"We are now witnessing the gradual restructuring of American culture
according to ideals of utility, productivity, and cost-effectiveness... When American
political life becomes an experiment on people rather than for and by them, it will no
longer be worth conducting. We are arguably moving closer to that day... Like the cross of
our Lord, faithful dedication to the Gospel of life is a 'sign of contradiction' in our
With these powerful, prophetic words, the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops
issued a clarion call to all who believe in the dignity and sanctity of human life. Taken
from "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics," which was
released late in 1998, these words are representative of the insight and vision of this
document. Unfortunately, it makes me ashamed, ashamed that our own United Methodist
bishops, as well as leaders of so many other Protestant denominations, have failed to
speak such words themselves.
The bishops blame the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, (rightly,
I think) for creating the cultural environment in which we now tragically find ourselves:
"Nations are like ecosystems... Taking a distorted 'right to privacy' to new heights
and developing a new moral calculus to justify it, Roe has spread through the American
political ecology with toxic results."
As one would expect from the Catholic bishops, however, "Living the
Gospel of Life" is not merely about abortion and euthanasia, though it stresses those
issues. Rather, we live the Gospel of life, they remind us, "when we live in
solidarity with the poor of the world, standing up for their lives and dignity," when
we live a "consistent ethic of life" that respects and protects all human life
from its inception to its final moment. The bishops target inconsistency in any form,
whether on the right or the left. On the one hand: "Opposition to abortion and
euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence, and
injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the
scandal of capital punishment." And on the other: "The failure to protect and
defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of
positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human
What the bishops are trying to do in this statement is to apply John Paul
II's encyclical of five years ago, "The Gospel of Life," to the American
situation, especially to lay Catholics who hold political or social responsibility and try
to separate their private opposition to, say, abortion from their public views and
actions. But that message, they suggest, is for us Protestants, too. In my view, it is a
message especially for pastors and lay people who compartmentalize their faith and their
views on so-called "matters of private choice." (I think Bonhoeffer called that
"cheap grace.") The bishops remind us that private but not public opposition to
racism or sexism makes no more or less sense than the same attitude toward the taking of
innocent human life.
For those of us who accept the Gospel of life, the document urges us to
live it, to "participate in building the culture of life," and it enumerates the
virtues we need to do so: courage, honesty, humility, perseverance, prudence, and, of
course, faith, hope, and love. The bishops call on women, especially, to promote the
Gospel of life with a "new pro-life feminism." It would have been good, and
quite courageous, had the bishops specifically called also on Protestants to create a new
Nothing in this document is radically new or surprising. Critics will
charge the bishops (and people who sympathize with their views) with narrow-mindedness,
patriarchalism, and/or intolerance of cultural and ethical pluralism. But I think the
bishops will, in the end, be proven right, for one must be very hard of heart indeed not
to see their fundamental point: "We have been changed by our culture too much, and we
have changed it not enough. If we are leaven, we must bring to our culture the whole
Gospel, which is a Gospel of life and joy... Those who would claim to promote the cause of
life through violence or the threat to violence contradict this Gospel at its core."
A very ecumenical perspective, I submit.
Dr. Michael J. Gorman/Dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology, and
Professor of New Testament and Early Church History at St. Mary's Seminary &
University/5400 Roland Avenue/Baltimore, MD 21210-1994
The Lifewatch Service of Worship was held on January 22, 1999, at the
Lincoln Park United Methodist Church in Washington, DC. (The service did not take place,
as it usually does, in The United Methodist Building, because it is currently undergoing
renovation.) Lifewatch is grateful to the Lincoln Park Church and to her pastor, Rev.
Harold Lewis, for their gracious hospitality. The Lincoln Park Church and Rev. Lewis
hosted not only the Lifewatch Service of Worship but also Lifewatch's Annual Board
In especially fine fashion, Rev. Paul R. Crikelair, pastor of the Goodwill
United Methodist Church in Elverson, PA, ordered and led the Lifewatch service. Gloria
White, on very short notice, played the piano and played it well. And Dan White (12556
Mary Powell Lane/Herndon, VA 20171/(703)-266-7976), a Mission Society missionary headed
for South America, preached the sermon of the morning. Before preaching, White played an
educational video on the unborn child's life in the womb. This film is now routinely shown
to many medical-school classes. At the conclusion of the video, White preached his sermon,
entitled "Being the Good Samaritan to the Mother and the Child."
He noted: "I am afraid that we have been told in the church, and we
have been told in society, for far too long, that our neighbor is either the woman or the
baby. In the political debate that surrounds this city on the issue of abortion, one or
the other can be our neighbor, but both cannot. We are pro-life, which means pro-baby; or
we are pro-choice, and they say that's pro-woman. We are pro-death or pro-life; it is one
or the other. But you cannot have it both ways, it is suggested. You cannot have two
neighbors at the same time, one on either side of you. Only one is our neighbor at a time.
Is it not striking that, when the church begins to look at these issues through political
eyes, things begin to get redefined in our mind?
"It is possible, I propose to you today, to have two neighbors. We
have seen the plight of the neighbor, the plight of the person on the road who has been
beaten up, in this video on life in the womb. Imagine a suction tube coming into that
beautiful little area where the baby is growing up and death occurring shortly thereafter.
If that is not our neighbor, and if we are not supposed to reach out to that neighbor, I
do not know who our neighbor is."
Later in his sermon, White declared: "I believe that there are those
on the left who go out of their way to the point of being illogical to say that the baby
in the womb is not our neighbor. And there are those on the right who go out of their way
to say that the mother is not our neighbor. The right also says, 'Let us just pass a few
laws.' I'm not against those laws, but that is not the end of it for the church. The
question is, 'Who is my neighbor?'
"There is a way to pull these together, to say that the mother is our
neighbor and the child is our neighbor. But we, as Christians, must reject political talk
and begin speaking in terms of mission. Abortion is a mission opportunity for the church,
not an issue for politics.
"For us, the Body of Christ, the question is how much can we support
nonjudgmental, nonpushy crisis pregnancy centers. But in a sense the church ought not be
supporting crisis pregnancy centers. We should be a crisis pregnancy center, for our own
members and then for the community..."
Here we are. Ecclesial sons and daughters of John Wesley. Living at the
very end of the Second Millennium and nearing the dawn of the Third. And confronting a
culture of death, including the sin of abortion.
We are not the first Christians to confront abortion. Far from it. From
the first years of the primitive, apostolic community, the Church has had teaching, solid
teaching, substantive teaching, unambiguous teaching, on abortion. In our time, which
lacks memory of what happened eighteen days ago let alone what happened eighteen
centuries, decades, years, months, or weeks ago, the historic teaching of the Church in
any area is all too easily forgotten. Thanks be to God that our forgetfulness does not
thereby eliminate the truthful teaching of those who have gone before us.
So, the teaching of the Church on abortion still stands. It remains. And
our privilege, our duty, in The United Methodist Church and in the power of the Holy
Spirit, is to recover it, relearn it, remember it anew, and abide by it. By doing this, we
United Methodists will increase our solidarity with the Church that stretches back to the
apostles, that extends forward until the Kingdom comes, and that reaches around the world.
This exercise in remembering is not likely to capture many headlines in
the church press next week. But still, it is a crucial, necessary, constructive exercise.
In what follows, we will allow the Tradition of the Church to speak. It is
worthwhile to recall that this Tradition is not man-made stuff. Rather, it is what God
gave to the Church and to her teachers as they applied Holy Scripture to their times and
places. Since all Christians take (or should take) this Tradition seriously, and since
United Methodist Christians find Christian truth from Church Tradition, we should give it
our undivided attention. This is not easy for us. Most of the time, we would rather speak
than listen. But listen we must.
The following sketch of the Church's historic teaching on abortion is
organized around the categories and names noted in Lifewatch's Model Resolution on
abortion, which was published in full in the last issue of Lifewatch (see the 12/98 issue
or our Web site). It is hoped that this sketch will ground the Lifewatch community more
firmly in the Gospel of life as we continue to strive to resist the culture of death.
THE EARLIEST WITNESSES
This sketch begins by noting the People of God's basic assumption about
life, which is embedded in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. This assumption has
been briefly summarized by Ronald B. Bagnall: "In contrast to other nomadic peoples,
the Israelites were not allowed to leave behind those who had become a burden or a bother.
In contrast to other Mediterranean peoples, Christians also were not allowed to discard or
disregard either those whom they begot or those who begot them." (Lutheran Forum
In the primitive churches of the first century, an instructional document
on Christian morals and congregational discipline, entitled The Didache, circulated. It
had this to say about life and abortion: "There are two ways; the one is that of life
and the other is that of death. There is a great difference between the two ways. The Way
of Life is this: first, you shall love the God Who made you; second, you shall love your
neighbor as yourself. Everything that you do not wish to be done to you, do not do to
"You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not
corrupt children. You shall not practice sexual promiscuity. You shall not steal. You
shall not practice magic. You shall not mix poisons, not secure an abortion or kill the
"The Way of Death consists of this: murders, adulteries,...
"The Way of Death is the way of those...who kill their children by
abortion and destroy God's creatures, who turn their backs on the poor and oppress the
afflicted... Save yourselves, children, from all these!" (What the Church Fathers Say
About..., Volume 2 [Minneapolis: Light & Life, 1998])
Around 70 A.D., the Epistle of Barnabas was written and read in very early
congregations. It included this commandment: "You shall not destroy your conceptions
before they are brought forth, nor kill them after they are born." (What the Church
Fathers Say About... [Minneapolis: Light & Life, 1996])
In the second or third century, the Epistle to Diognetus claimed that
"[Christians] marry like everybody. They beget children, but they do not throw away
what is begotten. They set a common table, but not [a common] bed [coitus]. They happen to
be in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh..." (What the Church Fathers
Say About..., 1996)
Tertullian, an African Church Father, wrote around 223 A.D.: "The
life in the womb may not be destroyed." (What the Church Fathers Say About..., 1996)
In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian
Fathers, declared: "The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of
murder. The hair-splitting difference between formed and unformed makes no difference to
us. In this case, it is not only the being about to be born who is victimized, but the
woman in her attack upon herself..."
(What the Church Fathers Say About..., 1996)
To be sure, this sketch includes only a few statements from the early
Church on life and abortion. There are many others that could be offered. However, these
statements point out a moral consensus. Orthodox scholar Alexander Webster has underlined
this consensus: "[Abortion] is one of only several moral issues on which not one
dissenting opinion has ever been expressed by the Church Fathers." (Paper delivered
at the Consultation on the Church and Abortion, Princeton, 1992)
The early Church's consensus on abortion held throughout the Middle Ages.
It also held firm during the Reformation period. For example, Martin Luther asserted:
"For those who have no regard for pregnant women and who do not spare the tender
fruit are murderers and infanticides." (What Luther Says: An Anthology [St. Louis:
Concordia Publishing House, 1959])
John Calvin followed the tradition on life and abortion that he had
received: "If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field,
because a man's house is his most secure place of refuge, it ought surely to be deemed
more atrocious to destroy the unborn in the womb before it has come to light."
(Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
As a part of the English Reformation and as the father of Methodism, John
Wesley continued the Church's teaching on abortion. Robert B. Mussman has described
Wesley's position: "The killing of infants Wesley called 'the basest of murders.' In
his powerful indictment of the depravity of the Indians in Georgia, 'except perhaps the
Choctaws,' he called them 'murderers of their own children, it being a common thing...for
a woman either to procure abortion, or to throw her child into the next river, because she
will go with her husband to the war.' He related that a woman deserted by her man often
would kill the children she had borne him. Wesley charged those involved in the violent
persecution of Methodists in Cork of 'not sparing even those of tender years, no, nor
women, though great with child; but, with more than Pagan or Mahometan barbarity,
destroying infants that were yet unborn.'
"For [John Wesley] abortion was the murder of unborn children."
(The Candle of the Lord: The Ethical Teachings of John Wesley [Salem, OH: Schmul
Karl Barth, the great systematic theologian of the twentieth century,
carried on the Church's understanding of life and abortion: "The unborn child is from
the very first a child. It is still developing and has no independent life. But it is a
man and not a thing, not a mere part of the mother's body... He who destroys germinating
life kills a man... The fact that a definite No must be the presupposition of further
discussion cannot be contested, least of all today." (Church Dogmatics [Edinburgh: T.
& T. Clark, 1961])
Writing in a culture that devalued life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great
German theologian asserted: "Destruction of the embryo in the mother's womb is a
violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the
question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to
confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being
and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is
nothing but murder. A great many different motives may lead to an action of this kind...
All these considerations must no doubt have a quite decisive influence on our personal and
pastoral attitude towards the person concerned, but they cannot in any way alter the fact
(Ethics [New York: Macmillan, 1955])
Albert C. Outler, the great United Methodist ecumenist and historical
theologian who taught for years at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of
Theology, displayed allegiance to the Great Tradition on life and abortion with this:
"The issue comes down to this: whether or not human-personal life is a real continuum
and whether or not it is truly sacred. For if it is, then fetal life, infant life,
senescent life, even when 'unwanted', deserves humane care and compassion, even when
pitted against the personal values of youthful or adult lives. And I believe that our
continuing scruples against infanticide and euthanasia are the residues of an older
conscience that where human life is at stake, life outweighs utility. Once that conscience
goes, the only barriers between us and Auschwitz will be societal moods that, on their
record, can give us very little real security." ("The Beginnings of Personhood:
Theological Considerations," Perkins Journal [Fall 1973])
United Methodist Paul Ramsey, who taught and wrote Christian ethics at
Princeton University, demonstrated his disagreement with abortion on demand, and engaged
the ecclesial and secular powers that be, with these words: "...On two Sunday
mornings within the past month I have opened my New York Times and found facing me
full-page ads placed by something called the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights [now
known as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice]. Listed among the sponsors was
the United Methodist Church.
"No ifs, ands or buts. It did not say these five bishops by name or
for that matter fifty. It did not say such and such conference or Methodist body in N.Y.
State. It did not say the Washington Office, or for that matter the whole, Board of Church
and Society. I could easily distance from any such group within our church. I could say
they didn't speak for me, nor did they claim to do so. The ad said, plain as day, the
United Methodist Church! That's the problem.
"For, you see, I don't want to have to take out ads saying that the
Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights doesn't speak for the Methodist Church, and so not
for me, and not, perhaps, for you. Besides, that organization isn't supposed to observe
the Discipline. Methodists are, and all our boards and agencies.
"One ad was scandalous in its equation of the freedom of elective
abortion (now a holocaust of 1,400,000 a year, afflicting as a main group teens and
pre-teens) with First Amendment religious liberty. It was stupidly ill-informed about the
variety of bills and amendments now before Congress. There were no nuances for difference
of specific opinion as to the least worse solution of this terrible problem..."
(11/9/81 Letter from Ramsey to The Circuit Rider, Good News, and the New Jersey Relay)
In Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, Ramsey noted elsewhere, "the [U.S.
Supreme] Court opened the door to weighing human lives according to comparative
worthiness, or something called 'meaningfulness.'
"Ineluctably we pass from abortion to infanticide, whether the
justices know it or not. Ineluctably, because many of the reasons alleged to justify
permissive abortion have equal force in justifying the killing of neonates in hospital
nurseries." (Letter to the New York Times from Ramsey on 1/24/73, two days after Roe
v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton)
At a prayer breakfast in Washington, DC, Mother Teresa of Calcutta had
this to say about life and abortion: "I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace
today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent
child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own
child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman
not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love, and we remind
ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even His life
to love us. So, the mother who is thinking of abortion should be helped to love, that is,
to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The
father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts." ("Whatever
You Did unto One of the Least, You Did unto Me" in The Right Choice: Pro-Life Sermons
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1997])
Of course, the above is only an outline of the Church's historic
instruction on abortion. Of course, only a few sources are cited. Of course, the
quotations are taken out of context. Of course, there are qualifications that might be
added here and there. But one thing is clear: Over the centuries, the Church has had
straightforward, consistent teaching on life and abortion.
And it is time that The United Methodist Church receive and teach this
part of the Great Tradition of the Church. This is our hope. This is our prayer. This is
our witness. (PTS)
For better or for worse, United Methodism is always searching for the
middle. We are a pragmatic people. We are a compromising people. We, as a church, reflect
our nation's democratic ethos, which is always in search of the middle. We are a people of
the cultural, ideological, political, and theological middle.
Therefore, it is not surprising to find United Methodists who say they are
both pro-choice and pro-life at once. Consciously or not, they are doing the United
Methodist thing: they are grasping for the middle. With great sincerity, they claim to be
personally pro-life and politically pro-choice, or something like that. Nice try. But no
To this attempt at compromise and conciliation, "Living the Gospel of
Life" [reviewed above] responds: "This [position] is seriously mistaken on
several key counts. First, regarding abortion, the point when human life begins is not a
religious belief but a scientific fact, a fact on which there is clear agreement even
among leading abortion advocates. Second, the sanctity of human life is not merely
Catholic doctrine but part of humanity's global ethical heritage, and our nation's
founding principle. Finally, democracy is not served by silence. Most Americans would
recognize the contradiction in the statement, 'While I am personally opposed to slavery or
racism or sexism, I cannot force my personal views on the rest of society.' Real pluralism
depends on people of conviction struggling vigorously to advance their beliefs by every
ethical and legal means at their disposal." (24, emphasis in the original)
The bottom line is this. The United Methodist Church, out of faithfulness
to God and to the Gospel of life, should take sides regarding abortion, without
embarrassment and without hesitation. After all, the Evangelicals, the Orthodox, the Roman
Catholics, the Southern Baptists, and most other Christians have taken sides regarding
abortion. And Methodists have, every once in a while, taken sides before, for example, on
labor and poverty, on racism and sexism. It is time for United Methodism to forsake the
middle and to take the side of life. (PTS)
The most visible United Methodist in the United States, Hillary Rodham
Clinton, spoke on January 22nd at a National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action
League luncheon in Washington, DC. While 100,000 pro-life people peacefully marched to
demonstrate solidarity with innocent and helpless people, she denounced the "domestic
terrorism" against abortion clinics, their doctors, and their workers. Pro-life
United Methodists certainly join her in that denunciation. She was specific: "In the
last 10 years there have been seven murders, 38 bombings, 146 cases of arson, and 733
cases of vandalism..." (New York Times, 1/23/99) To be sure, that violence against
people and property is terrible. However, one might wonder about the approximately
15,000,000 unborn children whose lives were taken by abortion during the same ten years.
Or the number of women who have died, due to botched abortions, in the clinics; needless
to say, there were more than seven.
Violence against the unborn does not justify violence against
abortionists. At the same time, violence against abortionists should not blind us to the
violence routinely committed against the unborn and their mothers.
The Institute for Religious Values held a conference, entitled
"Exploring How the Jewish Comunity Can Work to Reduce Abortion," at Catholic
University's Columbus School of Law on November 12, 1998. Lifewatch was invited to attend
in an observer status. And observe we did. Several brilliant rabbis made presentations
during the day; and Ben Stein, the actor and law professor, was the luncheon speaker.
Especially interesting was the presentation by Rabbi David Novak, who teaches at the
University of Toronto. (By the way, Novak knows more Christian theology than many pastors
and priests.) Rabbi Novak claimed that, according to the Jewish tradition, only God is
truly autonomous. That is, according to Jewish teaching, it is not truthful for people to
understand themselves as "autonomous individuals", making their own decisions,
developing their own truths, blazing their own trails, doing their own things; only God is
free to do all of that as He sees fit. Novak also mentioned that, due to their experience
Holocaust, Jews should be particularly dedicated to including the unborn
in the community of care and restricting abortion.
During the last year, some of the Jewish political commentary on the
Clinton scandals has been morally insightful and strong. It is obvious that the moral
tradition of Judaism has great riches to offer the American public square, and, now, to
the pro-life movement.
"There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of [a]
higher order than the right to life...that was the premise of slavery. You could not
protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private
and therefore outside your right to be concerned.
"What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a
nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What
kind of a person and what kind of a society will we have 20 years hence if life can be
taken so casually? It is that question, the question of our attitude, our value system,
and our mind-set with regard to the nature and worth of life itself that is the central
question confronting mankind. Failure to answer that question affirmatively may leave us
with a hell right here on earth." (Catholic New York, 1/21/99)
This strong statement against abortion was made by The Reverend Jesse
Jackson. In 1977. Yes, times have changed. And unfortunately, so has the thinking of this
Jeff and Pam live in North Carolina. Both of them work in a
human-services agency. And they are United Methodists. Their pastor, in a letter, notes
that they are "good, talented, responsible, Christian people." Currently, this
young, married couple is seeking to adopt a child. They are working through The Children's
Home Society of North Carolina. For more information, or to give them information about a
child they might adopt, please call their social worker, Ms. Nancy Gunn, at
(336)-274-1538. Thank you for taking the time to respond to this announcement.
If you or someone you know is pregnant, down, and out, do not give up
hope and give in to abortion. Instead, call one of these numbers and move in the direction
of life and love:
America's Crisis Pregnancy Helpline: 800-67-BABY-6
Bethany Christian Services: 800-238-4269
The Nurturing Network: 800-TNN-4MOM
Pregnancy Hotline: 800-848-LOVE
Several Sources Foundation: 800-NO-ABORT
Lifewatch is published by the Taskforce of
United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, a network of United Methodist clergy, laity,
It is sent free to interested readers. Editor, Rev.
Paul T. Stallsworth: P.O. Box 177, Rose Hill NC 28458 (910)289-2449/Administrator, Mrs.
Ruth Brown: 512 Florence Street, Dothan AL 36301 (334)794-8543/E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: http://home.sprynet.com/sprynet/tumaslw
3/1/99 For United Methodists
It is a message for those who
compartmentalize their faith and their views on so-called "matters of private
PLEASE JOIN US ON THE FIRST TUESDAY OF EACH
MONTH IN PRAYING AND FASTING FOR LIFEWATCH' S CONTINUING MINISTRY.