Controversy Should Bring Out the Best in Christians

Controversy Should Bring Out the Best in Christians

How Christians ought to respond to major debates in society is always an issue. Some current examples are same-sex marriage, abortion, the war on terrorism, and U.S. immigration policy. We form our positions based on our backgrounds and religious beliefs, but since our faith traditions differ widely, we are often all over the map just as much as people of other faiths or even agnostics or atheists.

Regardless of the sides Christians take, how we address and confront others is an important indicator of our relationship with God. It reflects how our lights are shining or not shining. When we exercise our right to protest, are we yelling at each other? Do we understand the difference between critical analysis, criticism, and judging? A judge is one who has the authority to render punishment upon someone who has broken a law. Are we holding up signs that damn to a hell those who disagree with us or whose behavior we disagree with, even though we own no hell to send them to? Isn’t this why Jesus, the ultimate judge, warned us not to judge? Are we seeking first to model ourselves after Jesus and how He would have us to address these critical issues of our time?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the author of “Letter from A Birmingham Jail”, exemplified a direct and gracious way to communicate when we disagree with our conversation partners. (Photo Credit: ClarksvilleOnline.com)

Fifty years ago during the civil rights movement, one of the most contentious moments in America’s history, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed for a nonviolent protest in Birmingham. Many who were against him were fellow Christians who felt his methods were too radical—even ungodly. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King addressed his fellow brothers and sisters directly. In the rhetorical tradition of African American Jeremiads, Dr. King eloquently cried out for justice by using rational, biblically grounded arguments to defend the cause of the civil rights movement. He wrote:

“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

Dr. King also defended his methods and behavior. He wrote, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham.”

Dr. King had modeled the “ladder of hope” outlined in 2 Peter 1:4-14 We must have faith in what we believe and that we can accomplish all things through Christ. We need knowledge to apply that faith, so we ought to thoroughly educate ourselves regarding all sides of the issues we are confronting before we act. This faith and knowledge should prepare us to be self-controlled and respectful toward our fellow human beings—to be nonviolent in our interaction and, if necessary, confrontation. We will have the ability to persevere in a way that honors God in our positions and everything we do. And when people who do not know Jesus as their Lord and Savior see our behavior, they should see not hate, but God’s love in us – even if disagreement remains.

And so, as we confront the issues of the day, no matter how much our individual passions are riled, perhaps we Christians, as varied as we are, should remember to consider what we should be modeling.  We should model our speech after the direct, but loving conversational approach of Jesus.

The Kermit Gosnell Case: America on Trial

The Kermit Gosnell Case: America on Trial

Dr. Kermit Gosnell (pictured above) is on trial for the deaths of four infants and a woman who came to his clinic shortly after her arrival in the United States. This week, the jury began its deliberations on the case. (Photo credit: Yong Kim/Philadelphia Daily News).

Each society and culture has its own barometer for measuring its psychological health, sense of priority, and collective wellbeing. The Maasai tribe of Kenya, for instance, use the traditional greeting, “How are the children?” when acknowledging one another. The expected response between tribesmen is, “All the children are well.” This exchange signifies that because the children are being protected, taken care of, and provided for, all else in their world is as it should be: peace prevails, and society is fulfilling its obligation by ensuring posterity and future survival. What of our country? Are all of our children well?

[Kermit Gosnell] regularly and illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy—and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors.  (Report of the Grand Jury used to indict Kermit Gosnell)

Something is happening in our midst right now that is almost certain to become a watershed moment in our history. Kermit Gosnell, a man who took a professional oath to keep his patients from harm, who is part of what we call “the healing arts”, and in whose hands women placed their medical wellbeing, is on trial in Philadelphia for murdering four live babies after failed late-term abortions and killing one female patient. Remarkably, many people still are unaware of this trial or the history of the Women’s Medical Society abortion clinic run by Gosnell for almost 40 years. This stunning lack of awareness is due primarily to the deliberate and intentional absence of national mainstream, and initially, even Christian, media coverage of the Gosnell proceedings. If CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and their colleagues don’t want people to know what’s going on, and if even Christian media is reluctant to address the trial, we have to ask ourselves, “Why?”. Could it be that they all perceive the effect that honest, unbiased exposure of Gosnell’s reprehensible and illegal acts would have on the abortion debate? In the end, their reasons don’t change the fact that we cannot let media disregard of this story force us to miss what’s really at stake—the sensitivity and responsiveness of our individual consciences and the preservation of our country as a civil society.

Gosnell had a simple solution for the unwanted babies he delivered: he killed them. He didn’t call it that. He called it “ensuring fetal demise.” The way he ensured fetal demise was by sticking scissors into the back of the baby’s neck and cutting the spinal cord. He called that “snipping.(Report of the Grand Jury)

Sometimes it takes a jolt to the senses to snap us out of complacency and moral largesse. In 1963, during a critical juncture for the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and local leaders in Birmingham, Alabama decided to include children in a major planned protest, later dubbed the “Children’s Crusade” by Newsweek magazine. Ed Gilbreath, founding editor of UrbanFaith and author of the forthcoming book, Birmingham Revolution, describes how published media images of children being sprayed with fire hoses, and attacked by trained police dogs, brought added pressure both nationally and locally: “The campaign was faltering.  As the nation began to see the images…the true spotlight was shone on Birmingham when the kids got out there. [President] Kennedy had been trying to placate Dixiecrats but he did have concern for civil rights. The images of the kids forced his hand [and] also put economic pressure on Birmingham merchants. Kennedy began to recognize the hypocrisy of us presenting ourselves as being against communism, but right here in our own nation we had this cruel apartheid, [contrary to and] against the virtues we preached.” A teacher resource covering the Birmingham civil rights campaign adds, “Shocking photographs that accompanied the nightly television footage helped stir the nation’s conscience and provoked critical comment around the world.” Will we allow our consciences to be similarly stirred on behalf of the children whose lives were snuffed out by Gosnell? Can we use this moment as a turning point of common allegiance and opposition against such brutality and indifference to human life?

Baby Boy A…was breathing and moving when Dr. Gosnell severed his spine and put the body in a plastic shoebox for disposal. The doctor joked that this baby was so big he could “walk me to the bus stop.” …Baby C was moving and breathing for 20 minutes before an assistant came in and cut the spinal cord just the way she had seen Gosnell do it so many times before. (Report of the Grand Jury)

Women of all faiths, political affiliations, and ideological positions should be appalled that another woman’s children were degraded and discarded in this fashion. This is a time to recover our communal lament over the condition of our nation as reflected in its sanctioning the brutal practice of abortion. The words of Jeremiah 9 ring true in this regard: Consider all this, and call for the mourners. Send for the women who mourn at funerals. Quick! Begin your weeping! Let the tears flow from your eyes. … For death has crept in through our windows and has entered our mansions. 

Christians can’t allow media silence to silence us. Will we cooperate with the media’s attempt to harden our hearts and chill our souls as evil is ignored, justified, or blacked out? These were defenseless children, whom Scripture summons us to protect.

And what about Karnamaya Mongar, the refugee woman who was left to die after post-abortion neglect?

Karnamaya Mongar… received repeated unmonitored, unrecorded intravenous injections of Demerol, a sedative seldom used in recent years because of its dangers. … After several hours, Mrs. Mongar simply stopped breathing. When employees finally noticed, Gosnell was called in and briefly attempted to give CPR. He couldn’t use the defibrillator (it was broken); nor did he administer emergency medications that might have restarted her heart. … Doctors at the hospital managed to keep her heart beating, but…by that point, there was no way to restore any neurological activity. Life support was removed the next day. [She] was pronounced dead. (Report of the Grand Jury).

What does it say about us that there isn’t widespread alarm, shock, grief, and outrage over this trial and case? Have we finally been persuaded that protection of human life is secondary to a government-created “right”, and that killing innocent babies is ok?

Decency, regard for human life, dignity, and respect for the rule of law should be public values – even for those who do not claim Christianity. All of us together, believer and non-believer alike, must take stock of our tolerances because they foreshadow our societal trajectory: either upward toward grace, kindness, respect, restraint, and national honor; or downward toward violence, cruelty, rampant evil, and national reproach. Accepting the murder of live babies is just one point on a spectrum of debased behavior evident in other parts of our society—escalating violence against and among young people, sexual violation and humiliation of children and women, abuse, disregard, and neglect of the elderly, infirm, and disabled. We are becoming increasingly unmoved by even the most heinous and vile encroachments on human existence. We should be careful. Just because we might pretend not to see what’s going on doesn’t mean that God doesn’t see. And now we can’t say we didn’t know.

 

What Do Non-White Voters Want from the GOP?

What Do Non-White Voters Want from the GOP?

Opening night of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum will be a multi-cultural affair. Not only is ex-Democratic Congressman and former Obama supporter Artur Davis speaking, but so are South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and first lady of Puerto Rico, Luce’ Vela Fortuno. Mike Huckabee and Ann Romney are also on the agenda and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez will offer the benediction.

If you can’t be there, don’t worry, because the Republicans have organized their grand party as a “convention without walls.” Monday night’s theme will be “We Can Do Better,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus announced August 20. “Americans know we can do better than joblessness, poverty and debt,” said Priebus. “This convention will present our vision for a brighter, better future and it will lay out an optimistic, achievable plan to make it happen.” Given what seems like an obvious attempt to put a multi-racial face on the mostly White party, we’re wondering what Republicans will offer voters of color on the issues that matter to them most. Here are a few possibilities:

The Economy

In the seven swing states of Nevada, Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia and Iowa,  “jobless rates all rose or were flat in July,” Reuters reported. “A majority of Americans view the economy as the most important issue facing the country, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.” Check out our interview with Romney’s senior communications adviser Tara Wall for what she says her boss will do to address these economic concerns.

 Healthcare Reform

With Romney’s choice of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, Ryan’s “signature legislative proposal, the Path to Prosperity, has been widely criticized for its reduction of taxes for corporations and wealthy Americans — while deeply cutting social welfare programs,” The Root reported. “The Paul Ryan budget effectively destroys Medicare by turning it into a voucher program; slashes funding to Medicaid, which serves single mothers, children and the poor; and privatizes Social Security, leaving the elderly without a safety net.” And yet, conservative columnist David Brooks says it’s better than the Democratic alternative.

Education and Voting Rights

The NAACP and the National Education Association “are teaming up to register, educate and activate hundreds of thousands of voters ahead of the 2012 elections,” the NAACP announced August 20. “In the last two years, more states have passed more laws pushing more voters out of the ballot box than at any time since the rise of Jim Crow,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous.  “The extremists behind these laws know that the right to vote is the gateway to protecting so many of the other rights we care about, including the right to quality public schools for the next generation.” Will Republicans address these charges?

Immigration

“The Obama administration’s [brand new] Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals could expand the rights of more than 1 million young illegal immigrants by giving them work permits, though they would not obtain legal residency here or a path to citizenship,” Politico reported. “Republican critics accuse President Barack Obama of drafting the plan to boost his political standing with Latinos ahead of November’s vote and say the program favors illegal immigrants over unemployed American citizens during dismal economic times,” the article said. But do voters care?

 Abortion and Same Sex Marriage

“Relatively few black Americans and Hispanic Americans believe that cultural issues such as abortion (17% and 30%) and same-sex marriage (18% and 26%) are critical issues facing the country,” the Public Religion Research Institute reported in July. Does the media make more of culture-war issues than voters do?

Gun Control

“Black Protestants favor stricter gun control even more strongly than Catholics, according to a 2011 ABC News/Washington Post poll, with 71 percent saying they want tougher gun laws,” Religion News Service reported after recent shootings at a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh house of worship in Wisconsin. Will politicians pay attention to everyday urban violence concerns when the news media doesn’t?

What Does It Mean?

The Republicans have their work cut out for them. A Pew Research Center Poll conducted in late July found that only 4 percent of Blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics would have voted for Governor Romney if the election was held on the day the poll was conducted.

What do you think?

What issues to you want to hear the Republicans talk about next week?

What Does It Mean to Be ‘Pro-Life’?

What Does It Mean to Be ‘Pro-Life’?

MOTHER AND SON: UrbanFaith’s Christine Scheller with her late son, Gabe.

Would it surprise you to learn that when I describe myself as a pro-lifer, I don’t think it particularly matters what I believe about the legality of abortion? Well, it’s true. In my two opinion posts on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, I argued from a pro-life perspective, but the legal battle over abortion is not a priority for me. I believe I have the right to wear the pro-life label, no matter what my position is on the legal issues, because I walked the talk as a nineteen-year-old and because I consistently advocate a life-affirming message.

Perhaps it’s battle fatigue. Like many others, I’m tired of the culture wars and the way they’ve turned friends and family members off to the gospel. Some of the people I love most in this world have either had abortions or have participated in abortion decisions and I increasingly don’t want to be associated with rhetoric that hurts them. Conversely, I hope they don’t want to be associated with unkind, unfair, and untrue rhetoric that hurts me.

I know the legal fight is important, but it’s not one I’ve engaged in other than as a writer (occasionally) and a voter. I’ve never protested at an abortion clinic, attended the annual March for Life in Washington D.C., or volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center. I have taught a life skills class to teen moms at an alternative public school though.

When I interviewed a group of Catholic pro-life college students at the Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-minded Words: A Conference on Life and Choice in the Abortion Debate at Princeton University in 2010, I could not relate at all to their passion for the legal fight. I could, however, entirely relate to conference organizer and Fordham University ethicist Charles Camosy’s goal of finding areas of common ground with abortion rights activists. (Check out his five tips for creating civil discourse in an age of polarization here.)

What it means for me to be a pro-lifer now is to be an advocate for a comprehensive ethic of life, one that spans from womb to tomb, from conception to natural death. It includes issues like healthcare and immigration reform, extreme poverty, euthanasia, and more.

Ever since my son died by suicide, my first pro-life priority has been suicide prevention. That’s why I was so glad to read that Tony Cornelius, the son of the late Soul Train founder and host Don Cornelius, has launched a suicide prevention foundation in memory of his father. “This is a huge, huge issue and it’s an issue that has a veil of shame over it. People are still very uncomfortable with who’s talking about suicide,” Cornelius told EURweb. “Breast cancer at one time was something that was under the table. Women didn’t want to discuss it. AIDS was something that was under the table. No one wanted to discuss it. I mean I think this is an opportunity to bring this to the surface.” That’s a pro-life message, if ever I heard one.

I’m also glad to hear pro-lifers like the Rev. James Martin advocating for stricter gun control laws in response to the Aurora shooting. (There’s common ground to be had here too, according to Craig C. Whitney, author of forthcoming book, Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment.) Like me, Martin believes in a “consistent ethic of life.” Writing at the Catholic weekly America about abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and poverty, he said, “All of these issues, at their heart, are about the sanctity of all human life, no matter who that person is, no matter at what stage of life that person is passing through, and no matter whether or not we think that the person is ‘deserving’ of life.”

In an email exchange with Religion News Service reporter David Gibson, Russell D. Moore, dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued that “we ought not to let the term ‘pro-life’ become so elastic as to lose all meaning.” He charged that “in most cases, the expansion of ‘pro-life’ is a way to divert attention from the question of personhood and human rights.” I disagree. Just as the gospel message speaks to all of life, so too a pro-life ethic can and should be all-encompassing.

Responsibility and the Affordable Care Act

Responsibility and the Affordable Care Act

Last week, I wrote a deeply personal post about how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will help me get much needed treatment for gallstones. I told a bit of my story and posed three basic questions for fiscal and social conservatives who oppose the ACA: 1.) Do they believe small business owners who don’t have access to affordable health insurance will be a drain on the economy? 2.) Do they think homemakers who re-enter the work force are undeserving of affordable health care? 3.) Does pro-life concern for mothers only extend to their utility as symbols for a cause?

The post generated a lot of reaction, both positive and negative. I appreciate all the responses because they tell me I tapped into something important. One criticism in particular stuck in my craw, though, so I’d like to respond to it. Then, I want to offer a challenge to institutions like Wheaton College, which cited religious freedom and sanctity of life concerns in its decision to file a lawsuit this week against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over the ACA contraception mandate.

What Does It Mean to Be Responsible for Oneself?

First, the criticism. Some accused me of wanting others to pay for the choices I’ve made in my life. This is not only an affront to everything I believe, but it is patently false. From the time I chose not to abort my child, I’ve taken responsibility for my actions. In a 2004 Christianity Today essay about my unplanned pregnancy, for example, I wrote the following words:

“I have always seen the decision not to terminate my pregnancy as the one courageous moment of my life. I acted with self-abandon for the benefit of the innocent. But lately, I’ve begun to think it curious that I should have seen not killing my own child as heroic. I could spin a sad tale to make myself look better, but the fact is I failed in my duty to my family, my community, and my Savior. Accepting the consequences of that failure was not heroism. Only in a culture where sex is divorced from meaning and where self-interest trumps everything could such a narrative be produced. Courage would have been to decline that offer of illicit comfort in the first place.”

I still believe this.

Likewise, when my husband and I decided that I would stay home with our children, it was, in part, an economic decision. It didn’t make financial sense for me to get a job and devote a large chunk of my income to childcare and other work-related expenses, so long before he was earning a six-figure income, we chose to live frugally on one income, at least until our children were in school. I either worked part-time or went to school part-time for much of the time that I “stayed home.” I also home-schooled our sons for several years because our urban district had some typical urban school problems that we judged not to be good for our children. If that was not taking responsibility for myself and my family, I don’t know what is.

I could go on and detail the myriad ways my husband and I have continued to be responsible citizens in the decade since he left his high-paying job, but I’ll simply say that when I was in the midst of any of the four gallbladder attacks I’ve had in the past two weeks, it would have been easy for me to go to the emergency room and not worry about who pays the bill, as I imagine some uninsured Americans do. But I am not one of those people. What I’ve been trying to do instead is to find a way to keep doing what I’ve always tried to do, which is to live my life with integrity. So, I sent in my application for NJ Protect last week, along with a check for $584, which is what a decent plan will cost me every month, and made an appointment with a gastroenterologist for August 2, when I will be insured again. My family will resume paying in the neighborhood of $1000-a-month for mediocre health insurance. How anyone can view this as me wanting someone else to pay my way is beyond me.

The History and Reality of Employer Sponsored Health Insurance

In 2005, the non-partisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center reported that “health insurance provided by employers is a tax-free fringe benefit that costs the government over $140 billion annually.” The report said employer-sponsored insurance covers almost two-thirds of workers and their families, but “overwhelmingly favors” the middle and upper classes. That was seven years ago. I’d guess fewer workers are covered by ESI now.

In a 2006 New England Journal of Medicine article, Dr. David Blumenthal described our system of employer-sponsored insurance as “an accident of history that evolved in an unplanned way and, in the view of some, without the benefit of intelligent design.” He said President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose not to advance universal health insurance as a part of Social Security because of “fierce opposition from the American Medical Association,” which was “a much more potent lobby then than it is now.” As it happens, Roosevelt had lunch with his father-in-law, an influential neurosurgeon who opposed the plan, just before deciding not to push for universal health insurance.

Private insurance emerged to fill the gap and then a series of federal laws cemented the ESI system into place. During World War II, because of inflation concerns, the federal government “limited employers’ freedom to raise wages,” but allowed them to expand benefits like health insurance so that they could compete for scarce workers, Blumenthal said. Then, in 1954, the IRS “decided that the contributions that employers made to the purchase of health insurance for their employees were not taxable as income to workers.” By 2004, the tax benefit for every American with ESI was about $1,180, he said.

Many would argue that a tax break is not the same thing as a subsidy, but it bears noting that workers who have ESI already get a break that the uninsured do not get, and the decisions that led to this break were political, and perhaps even personal, if it’s true that Roosevelt’s father-in-law influenced his decision to not push for universal health insurance.

What Does It mean to be Responsible for One’s Rhetoric?

Now, onto my challenge. In my previous post, I said that vocal pro-lifers seem to care more about the contraception mandate than they do about the long-term well being of women who don’t abort their children. This week, in a highly unusual step, Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Illinois, announced that it is joining other Christian colleges in suing the Department of Health and Human Services over the mandate, in part because it will require Wheaton’s employee health insurance plan to cover abortifacient drugs commonly known as “morning after” and “week after” pills. These schools have every right to do this, but I’d like to challenge them to adopt a more consistent pro-life policy, like the one my uncle Charlie Gifford pushed to have enacted when he was associate dean and campus pastor at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana.

I talked to my uncle this morning. He said that when a freshman at the school came to him and told him she was pregnant, he questioned Taylor’s policy of suspending unmarried pregnant students until after the births of their babies. He also questioned why fathers were not similarly disciplined. As a result, Taylor changed its policy. The school no longer suspends unmarried pregnant students, but it does require them and the male students who impregnate them to live in approved off-campus housing during the third trimester of pregnancy. My uncle did more. He and my aunt welcomed two pregnant Taylor students into their home so that these women could continue their educations. Both women gave their babies up for adoption, he said, and their parents are among the most loyal supporters of his current ministry in Sheridan, Wyoming.

When my late son Gabe was a student at Wheaton College, I asked the dean of women what the school’s policy was on pregnant unmarried students. She said Wheaton had to do what was in the best interest of the whole community, which I took to mean that it suspended or expelled unmarried pregnant women, just as I would have been suspended or expelled when I became pregnant at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, if I hadn’t already left the school. Wheaton’s current policy, which its communications director LaTonya Taylor sent via email late this afternoon, says the school is prepared to “stand with” both the mother and the father, but in practical terms it is vague, saying only that on-campus residency and/or enrollment “will be considered in light of what is best for all those involved.”

So, I’ll conclude by saying that if Christian colleges want to take a strong pro-life stand, they need to be consistent and do a better job of supporting women who become pregnant on their campuses. Allowing pregnant women to continue with their studies is not synonymous with condoning extra-marital sex. “Grace and mercy is a scandal. It always is,” my Uncle Charlie told me this morning. How about let’s all be scandalized for the right reasons for a change? Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

Update 7/27: Wheaton College emailed the following clarification regarding its policy:

“Under the current policy, which has been Wheaton’s policy since 2001, the College has allowed pregnant female students—as well as the fathers of their children, if they are also enrolled—to continue their studies before and/or after the births of their babies. Students are not automatically suspended or expelled for becoming pregnant while unmarried. The challenge to community life is largely related to providing appropriate housing for an expectant mother and newborn, given the realities of residence hall life. Our practice has been to assist young women in finding off-campus housing during the final months of pregnancy. The living situation following the pregnancy is, of course, dependent on many factors—most of them related to the new parents’ decisions about marriage, adoption, or single parenthood. Our goal and practice for expectant students is to provide spiritual support and practical assistance in arranging appropriate housing, adjusting to their new reality, making decisions, and completing their studies.”