The abortion rate has fallen to its lowest level since the Supreme Court legalized the practice in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The news comes from a study by the pro-abortion research group, the Guttmacher Institute. How should Christians, and our other pro-life allies, receive this news?
On the one hand, we ought to celebrate. God has called us to lives of gratitude, to acknowledge God’s goodness to us. Certainly, when there is less of something as violent and unjust as abortion, we ought to give thanks and pray for the trend to continue. We also ought to see behind this the ongoing power of the pro-life witness in this country.
Certainly, there are multiple factors behind any rise or decrease in virtually anything in American life. But the fact that abortion is still a contested issue in America is due to the tireless advocacy of a vibrant pro-life movement before and after Roe. The power the pro-life movement has is the power of witness. In communities all across the country, the pro-life movement has appealed to the conscience, bearing witness to what our culture wants to keep invisible: our shared humanity with unborn children.
The pro-life movement has matched this witness with action. In communities all across the country, women in crisis receive ministry at churches and pregnancy resource centers of various kinds. This ministry is holistic, addressing needs that are spiritual, relational, psychological, and economic. In addition to this, churches and organizations are working to create alternatives—such as networks to promote adoption and foster care. The pro-life movement hasn’t simply told the truth about abortion but has also followed up with compassionate action.
We should celebrate all of that. At the same time, though, we ought to have mixed feelings. Our celebration should be joined to lament. Even one abortion ought to prompt us to grief. Every life lost, every life harmed, rips at the image of God himself. Every life lost is a horror and an unspeakable tragedy. The rate of 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women of child-bearing age is better than what it has been, but it is still so terrifying in scope that we should weep. And then we should press forward, making the case everywhere that human life does not consist in its “usefulness” or in its perceived power. Human life bears inherent dignity because human life reflects the life of God himself.
We should celebrate advances when they come, but we should groan inwardly, as the Bible tells us to, until the creation is set free from this bondage to death. That means we should work to protect life, and we should long not only for the falling of abortion, but also for the abolition of the Fall itself.
Join me January 26-28 in Washington, DC, at the Evangelicals For Life conference. You can find more information on Evangelicals For Life here.
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Publication date: January 18, 2017
Today our country pauses to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. As we do so, we may ask ourselves: Why, especially in a time of so much racial tension, injustice, and strife, did Dr. King’s message resonate with so many?
King was, of course, a gifted orator, and his calls for justice and and equity were often poetic and deeply historic. But I think a great deal of the power behind King’s message came from the way that he was pressing a claim onto consciences.
He drew frequent contrasts between the promised end to the injustice of slavery and the ongoing injustice of Jim Crow. In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King, against the so-called “white moderates” who counseled “patience,” pointed out “an appalling condition” that Americans were still, in large numbers, exiles in their own land. With such injustice, there was no room for the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
This is the kind of prophetic, sin-and-judgment language that we see in the Old Testament. We often hear caricatures of evangelical “hellfire and brimstone” preaching. But most evangelical churches breezily converse about sin in terms of consequences to be avoided. In fact, most of the preaching I hear on sin and judgment sounds an awful lot like my dentist telling me I should really floss more.
King’s words though, were intentionally resonant with the cadence of the King James Bible, because he was speaking a word of judgment to a Bible Belt who knew that Bible. He wanted to confront consciences with what they said they believed.
But King didn’t simply preach judgment. After all, Malcolm X could preach judgment, and did, in harshly nationalist Islamic terms. King knew that his argument wouldn’t resonate with Christian consciences unless it appealed to the Christ-haunted imagination. That’s why so much of his language evoked a distinctly biblical view of justice.
White supremacy is, like all iniquity from the Garden insurrection on, cruelly cunning. Those with power were able to keep certain questions from being asked by keeping poor and working-class white people sure that they were superior to someone: to the descendants of the slaves around them. The idea of the special dignity of the white “race” gave something of a feeling of aristocracy to those who were otherwise far from privilege, while fueling the fallen human passions of wrath, jealousy, and pride.
Thus, Jim Crow repeated the Satanic strategies of trying to convince human beings simultaneously and paradoxically that they are gods and animals. In the Garden, after all, the snake approached God’s image-bearer, directing her as though he had dominion over her (when it was, in fact, the other way around). He treated her as an animal, and she didn’t even see it. At the same time, the old dragon appealed to her to transcend the limits of her dignity. If she would reach for the forbidden, she would be “like God, knowing good and evil.” He suggested that she was more than a human; she was a goddess.
That’s why the words “I Am a Man” were more than a political slogan. They were a theological manifesto. Those bravely wearing those signs were declaring that they had decided not to believe the rhetoric used against them. They refused to believe the propaganda that they were a “lesser race,” or even just a different race. They refused to believe the propaganda (sometimes propped up by twisted Bible verses) that they and their ancestors were bestial, animal-like, unworthy of personhood.
The words also implied a fiery rebuke. The white supremacists believed they could deny human dignity to those they deemed lesser. They had no right to do so. They believed themselves to be gods and not creatures, able to decree whatever they willed with no thought to natural rights, or to nature’s God. The signs pointed out that those who made unjust laws, and who unleashed the water-hoses and pit-bull dogs, were only human, and, as such, would face judgment.
Dr. King’s dream resonated with so many, and bore much fruit, not simply because the arc of history bends toward justice but because, embedded in our common humanity, we know that Someone is bending it toward a Judgment Seat.
As we remember Martin Luther King’s legacy, let’s remind ourselves of how far we have to go as Americans to see the promise of racial justice realized. Let’s remember how far we have to go as Christians to see gospel unity in our own congregations. But let’s also think about the fact that there’s a reason that King’s words haunt us more than fifty years later. Perhaps there is something in our gospel preaching that needs to learn from Dr. King about what it takes to address both the conscience and the imagination.
The gospel that reconciles the sons of slaveholders with the sons of slaves is the same gospel that reconciled the sons of Amalek with the sons of Abraham. It is a gospel that reclaims the dignity of humanity and the lordship of God. It is a gospel that presents us with a brother who puts the lie to any claim to racial superiority as he takes on the glory and limits of our common humanity in Adam. Jim Crow is crushed ultimately because Jesus Christ steps forward out of history and announces, with us, “I Am a Man.”
Portions of this article were originally published in 2013.
Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Publication date: January 17, 2017
As the old Christmas song says, “Fast away the old year passes; hail the New Year, lads and lasses!” As we head into a new year, one thing that many people in our culture begin to wonder about is New Year's resolutions. Recently I received a question from a listener, asking if Christians should have New Year's resolutions.
Perhaps the reason someone would ask this is the reality that most people don’t keep their resolutions. That’s a reason why, for example, gyms will make a lot of money in memberships around the first of the year. People tend to come in January and February and then taper off toward the end of the year.
But I think New Year resolutions can be a good thing. Some Christians have said that these resolutions can feed into a performance mentality that undermines the gospel. I think they can do this, but I also think one positive of New Year’s resolutions is the building of habit. That’s a good thing, because we know that habits shape us. What a New Year’s resolution is ultimately trying to get us to is the sort of habit in our life that we don’t have to map out and say, “This is what we’re going to do today.” It’s just something that we naturally do. In the same way you probably don’t make a list and include, “Brush my teeth tomorrow.” It’s just part of your routine, and a resolution is trying to imitate that.
What we need to do is think through what are the resolutions we want to pursue in our life, and decide whether these are realistic. One thing many people will do is choose a big abstraction, like, “I will be a kind person.” That’s a good abstraction, but what’s better is to say, “I am going to give one word of affirmation every day to my spouse or a coworker.” Try to build into your life something specific and concrete.
This is especially true in your own spiritual life. If you don’t have a consistent plan for Bible reading and prayer, for example, you may say, “I am going to self consciously set aside time for these things.” In doing this, though, make sure you have something that is doable. If you don’t have any sort of Bible reading in your life, don’t resolve to read 3 chapters a day. Resolve instead to read 1 chapter a week, and start with something manageable that you can build on as time goes on.
One thing I’ve noticed in my own life is that if I look back on journals that I’ve written in from years ago—I just found a whole stack of them recently—I can look and see all the ways God was with me in the past. And I can also say, “Look at what I was so worried about then that never came to pass.” So I’ve realized that I want to get back into the practice of journaling, not because it’s something everyone needs to do but because I’ve found it’s beneficial to me. And since I’m in a very fast paced season of life with work and the ages of my children, I’ve found it helpful to use some technological ways to journal. That’s a good thing to do, to just sit down and say: What’s one thing I want to change and build into my life?
And this isn’t something to be a slave to. If you have a resolution that you see as something that’s going to be a drudgery for you throughout the year, don’t do it. That’s not going to be helpful. But find a way to build these patterns into your life in a way that will benefit you in the year to come. This isn’t a legalistic “performance” mentality, as long as you keep it in perspective.
Publication date: December 30, 2016
Over the years of hearing from readers, I’ve learned that not everyone who reads me shares my evangelical Christian convictions. Many of you don’t. Many of you are of other faiths, and some of no faith at all. Some of you are spiritually searching, and some of you see yourselves as committed skeptics. Some of you have no idea what the Christian religion is about, and some of you left a church behind a long time ago, due to some bad situation. Whatever your situation, I have to imagine that at least one of you will be expected to go with your parents or your Aunt Gladys or your son-in-law to a church service on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Here are some thoughts about how to make the most of the experience.
Pay Attention to the Singing
Christians don’t always agree on music. Across our traditions, we have everything from Gregorian chant to bluegrass revival songs to hip-hop to, well, some less-than-memorable stuff. Christmas is the time of year, though, when even churches that are normally allergic to theology and biblical narrative in their worship music will have it there. I’m sure there are some churches that will sing “Mele Kalikimaka” or something, in an effort to be “relevant,” but most won’t.
Instead you will hear songs that communicate things such as this: “O come, O come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear,” or, “Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” Some of these songs may just sound like December mall department store background music, but if you consider the lyrics, you’ll get an insight into why Christians are who we are. We are convinced that this birth, back in a Middle Eastern sheep town, was God joining himself to humanity, to dwell with us forever as our God.
You don’t have to sing. No one will notice or mind. If you want, just stand there and listen and absorb the experience.
Pay Attention to the Awe
Of course, you may be in a church that doesn’t simply sing traditional carols together but that sings through the majestic work of Handel’s Messiah. In that, you can hear the narrative of our story fit together beautifully. What I think you should pay the most attention to, though, is the Hallelujah Chorus near the end. Now, this too, is familiar to you by its pop culture trivialization. You will have heard it when a cartoon squirrel finds a nut or when a bumbling sitcom character wins the lottery. No matter.
This will be different, when you are surrounded by worshipping people. What that chorus can help to give you is just an infinitesimal insight into the Christian sense of awe in the presence of Jesus. That chorus is meant to signal something of the experience of a redeemed people standing in heaven before Jesus, with his reign over the universe now visible. It’s meant to make us feel a kind of smallness before the vast power and mercy of God. That’s kind of like the awe you might feel before the night sky or the Grand Canyon, but instead with a sense that this Presence before you is personal, loves you, and has proven triumphant over every fearful thing.
Pay Attention to the Bible Reading
Now, you may not believe any of the Bible, of course. As an unbeliever or skeptic, you might think it’s just another ancient collection of texts. But listen, with an open mind, to the Scripture. Maybe it will be preached and explained. Maybe it will just be read by someone, or responsively by the congregation. Sometimes you might not know what kind of preaching you will receive in a church. You might find one that does very little with the Bible, and might sound more like life-coaching to you than anything else. Like the music, though, Christmas is one of those times that the Bible will almost certainly be highlighted. What’s more, if you pay attention, you can hear in these readings or explanations the way the whole Bible fits together for Christians.
The birth stories of Jesus, after all, aren’t just “origin narratives.” They demonstrate how the Old Testament Scriptures are fulfilled in this infant’s birth. They reach backward. They also foreshadow how this infant is born to be a sacrifice for sin, to be an ever-reigning king, to bring good news to captives like us. They show this birth breaking down divisions–Jewish people are drawn to Jesus, but so are Gentile stargazers from the East. These texts reach forward. They show how the whole Bible is about Jesus.
I would challenge you to be open-minded. As you hear these beautiful old words, ask yourself, “What if this is true?” And if you’re especially open-minded, I would challenge you to even pray, “God, if you’re out there, would you show yourself to me in this Word?”
Pay Attention to the Brokenness
Most of the people around you probably seem to be happy and all put-together. It’s Christmas, after all. They feel like they have to be. But, if you really pay attention, you can see a lot of hurt. People are remembering loved ones who’ve died or walked out on them. People are thinking of children or parents who don’t speak to them anymore. People are thinking of their own battles with addiction or guilt or shame. Some of these people have been hurt by the church, just as maybe you have. Listening to the actual words of our Scriptures and our songs, though, will show you that Christianity isn’t for well-put-together people.
You will notice that reality in the Christmas story itself. It really isn’t drummer boys and snowmen, but a sometimes-sketchy genealogy, a man narrowly avoiding divorcing his betrothed for perceived infidelity, and a family in flight for their lives from a murderous king. That’s all intentional. Jesus came to save us from our sin and brokenness, and he stepped right into the midst of a sinful and broken world.
Jesus didn’t stay in a manger. He learned to crawl and then to toddle and then to walk, and he kept walking right to a public execution. We believe he was a sacrifice there, carrying away the sins of the world. That’s why we think his message is good news. We’re broken. We’re guilty. We’re a wreck. But Jesus invites us into his life, to find in him peace with God, and, thus ultimately also with each other and with ourselves.
That’s what’s worth considering. Where is this One to whom these people—and people all over the world for 2,000 years–bear witness? Does what he said about us, and about the world, ring true? If so, does what he said about himself ring true? If so, then that means he is alive, and seeking after those who are lost. Consider that. If it’s true—and I have bet my life and my after-life that it is—then “good tidings of great joy” are more than words in a Christmas carol. They are what life really is all about.
Photo courtesy: Thinkstockphotos.com
Publication date: December 22, 2016