HERE HAVE BEEN times in history when Christians have changed society in ways that even nonbelievers admire and celebrate.
In the 18th century, William Wilberforce and other Evangelicals fought for, and achieved, the abolition of slavery.
In the 19th century, the Salvation Army fought a campaign that had global results, raising the age of consent from 13 (or even as low as 9 in some U.S. states) to 16, thus freeing hundreds of thousands of children from legalized prostitution.
In the 20th century, born-again believers were at the forefront of successful battles against racism and segregation.
This proud record continues to the present as Christians lead the way in the fight against human trafficking and other social justice issues.
However, if we are honest, the church also has a track record of which we can be less proud. At times we have engaged in a series of “culture wars”—battles in which the common perception is that the church is trying, and failing, to enforce our religious beliefs and practices onto an increasingly secular society. No one celebrates our culture wars in the way they celebrate the abolition of slavery or segregation.
Even where we appeared to be the winners in a culture war, we still ended up on “the wrong side of history.” A prime example is Prohibition, which temporarily achieved its aim of amending the U.S. Constitution to ban the sale of alcohol, but is now widely viewed as a failed social experiment.
What’s the Difference?
Culture wars primarily use the language of restriction—“Thou shalt not.” They are seen by those who do not share our faith as negative. Culture wars are about the church trying to retain power in society, often at the expense of nonbelievers.
Social justice campaigns, however, use the language of release and redemption—“Let My people go.” They are seen, even by those who do not share our faith, as positive. Social justice campaigns are about the church using its prophetic voice to empower the powerless.
Understanding this distinction is vital, because the church has often been guilty of treating the most important social justice issue since World War II as if it were merely one more element in our culture wars. Abortion—the wholesale destruction of the most vulnerable of human lives on an industrial scale—is far too heinous to be treated as yet another example of the breakdown of Christendom. It is not merely one issue among many in our boycotting of a department store for removing gender labels for toys, or our outrage over whether the CEO of our favorite brand of coffee supports gay marriage.
In my own country of Ireland, supposedly a bastion of conservative Catholicism, a recent referendum to allow same-sex marriage passed overwhelmingly. How did this happen? “Marriage equality” became the buzzword of the day. The pro-gay marriage side successfully managed to appropriate the Biblical language of “release and redemption.” Those of us who opposed this change in our Constitution were portrayed as the “anti-equality crowd.”
Now the push is on in Ireland to amend our Constitution so as to legalize abortion. The prime movers in this campaign include Amnesty International. Sadly, the most visible “human rights” organization in our society is campaigning for a practice that will systematically kill, on a grand scale, the most vulnerable human beings. Of course, for those of you in the United States, this officially sanctioned slaughter of the unborn has been going on for more than 40 years.
What Can We Do?
In Ireland, we cannot afford to let the forthcoming referendum on abortion be framed as if it were part two of the marriage referendum. We need to clearly declare that introducing abortion is not a progressive step, and those who value life are not trying to retain control of society by forcing their morality upon others. “Birth equality” has a much stronger claim to the language of release and redemption than “marriage equality” ever did.
Meanwhile in the U.S., Christians cannot afford for abortion to be presented as if it were another culture war, or as an issue that only belongs to the conservative side of the political spectrum. Birth equality should be an aspiration for us all.
Birth equality is the slavery or segregation issue of our day, and clearly presenting it as such must be done in a way that appeals to all, including the nonreligious and the politically liberal. Abortion is, by far, the greatest force for discrimination and denial of basic human rights in the world today.
Our society would, quite correctly, be in uproar if it was demonstrated that people were being denied basic human rights such as food, shelter, medical treatment, or education on the grounds of their gender or a mental or physical disability. Can you imagine how vocally the U.S. Department of State would protest if an overseas country were forcing women to live in housing that was considerably inferior to that of men? Or how would the media react if it was revealed that a U.S. city were denying children with Down Syndrome the right to go to school or to receive an education? Yet, for some reason, we often fail to point out that abortion, to a staggering degree, uses the same discriminatory criteria to deny people the most basic human right of all—that of life.
In many parts of the world, millions of unborn children are aborted simply because they are female. China is one of the chief offenders in this regard, due to its barbaric one-child policy, but abortions for the same reason are carried out on a smaller scale in the United States. Making the practice illegal has little or no impact. In a society where you may abort a baby for whatever reason at all, and where the technology is freely available to determine the gender of your unborn child, it is impossible to enforce laws prohibiting gender-based abortion.
The plight of unborn children with disabilities is far worse. In the U.S., 90 percent of all unborn babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. Those with Down Syndrome certainly face challenges in life, but they have repeatedly demonstrated themselves to be capable of participating in student life at school, finding employment, joining the life of a church, and even marrying and bearing children. Most of all, they can celebrate and enjoy life; yet, abortion denies them these rights.
Picture, if you can, yourself standing side-by-side with someone with Down Syndrome. Can it ever be tolerable that society decrees that one person in that picture has a much greater right to life than the other? Can we claim to be the body of Christ if we tacitly allow such a glaring injustice to continue unchallenged? Are we acting as salt and light in the world if we allow abortion to be portrayed as if it were just one more in a series of culture wars where Christian morality is gradually shifted from the public square to a matter of optional private observance?
It is time for our churches to reframe the abortion debate. We need to become passionate civil-rights advocates for birth equality. We need apologists who can present this matter effectively and winningly, using the language of release and redemption. We need the church to rise up as the primary advocate for the powerless in the most important social justice issue of our generation—the campaign for birth equality.
From January, 2016
Nick Park pastors the Solid Rock Church of God in Drogheda, is national overseer of the Church of God in Ireland, and is executive director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland.