Christians, Abortion, Politics and the Kingdom of God By Gregory A. Boyd I’ve written this essay in response to several calls Woodland Hills Church received from people responding to a short interview I gave on January 11, 2005, on KKMS radio. I shall first articulate the view of the Kingdom of God held at Woodland Hills. I shall then spell out our understanding of the Kingdom approach to the issue of abortion. And I shall conclude with a brief exposition of my personal, non-kingdom, political view of how we might as American citizens move forward on the abortion debate. Before I begin, however, I want to say that Woodland Hills Church has always welcomed a wide variety of differing views on political issues, including the abortion issue. We believe that how one applies the Gospel to politics is often an ambiguous affair, which is why sincere Christians can and do disagree on these issues. We rally not around anyone’s political views (including those of the Senior Pastor) but around Jesus Christ and his call for us to imitate him as Kingdom people. Our church’s view of what this looks like as it concerns the abortion issue is found at the end of this essay.
The Uniqueness of the Kingdom of God The kingdom Jesus came to establish was “not of this world” (Jn 18:36). It didn’t look like any political agenda, party, government, ruler or nation. Rather, the kingdom Jesus came to establish looks like him. It always reflects the character of Christ, dying on a cross for those who crucified him. The central call of all kingdom people is to “[b]e imitators of God” and thus “live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us” (Eph 5:1-2). We are to do exactly what Jesus did. (The Greek word for “imitate” means “mimic” or “mime”).
Even more so than America today, the environment Jesus ministered in was thoroughly politicized. Yet, though many tried, Jesus refused to let the political and ethical concerns of his day set his agenda. For example, some wanted Jesus to give “God’s opinion” on whether they should pay taxes in support of the oppressive Roman government or not. They wanted a simple “yes” or “no” response, but Jesus wouldn’t bite the bait. Instead he got them to question whether they were giving to God what belonged to God – their whole lives (e.g. Mt 22:20-22). In another instance a man wanted Jesus to use his kingdom authority to settle a legal dispute. Jesus refused, asking the man, “who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you” (Lk 12: 14)? He was in essence asking, “Do I look like your lawyer?” Instead, Jesus warned the man about the dangers of greed (Lk 12:15). Jesus always kept his kingdom mission distinct from the divisive politics of his day. He kept the kingdom of God “holy,” set apart from all others issues and considerations. This is how Jesus could have a “ultra right wing” tax collector (Matthew) and an “ultra left wing” zealot (Simon) among his followers and not so much as comment on their differences. When people with widely different political views have Jesus in common, their political differences are (or at least should be) rendered irrelevant! Matthew and Simon (and Jesus?) may have had some interesting political fire-side chats. But in terms of advancing the kingdom of God, their differing views of how the kingdom of the world should operate were considered inconsequential. This is the model kingdom people are called to follow. Jesus is to be our example in all things (e.g. Jn 13:15; Eph 5:1-2; I Pet 2:21). We must at all costs keep the kingdom of God distinct from all aspects of the kingdom of the world. As good soldiers stationed behind enemy lives, we are not to get entangled in civilian affairs but are to only be concerned to please our enlisting officer (2 Tim. 2:4). The kingdom of the world is always about winning, but the kingdom of God is only about giving. The kingdom of the world is always about getting power over others, but the kingdom of God is always about exercising power under others by
sacrificing for them. The kingdom of the world wants to control behavior, but the kingdom of God is only concerned with transforming people’s hearts. The kingdom of God is always about looking like Jesus, dying on Calvary for those who crucified him.
A Kingdom Approach to Abortion Jesus never let the politics of his day determine how he approached issues. Sadly, this is exactly what many Christians today are doing. No where is this more evident than in the abortion debate. The question of whether one should vote pro-life or pro-choice is clearly an important question for American citizens to consider. Because all kingdom-ofthe-world issues come in complex political packages, the way one votes on this issue will be affected by numerous, complex considerations. For example, how does the party or candidate that defends the unborn fair on other issues you deem important – concern for the poor, economics, foreign affairs, the environment, etc? How much weight do you put on each of these varying, competing, convictions? These issues will undoubtedly be wrapped up with other difficult metaphysical questions, such as: When does the fetus become a full person? When does it become in “the image of God”? When does it acquire a “soul”? (Many contemporary Christians are surprised to learn throughout its history the Church has never had consensus about these issues). Thus, the issue of how exactly one should vote on this issue (and many other issues) is complex, difficult and ambiguous. And this is why good, moral, intelligent and Christian people can come to differing conclusions.
What is important for kingdom people to realize, however, is that wading through these complex issues is not a distinctly kingdom way of framing the issue. The way the issue is framed in the arena of contemporary politics is a function of various groups trying to gain power over each other, and there’s no reason for the disciple of Jesus to accept the limited and divisive options that arise from this conflict. Jesus never allowed himself to be defined by the conflicts of his day, and neither should we. The distinctly kingdom question is not, How should one vote? The distinctly kingdom question is, How should one live? Our unique authority as kingdom people can’t be granted us or taken from us by government. Our unique authority lies in our willingness to live and die as Jesus did, in love for others. The distinct kingdom question we should ask in regards to abortion is; how can we individually and collectively serve women sacrificially who are struggling with an unwanted pregnancy and serve the unborn babies that are unwanted? How can we, who are to consider ourselves worse sinners than anyone else, and who thus have no right to stand over them as judges (Mt 7:1-3), sacrifice to ascribe unsurpassable worth to them and their unborn children? How can we act in such a way that we communicate our agreement with Jesus that these women and their children are worth dying for? How can we individually and/or collectively sacrifice for and serve women and their unwanted children such that it becomes feasible for the mother to go full term? How can we sacrifice for pregnant women and unborn babies in a way that maximizes life and minimizes violence? How can we “live in love as Christ loved us and gave his life for us” in relation to these people? We answer these distinctly kingdom questions not with our vote but with our lives. And, note, we don’t’ need to answer any of the world’s difficult political and metaphysical questions to do it. The unique kingdom approach to abortion isn’t dependent on convincing ourselves and others we have “God’s knowledge”
about highly ambiguous, political questions. It’s based simply on our willingness to love like Jesus loved. Voting and picketing costs us little while the kingdom approach costs us much. Maybe this is partly why many prefer the former over the later. But it is precisely the costliness of the kingdom approach that makes it the kingdom approach. This approach looks like Jesus, dying on Calvary for those who crucified him. And because it manifests the beauty of Jesus, it glorifies God and has a power to impact the world in a way that kingdom-of-the-world strategies never could. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. An unmarried 18-year-old woman I’ll call Becky became pregnant. She was afraid to tell her strict Christian parents because she was convinced they would disown her in disgrace and make her move out of the house. This in turn would severely jeopardize her plans to attend college and fulfill her dream of becoming a veterinarian. Consequently, she was planning on having an abortion. Becky confided in a neighborhood friend of the family I’ll call Dorothy. Dorothy was a middle aged divorced woman who over the years had developed a special relationship with Becky. When Becky told Dorothy of her plan, Dorothy didn’t give her a speech or perform a moral interrogation. She simply offered to help. If Becky chose to have an abortion, Dorothy offered to help her in the post-abortion recovery. But, believing that it was in everyone’s best interest to go full term with this child, she lovingly encouraged Becky to think seriously about her planned course of action. Even more importantly, she offered to do whatever it took to make going full term feasible. If Becky’s parents were to kick her out of the house (which they did), Dorothy offered her basement as a place to stay. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Whatever financial and emotional support Becky would need throughout the pregnancy, Dorothy would provide as best as she was able (she ended up taking
out a second mortgage on her house). If Becky wanted to give the baby up for adoption, Dorothy would help with this. If Becky wanted to keep the child (which she ended up doing), Dorothy would help her with this was well (she became the godmother). And, on top of this, Dorothy promised to work with Becky to help make it financially possible to pursue her goal of becoming a veterinarian. As a result, Becky went through with the pregnancy, moved in with Dorothy, and pursued her dream part time while both she and Dorothy raised her adorable daughter. This, I submit, is an example of being pro-life kingdom style. Dorothy was willing to sacrificially love Becky and her unborn child. It was her way of saying, “You and your baby are worth this much to me.” Dorothy’s decision wasn’t rooted in any of the complex, ambiguous issues that pro-life and pro-choice groups typically argue over. She frankly didn’t know what the metaphysical status of the unborn child was at a given state in its development, and she really didn’t care. She only knew it had profound worth and that Becky had profound worth. And she was willing to communicate this worth in any way she could by paying a price. Interestingly enough, for a variety of complex reasons, Dorothy tended to vote pro-choice. Yet I submit Dorothy was more pro-life than many people who consider themselves so because they vote a certain way. Dorothy was willing to sacrifice part of her life for Becky and her unborn child, and that is what makes Dorothy’s approach a distinctly kingdom one.
But What Is YOUR Political View Pastor Boyd? I along with every American have a “right” to my opinions about how government should be run. And we have the privilege in America of expressing our opinions through voting or other means. This is all fine and good – so long as
we don’t confuse our political opinions with the kingdom of God – implying that anyone who disagrees with us is not Christian. On January 11th I was interviewed on KKMS and the host, Todd Friel, asked me about some of my personal political views. Among other things, I was asked if I thought abortion should be legal. Jesus would have probably responded, “Do I look like a politician?” He would have likely asked, “How can you and I sacrifice for women with unwanted pregnancies and their unborn?” But I am clearly not so wise. I told him I thought it would be best if second and third trimester abortions were outlawed while the decision during the first trimester was left up to the mother. This upset some listeners. So, what I’d like to do now is what I was not given a chance to do on the radio interview: namely, explain my position a bit further for those who are interested. I’ll say three things. First, I again reiterate that my personal political opinion on this issue – as well as Todd Friel’s and everyone else’s political opinion – is irrelevant to our calling as kingdom-of-God people. Following Jesus’ example, we should never let the limited and divisive options of the world define our agenda or divide us. Our one agenda as kingdom people in regards to this issue is to replicate Calvary to women and their unborn children – whatever opinions we have about what should and should not be legal. How one resolves the complex issues of the world is almost always ambiguous, which is why we (like Matthew and Simon) invariably disagree about them. But the kingdom of God is not ambiguous: it always looks like Calvary. Second, as I stated in the interview, I abhor abortion. I want to do everything I can to rid the world as much as possible of this and other forms of violence. The way I do this as a kingdom of God citizen is by sacrificing of my own time and resources to make it feasible to help women with unwanted pregnancies go full
term. The way I do this as an American citizen is by voting in a way that I believe does the most to eradicate this violence toward the unborn. This leads to my third point. Some will find it baffling (usually when we have strong opinions, we find other views baffling), but my political opinion on the abortion issue is meant to minimize abortion in America. There are a great multitude of complex factors that have lead me to my present perspective, but space considerations only allow me to spell out one. Numerous studies have revealed that, regardless of whether they vote pro-life or pro-choice, the majority of Americans agree that a) the fewer the abortions the better, and b) the later an abortion takes place, the worse it is. Yet, instead of working together to create a society in which abortion is rarely necessary and later abortions never occur, the two sides are for the most part polarized at extremes, both fearing that giving an inch will justify “the opposition” in taking a mile. Politics is always about compromise (another reason why it is radically different form the kingdom of God), yet on this issue neither side is compromising. I have a simple idea for a compromise that I think a majority of Americans might agree to. We will certainly never reach consensus on the metaphysical status of the unborn or on how one should balance the unborn’s rights against those of the mother (to say nothing of a host of other relevant, ambiguous considerations). But I think we could possibly reach a consensus on the latest date at which a pregnancy could be terminated. My proposal – my humble, personal, non-kingdom, political view on what would be best for America at this present stage in our history – is that we take the criteria for when a person is no longer a “legal person” (the criteria for death) and simply reverse it for the unborn.
Now, no one knows “God’s perspective” on when exactly a person dies, when the soul leaves the body, etc… Yet we as a culture have agreed that when the electromagnetic activity in a brain falls beneath a certain threshold, they are to no longer be considered “legal persons.” Our criteria for death was not revealed by God. Indeed, it’s actually quite arbitrary. The people we pronounce dead continue to replicate cells and grow hair and finger nails, for example. And we could easily raise or lower the minimum threshold of brain activity necessary to remain a “legal person.” Yet, with rare exceptions, there’s no controversy in our culture surrounding when a person is no longer a “legal person.” My humble, personal, non-kingdom, political proposal is that we might be able to move beyond the ugly impasse we’ve hit in our culture on the abortion issue – the impasse that is allowing babies to be aborted that both sides wish weren’t aborted – by stretching our consensus on the “legal loss of personhood” to cover the “legal beginning of personhood.” When the unborn’s brainwaves are above the level that constitutes the loss of legal personhood, perhaps Americans could agree they should be considered legal persons. I am told by neurologists that this occurs between the 11th and 12th week of pregnancy. With this compromise, Americans might be able to agree that all second and third trimester abortions should be outlawed. Moreover, with this compromise, Americans might be able to move beyond their polarized positions and rather work together to accomplish what the vast majority of Americans want: namely, a country in which abortions are as rare as possible and late term abortions nonexistent. In my personal view, the best political approach to complex issues, such as abortion, is one that capitalizes on present agreements to resolve present conflicts. This of course requires people compromising on both sides to expand their area of agreements, but shrewd compromise is what politics has always been about. In my personal, humble, non-kingdom, political opinion, my proposal does this.
Does this mean I’m for first trimester abortions? Absolutely not! As I said, I abhor abortion. And I believe that kingdom people should work together to sacrificially serve women with unwanted pregnancies to make going full term feasible as often as possible. Do I think my view to be the Christian position? Again, absolutely not! It’s not even relevant to kingdom work. This is just my humble, personal, non-kingdom political proposal for resolving an issue that is keeping Americans from working together to make abortion as rare as possible. I readily and happily admit I may be wrong. This is an ambiguous, difficult topic. My proposal may be unrealistic. I’m open to consider all others. What is not ambiguous, and where I will not admit to being wrong is in my conviction that the kingdom always looks like Jesus. And, as kingdom people, this and only this is what we are called to be. One need not have any opinion about how to resolve any of the world’s complex, ambiguous dilemmas to fulfill this calling. “Be imitators of God. Live in love as Christ loved us and gave his life for us” (Eph 5:1-2). _____________________________
What should Christians do about abortion? (from Woodland Hills’ “Positions on Controversial Issues” document) While not endorsing any particular political position or politician as a Church, we affirm on the basis of Scripture the preciousness of life in the womb. On this basis we commit ourselves to encouraging and assisting women to go through with their pregnancy, while also committing ourselves to graciously assist in the healing process of women who have chosen otherwise.