On the Sad Ecumenism of Abortion
We are accustomed to seeing Evangelicals and Roman Catholics praying together outside abortion clinics and working together for pro-life legislation. But we don’t think about a less pleasant ecumenism: Catholics and Evangelicals waiting together in the lobby of an abortion facility.
A front-page article in the New York Times last September featured an inside look at the daily workings of an abortion clinic in Little Rock. The piece communicated the calloused yet tortured consciences of the women involved. They don’t wish to be seen, or to make contact with others in the waiting room. Even more striking, though, are their religious commitments.
One Baptist college student, having her third abortion, is quoted in the article saying: “My religion is against it. In a way I feel I’m doing wrong, but you can be forgiven. I blame myself. I feel I shouldn’t have sex at all.”
“I’ve done this once and swore I wouldn’t do it again,” said a woman named Regina. “Every woman has second thoughts, especially because I’m Catholic.” Regina noted that she went to confession. “The priest didn’t hound me,” she reported. “He said, ‘People make mistakes.’”
The facility’s operating room supervisor, Ebony, whom the article chillingly describes as rinsing “the blood off aborted tissues,” could understand Regina’s story. Ebony, too, has had an abortion. “As a Baptist, she still considered abortion a sin, but so are a lot of things we all do, she said.” The article closes with the Baptist’s words to the Catholic undergoing the abortion: “No problem sweetie. We’ve all been there.”
As we talk through the “ecumenism of the trenches” between Catholics and Evangelicals, we should remember the sad truth that there is also an “ecumenism of the waiting room.” The women ushered into the death clinics are not usually secularist feminists, proudly wearing their NOW Tshirts. More often, they are girls from St. Joseph’s parish or First Baptist’s youth group.
They would be counted as “prolife” on the telephone survey. They know all the right answers to the sanctity of life questions, and they can be counted on, when they reach voting age, to cast ballots for pro-life candidates. But when pregnant, they wait together for the abortionist’s solution.
Whatever very real soteriological debates exist between Catholics and Evangelicals, they share, at least in the waiting room, the same doctrine of grace: “Let us sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1).
The challenge for our churches is not to be more condemnatory. The message of God’s grace is, after all, the heart of the gospel. The atonement of Jesus forgives every sin, including that of the shedding of innocent blood. We must comfort repentant post-abortion women with the truth that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1).
At the same time, like the Apostle Paul, we must remember that grace that is license to sin is no grace at all. The problem is not that “we all make mistakes.” The issue is instead that judgment has fallen, in all of its fury, on a crucified Messiah who became sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21). As we proclaim God the justifier, we must not forget that this means the proclamation of God the just (Rom. 3:26).
The challenge for our churches is to reclaim the Christian emphasis on repentance. American culture is far too familiar with nominal Catholics who prepare for Lent with a hedonistic Mardi Gras and with nominal Evangelicals who plan to “rededicate their lives” at the altar call after a weekend of decadence.
Those who claim that though I am doing this thing I deem best for me, God will forgive me later, are not only presuming upon the grace of God, they are recapitulating the sin of the first man and woman: to seek autonomy and the self as god while still wishing to remain in the presence of the Holy One. This is not a repentant disposition, but instead a deeply arrogant and satanic one.
If I follow the course of my own desires, even while looking forward to forgiveness, I am worshipping another god: the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). Indeed, in this moment, the felt need for forgiveness itself is just another self-focused passion. The sinner seeks to be his own authority for what is best at the moment and to be his own authority for what is best in the future, reconciliation with God—but all on my terms and at my timing.
Repentance, however, is about more than a formal appeal for the nullification of consequences, as though it were the equivalent of having a parking ticket expunged. Instead, repentance is a conviction that God is right in his holiness to judge this transgression with everlasting wrath. The sinner appeals to God to be merciful, not because the sin is justifiable, but precisely because it is not justifiable at all. Repentance, then, justifies not the sin, but the holiness and justice of the Creator.
Jesus sent away a wealthy politician because he loved his financial assets more than he sought to follow the Messiah (Matt. 19:16–22). In the same way, we must fear that generations of self-professing Christians value their “reproductive freedom” or their “personal authenticity” more than they treasure Christ. And all the while they, like the rich young ruler, approach the throne of Christ talking about eternal life, perhaps even singing “Amazing Grace.”
The implications for the Church are stark. If we don’t preach a biblical understanding of sin and grace, the local abortionist is ready to take our place in the pulpit.
— Russell D. Moore, for the editors
Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.