"Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God."
1 John 3:1
Letter on Abortion, Morality and Soul Psychology
The following is a lightly redacted version of a message I sent to someone who is heavily involved in the pro-life movement, in which he lamented his lack of success in turning people around from appointments outside abortion facilities. I post it here because I think some of the issues it touches upon are both interesting and important, and could potentially lead to worthwhile further discussion.
A few thoughts in response to your letter. To begin with, I’m convinced, as James wrote, that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” More tends to be accomplished through prayer, faith and supplication to God than most people imagine, and when seen in that light your accomplishments in the fight against abortion and for establishing a culture of life are doubtlessly considerable.
I think I brought this point up already once in a communication with you some years back, but I think it might be worth discussing again in light of your letter, namely that I really wonder whether trying to convince people to turn back when they’re on their way to an abortion facility is actually a good idea.
Questioning the value and importance of this might seem counter-intuitive. Abortion is a terrible thing. It has major negative repercussions both for the child/soul that is killed and for the mother and father who commit this crime/sin. Wouldn’t it make sense to try to do everything possible to stop it and change people’s minds, most especially at the critical moment when it is about to happen?
But consider something like the following. A teenager struggling with all the things teenagers struggle with these days. He’s grown up in a mostly loving, principled and supportive family. But he’s also subject to all the peer pressure, warped morals and standards and relativistic illusion of his school, his community and the world. He grapples with all of this, makes some right choices and some wrong choices, shows both a certain degree of weakness and a certain degree of strength, and so forth. Many of the things that many of his peers do he has avoided, while some he has not. Now there is some particular activity which he has been struggling with whether or not to engage in for some time – say taking marijuana or some “light” drug, for example. On the one side is the guidance his parents, church community and certain friends and mentors have given to him over the years touching upon its harmfulness. On the other side is all the peer pressure, all the standards of the word with the sympathetic appeal these are wrapped in, and so forth. Having struggled with all of this for a while, he’s finally made a decision that this is something he’s going to at least try once. He received an invitation from a group of friends, made his decision, and is about to leave the house.
Now, imagine his parents are somehow made aware of this, and they have the option to either confront him or not on the topic as he’s about to head out the door. As wise and loving parents, would they do so? I say, probably not. Why not? Not because they believe it isn’t all that harmful. They know it’s a lot more potentially harmful than most people take it to be. They also know how indulgence/compromise of that kind can very quickly and easily play into weaknesses/self-pity/victim consciousness/weakening of resolve, etc. and lead to indulgences and compromises of other kinds. And they also know that as their son is rather more spiritual than many of his peers, he has more to lose by going along with the ways, norms and appeals of the world with all that doing so portends.
Rather, they don’t because they understand and respect the psychology and inner dynamics pertaining to evolving souls endowed with free will struggling in an imperfect, relativistic world. To give someone (especially a child or someone you have a particular responsibility to mentor) guidance and direction to make the right decisions is obviously very important. Furthermore, providing discipline and setting boundaries is very important as well. But to interfere at the particular point between where somebody has made a (wrong or misguided) decision and their actually carrying through with it can often be a particularly counter-constructive and harmful thing to do. Doing so then becomes very likely to increase resentment, hardness of heart, entrenching in their own ways, and a sense of alienation. When you care for someone deeply enough, the zeal of a desire to guide them in the way they should go is always tempered by a respect and appreciation for the particular point they are at (on the path as a whole, as well with regard to some particular test or inner process they are facing or going through), the psychology and inner dynamics of the struggling soul, and so forth.
Take the example of Jesus and Judas. To begin with, get rid of the whole idea of Judas as some sort of primordial antichrist figure, the greatest sinner of all time, or as someone who was in Jesus’ circle purely to fulfill some diabolical role which was requisite to Jesus’ fulfilling his own destined role. That is nonsense. Judas was perhaps the weakest and most flawed of Jesus’ disciples. But the truth is that Jesus chose him as his disciple, and as with all of his disciples he chose him for the positive and constructive role he intended him to play, not for some sort of an opposite. Furthermore, having chosen and accepted him as his disciple, Jesus had a particular responsibility towards him to offer guidance, teaching and direction. And he loved him.
Now, at the scene of the last supper, we find Judas on the point of going to betray Jesus. This was obviously a sinful, misguided and compromising decision to make. Even if Jesus was not concerned about the outer consequences of this choice in the sense that he knew he had to go through the crucifixion and that that event was something that was going to be triggered one way or another, he at least owed it to his disciple for that disciple’s own sake to give him all the requisite guidance and urging to avoid falling into temptation and engage in actions he would later bitterly regret. But at the point where Judas had made a decision and was ready to carry through with it, of all the things Jesus could have said to him, what he did say is “what thou doest, do quickly.”
There is a very important lesson in this “what thou doest, do quickly,” which has to do with the fact that being at the point between having fairly resolutely made a wrong decision and actually having carried through with it is among the most dangerous and most vulnerable positions to be in. It is so for two reasons. First of all, the soul is very vulnerable to picking up increased resentment and to reacting against well-intended opposition to its choice in a way that will only make its going out of the way more entrenched and lead to a particular bad choice giving way to a series of bad choices. Secondly, the soul is then in a dangerous position because it is in an important sense of the word stalled. Once it has carried through with its decision, the soul opens itself up to repentance, remorse and to learning from the consequences of its actions. But as long as it lingers in a position where it has quite definitively set its course but is yet to actually do what it has determined to do, this is largely forestalled.
A second somewhat connected point I’d like to make has to do with the nature of good and evil. Abortion is a great evil; this is certainly true. And there is certainly a place for presenting it for just what it is, in fairly stark terms of black and white. But at the same time, it needs to be recognized that the reasons for why people make these sort of choices (and why there is so much callousness and so little respect for the sanctity of life in society as a whole in general), cannot just be understood or presented in terms of good versus evil, but also in terms of absolute/objective/divine good on the one hand, and relative/worldly/socially-conditioned good on the other.
What I mean is along the lines that many people who make a choice for abortion (or for so many of the other wrongs in the world today) do so less because they have been led/misguided to make some particular wrong choice on some particular issue, than because they have been gradually led/misguided/conditioned to exchange a divine/objective/absolute/conscientious moral framework for a relativistic/worldly/socially-conditioned one. In order to effectively wage the battle for hearts, souls and minds on this issue as on other issues, it is crucial to see the situation in these sorts of terms and to approach the problem accordingly. You can’t approach the battle of teaching and imploring individuals to see the truth when it comes to the issue of abortion, the issue of gay rights and gender nonsense, the issue of socialism, the issue of this that and the other thing, etc., etc. without a key sense of the battle in terms of lifting lost sheep out of the whole miasma of being ensnared in the ways and standards of a relativistic world.
Most people’s misguided views on abortion are tied up and wrapped together with all sorts of ideas on social justice, all sorts of sympathetic leanings, and all sorts of ways in which the deceptive standards of the world draw on their own insecurities, anxieties and naïve good intentions. To confront this by trying to in effect get through by injecting a powerful dose of objectivity into all of this relativity can often prove quite counter-productive. This is not to say that people do not desperately need to see examples of greater objectivity in the world, or to be confronted from time to time (or hopefully quite regularly) with some of the stark realities of where things really stand. That will be a crucial component in the ongoing battle for turning around all that needs to be turned around in the world and in individual hearts and minds. But depending upon your approach and the individual circumstances of the people involved, powerfully injecting a strong dose of objective truth and principle on a particular issue into the whole mushy mass that is their entire moral-social framework can do more harm than good. They might react against what they perceive as radicalism and fanaticism. An attack against their ethics might be felt as a threat to their sense of identity and worth, because that sense of identity and worth has come to be so intricately tied together with their espousal of worldly ways and standards. And when they run into something that threatens their whole conception of what qualifies as good, right, just and commendable, their very well-meaning intentions and concern for others (tainted as it is with self-centeredness and compromise) might lead them to further prop up that conceptual framework and to become more militant in what they espouse.
In order to be potentially effective, a prick of conscience or the prickings of the spirit need to hit a nerve. With this I mean that the piercing light of Christ-truth needs to make contact with something of the innate innocence of the soul and the innate affinity it retains for that truth deep down in virtue of its ultimate origins in the heart of God. There is so much in the world today that can so easily end up as an overlay that insulates the nerves of God’s people in this sense of the word. The wicked and those who consider themselves to have a vested interest in keeping things from moving forwards in accordance with God’s plans and purposes work hard to set things up this way. And as souls become more and more caught up and lost in it all, they feel a rising need to insulate themselves against those proddings which they increasingly begin to see as a threat against the whole shebang of what all they believe in, and as a threat against their inner security and peace.
When pricks of conscience or the prickings of the spirit don’t manage to hit a nerve, but only run into a muddled mass of protective and insulative muscle and fat, they tend to be more and more perceived as an irritant, and to function less and less effectively as any sort of a jolt. And then, the proddings which the soul receives from the spirit and from those who act in the spirit with their best interests at heart, come to be more and more lumped together with the constant barrage of condemnation it receives from the world.
The devil has been well described as the great condemner of the brethren, and the truth is that the whole system of worldly ways, standards and morals is to a very significant extent and in a very significant sense of the word predicated upon condemnation. If you have any doubt about this, just look at what you find in the news these days. It’s condemnation day after day. People are condemned for behaving as people in the context of the pandemic. Condemned for insisting on making a living, for visiting their family, and for just about everything and anything that factors into behaving as people cannot but behave, one after another. Now it’s the youth, now it’s elderly. Now it’s people in this state, now its people in that state. Now it’s church-goers, now it’s bar-goers. Now it’s this leader, now it’s that leader. And it goes on and on day after day and month after month. They are condemned for supposedly being racist at heart, not because of anything they do or overtly believe, but because they somehow just are, kind of like they’re supposedly tainted by original sin. They’re condemned for being consumers in an economy that’s set up the way it is in the light of a supposed environmental apocalypse. And it goes on and on and on. And the flip side of all of this condemnation is an ever-deepening sense of victimization, where eventually everyone begins to feel like they’re the victim of everyone else and of the system as a whole.
The truth is that so much of the whole moral system of the world (in contrast to a moral system based on divine truth) is predicated upon condemnation and a sense of victimization. Now, most of the people (whether political leaders, media figures, or whoever) who play into this don’t really realize what they’re doing in these sorts of terms, although some do. Their whole ethics and worldview is so wrapped up in this sort of a strain, and the same goes for the souls of God’s people who end up so lost in it all while constantly battered around from almost every side and angle. Their conception of justice, rights, values, good and bad, and the like comes to be tied up with this sort of condemnation and victimization. And then their espousal of what they believe to be the commendable thing to do and the reasonable way to live their life also comes to be wrapped up in insulating and defending themselves against that battering.
The effort to turn things around on an issue like abortion needs to be approached in this sort of light. Exactly what that means in terms of what are and are not effective strategies to adopt and broad courses to espouse is open to much debate. I do think significant inroads are being made towards turning things around in a broad sense of the word, both in general and as it pertains to the specific issue of abortion. This is more evident right now in the US than in most other countries. Abortion actually seems to have been becoming more and more of a live issue in America, not less of one, and I think there are at least a few signs that other countries might eventually catch up in that regard. All sorts of things are in a significant sense of the word “boiling over” in places all over the world in these crazy and tumultuous times we are currently living in. This pertains to both forces and elements of good and forces and elements of evil. And one of the effects of all of this is that the division between the two and what that division really comes down to (and what it does not really come down to) is being thrown into greater light for many people. This is an encouraging thing at the same time as it may be a disquieting one. And in that context, there is greater need than ever for conscientious and god-fearing people to play their parts, both through things like prayer and through outer activities and outreach.
All the best,
*** *** ***
The following is my fairly brief response to the reply I received to the above letter. It clarifies a few points, although it leaves what is perhaps the key objection to my argument unanswered for the time being.
I wanted to provide a short response to some of what you say in your thoughtful response to my earlier letter.
To begin with, I want to point out that I don’t think that publicly advocating against abortion is a bad idea, nor do I think that maintaining a presence outside abortion clinics is. What I suggested might not be a good idea is only the more specific activity and goal of trying to get through to people who are on their way to an abortion appointment in a last-ditch effort to forestall their choice. Same with the hypothetical adolescent I discussed, I do not at all mean that parents should “abstain from any involvement” as you put it in general. I think they should discuss topics like drug use regularly and provide mentorship and discipline, etc. My point was rather the more limited one that in a situation where this has been provided, whether it is then a good idea to interject in a situation where a wrong choice on the matter is nevertheless about to be made.
You are right to point out that whether or not it would be a good idea might be subject to various considerations, such as the nature and character of their son (his “level of docility” as you put it), etc. I also want to point out that insofar as it is a bad idea, it is not really a matter of “caring about how he would feel,” as you suggest in the example of your own experience. It is not really about the “anticipated emotional outcome.” It is not about not wanting to make him feel bad about himself, but rather about not wanting to play into a hardening of heart that will make him less well positioned to wisely discern right and wrong and make good choices going forward. I also don’t mean to suggest that the parents should not express their disapproval of his actions after the fact. What I suggested might not be a good idea relates to a very specific sort of interjection at a very particular time and context. And I continue to believe that it might be worth reassessing your own broad strategy in the fight against abortion away from that very specific and particular sort of activity and goal. Although, again, there is a lot of room for nuance and various considerations when it comes to that reassessment.
I would like to eventually provide a response as well to what is probably the most powerful objection you bring up. The way you put it is that “the circumstances of the issue involved – the deliberate ending of an innocent life – pales in comparison” to many other wrong things people do. A woman going to an abortion appointment isn’t just about to do something irresponsible, personally harmful to herself, mildly obnoxious, etc. She’s about to kill her baby. First of all, there is the fact that there is very explicitly an innocent victim involved. And secondly, there is the magnitude of the crime and the severity of the consequences to the victim. When someone is about to shoot an innocent bystander on the street, we don’t expect the police to make various sorts of assessments of the sort I’ve alluded to and whatnot, we expect them to do all they can to prevent the murder and defend the would-be victim.
We unfortunately live in a society where a large percentage of people have lost so much of their sense of perspective and so much of their grasp of objective right and wrong, that they don’t see the issue of abortion in anything resembling the way we do. This doesn’t change the key facts of the matter – such as that killing babies (whether in or out of the womb) is among the most reprehensible things anyone can do. To what extent, then, should it change the way in which conscientious people respond to instances where it does happen or is about to happen? I started reflecting on how to respond to this, and quickly realized it would turn into a very long and complex argument. It might be interesting to engage in it, though I’m not sure how good a position I’m in to do so. If you express an interest in continuing our discussion, I’ll see what I can put on paper.