing of
having children. In a world of such terrible injustice, in a world of such terrible
misery, in a world that may well be about the killing of our children, having children is
an extraordinary act of faith and hope. But as Christians we can have a hope in God that
urges us to welcome children. When that happens, it is an extraordinary testimony of
From the Pro-Choice Side: When Personhood Begins
On the pro-choice side you also get the abortion issue framed in a context that is
outside of a communitarian structure. On the pro-choice side you get the question about
when the fetus becomes a "person," because only persons supposedly have
citizenship rights. That is the issue of Roe vs. Wade.
It is odd for Christians to take this approach since we believe that we are first of
all citizens of a far different kingdom than something called the United States of
America. If we end up identifying persons with the ability to reason--which, I think,
finally renders all of our lives deeply problematic--then we cannot tell why it is that we
ought to care for the profoundly retarded. One of the most chilling aspects of the current
abortion debate in the wider society is the general acceptance, even among anti-abortion
people, of the legitimacy of aborting severely defective children. Where do people get
that idea? Where do people get the idea that severely defective children are somehow less
than God's creation? People get that idea by privileging rationality. We privilege our
ability to reason. I find that unbelievable.
We must remember that as Christians we do not believe in the inherent sacredness of
life or in personhood. Instead we believe that there is much worth dying for. Christians
do not believe that life is a right or that we have inherent dignity. Instead we believe
that life is the gift of a gracious God. That is our primary Christian language regarding
abortion: life is the gift of a gracious God. As part of the giftedness of life, we
believe that we ought to live in a profound awe of the other's existence, knowing in the
other we find God. So abortion is a description maintained by Christians to remind us of
the kind of community we must be to sustain the practice of hospitality to life. That is
related to everything else that we do and believe.
Slipping Down the Slope
There is the argument that if you let abortion start occurring for the late-developed
fetus, sooner or later you cannot prohibit infanticide. Here you are entering the slippery
slope argument. There is a prominent well-respected philosopher in this country named H.
Tristam Englehart who wrote a book called Foundations of Bioethics. In the book
Englehart argues that, as far as he can see, there is absolutely no reason at all that we
should not kill children up to a year and a half old, since they are not yet persons. Foundations
is a text widely used in our universities today by people having to deal with all kinds of
I have no doubt that bioethical problems exist. After all, today you can run into all
kinds of anomalies. For example, in hospitals, on one side of the hall, doctors and nurses
are working very hard to save a five hundred-gram preemie while, on the other side of the
hall, they are aborting a similar preemie. There are many of these anomalies. There is no
question that they are happening. You can build up a collection of such horror stories.
But listen, people can get used to horror. Also, opposition to the horrible should not be
the final, decisive ground on which Christians stand while tackling these kinds of issues.
Instead, the issue is how we as a Christian community can live in positive affirmation of
the kind of hospitality that will be a witness to the society we live in. That will open
up a discourse that otherwise would be impossible.
Now I know that you probably feel a bit frustrated by this theological approach to
abortion--especially when you are trying to deal with concrete, pastoral problems, as well
as the political problems that we confront in this society. In some ways what I am asking
you to think about regarding abortion and the church is a little like what the Quakers had
to go through regarding slavery. Some of the early abolitionists, as you know, were
Quakers. Then somebody pointed out to them, there are a lot of slaveholding Friends."
So the Quakers had to turn around and say, "Yes, that's right." Then they had to
start trying to discipline their own ranks, and, as a result, they ended up creating a
bunch of Anglicans in Philadelphia.
One of the reasons why the church's position about abortion has not been authentic is
because the church has not lived and witnessed as a community in a way that challenges the
fundamental secular presuppositions of both the pro-life side and the pro-choice side. We
are going to have to become that kind of community if our witness is to have the kind of
integrity that it must.
The Male Issue
When addressing abortion, one of the crucial questions that we must engage is the
question of the relationship between men and women, and thus sexual ethics. One of the
things that the church has tried to do--and this is typical of the liberal social order in
which we live--is to isolate the issue of abortion from the issue of sexual ethics. You
cannot do that.
As this evening's sermon suggests, the legalization of abortion can be seen as the
further abandonment of women by men. one of the cruelest things that has happened over the
last few years is convincing women that Yes is as good as No. That gives great power to
men, especially in societies (like ours) where men continue domination. Women's greatest
power is the power of the No. This simply has to be understood. The church has to make it
clear that we understand that sexual relations are relations of power. Unfortunately, one
of the worst things that Christians have done is to underwrite romantic presuppositions
about marriage. Even Christians now think that we ought to marry people simply because
they are "in love." Wrong, wrong, wrong! What could being in love possibly mean?
The romantic view underwrites the presumption that, because people are in love, it is
therefore legitimate for them to have sexual intercourse, whether they are married or not.
Contrary to this is the church's view of marriage. To the church, marriage is the public
declaration that two people have pledged to live together faithfully for a lifetime.
One of the good things about the church's understanding of marriage is that it helps us
to get a handle on making men take responsibility for their progeny. It is a great
challenge for any society to get its men to take up this responsibility. As far as today's
church is concerned, we must start condemning male promiscuity. The church will not have a
valid voice on abortion until she attacks male promiscuity with the ferocity it deserves.
And we have got to get over being afraid of appearing prudish. Male promiscuity is nothing
but the exercise of reckless power. It is injustice. And by God we have to go after it.
There is no compromise on this. Men must pay their dues. There is absolutely no backing
off from that.
Christians must challenge the romanticization of sex in our society. It ends up with
high school kids having sexual intercourse because they think they love one another. Often
we must say that that is rape. Let us be clear about it. No fourteen-year-old,
unattractive women--who is not part of the social clique of a high school, who is suddenly
dated by some male, who falls all over herself with the need for approval, and who ends up
in bed with him--can be said to have had anything other than rape happen to her. Let the
church speak honestly about these matters and quit pussyfooting around. Until we speak
clearly on male promiscuity, we will simply continue to make the problems of teen-age
pregnancy and abortion female problems. Males have to be put in their place. There is no
way we as a church can have an authentic voice without this clear witness.
The "Wanted Child" Syndrome
There is one other issue that I think is worth highlighting. It concerns how abortion
in our society has dramatically affected the practice of having children. In discussions
about abortion, one often hears that no "unwanted child" ought to be born. But I
can think of no greater burden than having to be a wanted child.
When I taught the marriage course at Notre Dame, the parents of my students wanted me
to teach their kids what the parents did not want them to do. The kids, on the other hand,
approached the course from the perspective of whether or not they should feel guilty for
what they had already done. Not wanting to privilege either approach, I started the course
with the question, What reason would you give for you or someone else wanting to have a
child?" And you would get answers like, "Well, children are fun." In that
case I would ask them to think about their brothers and/or sisters. Another answer was,
Children are a hedge against loneliness Then I recommended getting a dog. Also I would
note that if they really wanted to feel lonely, they should think about someone they
raised turning out to be a stranger. Another student reply was, Kids are a manifestation
of our love." "Well," I responded, "what happens when your love
changes and you are still stuck with them" I would get all kinds of answers like
these from my students. But, in effect, these answers show that people today do not know
why they are having children.
It happened three or four times that someone in the class, usually a young woman, would
raise her hand and say, "I do not want to talk about this anymore." What this
means is that they know that they are going to have children, and yet they do not have the
slightest idea why. And they do not want it examined. You can talk in your classes about
whether God exists all semester and no one cares, because it does not seem to make any
difference. But having children makes a difference, and the students are frightened that
they do not know about these matters.
Then they would come up with that one big answer that sounds good. They would say,
"We want to have children in order to make the world a better place." And by
that, they think that they ought to have a perfect child. And then you get into the notion
that you can have a child only if you have everything set--that is, if you are in a good
"relationship," if you have your finances in good shape, the house, and so on.
As a result, of course, we absolutely destroy our children, so to speak, because we do not
know how to appreciate their differences.
Now who knows what we could possibly want when we "want a child"? The idea of
want in that context is about as silly as the idea that we can marry the right person.
That just does not happen. Wanting a child is particularly troubling as it finally results
in a deep distrust of mentally and physically handicapped children. The crucial question
for us as Christians is what kind of people we need to be to be capable of welcoming
children into this world, some of whom may be born disabled and even die.
Too often we assume compassion means preventing suffering and think that we ought to
prevent suffering even if it means eliminating the sufferer. In the abortion debate, the
church's fundamental challenge is to challenge this ethics of compassion. There is no more
fundamental issue than that. People who defend abortion defend it in the name of
compassion. "We do not want any unwanted children born into the world," they
say. But Christians are people who believe that any compassion that is not formed by the
truthful worship of the true God cannot help but be accursed. That is the fundamental
challenge that Christians must make to this world. It is not going to be easy.
Now I will take your questions.
[Because of technical problems, the original wording of the questions is not here
employed. However, an attempt has been made to convey the essence of each question.]
QUESTION #1: What about abortion in American society at large? That is, in your
opinion, what would be the best abortion law for our society?
HAUERWAS: The church is not nearly at the point where she can concern herself with what
kind of abortion law we should have in the United States or even in the state of North
Carolina. Instead, we should start thinking about what it means for Christians to be the
kind of community that can make a witness to the wider society about these matters.
Once I was giving a lecture on medical ethics at the University of Chicago Medical
School. The week before the lecture the school's students and faculty had been discussing
abortion. They had decided that, if a women asked them to perform an abortion, they would
do it because a doctor ought to do whatever a patient asks. So I said, "Let's not
talk about abortion. Let's talk about suicide. Imagine that you are a doctor in the
Emergency Room (E.R.) at Cook County Hospital, here on the edge of Lake Michigan. It's
winter; the patient they have pulled out of the lake is cold; and he is brought to the
E.R. He has a note attached to his clothing. It says, "I've been studying the
literature of suicide for the past thirty years. I now agree completely with Seneca on
these matters. After careful consideration, I've decided to end my life. If I am rescued
prior to my complete death, please do not resuscitate."
I said, What would you do?"
"We'd try to save him, of course," they answered.
So I followed, "On what grounds? If you are going to do whatever the consumer asks
you to do, you have no reason at all to save him."
So they countered, "It's our job as doctors to save life."
And I said, "Even if that is the case, why do you have the right to impose your
role, your specific duties, on this man?"
After quite a bit of argument, they decided that the way to solve this problem would be
to save this man the first time he comes into the E.R. The second time they would let him
My sense of the matter is that secular society, which assumes that you have a right to
your body, has absolutely no basis for suicide prevention centers. In other words, the
wider secular society has no public moral discourse about these matters.
In this kind of a setting, Christians witness to wider society first of all not by
lobbying for a law against abortion, but by welcoming the children that the wider society
does not want. Part of that witness might be to say to our pro-choice friends, "You
are absolutely right. I don't think that any poor woman ought to be forced to have a child
that she cannot afford. So let's work hard for an adequate child allowance in this
country." That may not be entirely satisfactory, but that is one approach.
QUESTION #2: Should the church be creating more abortion-prevention ministries, such as
homes for children?
HAUERWAS: I think that would be fine.
I have a lot of respect for the people in Operation Rescue. However, intervention in an
abortion-clinic context is so humanly painful that I'm not sure what kind of witness
Christians make there. But if we go to a rescue, one of the things that I think that we
ought to be ready to say to a woman considering an abortion is, "Will you come home
and live with me until you have your child? And, if you want me to raise the child, I
will." I think that that kind of witness would make a very powerful statement. The
homes are good, but also I think that Christians should be the kind of people who can open
our homes to a another and her child. A lot of single people are ready to do that.
QUESTION #3: How should the church assist a woman who was raped and is pregnant? Where
is justice, in a Niebuhrian sense, for her?
HAUERWAS: First of all, I am not a Niebuhrian. One of the problems with Niebuhr's
account of sin is that it gets you into a lesser-of-two-evils argument. Because I am a
pacifist, I do not want to entertain lesser-of-two-evil arguments. As you know, Christians
are not about compromise. We are about being faithful.
Second, I do know some women who have been raped and who have had their children and
become remarkable mothers. I am profoundly humbled by their witness.
Now, stop and think. Why is it that our church has not had much of a witness about
abortion, suicide, or other such matters? Let's face it, moral discourse in most of our
churches is but a pale reflection of what you find in Time magazine. For example,
when the United Methodist bishops drafted their peace pastoral, they said that most
Methodist people have been pacifists or just-war people. Well that was, quite frankly, not
true. I sat in on a continuing-education session at Duke right after the peace pastoral
came out. I asked how many of the ministers present had heard of just war prior to the
pastoral. Two-thirds of the approximately one hundred ministers indicated that they had
never even heard of just war. The United Methodist Church has not had disciplined
discourse about any of these matters.
Does our church have disciplined discourse--even about marriage? No. We let our
children grow up believing that what Christians believe about marriage is the same thing
that the wider society believes: that is, if you are in love with someone, you probably
ought to get married. It is a crazy idea. Being in love has nothing whatsoever to do with
their vocation as Christians.
Ministers, when was the last time you refused to marry a couple because they were new
to the congregation? People should be married within our congregations if and only if they
have lived in those congregations for at least a year. After all, they are making serious
Ministers, when was the last time you preached a sermon on abortion? When was the last
time you preached a sermon on war? When was the last time you preached a sermon on the
kind of care we ought to give to the ill? When was the last time you preached a sermon
about death and dying? When was the last time you preached a sermon on the political
responsibilities of Christians? The problem is that we feel at a loss about how to make
these kinds of matters part of the whole church. So, in effect, our preaching betrays the
church. I do not mean to put all the blame on preaching, but ministers do have a bully
pulpit that almost no one else in this society has--except for television. It's not much,
but it's something. At least preachers can enliven a discourse that is not alive anywhere
else, and people are hungering to be led by people of courage.
One of the deepest problems about these kinds of issues is that we fear our own
congregations. But as this evenings sermon makes clear, this kind of sermon can be
preached. And people will respond to it. And it will enhance a discourse that will make
possible practices that otherwise would not be there.
This brings me to comment on how we conduct our annual conferences. I think that the
lack of discussion of serious theological and moral matters at annual conferences is an
outrage. It is an outrage! This is the one place where the Methodist ministry comes
together every year and yet very little serious theological and moral challenge takes
place here; it is an outrage. Annual conference today is like any other gathering of
people in a business organization. Of course we have Bible study and all of that, but it
is pietistic. It's pietism. It's all individualism. It's about how I can find my soul's
relationship with God. But God isn't just interested in our little souls. God has bigger
fish to fry. If all we are interested in is our little souls, we shortchange the
extraordinary adventure that the Gospel calls us to be part of.
I know that some of you wonder what this means for supporting a constitutional
amendment on abortion. More important than that is what Christians owe our fellow
participants--I do not want to use the word citizens because I do not believe we
are citizens--in this funny social order that would encourage, as much as possible, the
glory of what it means to protect and receive children. But how you go about doing that is
not going to be easy.