“If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” Matthew 6:23
Cardinal Henry Edward Manning once remarked that in the end all problems are theological. I couldn’t agree more.
One of Mankind’s Greatest Problems
Just a few weeks ago we all saw an example of what is arguably one of mankind’s greatest problems. You can probably guess the event I’m alluding to: the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. You are unlikely, though, to guess why I cite it.
Contrary to what you might assume, I don’t cite it because of the raw display of murderous rage that drove Adam Lanza to gun down more than two dozen innocent people.
Nor do I cite it because of the sad circumstances of Adam’s life that resulted in his carrying out these horrific acts.
No; there was, coterminous with what happened at Sandy Hook, a more fundamental and pervasive problem occurring across America, indicting all but a percentage who have awakened to the passive monster in us all. Sandy Hook provided an opportunity for us to see it in sharp relief.
Yet lamentably, still relatively few actually see the problem, which is this: that certain unutterably great evils can be committed on a grand scale right before our eyes and yet most of us, even Christians, though we know it is going on, act as if nothing is happening. We are inexplicably untouched, unaffected, and unmoved, and as a consequence we do practically nothing to stop it.
Surely, we ought to be convulsed with moral outrage every time something as horrifically evil as Sandy Hook happens. Instead, we too readily and too often accept the commission of certain great evils with something bordering on nonchalance.
Abortion in America, on this 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, provides 54 million cases in point.
In light of our universal reaction to Sandy Hook, our composure with respect to abortion is almost impossible to comprehend. Yet it is just as impossible to deny that our visceral response to 3,500 abortion murders per day pales next to the shock and grief we individually and collectively exhibited over the 26 murders in Newtown, Connecticut.
Let me be clear: the problem is not our horror, sadness, and outrage over Sandy Hook. That was appropriate and even morally obligatory. The problem is our pathological indifference to abortion. And this indifference exists even among those whom charity bids us regard as true born-again Christians.
Which raises the question: How can this be? What can possibly account for such moral lopsidedness in those who belong to Christ? Cardinal Manning would contend the problem is at root theological. Here’s why I agree.
As a Man Thinketh
I’m not saying there are no exclusively moral explanations to account for Christian apathy and silence over abortion. There absolutely are. Fear of reprisal is but one example.
But there are also intellectual reasons undergirding much of that behavior. That is, there are defective ideas enabling true believers to justify their moral dereliction. As a man thinketh, so is he (Proverbs 23:7).
Vigorous opposition to murder of any stripe is a self-evident duty. It ought to be the instinctive practice of all who fear God and respect the voice of conscience. That it is not argues deception and blindness at the most fundamental level.
Letter versus Spirit
There is one flawed presupposition in particular which seems to account for much of the abortion indifference in ostensible true believers. It is notably characteristic of evangelicals, who hold a high view of Scripture.* It is, in fact, ironically because they hold a high view of scripture that evangelicals are especially prone to this error.
The error is the assumption that if your doctrine is correct, your doctrine cannot be incorrect.
I know that sounds like double-talk, so let me explain.
The apostle Paul spoke of “the letter” and “the spirit” of the law (2 Corinthians 3:6; Romans 2:27-29). Most of us are familiar with the distinction: By “the letter” is meant the bare statement; by “the spirit” is meant the full, underlying import and intent. The concept is so important to a correct interpretation and application of written documents that it constitutes an indispensable principle of Western jurisprudence.
The point is, since it is possible to interpret and apply “the law” (i.e., the written word) in two different ways—one that respects merely the face value of the words, the other the author’s intent as well—a person’s doctrine can be, simultaneously, correct in the first sense and incorrect in the second. It is possible to be technically correct as to what the letter says, but incorrect as to what it means.
This in large measure accounts for evangelical tepidity on abortion: We are sure we know the Scriptures, and we note that the Scriptures say little about anti-abortion activism. Therefore, proportionate inaction is, to our way of thinking, biblical.
On its bare face—i.e., according to the “letter of the law”—this seems to be right and true. After all, you won’t find many verses that say, “vote pro-life,” or “peacefully demonstrate in front of Planned Parenthood clinics”, or “preach regularly against the great evil of abortion.” Our scholarship is good; we know what the Bible says; we have mastered the letter of the law.
But the more important question—indeed, the all-important question—is, have we discerned the “spirit of the law”? If not then all our biblical knowledge is so much brilliant darkness, illuminating nothing but the fact of our own blindness.
A man who unquestionably understood the spirit of the law described it in no uncertain terms:
He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. The whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14; Galatians 6:2)
As clear as Paul’s words are, it is clearer still that they are virtually impossible to reconcile with passivity on abortion. For whatever else we may tell ourselves about the letter of Scripture, however much we may flatter ourselves that we truly follow Christ, regardless of how sure we are that we love God and obey His word, the sober reality is that “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
Perhaps our error has been an honest one. Perhaps our embrace of the letter rather than the spirit of the law has been unwitting.
This much is certain: “When a man who is honestly mistaken hears the truth, he will either quit being mistaken, or cease to be honest.”**
* * *
Like candles blown, the glittered angels flew And left us in our brilliant dark, alone; Abandonment to lamplessness our due For leaving Love, and leaving love undone. We prized the glory of the light, it seems, More than the Source from whence its splendor shot; And relishing the sun’s effulgent beams, At once we saw the light, and saw it not. We fancied that our bright reflections burned To show a sightless world that we could see; But as we cursed their darkness, late we learned— This night—that we are they and they are we; For just as much benighted is the one Whose eyes are blinded leering at the sun.
* Particularly the view of Scripture enshrined in the doctrine of sola scriptura. Evangelicals have no official position on abortion, whereas Catholics, who hold to prima scriptura (also a high view of Scripture), do (see “Catechism of the Catholic Church”). A full discussion of these views and their implications with respect to pro-life activism is outside the scope of the present article.
**Author unconfirmed; frequently attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
Rolley Haggard is a feature writer for BreakPoint.
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