Bridging the Gap: Embracing a Whole-Life Pro-Life Perspective
I’d like to invite you, if you have a copy of God’s Word with you, to turn in it or pull up the app to Luke chapter 19 beginning with verse 1. Luke 19, starting with verse 1 and reading down through verse 10. And this is what the Holy Spirit says through Luke,
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was. But on account of the crowd, he could not because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and he climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was about to pass that way.
And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried and came down and received Him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled. He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner. And Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’
And Jesus said to him, ‘Today, salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.'” May God bless His Word to us today.
Sometimes when I think about the issues facing us, as a pro-life, pro-human dignity movement, I’m cautioned with the warning that sometimes you can win and lose at the same time. Think, for instance, about Ireland.
Ireland was once an outlier in Western Europe. Really strong laws against abortion. Really strong laws against divorce and any number of issues. And people looking at Ireland would say, “This is a solidly Roman Catholic country, and so isn’t likely to go in the direction of Sweden or Denmark or somewhere else.”
And then suddenly, that changed. What happened? What happened was the revelations of the sexual abuse crisis in the Irish Catholic Church. Particularly this. There’s a biography essentially of Ireland taking the life of Ireland as a life story, and Fenton O’Toole, who wrote that book talks about how powerful the church was that the Archbishop of Dublin could go into a store and hear a song playing that he didn’t approve of morally and have it removed, not just from the store, but from the radio, if he wanted to.
And there was this sense of very strict morality around the people. But when the revelations came out about the cover-ups of abuse taking place over years and years and years in various places within the church, and when people looked back to see that even in some cases there would be parents who would take their own children to the priests who abused them so that the children could apologize for tempting the priests.
The people eventually realized that the corruption and the hypocrisy was such that they could not even rightly tell right from wrong sometimes. And ultimately, as he put it, they finally came to the conclusion that the people were more moral than the church. Now, suddenly, Ireland… is a determinedly pro-choice country on abortion and moving in exactly the same places as Western Europe on virtually everything else.
You can win, but without credibility and authority, ultimately lose if people do not see something real. And so, when we look at this issue of pro-life, and sometimes people will say, “We shouldn’t talk about being whole life, and we shouldn’t talk about other issues, because that will take the attention off of abortion.”
I understand, to some degree, why people say that because there are some people who, what they mean when they talk about a variety of life issues is what we would call in some other setting, “whataboutism.” Where it, it’s not about a comprehensive vision of human life as much as it is, “Well, yeah, but whatabout?” fill in the blank.
Or the equivalent of after the murder of George Floyd when the message was do Black Lives Matter, and some people would come back with, all lives matter, which became a way to diminish, or to express a backlash against that affirmation. And what many people would say is, the question in front of us right now, is whether specifically Black people are valued and loved.
Why can’t we make that affirmation? So, I understand to some degree why some people would say that. But everybody is to some degree or the other, every pro-life person is also whole life. Because if you had somebody who believed, for instance, that children after birth could be shot, but that abortion was wrong, that’s not a pro-life person.
You couldn’t have somebody who’s pro-life who said, “I am for outlawing abortion. And for mandatory euthanasia of everyone once they turn 70 years old.” We would all recognize that is not pro-life. So, we all understand that our understanding of what happens to a vulnerable woman and a vulnerable baby comes from somewhere, from a bigger vision of human dignity, and it ought to cause us to think differently about all kinds of other questions as well.
So, if we think about what it means to inform our view of human dignity from a consistently pro-life stance, there are a number of things we should consider. And, the first thing, I think, is a view of humanity.
In the text that I read some moments ago, you have a really interesting account in which Jesus is entering into Jericho and passing through. This is an echo of what Luke had talked about earlier in Luke chapter 10, when he talked about a man who was beaten on the side of the road to Jericho, and that a religious person saw him, turned his head, moved to the other side, and went on.
Another religious person saw him, turned his head, and passed through, went on forward, until a Samaritan, somebody who was despised and rejected by most people, cared for him, saw him as his neighbor. Jesus here is in Jericho, and He’s passing through, and He sees someone also who is despised. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and he was rich.
Now, we tend to think when we look at a passage like this, and we hear tax collector, an IRS agent. That’s not what this means. Tax collector was somebody collaborating, essentially, with Rome. A Roman Empire that was occupying the land that had been given to the people of God. Often those who were using shady kinds of ways to essentially extort money from people.
This is a really, really dark sort of figure. So, it’s less like what we would think of as a tax collector and more along the lines of what we would think of if we thought of of a drug lord for instance. I once encountered, with a group of other Christians, some migrant children who had escaped from Honduras and had come to the United States border seeking refuge and amnesty.
And someone asked, “Why did you leave from Honduras?” And the little boy said, “Because of the tax collectors.” And when that was translated back to me, I immediately thought he meant the taxes were too high. But that’s not what he meant. He meant that there were people who would extort a certain amount of money, or else you would be harmed. That’s closer to what we’re talking about here with Zacchaeus.
Jesus sees him, and He sees him as a human being created in the image of God. He sees him, He says later on, as also a son of Abraham. He sees the humanity, He sees the mystery that is present there. This is something Jesus is consistently doing.
He is saying to us that human dignity and human value is not an earned right in the way so many other things are. You don’t get dignity and value by how well you behave, or how much you perform, or how much success you have. You are created with it.
And Jesus… identified Himself with us, with all of us, at every point. Jesus was an embryo. Jesus was a baby. Jesus was a child. Jesus was an adolescent. Jesus is an adult. He’s been through all of these stages of life, and He’s in solidarity. Hebrews 2 says, “With those, with whom He shares flesh and blood.” And so Jesus is recognizing here in Zacchaeus a human being and a human being who’s in need of redemption. And that means not just a particular view of humanity, but a particular view of vulnerability.
Sometimes when we’re talking about these various issues, someone will say, “Well, you’re wanting to impose your religious views on us, because not everybody believes that way, and so in attempting to have a pro-life vision, you’re imposing those views.” But actually, that’s not what we’re arguing about. All of us, or at least most of us, would understand that vulnerable people need to be protected and that problems can be solved in a nonviolent way. We agree on that for the most part when we’re talking about abortion. We’re talking about the question of whether there’s one vulnerable person or whether there’s two.
And sometimes you will have people who see their neighbor, they recognize their vulnerable neighbor when they’re looking at the poor in their community or when they’re looking at refugees who are fleeing from persecution, and rightly so.
And there are some people who see the dignity and humanity in the unborn child but who don’t see how that affects the way that they miss seeing other vulnerable people around them. Or even that they can dehumanize other people in exactly the same way that a culture of death does in every other way.
If I can talk about you in a way that doesn’t recognize that you’re a fellow human being, I can ignore you. And so, we’re able then to just move on down the road. And that’s what Jesus is undoing in this passage and in many more passages. He doesn’t just acknowledge Zacchaeus. He goes looking for him.
Luke says He looked up and said Zacchaeus, “I see you and I recognize you, and I recognize that even though everyone else would think that you are self-dependent and independent. You’re rich, that you are actually someone who is lost.” There is a vulnerability that is there. He sees that. And so sometimes it’s easy for us to see how other people can be inconsistent by ignoring someone right in front of them without seeing how we do as well.
The question of consistency in how we recognize human beings and how we recognize and protect vulnerability is essential if there is to be a long-term, pro-life movement at all, and more importantly, is essential if we are going to be able to be genuine followers of Jesus Christ.
There are people who have said for many years, pro-life people are pro-life from conception until birth, and that’s really not an accurate statement in many, many places. There are many people who are doing the most valiant ministry to the poor to the needy, to women, to those who are being abused, and to unborn children. Think of Mother Teresa, and you have examples of that kind of work being done all over the world in all kinds of contexts. So, it’s not entirely fair.
But it is fair to ask and to say, “Why is it that the highest rates of infant mortality, infant hunger, and infant poverty are in so-called pro-life states?” That shouldn’t result in the kind of whataboutism that says, “Well, because that’s the case, let’s just give up on the question of human dignity as it relates to abortion.”
It’s not a question of subtraction. It’s a question of saying, if we really believe in the dignity and value of women, if we really believe in the dignity and value of the unborn child, if we really believe in the vulnerability of those our neighbors, then how, what on earth can we do to love them?
And to love them, as John says, not just in word, but in deed and in truth. And so, you end up with this situation where sometimes the outside world thinks, “Well, you have these Christians who are zealous and motivated on being anti-abortion, pro-life, but actually, what the outside world should worry about is not that evangelical Christians are too pro-life. And I mean even those who disagree with us on abortion. But should worry about the fact that evangelical Christians are not pro-life enough.
Ryan Berg, a sociologist looked at data a couple of years ago about the issue sets and what it is that white evangelicals particularly really cared about, and he found that abortion and other issues of life and human dignity were way down the list.
And instead, you often had people who were motivated by views of immigration or ethnic identity or nationalism, which really ought to put us in mind of what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat warned about several years ago when he said, “If you think the religious right was bad,” speaking to the outside secular world, “then wait until you see the post-religious right.”
Because with abortion, you had an understanding, at least in theory, even with people who weren’t consistent with it, that we do have a responsibility to the vulnerable, a responsibility to the weak, a responsibility to human dignity. What some researchers have shown is that there are populist nationalist movements around the world that often will use Christian symbols and Christian imagery but actually at the top levels are deeply hostile to Christianity because, for the exact same reason that the Roman Empire was hostile to Christianity.
They see it as weakness. They see it as a loss of, a loss of ethnic-racial identity. And so, they can talk about the cross. They can talk about “We’re a Christian people,” but what they mean by that is we’re Dutch or we’re French or we’re American. We’re talking about, we talk about Christianity, western civilization.
That’s not Christianity. And what’s really offensive one author, Matthew Rose said, is that you have a gospel that actually joins people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language to a foreign people to them, to the Jewish people, to the Israel of God. And instead of power and strength and winning and displaying, you have a cross.
You have something that looks to be complete defeat and looks to be complete weakness. Just as it did in the first century church. That’s the reason why the Apostle Paul particularly had to say, “I am not ashamed of the cross of Christ. It’s the power of God unto salvation.” It looks weak.
Thor’s hammer looks stronger than the cross of Christ. Baal, thundering and offering fertility looks stronger than the God who speaks lower than the thinnest silence to Elijah. That it looks to be strength, and yet it’s not.
If we are the people who really believe that the crucified Christ is the power of God and that the crucified Christ says to us, “Take up your cross and follow me. Look at what I’m doing and do the same,” then we will be the people who are constantly looking around and asking, “Who are those that I’m tempted not to see? Who are the people that my tribe, my political tribe, or my racial tribe, or my geographic tribe… Who are the people that my tribe does not want me to acknowledge? I’m not supposed to say that they’re even here.” And those are exactly the people to whom we should turn, and pay attention, and acknowledge, and see.
Sometimes, you look at the long-term, pro-life movement, there are people who can get, they can have expectations that are almost utopian, especially now that Roe vs. Wade is gone, for instance. There are a lot of Christians who think, “Okay, well, now abortion’s over.” Or, when you look around and you see some of the advances that have happened in calling the Church in the world to care about global poverty and other issues. Ok, we can do this. We can solve this, and that really exuberant zeal, when it turns out to be a much longer slog, can sometimes end up with people who are either in cynicism, “Nothing can ever change, why do it?” Or in despair.
So, there are some people, even people who would claim to be pro-life, who would say, “Well, you know, if the Church was doing its job, then we wouldn’t need the government.”
That’s not a true statement. And that’s a really dangerous statement in many ways. It’s almost the equivalent of people who will say, “Why should we care about abortion when if young people just would stop having sex, we wouldn’t have to worry about it?” Or the person who says, “Let’s not worry about prison conditions or about excruciating, torturous means of capital punishment, because if people would just stop committing crimes, we wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
No, there’s a responsibility there. And we also have, though, when we’re tempted to this kind of “What can I do?” sort of cynicism, that can especially be true when we recognize that Jesus is calling us not just to love one group of people, even not just to love just one group of vulnerable people, unborn children, or any other group.
If we see that Jesus is calling us to consistently ask, “Who is my neighbor around me? Who is in need of my presence and of my action,” it can easily become overwhelming to the degree that we can think there’s nothing that can ever really be done, but that is not true.
Abu Patel, the political theorist who would disagree with me on abortion, but is really insightful on the question of how social reform movements work and also is really skilled in dialoguing with people who see things in different ways, writes about Jane Addams and Hull House, which was a ministry in the west side of Chicago that was ministering to adolescents in crisis and in trouble around the turn of the 20th century. And what he argues is that what happened in that ministry is not just that the kids who were being served and the poor who were being served were, had their lives changed, although that’s true.
It was also that people started to see in this what was possible. So, there were people who started to see adolescents who are in poverty or in dangerous sorts of situations are not predestined to delinquency. There are things that one can do and that a group of people can do in terms of intervention.
And that starts opening up the possibilities for all kinds of other people to likewise care for them. That’s exactly what the Bible says the church does. We are a colony, the Bible says, of the kingdom of God. We demonstrate, not just in what we say, but also in our life together as a church Ephesians chapter 3, assigned to the principalities and powers.
And so, we mirror in a microcosm what it is that God ultimately will do with the universe, and we speak to the consciences around us about this is what matters, and this is what is possible. That’s why in Acts chapter 6, the concern is about the fact that help was going to the majority-culture widows, but not to the Greek widows.
That wasn’t just a question of crowd control, that was a question of the credibility and authenticity of the gospel that was being preached, that said in Christ there’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are part of one body. to ignore the vulnerable Greek widows because they’re different would be to contradict with one’s actions what one is saying with one’s words.
And so what the Church is to do is to embody James for Jesus brother, spoke that kind of word to the churches of the dispersion. And he says, “You think, rich landowners, that God doesn’t hear the cries of the poor that you’re oppressing?” He does.
And so, that the same God that heard the people of Israel who groaned under Pharaoh hears the people that you are persecuting now. Just because you forget them doesn’t mean that God has. But it’s not just that. James also says that the way that the church exists together, even decisions that come down to something as seemingly trivial as who sits where in the assembled gathering, do you sit the rich person closer in, in a better seat, than the poor person? That embodying of what it is that one believes is absolutely necessary to live out the gospel that He has given to us.
There are going to be people who are going to be inconvenient for you to love. There are going to be people who are going to be inconvenient for your church to serve. Because you’re always going to have those, and sometimes they’re the people who are giving the most money, who are going to say, “No, no, no, no, no, no. Those aren’t the people that we ought to talk about, or live with, or care for, or serve.” And sometimes you’ll find that even people that, even those vulnerable neighbors that people in the abstract think they care about. It’s one thing to say we’re pro-life, and we don’t want unborn children to be aborted. It’s another thing to actually walk alongside and to live with the woman in crisis and that unborn-now-born child who needs love and care and support.
Sometimes you will see people who will start to peel off. It’s one thing to say, let’s take up an offering to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, which is good. It’s another thing, though, sometimes to say the nations that are down the street from us, those Kurdish refugees, those Somali refugees that people are hostile toward, they are our mission field, too. There are going to be all kinds of areas where a pro-life, whole life understanding of what Jesus has called us to do will be costly and will be hard to do.
But what Jesus is showing us here is that it is impossible to follow Him and to have the definition of neighbor and the definition of mission field worked out by one’s tribe. It is impossible to say, “I am a follower of Jesus Christ, but I will only recognize those that it will not be costly for me to recognize. Everyone else will be invisible.”
And Jesus instead comes in, speaks to Zacchaeus, not supposed to see him, not supposed to recognize him. Not just is he a tax collector, but he’s a sinner. He goes to his house and provokes religious people to say, “Look at what he’s doing. Look at who he’s associating with.”
What kind of a signal is He sending by going to this tax collector’s house? Jesus doesn’t care about that. He cares about Zacchaeus. I came to seek and to save that which was lost, including a Roman collaborator. And you notice also that what Jesus does here is to have not just a sense of personal love and personal redemption, although that’s true, but also public justice.
Zacchaeus gives back even more than the money that he defrauded. So this is not a case where Zacchaeus could simply say, “Well, everything’s under the grace of Jesus. And so I can keep defrauding people and go to heaven.” That’s not what’s happening here. He becomes a follower of Jesus Christ.
And part of the following of Jesus Christ means acting justly. Vulnerable people having their money extorted, Zacchaeus makes it right. You’re going to be encountering all kinds of people, on the road to Jericho, in Jericho, whatever that is in your own life. And one of the really sobering realities is that when we look at that classic passage in Matthew 25, and many people can recite, in which Jesus says to the goats, as the gospel defines them, says to them,
“I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was naked, you didn’t clothe me. I was in prison, you didn’t visit me. And then when he says to the sheep, the exact reverse. I was hungry, and you fed me. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.”
The staggering thing to me is that nobody in this entire scene says, “Yes, we know. We have it in our ledger.” Instead, both groups say, “Lord, when did we do this?” The goats are saying, “We didn’t recognize you because we weren’t even paying attention to where you were. If we had known it was you, we would have given you that water.” And the sheep say, “We didn’t know. Who, when did we do this?” because they were simply acting, through the Holy Spirit, responsibly to human beings, neighbors, and to those who are vulnerable around them. They didn’t even see it.
There are going to be people in your life, maybe the foster care kid who doesn’t believe that any family will ever love her. Maybe the teenage young woman who’s just found out she’s pregnant and is afraid to tell her boyfriend, afraid to tell her parents. Maybe it’s the African American adolescent who’s in danger of being shot by a police officer in his neighborhood. Maybe it is the person who can’t even figure out how to have the baby that they’re expecting because they don’t know how they’re going to take off of work. Maybe it’s the refugee community that after fleeing for their lives are afraid when everyone else looks at them and says you’re probably a terrorist or you’re probably here to replace us.
I don’t know who is invisible around you, but I know they’re there. And the first question is not just what’s our strategy. It’s who’s there? And our second question is to say, as we carry this gospel and mission forward, how do we do that with the kind of consistency and credibility that Jesus has called us to have, so that we don’t win short term victories to lose long term, but we instead patiently do what we’re called to do, recognizing and knowing that we have eternity before us and in view, think about that today and ask yourself, who is that? What is that that God’s calling me to do? And how do we live that out with authenticity?