Completely Pro-Life: A Sermon
by Ronald J. Sider
Text: Genesis 1–2
Everyone supports life. But some funny inconsistencies pop up on the way to its practical protection.
Why do many liberal and radical activists champion nuclear disarmament to protect the sanctity of human life and then defend the destruction of 1.5 million unborn American babies each year? Are "sexual freedom" and affluent lifestyles finally more important than helpless, inconvenient babies?
Why do the members of the National Right to Life Committee (a major anti-abortion group) score far lower on other pro-life issues, such as opposition to the arms race, handgun control, and concern for the poor, than do the members of the National Abortion Rights Action League (a pro-abortion group)? Don't missiles, handguns, and poverty also destroy human beings?
Got a problem pregnancy? Abort the child.
Arrest a murderer? Fry him.
Dislike another country? Bomb it.
Feel insecure? Build another missile.
Bothered by a sick relative? Yank the plug.
What does it really mean to be pro-life? The answer, of course, depends on one's basic values. If one endorses Marx's philosophical materialism, then sacrificing millions of people on the way to a secular utopia is not inconsistent. If one believes that the fetus is merely a physical appendage of the mother and not an independent human life, then favoring abortion is not inconsistent. If freedom is a higher value than justice, then majoring on religious and political liberty even at the expense of a decent life or even life itself for the poor is not inconsistent. Whether consciously or subconsciously, everyone's definition of what it means to be "pro-life" emerges from his or her deepest beliefs. I seek to ground my definition of what it means to be pro-life in my understanding of what the Bible says about life.
The opening chapters of Genesis sketch a glorious picture of the fullness of life intended for humanity by the Creator. A harmony of right relationships prevails everywhere—with God, with one another, and with the earth. Although it is not used here, the Hebrew word shalom is perhaps the best word to signify this fullness of life enjoyed as Adam and Eve walked in obedient relationship with God and in responsible stewardship over God's garden. Sin, however, shattered this shalom and disrupted relationships with God, neighbor, and earth. But God refused to abandon us. Beginning with Abraham, God called out a special people to be his instruments of revelation and salvation for all. Through Moses and the prophets, the judges and the writers of wisdom, God patiently showed this chosen people how to live the abundant life.
As in the garden, God said that shalom starts with a right relationship with God. But it also includes right relationships with the neighbor: economic justice, respect for all persons including a special concern for the poor and weak, faithful family life, fair courts, and, of course, an end to war. Starkly, Moses clarified the options at the end of Deuteronomy. Life in every sense would follow if Israel obeyed God's commands, death and evil if they disobeyed. "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life And death… Choose life so that you and your descendants may live" (Deut. 30:19).
They chose death. Worshiping idols and oppressing the poor, they defied the Author of Life. Still God would not give up. God's prophets looked ahead to a time when the Messiah would come to restore life and shalom. And in Christ, we received abundant life. "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).
God's prophets looked ahead to a time when the Messiah would come to restore life and shalom. And in Christ, we received abundant life.
Increasingly since the Enlightenment, however, secular thinkers have promoted purely human paths to wholeness of life. If only we will offer quality education to all; if only we will modify our social environment; if only we will change the economic system; if only we will undertake this or that bit of human engineering, secular thinkers promise a new person and a new social order freed from the stupidity and selfishness of the past. The Marxist promise that utopia follows the abolition of private property is merely one of the more naïve versions of the Enlightenment's secular humanism.
Christians know this is dangerous nonsense. Certainly we can and should affect significant changes by improving social structures. But no amount of social engineering will create unselfish persons. Tragically, the human problem lies far deeper than mere (even very unjust) social systems. It lies in the proud, rebellious, self-centered heart of every person. A transforming relationship with the living God is the only way to heal the brokenness at the core of our being.
That is why Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again (John 3:1-21). It is only as we believe that God has sent his only Son to live and die for us that we experience genuine life—indeed eternal life (John 3:16). As the Gospel of John says so beautifully and powerfully, eternal life begins now as we believe in Christ because, "This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (17:3). As the Spirit begins to transform believers, we enjoy the first fruits of eternal life even now. We can enjoy an abundant life here and now, as we live in Christ and are reshaped according to the pattern of his perfection.
But even the shalom of abundant Christian living pales by comparison with the glorious life of the age to come. "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain" was Paul's confident cry (Phil. 1:21, KJV; cf. Acts 20:24). To be pro-life does not mean that physical human life is the highest value. There are many things worth dying for. To say that I or another Christian opposes the nuclear arms race because human life is exceedingly precious is not to say that life here on earth is the ultimate good. "Thy loving-kindness is better than life," the psalmist exclaimed (63:3, KJV). Jesus taught that we should sacrifice eyes, limbs, possessions, indeed even life itself for the sake of the kingdom of God and the harmony of right relationships that make up the righteousness of that kingdom (Matt. 18:7-9; also 6:25-34; Luke 12:13-31). Because Christians know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25), Christians will sacrifice their own physical lives for freedom, justice, peace, and evangelism. Jesus has conquered death in all its terror. Therefore, we know that death is only a temporary transition to life even more abundant.
Because Christians know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25), Christians will sacrifice their own physical lives for freedom, justice, peace, and evangelism.
But this biblical teaching about eternal life does not refer to some ethereal, spiritual fairyland totally unrelated to human history and the created order. Paul clearly teaches that this groaning creation will be freed of its bondage and decay and experience the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:18-25). He also describes God's cosmic plan of transformation to restore all things in both heaven and earth to their original wholeness and shalom (Col. 1:15-20). God intends to transform all that is good in human culture, purify it of all sinful distortion, and make it a part of the abundant life of the eternal kingdom.
Until Christ's return, all attempts to realize that fullness of life in American society, and all other societies, will have dreadfully imperfect results. But history demonstrates that it is possible to combat racism, end slavery, and foster democracy. We could end the formidable evil of abortion. We can erect signs of that coming kingdom both in church and in the larger society. To be consistently pro-life is to allow our thoughts and actions to be shaped by the full biblical picture of life-abundant, the wholeness God established at creation and will finally restore at the Second Coming. And that means that biblical norms rather than secular ideologies must set our agenda. I have absolutely no commitment to ideologies of left or right. I have only one commitment—to Jesus Christ and God's revealed Word.
That means two key things for my politics. First, it means I would like my stand on every political issue to be grounded in biblical norms. Now I know I don't accomplish that fully, but I'd like to. And I also know how important it is to do careful socioeconomic research because every political choice combines value judgments and complex factual analysis. But when it comes to the norms that guide my politics, I want them to come from God's Word, not Karl Marx, Adam Smith, or Eastern monism.
Letting the full biblical picture guide my politics means something else as well. It means letting God's Word shape the balance of my political agenda. It is not hard to find people who argue that abortion is the most important political issue. Others a few years ago said the same thing about nuclear weapons. Others say the same thing about world hunger or economic injustice or the environment. Who is right?
Part of the way to answer that question is to ask, "What does the Creator of Life care about?" I want the balance of my political agenda to be shaped by the balance of things that the Bible says are important to the Author of Life. That, it seems to me, demands that we say no to abortion and the nuclear arms race, as well as no to murder by environmental pollution, economic oppression, and euthanasia.
If aborting millions of unborn children each year is wrong, then walking down a path that increases the likelihood of the ultimate abortion—where a nuclear exchange obliterates hundreds of millions of people—is also wrong. If human life is precious, then it is a terrible sin to stand idly by in suffocating affluence when we could prevent the death by malnutrition and starvation of 12 million children each year. And yet some Christians urge us to focus all or most of our attention on combating abortion and to relegate economic justice to the category of the less urgent. I cannot see how that is a consistent pro-life stance.
If human life is precious, then it is a terrible sin to stand idly by in suffocating affluence when we could prevent the death by malnutrition and starvation of 12 million children each year.
Nor does the list of consistently pro-life issues end with abortion, the nuclear arms race, and poverty. Three hundred fifty thousand persons in the United States alone die prematurely each year because of smoking. The global death toll from cigarettes already runs in the tens of millions, and some of those cigarettes come from here. Alcoholism enslaves 10 million Americans. Their personal tragedies entangle another 30 million family members, close friends, and coworkers in a hell of crippling car accidents, fires, lost productivity, and damaged health, with an economic cost to the nation of $120 billion annually. Racism in India, South Africa, and South Philadelphia maims and kills. So does the rape of our environment. Every day, erosion and construction remove enough productive land to feed 260,000 people for a year. In a world of hunger and starvation, that is a pro-life issue. In short, if biblical norms set the Christian's agenda, then we will reject one-issue approaches in favor of a commitment to all that is of concern to the Author of Life.
The media often paints all pro-life people as reactionary, one-issue folk who act as if life begins at conception and ends at birth. That's a nasty smear. But the best way to disprove it is to adopt a consistently pro-life approach and demonstrate that we care both about the unborn child and the poor mother struggling to care for another child; that we care both about the unborn child and the millions of starving children already born. In short, precisely because human life is created in the image of God, we care about the fullness of human life from womb to tomb—and therefore we care about peace and justice and freedom and a wholesome environment.
What does it mean to be pro-life? It means letting the Author of Life set our agenda. It means saying no to right-wing ideological agendas that make freedom, family, and the crusade against abortion more important than justice and nuclear disarmament. It means saying no to left-wing ideological agendas that do the reverse. It means letting the balance of biblical concerns set the priorities for our political engagement.
Championing a completely pro-life agenda will likely produce harsh attack from both the left and the right. One side will attack us for our stance on the poor and capital punishment, and the other side for our defense of the unborn. Being willing to be the target for both left-wing and right-wing ideological attack is the price Christians must pay for biblical faithfulness today.
The acid test of the integrity of the Christian pro-life movement in this generation will be whether we have the courage to let the Author of Life, rather than competing secular ideologies, shape our agenda.
Ronald J. Sider is founder and president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action. His many books include the enduring Completely Pro-Life, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Just Generosity, and The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. This sermon was excerpted from Missional Preaching: Engage, Embrace, Transform by Al Tizon, copyright © 2012 by Judson Press. Used by permission of Judson Press.