In the raging media world, we rarely recognize the root of any particular issue anymore. “Debates” (if you could call them that) are really just individual people jumping straight to fear-based buzz words with final opinions of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil– each bringing with them an expectation of sharing their own monologue before watching their now-enlightened readers “wake up” and bow down to a superior view. This, of course, only leads to more frustration because it never happens that way. No one seems to be listening to each other without readying their next counterpoint.
There are (thankfully) a few bright spots out there where solid dialogue on tough issues is happening, but generally speaking, we’ve lost the art of digging past our personal emotions and buzz words to discover the exact point where our common values split into different directions. Rather than seeking to understand, the temptation is to simply make the point that gives us that “drop the mic” feeling. What else can we expect from this culture that promotes individualism and so easily leads to isolation? These “conversations” seem to be more about releasing pent-up frustration than craving to understand (and dare-I-say consider) a different perspective. It’s an easy trap to fall into: believing everyone who thinks differently from us is crazy, or worse, straight from the pit of hell.
The easiest example I can think of is the cultural debate on abortion. Within minutes, gasoline-soaked pain and fears of oppression are revealed by one side while the other side lights the match with accusations of first-degree murder. No wonder this debate often leads to the kind of weeping and teeth-gnashing that Jesus associated with hell itself.
Believe it or not, though, the real question buried in the issue of abortion is about neither oppression nor murder. The real separation occurs much further up the line, and is actually something that can be talked about with much less hellish vitriol.
In the case of abortion, we’d make much better use of our time discussing questions like “When does life really begin?”
Root issue questions tend to rise above the stormy, turbulent layer of personal experience and desires. From a secular perspective, at least, many root issues even go beyond the argument of religious teaching. All we have at this point are truth claims, which can be challenged for consistency and reliability in the same way any other theory can. An honest pursuit of factual evidence, void of what we wish was real, is a lot easier to talk about.
Does life begin with a heartbeat? When a “fetus” begins to look more like a newborn baby? With consciousness? Viability? Would that definition still be accepted by a woman who desires to have a baby as compared to a woman who doesn’t? If desire changes things, is that a legitimate argument? Why or why not?
Or on the medical side, why are desired babies or fetuses treated as patients by prenatal doctors and undesired babies treated as inanimate groupings of cells? Why do prenatal surgeries give the baby anesthesia?
Or on the legal side, why can a drunk driver be charged with manslaughter for causing an accident where a pregnant woman’s womb is crushed and she loses her baby, while another pregnant woman just a few cars ahead of the first could’ve been on her way to an abortion clinic to exercise her rights and terminate her pregnancy willfully?
Maybe another root question would be “Can someone’s desire change whether life is present or non-present?”
These are basic questions that don’t start with “murderer!” and are much more likely to lead to real (albeit still heated) conversations.
In our culture, we’ve put so much emphasis on personal feelings and the injustice of being offended that conversations seem to skip over “fishing” questions like “Why do you feel that way?” or “How did you arrive to that conclusion?” Instead, we jump straight to calling someone evil or intolerant as soon as we hear their opening line, never wondering what preconception or worldview lens they have, which naturally brought them to that surface-level opinion.
I’m not suggesting this as the fool-proof method of winning someone to your side. This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky, “Let’s all just come in for a group hug” kind of thing. After all, few issues of significant importance are ever simple. There will always be issues of corrupt motivations (making decisions based on financial gain or the avoidance of guilt, for example). We can’t overlook the powerful influencer of wishful thinking. This seems to be one of the leading factors in most cultural issues, including the abortion debate– and predictably so. As a Christian, I believe wishful thinking is directly connected to the very first sin: the desire to define good and evil for ourselves. We’ve conditioned ourselves to think that our opinions and feelings really matter on moral issues, and even have the power to change moral law if we can rally enough popular support. This is problematic, however, if you believe God is perfect (as in, unchanging and uninfluenced by His creation). And if that isn’t your belief, then I’m really not sure I can fault you for simply living out your worldview. If I’m being honest, I really shouldn’t expect anything different from you. Maybe we can chat about God’s nature sometime.
This also isn’t to say that a conversation on root issues will stay completely calm the whole way through. For people who passionately hold to a certain view, the likely result of being shown– even politely shown– a crack in your own foundation is often a defensive outburst of frustration. Root issues might be easier to talk about at first, but only until someone starts to feel the initial rumble of the earthquake that threatens to send shock waves through the long list of other firmly-held ideas and opinions which cling to that same foundational logic. Not coincidentally, it’s also at that point where these conversations can become completely life-altering. (Not so for the conversations that start with guilt trips and accusations.) The best result we could hope for is both sides becoming more committed to pursuing what’s true and less committed to living in their own world of unchallenged personal desires and feelings. When that is the case, both participants in the conversation can grow.
Even if two individuals discover the root issue that has set them on opposite sides and end the conversation unswayed, the difference will inevitably feel less toxic. Each person has a greater chance of walking away with a better understanding of how their cultural “enemy” has arrived at their conclusions, and with a realization that they’re (probably) a lot less crazy than they may have initially thought. They will hopefully realize that not very many people are willfully pursuing an evil life.
Christians, Let’s Talk…
In the case of abortion and the belief that it is effectively ending purposeful human lives, this will continue to be extremely sad, confusing, and unbelievably frustrating. (By the way, I’m more than happy to engage in a respectful theological conversation with any Believer who is not deeply saddened by abortion.)
In the same token, this is exactly what Jesus told us to expect from an unbelieving world that cares more about following its own sinful nature than trusting its Creator.
Whether a law is made to criminalize abortion or not, abortion will remain an issue for our fallen world. It’s also not new to the modern medical age. All through the Old Testament, it’s not hard to see how troubled God’s people were with the self-focused sacrifice of newborn children to the Canaanite god, Molech. This practice was vehemently opposed by committed Jewish rulers, and yet it predictably continued in the areas and periods of ancient Israel where people were not concerned with the Jewish law.
I say this as a reminder that our task as Believers is not to make more laws but to make more disciples– to be known not by our legalism but by our love.
This glimpse into the self-focused, “I get to decide my reality” world affords the Believer with the opportunity to pray for mercy and changed hearts, and simultaneously do everything in our power to honor the sanctity of life in every area of the human development spectrum. In case you haven’t noticed, many Christians aren’t exactly known for this, and it’s being used all-too-effectively against the entire Church as a label of hypocrisy in the abortion debate. That is something Christians can rectify without trying to strong-arm Congress to legislate new restrictions or challenging a court to re-interpret a current law. (Side note, we also need to understand what a Democracy means and what Jesus promised His followers about how the world would generally decide to go.) Hypocrisy is an equally important heart issue that we should be repenting of and asking the Lord to soften our hearts on so that this argument, which disgraces the name of Jesus, can be put away. We should be ashamed it was ever present to begin with.
The Church has the opportunity to step in with a listening, compassionate ear, and to learn what cultural pressures drive so many women to choose abortion to begin with. The next step, though, is a lot more difficult. Here’s a hint: it is not to make abortion immediately illegal (even if that is unapologetically our hope for the future). Why not? Because no one trusts someone who refuses to address their own hypocrisy. The next step should be to comprehend what we’ve heard (imagine that) and rally together to remove the pressures we’ve learned of as best we can. These might include things like more-affordable childcare, guaranteed maternity leave, a real solution to our broken healthcare and insurance catastrophe, and other things the Church is decidedly not advocating for. What the Church has done is, again, shot straight for the end game without realizing that if abortion were to be criminalized tomorrow, we’d have an epidemic of unwanted babies with no safety net to catch them. Maybe it would be different if the Church was known as the reason why all the already-born but unwanted kids still have a loving family, and the reason mothers were given more support to raise their kids. Maybe then, people would be willing to listen to the Church’s view about what abortion really represents and understand why the Church would want a law against it.
Ultimately, even with no societal change, there is no permission given to the Believer to impose our worldview onto non-Believers– expecting those who don’t know God as their loving adopted Father to make decisions based on the principle that God knits us together in our mother’s womb. It’s nonsensical for most people, and that can’t surprise us.
If we had the mind and wisdom to dig for the root issues instead of attacking the surface-level implications, I suspect we would grow a lot more from each other, enrage the world a little less (at least not for reasons of hypocrisy), and become a much healthier representation of God’s love for the world. Opinions may have an element of wishful thinking to them, but they’re not self-made. They require a line of logic, which has a starting point. Find where someone’s line of logic starts, and you’ll find where your time in conversation with someone will be most fruitful. Maybe that logic is unchanged at the end of the conversation, but at least you’ll both actually understand why you disagree instead of just blindly thinking the other is stupid, evil, or arrogant.
From a Christian perspective, only God can change the heart of a person anyway. It’s not going to make sense to us why some people refuse to believe. But we have to remember that no one naturally chooses for themselves a life of worldly rejection and inconvenience (which the Christian life and worldview undeniably is).
The work of the Christian is not to change the hearts of others but rather to be known as an unflinching truth-seeker who is genuinely interested in hearing other perspectives in their effort to reflect the gospel of love to them. You might even find that, because you were so honestly interested in someone’s different beliefs and struggles, they end up point-blank asking you about yours.
Christianity is full of counter-intuitive ideas. Perhaps the way we will reclaim the title of a people known by our love is by reclaiming a willingness to ask more questions and show the world a fearlessness that remains unthreatened by learning about and hearing from other beliefs. Perhaps we would serve as better ambassadors of the one, true, and holy God if we were willing to admit that some of what we’ve come to accept and believe as truth are things we wouldn’t want to be true if life was all about us and our own comfort. This place is just hard sometimes for all of us. It’s okay to relate to that because the gospel of Jesus is still the most honest depiction and answer to that problem.
If we aren’t setting that clear example, why would anyone outside the Christian faith believe something that goes against their personal feelings? If we aren’t willing to test out someone else’s perspective, why would they be willing to test ours? They may not come to believe in the gospel (Jesus prepared us for that). But they would at least hate us with the correct understanding that Christians don’t follow just what we wish were true like the rest of the world continues to do. We follow Christ.