Friday, April 03, 2009

Some Context for the Tempest

So, let’s talk about context. I delivered the speech that’s getting so much attention, “Our Work is Not Done”, for a rally in support of clinic defenders in Birmingham, AL. Protesters had staged a week-long siege of a clinic – a clinic that had, not so very long before, been shot up. The owner still had the bullet-ridden door. Protestors had, once again, surrounded the clinic, screaming, threatening, and otherwise harassing and terrorizing the staff and patients. Defenders had stood in the hot sun, providing a buffer and absorbing the vitriol spewed at them. At the end of the week we rallied for speeches, encouragement, and celebration of our success at keeping the clinic open, safe, and available to the women using it – for all sorts of family planning services. The speech worked well for that audience and that occasion. It spoke to those who had put their comfort and safety on the line to care for others.

It works less well as a sermon. Actually, it doesn’t work at all as a sermon and I wouldn’t preach it as one. It works less well as a blog read by people who may still be struggling with the aftermath of difficult decisions and thinking they were going to find a sermon. I apologize for the mischaracterization. It was entered on my sermon blog site because that’s the holding spot I have for things I’ve written. If I were more technologically sophisticated I might have avoided the problem with a more clear division of genres. And I do apologize to anyone who was hurt when looking for a pastoral word and encountering a political one, instead.

So, there’s my format disclaimer and apology. Now let’s talk about substance.

I would certainly never suggest (and I didn’t, actually – read it) that decisions about abortion are never morally complex and difficult. They often are. But that’s part of being made in the image of God, created to be God’s stewards on earth. We are called to be moral decision-makers – and moral decision-making rarely involves choosing between unmitigated good and unmitigated bad. Rather, it means weighing competing goods, needs, and costs and making the best decisions we can – confident not that we will always be right but that God will always be with us. To be created in the image of God, entrusted with such responsibility, is often difficult, sometimes painful, but always a blessing.

The power to conceive, nurture, and sustain new life is an awesome one. It is a profound blessing – even though a daunting responsibility (whether we ever exercise that power or not). When a woman’s exercise of that power is constrained – by violence, deprivation, lack of information…; when she is unable to choose to bear children because she lacks health care, child care, a living wage, or a supportive community – that is a tragedy. When she is unable to prevent an unwanted or unsupportable pregnancy because of violence, inadequate sex education, lack or access to contraception (or its failure – or to an abortion, when she determines that she needs one) … that is a tragedy. When modern science and moral theology and social supports allow her to embrace her sexuality and manage her generative power and responsibility -- that is a blessing.

I think we venture into faithlessness and ungratefulness when we decline to name something a blessing just because it is painful or difficult for us. Someone I love recently had heart surgery. I wish he hadn’t had to. The arterial blockage I could happily have done without. Given that he had a blockage though, the heart surgery was, indeed, a blessing. A messy, uncomfortable, scary … blessing.

I realize that this becomes more complex if you believe that a fertilized egg is a full human being (a fairly new idea in history but one that some people do hold and to which they are entitled). To have to weigh the needs and the rights of such a full “person” against those of another person – one on whose sacrifices (sacrifices sometimes embraced with delight and other times deemed untenable) the first is utterly dependent for at least 9 months – to have to weigh such competing needs is hugely complex.

If, on the other hand, one views a fertilized egg, a blastocyst, an embryo, or even a fetus as not yet an ensouled, full person but rather as potential, – on its way to personhood if the person in whose body it resides is willing and able to embrace and nurture it (proleptic personhood) – then the decision becomes less, or differently, complex although it may, or may not, become less difficult or painful.

The responsibility to wrestle with these decisions, regardless of their level of complexity or pain, goes hand in hand with being one of God’s people. The ability to act on our decisions, to fulfill our responsibilities, is a blessing.

We get to choose the lens through which we view the trials we encounter. We get to choose how we tell (and understand) the stories of our lives. Right now, I’m going through the pain of leaving a congregation I have served for 14 years. My mind races and my heart rejoices as I contemplate the new challenges and opportunities, the new responsibilities, before me. Even so, every time I pull into the parking lot of the church my heart sinks to the pit of my stomach. As each person comes through the door, meets my eyes, and starts to cry – again – my heart breaks. And yet, my breaking heart, too, is a blessing. As my companion continues to remind me, “it’s all about love; you have to allow yourself to feel it.” It has been a blessing to serve these people for 14 years. It is a blessing to love, and be loved by, them. It is a blessing that my heart is breaking, for it is love that breaks it.

We get to choose the lens, the story we tell. We can tell the story of our pain and the ways we’ve been broken. Or we can tell the story of God’s blessings and redemption seen in our lives. Both are present – real and true; but which is the focus – the point?

We can focus on our sorrows or on our joy – on crucifixions or on resurrection power. I believe God invites us to be whole, to live in joy. In every season, through every trial, we are blessed, called to joy, and called to name all our lives as grace.

About Time

The Democrats have removed "safe, legal, and rare" language about abortion from the platform. About time! I was reminded of a speech from last year that never made it onto this site.

Better late than never, perhaps ...

Our Work is Not Done
Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
Birmingham, AL
July 21, 2007

Well Operation Save America came, they saw, they harassed, and they annoyed; but they did not close the clinic. The clinic stayed open, no patients were turned away, and the doors never closed. We remain victorious. And that victory is a good thing – but, make no mistake, even though OSA has gone home; our work is not done.

If we were to leave this park and discover that clinic violence had become a thing of the past, never to plague us again, that would be a very good thing, indeed; but, still, our work would not be done.

If we were to find that, while we were here, Congress had acted to insure that abortion would always be legal, that would be a very good thing; but our work would not be done.

If we were suddenly to find a host of trained providers, insuring access in every city, town, village, and military base throughout the world, that would be a very good thing; but our work would not be done.

When every woman has everything she needs to make an informed, thoughtful choice, and to act upon it, we will be very close; but, still, our work will not be done.

As long as women, acting as responsible moral agents, taking responsibility for their own lives and for those who depend on them, have to contend with guilt and shame, have judgment and contempt heaped upon them, rather than the support and respect they deserve, our work is not done.

How will we know when our work is done? I suspect we’ll know it when we see it. But let me give you some sure indicators that it isn’t done yet:

- When doctors and pharmacists try to opt out of providing medical care, claiming it’s an act of conscience, our work is not done.

Let me say a bit more about that, because the religious community has long been an advocate of taking principled stands of conscience – even when such stands require civil disobedience. We’ve supported conscientious objectors, the Underground Railroad, freedom riders, sanctuary seekers, and anti-apartheid protestors. We support people who put their freedom and safety at risk for principles they believe in.

But let’s be clear, there’s a world of difference between those who engage in such civil disobedience, and pay the price, and doctors and pharmacists who insist that the rest of the world reorder itself to protect their consciences – that others pay the price for their principles.

This isn’t particularly complicated. If your conscience forbids you to carry arms, don’t join the military or become a police officer. If you have qualms about animal experimentation, think hard before choosing to go into medical research. And, if you’re not prepared to provide the full range of reproductive health care (or prescriptions) to any woman who needs it then don’t go into obstetrics and gynecology, or internal or emergency medicine, or pharmacology. Choose another field! We’ll respect your consciences when you begin to take responsibility for them.

- Here’s another sign. Did you notice the arguments that were being shouted at us in front of the clinic? They’ve been trying for years, and seem to be pushing especially hard now, to position themselves as feminists – supporters of women. You heard them – yelling that they understand that it’s all men’s fault. That men must do better at supporting women and children so that women, presumably, won’t feel the need to abort. They yelled that they understood that the women going into the clinic had been hurt by men and were reacting to that pain and betrayal. They pledged to help men be more responsible so that women wouldn’t want abortions.

Let me tell you something. Any argument that puts men alone at the center – for good or for bad -- any discussion of women’s reproductive health that ends up being all about men, is not feminism. Nor, for that matter, is it Christian, or reflective of any God I recognize. And as long as anyone can even imagine such an argument, our work is not done.

- And while we’re at it, as long as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States can argue, as Justice Kennedy recently did, that women are not capable of making our own informed moral decisions, that we need men to help us so that we won’t make mistakes that we later regret; as long as a Supreme Court Justice can deny the moral agency of women simply because we are women – and can do it without being laughed off the public stage forever – our work is not done. What has happened to us that he could even think he could get away with publishing such an opinion? Our work most certainly is not done.

- Finally, the last sign I want to identify relates to my fellow clergy. Too often even those who support us can be heard talking about abortion as a tragedy. Let’s be very clear about this:

When a woman finds herself pregnant due to violence and chooses an abortion, it is the violence that is the tragedy; the abortion is a blessing.

When a woman finds that the fetus she is carrying has anomalies incompatible with life, that it will not live and that she requires an abortion – often a late-term abortion – to protect her life, her health, or her fertility, it is the shattering of her hopes and dreams for that pregnancy that is the tragedy; the abortion is a blessing.

When a woman wants a child but can’t afford one because she hasn’t the education necessary for a sustainable job, or access to health care, or day care, or adequate food, it is the abysmal priorities of our nation, the lack of social supports, the absence of justice that are the tragedies; the abortion is a blessing.

And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion – there is not a tragedy in sight -- only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.

These are the two things I want you, please, to remember – abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Let me hear you say it: abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.

I want to thank all of you who protect this blessing – who do this work every day: the health care providers, doctors, nurses, technicians, receptionists, who put your lives on the line to care for others (you are heroes -- in my eyes, you are saints); the escorts and the activists; the lobbyists and the clinic defenders; all of you. You’re engaged in holy work.

Thank you for allowing me to join you in that work for a few days here in Alabama. God bless you all.