Saturday, November 1, 2008

Can We Talk About This Like Family?

I know that my relatives don’t usually talk about politics within the family, and this is because we all know that probably most of us fall on one side or the other of either political extreme, and those kinds of discussions don’t make the family reunion week at the beach any more fun.   So, at the risk of making a loud shattering sound as I disregard clear taboo warnings, I am venturing to write something regarding the political dilemma I find myself in.  Please keep in mind that I in no way consider myself politically savvy, politically engaged, or even very politically informed, but none the less, I am being asked, in the all too near future, to make a political contribution.  In just a few days, my vote will be counted for the highest political office in our land, and this, I believe, is worthy of at least some conversation even, no - especially, among family.

In my efforts to garner facts about each of the candidates and draw an informed opinion as to their competency, character, and policies, I find myself, presumably along with every one else, caught in a cross fire of facts, fiction, opinions, character assassinations, heated debates, ploys to divert attention, stone throwing, name calling, labeling, bared teeth and clenched fists.  With every new spray of arsenal, the issues become more obscured, our language becomes more aggressive and alienating, and people are moving to even more extreme positions, trying to give as much leverage to their side of the seesaw as possible in the hope that it will teeter back in their favor.  Quite honestly, I’m a little seasick, and come Nov. 4th I might even have my head over a bucket.  But for the moment, I am still tuned into this political teeter-totter, and this morning, after reading several exchanges, I started daydreaming about what this conversation could possibly look like within a family who loves and cherishes each other.  How would such a family engage each other in peaceful dialogue about issues close to their heart and close to the fabric of their lives, rather than choose to just keep the peace by avoiding the conversation altogether?  How would such a family position itself on this age old playground contraption, the seesaw?

There happened to be one at the beach, where we were vacationing this summer on the island of Spiekeroog.  When the kids weren’t swimming or digging their way to China, they were trying to devise new ways of keeping each other “up in the air” on this long hinged log.   Great fun for them, but how many of life’s conflicts are carried out with just this objective and with very similar methods to the ones my kids used?  My guess is far too many.  At first, our son Jonathan had the edge over Charis, our middle daughter, until Christa added her weight to that of her sisters.  Then our oldest would try to regain his advantage by scooting as far out on the beam as he could and then leaning even further out.  This worked just long enough until the girls caught on that they could do the same.  One might imagine what could happen if the log was very, very long.  I suppose there would be no end to the scooting.  But, knowing my kids, they would tire of the distance they had put between them, each feeling isolated way out there alone on their end of the log, and would finally run off to play on the swings together.

Unfortunately, we grownups aren’t as easily exhausted by this endless game.  We keep trying to weigh our side down with arguments and justifications, by getting the experts and celebrities on board, and of course by scooting to the very extreme end of our position and then even leaning out beyond that.  The result being that every four years our country descends into a verbal Civil war.  If I go by what I read on the internet, it seems as though the whole country becomes completely preoccupied with hating the other half of its citizens.  Shame on us!

And shame on me, too, for I have my spot on the seesaw along with everyone else.  I find myself supporting, for many reasons, the candidate who is purported by his opponents as being the most staunchly pro-choice candidate ever.  Supporting Obama although he outright endorses Roe v. Wade, while I believe all life is precious and should be cherished and protected puts me in an awkward position on this political teeter-totter, to say the least, and at times I feel quite “up in the air.”  I feel especially high-ended, when I realize how many of my relatives and old Bible school friends are sitting on the other end of this presidential seesaw, and how strongly opposed they are to Obama as a candidate, precisely because they are against abortion.  It is even more disconcerting to see how, though I in no way endorse abortion, my present political position has apparently put a deep relational distance between myself and some family members whom I love and admire.  Is there anyway to escape this alienating “game” of seesaw?

I believe there is, but it would mean changing the objectives of the game altogether.     Of course doing so for the actual playground equipment, would rob it of the exhilarating purpose of its existence, and that would be silly; there is usually no harm done in an honest go at the seesaw.    However, that is not the case with the political, theological or ideological version of this sport, which is all too often carried out for just such a thrill, only with a much higher casualty rate.  Instead of pursuing the stimulating objective of proving the superiority and rightness of our respective positions with its intoxicating kick-back, indignation, couldn’t we strive for what the latest management books call a “Win-Win” solution?  Would it be at all thinkable, that even with the issue of abortion, there might be ways to “scoot” toward each other on the seesaw, finding a stable position in the center, which leaves no one “up in the air,” and for which no one must compromise the values most precious to them?   A way that leads toward relationship instead of away from it?  Would it be possible to re-evaluate and redefine what the actual core problems are, and perhaps begin to think out of the box, discovering a whole realm of solutions hither to veiled from our limited perception.  Surely if there is, it will entail a bit of detox from our old poisonous methods of combat.

Since I began voting, I have been held hostage, along with many others, to the party who has loudly promised a pro-life ticket, feeling bribed into turning a blind eye to the unethical, immoral and bad political policies for which this party is also responsible.  And after too many years of their talking “small town values” but catering instead to “big pocket corporations,” with little to no visible dent in the liberal abortion policies, I began to wonder if it was time to change my strategy and escape my captives.  I’ll have to admit, it was easy to do once I started to tune into Obama.  He is the first candidate to capture my political interest ever.  Having listened to and read a few of his speeches, I began to sense, that this candidate is in a higher league than any of our choices have been the last couple of decades.   My growing excitement was dampered, however, by the mounting criticism over his support for Roe v. Wade and his vote against the Born Alive Act.  Certainly discouraging revelations for me.   What to do? Return to captivity to the Republican party, with its Bush clone for a candidate, simply because he knows how to push the Pro-Life button?  I won’t be had again. 

So having been on the one side of the seesaw for many years, I now find myself, if not at the other far end of it, certainly somewhere left of many of my friends and family, with the big ugly issue of abortion still to contend with.  As one might expect,  it has been the weight and noise at their end of the seesaw, which began to reveal my own ignorance of the immense scale of the problem of abortion.  Despite my instincts to shield off the condemning or extreme language of some of these voices, I have chosen instead to “scoot” down in their direction and be educated by them.  Without naming any specific statistics or studies, my uncle, for example, wrote the following in an email to me a few months ago, “the bloodshed of one year of abortion around the world absolutely dwarfs the bloodshed of Nazi Germany and the Allies firebombing of Dresden and all deaths in Iraq and every other nation in the earth where conflict is going on right now.  And it dwarfs it each year. EACH YEAR!”  

If this is true, statistically, or even nearly true actually, it should serve as a wake up call, at least, to what in any other instance would be called an epidemic.  For my part, I admit to having been asleep and must make a confession.  Through all the twenty something years of being a Pro-Lifer, about the only thing I have consciously done to try and turn the tide of abortion, save for private conversations, was to vote for a conservative president.  And that I did largely unaware of any of the facts, figures or larger issues intrinsically connected with this world wide affliction.  I voted a pro-life slogan and went on with life as usual, believing my moral obligation to be fulfilled.  I realize now, that it was just enough to keep up a pious apathy and avoid facing the hard issues at the core of what I now believe to be a symptom of a disease, not the disease itself.   

But still not being satisfied that the only way to be Pro-Life with a clear conscious is to vote Republican, I have since looked where I can for reliable information regarding both world wide statistics and legislative information on abortion as well as what effect the policies of the democratic ticket would have on abortion reduction, despite its party line to uphold Roe v. Wade.  This is when my own prejudices and ignorance really became apparent.   Up until recently, I have assumed that abortion has been protected as a last resort birth control for women of the decadent Industrial nations who are pursuing careers instead of families.  I am embarrassed now for being so clueless and so judgmental.  

Following several links, I came upon two studies which have shown me that I couldn’t have been further from the truth.  One is from the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and called, Reducing Abortion in America:  The Effect of Economic and Social Supports.  Wright & Bailey (  The conclusions of the fifteen page article are briefly summarized straight off, but the breakdown of the numbers and statistical findings are documented and elaborated in the rest of the document.  Wright & Bailey conclude in their Executive Summary, “Family, social and economic supports reduce abortions.  Recent research finds that the abortion rate among women living below the poverty level is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level. This study of all U.S. states from 1982-2000 finds that social and economic supports such as benefits for pregnant women and mothers and economic assistance to low-income families have contributed significantly to reducing the number of abortions in the United States over the past twenty years.”  Also...

“Elected officials can use socioeconomic public policy to reduce abortions. 

The findings in this study suggest that elected officials can utilize effective and appropriate socioeconomic public policies to reduce abortions. These include: increasing benefits for pregnant women and mothers with children under five; promoting policies that increase male employment; providing funding for child care for working women; increasing economic assistance to low-income families and removing the “family cap” on economic assistance. Legislation aimed at these goals can effectively reduce abortion in America.”

This report also quotes the Allan Guttmacher Institute (, which among several sobering facts, reports these findings, “The lowest abortion rate in the world is in Western Europe (12 per 1,000 women aged 15–44). The rate is 17 in Northern Europe and 21 in Northern America (Canada and the United States of America).[1]” and “Legal restrictions on abortion do not affect its incidence. For example, the abortion rate is 29 in Africa, where abortion is illegal in many circumstances in most countries, and it is 28 in Europe (this number is including eastern Europe, whose rates are the highest), where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds. The lowest rates in the world are in Western and Northern Europe, where abortion is accessible with few restrictions. [1] 

And from the Matthew 25 web page, (

“Nearly half of all abortions in the world are performed in countries that have made abortion illegal.

The lowest abortion rates in the world - less than 10 per 1,000 women of reproductive age - are in Europe, where abortion is legal and available.

By contrast, in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, where abortion law is most restrictive, the regional rates are 29 and 31 per 1,000 women, respectively.

These countries are also much poorer than the U.S. and provide fewer social services; and a larger proportion of their population lives in poverty.

In Western European countries, in contrast, where more social services are provided and fewer women live in poverty, the abortion rates are consistently the lowest rates in the world.”

After reading these and other articles, I couldn’t help but feel that the Pro-Life movement has been storming the wrong side of the castle.  Not only is there a more vulnerable entry on the other side, but there is even a bridge leading over the mote directly into the heart of the actual problem:  Women and children in poverty!  

The conservative right has persistently combated the abortion issue under the banner of the sanctity of life, painting those on the other side of the legislative wall as cold, self - seeking and murderous.  Thus, much ammunition has been spent in defining where life begins, assigning the unborn - in all of its stages- the highest possible value tag, trying to impose that value tag on others, and condemning those who even dare hint at the possibility of a relative value of life.  For several reasons, I am beginning to wonder if this is ammunition ill spent.

It was as we were in Papua New Guinea, that it first began to dawn on me, that life, in fact, does have a relative felt value.   Over the course of our four years in that country, we were confronted again and again with situations, where communities, families, and parents did not consider the life of one of their children to be worth a trip to the doctor, the couple of Kina (monetary unit in PNG) for antibiotics, or even a sack of coffee.  I was often horrified to encounter children who suffered scabies, prolonged ear infections or malaria who were left untreated because the clinic was a long walk across town, or it was too much effort to administer prolonged, consistent treatment.   Villages whose only transport to the outside world was by plane, would sometimes pay to have their coffee flown out to be sold instead of flying a critically sick child to the hospital.  Their reasoning being that the child would most likely die anyway and then they would have nothing.  The coffee would at least bring a profit.  For me it seemed a grotesque trade off, a sack of coffee for the life of a child. 

I could fill pages with such encounters, and as much as it grieved me, no amount of campaign slogans, letters to the editor, or marches for life was going to change the felt value of life for those people.  Centuries of conditioning that life is short, painful and of little consequence was not going to give way to any of my attempts at imposing a higher price tag to it.  When people live under the constant reality, that life (ones own or that of loved ones) can be snatched from them at any moment, perhaps they learn to hold it less tightly, and when living conditions are relentlessly hard and mean, maybe some are want to regard life as something precious.  

Even in the West, I dare suggest, even among the most conservative pro-life groups, the value of life is relative.  I cannot deny the fact that the lives of my children are more precious to me than the lives of other children.  Judging from our foreign politics, the lives of Americans are more valuable to us than the lives of people in... well, any developing nation, and judging by our national policies, the well being of our corporations and our bank accounts is more valuable to us than the lives of the poorest among us.   Could it be possible, that while our editorials, protest banners, and campaign slogans loudly proclaim Pro-Life values even for the unborn, our actual life-styles and nation wide disposition toward the poor suggests that we really only value life if we can enjoy its comforts and security?  And isn’t that just the thing which makes it so hard to share!

It is my understanding, that it is impossible to impose a value on anything.  We cannot say to anyone, “such and such should be of greater value to you than it is, or than this other thing.  You should be willing to pay a much greater price for it.”  We cannot coerce people or bully people or rationalize people into seeing an inherent or objective value in the life of an unborn child, even though this objective value may exist.  We cannot  expect that women in desperate circumstances should value the new life in their body as more precious than the welfare of their other children, a better standard of living, opportunities for their own future, or even their very own life, just because we, who are able to enjoy all of those things simultaneously, say it is more precious than those things.   Values don’t work that way.  We cannot prescribe values either for individuals or for a nation.  

What we can do, however, is to demonstrate how valuable something is by being willing ourselves to pay a high price for it.  We can demonstrate how precious these unborn lives are to us, and to God, by making room at our table of affluence for the women and children who live in the dehumanizing poverty which breeds abortion.  We can validate the true worth of every human being, whether born or unborn, by cashing in our decadence and luxury, maybe even a portion of our comfort, which has come to mean so much to us, for the policies and programs which will move those most vulnerable to our side of the poverty line.  We can reveal how priceless each new life is, by offering mothers the support, health care and financial assistance needed, so they can feel they have a choice to carry that new life to full term - even if this might cost us the cherry on top of our sundae.

When I stop to think about it, God has done this very thing.  He has demonstrated how valuable we are to Him by giving that which was most precious to Him in exchange.  He traded the costly life of Christ for relationship with us.  Where the law - legislature - failed to cure us from our moral poverty or convince us of our true identity as beloved children of God, God Himself cashed in His luxury to validate our true worth and move us to His side of the (spiritual) poverty line.   

It is much easier to raise a moral finger and read someone their rights, to get out the law and the threat of consequence, especially for behavior and choices we don’t understand.  But I can’t in good conscience sell that any longer as my contribution to the Pro-Life cause.  To be truly pro-life will ask a much, much greater sacrifice of me.  It asks nothing short of following the divine example, the example of the Author and Redeemer of life itself.  And to be honest, it is yet to be seen if I have it in me to do so.  What I do know is that I will no longer hide my apathy behind the pious, political mask of simply voting a pro-life slogan, or skirt around the real problems by trying to get the symptoms outlawed.

In fact sometimes I wonder if Roe v. Wade were over turned, and we had strict prohibitions in place in every state, how long the interest would last in the issue of abortion, or in the plight of women who feel they have no other alternative.

Wouldn’t it be ironic, if when we finally chose to give up scaling the seemingly impenetrable legislative wall at the back of the stronghold of abortion and came around to the front gate offering instead to share our wealth and resources with those who are besieged by poverty, we stumbled upon our pro-choice adversaries already making much greater headway into the fortress with their battering ram of new jobs, pre and post-natal care, a comprehensive healthcare plan, family financial assistance, reproductive education, housing assistance, food and clean water?

I know that it must seem to you that I am “scooting” away from where you are sitting on the seesaw politically, you may feel, even morally, and that I must have lost the sense of the heinousness of abortion, but in fact, my understanding of and concern for the plight of the unborn has actually grown.  It may seem to you that I am moving away from a commitment to eradicating abortion, but I am actually moving toward a commitment to preserving, protecting and investing in life, especially the lives of those who have no voice of their own and who have been excluded from the great American pie.  I have no illusions that Senator Obama is some messianic figure without fault or flaw.  I imagine he has an array of political tricks up his sleeve, and has ambitiously maneuvered himself to the position he is in today.  But I do not believe he is the cold-blooded, self-seeking and murderous person you might have come to think he is, because he is not out back with us trying to bring down the towering legislative wall which protects women choosing to terminate their pregnancy.  I believe that he is trying to fight against this epidemic, not by poisoning the rats, but by beginning to remove the garbage which draws them and breeds them.  It is a strategy which will mean more sacrifice from all of us, and of course that makes it much less attractive, but I believe it is one where the least in America, and in the world, will finally be given a greater pallet of choices than the dismal ones they have now.  And I firmly believe that when we demonstrate the true and precious value of all life by giving what is costly to us, we will do more to save the perishing than by continuing to fight a moral and legal battle.

So, even though it may be too late to ask you to reconsider where you make your mark on the presidential ballot this election, I am asking you to “scoot” down toward the middle of the seesaw, where we can work on the real problems together, without getting seasick from the odious up and down extreme positions are instigating.  I am asking you to move toward relationship and conversation, and trust that you, or the principles dear to you, will not be left up in the air if you do.  I am hoping that when we “scoot” toward each other, we can get the creative engines of redemption churning and discover a stockpile of more intriguing and subversive tactics available to overcome the strong hold of death and poverty.  I am hoping that we can throw our weight into actually solving the problems, instead of using it simply to leverage the teeter-totter toward our principled strategy.  I am hoping that we can both ignore family taboos and remove any relational distance that might have recently crept in, and talk about this like family, like a family that loves and cherishes each other, like the family we are.