Holy Mess (4): Human Life

. 9 min read

Christ Church, Mountain Top
Luke 10.25-37
week, we talk about human life. There are so many hot button, tough topics in
our culture that all come together under the heading of “human life”: capital
punishment, abortion, euthanasia, letting die, suicide, war. And, so many of
the ways we talk about these issues are mapped and shaped by our culture rather
than the Bible and the theological resources of the Christian tradition.
      If you find yourself comfortable in the
cultural left, with the general suspicion of war, the desire to abolish the
death penalty, and a passion to protect the reproductive rights of women, you
speak powerfully about the value of human life, and refer to Scripture while
doing so, and perhaps not recognize the potential conflict in the practice of
      If you find yourself part of the cultural
right, you may find yourself quoting Scripture on the value of human life,
particularly the life of the unborn, and quoting Scripture in support of the
death penalty, without paying attention to the ways one position undercuts the
      In the American church, most Protestants
find themselves in one of these camps. On the other hand, both the official
statements of The United Methodist Church and the Catholic Church are consistently
pro-life, on both abortion and the death penalty, on euthanasia and suicide. Pope
John Paul II published a beautifully written encyclical titled The Gospel of Life, in which he addressed
the multi-faceted “life issue” and also tenderly addressed women who have had
abortions, reminding them that the grace and mercy of God is for them as well:
“Do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. … Nothing is
definitively lost” (177-178).
      In The Social Principles, we recognize the
“tragic conflicts of life with life” and therefore acknowledge that abortion
may be appropriate in protecting the life of the mother. Whenever we talk about
the value of human life, whatever specific issue we are debating, what we are
talking about is how to address these “tragic conflicts”. We may discuss other
matters as well – the disproportionate number of poor and minority persons
given the death penalty, the impact of mental health on suicide, what it means
to say “every child a wanted child”, and post-traumatic stress – but these are
all terms that revolve around specific and tragic conflicts of life with life.

abused child asks his safe parent about suicide: Is it the unpardonable sin? A
mom finds her young adult son dead by suicide and asks about the fate of his
eternal soul. A woman tells me that she can’t be forgiven, because she has had
an abortion. Another woman declares that she’ll be brutally beaten or kicked
out of her home if she doesn’t have an abortion. A friend kills a man in a bar
fight. A young man is behind the wheel when he loses control of the car and his
best friend, in the passenger seat, is killed. To all, I say that nothing we do
is beyond redemption or beyond hope.
      An aging person says that they don’t want
to be a burden to their children. While it is a good thing to be able to plan
ahead for a future when we cannot fully care for ourselves, no human life is a
burden. An older person with advanced dementia, a young person with
developmental disabilities, an infant with a normal brain who simply isn’t old
enough to explain why he is crying. We are not burdens. We are family.
      “Ellen” grew up with the knowledge that
she was an unwanted child. Mom said that she should have aborted her. Her
relationship with her parents was always tense, and she overcompensated with
her children, struggling to set limits because she wanted them, and wanted them
to feel wanted. Her last child was from an unplanned pregnancy to a man who
wanted no commitment. She kept her child, determined to want her child, and now
found her already limited financial resources stretched to the breaking point.
      A police officer on a tactical team has
the authorization to shoot, has the armed perpetrator in his sights, and yet
does not pull the trigger. At that moment, he is putting his entire squad and
the larger team at risk, all on the hunch that they may be able to apprehend
the man without additional violence. It turned out that he was both right about
the outcome and right to make the decision, but it was still a risky decision –
a conflict of life with life.
      When I pray for our men and women in
uniform, one of the things I pray is for God to safeguard their souls.
Post-traumatic stress is not simply the result of what happens to you. It can
also be experienced because of what you do, even what you do under orders or
what you do in self-defense. We recognize those exceptional kinds of
life-with-life conflicts, and yet they can still do huge damage to our souls.
Scripture is chosen, not because it clarifies the “life issues” of our time. It
doesn’t. There are no references to how God knows us in the womb, to what it
means to have a good death, to mercy or judgment for capital offenses. Just one
more story not fit for Sunday School, but a story that exposes the conflicted
zone in which we all live.
      Jephthah is the son of a prostitute. He
was driven from his family and people by his father’s “legitimate” sons. He
became an outlaw and the leader of a large group of raiders. So, when his own
people needed a deliverer from the power of the Ammonites, they thought of …
who else? The guy who had a reputation as an effective and fearless killer.
There were a few issues to negotiate before he takes them up on their offer.
Jephthah then negotiated with the king of Ammon, but Jephthah’s reputation was
not enough to make the enemy back down.
      The time for words was over; it was time
for battle. And we get this remarkable phrase, “The spirit of the LORD came
upon Jephthah” (Judges 11.29). He’s never been viewed as a saint. He’s got far
too much baggage and never seemed concerned about it. God used him anyway.
That’s all wonderful. It is nice to be reminded that God can and does use total
rascals. But then he makes what has to be one of the stupidest vows in history:
“Whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return
victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by me as a
burnt offering” (11.31). It makes a little sense when we remember that Jephthah
is a warlord accustomed to getting his way by force or bribery, and this sounds
like an attempt to bribe God. In many ways, that’s us, isn’t it? We succeed
because we are good at what we do, because we have leverage in crucial relationships
(hopefully not the leverage of bribery), because we are talented, because of
who we know.
      Well, maybe it makes a little sense, but it is still nuts, on
two counts. First, the vague “whoever” or “whatever” makes no distinction
between a human and the livestock that lived in the same house in that era.
Second, the very idea that God is bribable. And the text makes no comment on it
at all, as if the text itself is entirely unaware of how crazy a story it is
telling or is too shocked to do anything other than report the details. When
Jephthah’s daughter meets him, he accuses her: “You have become the cause of
great trouble to me” (11.35). Talk about blaming the victim! Yet, she is not
only submissive but also unfailingly kind. And, when it comes to what Jephthah
actually does to his daughter, to fulfill his vow, no details are given. Some
scholars have concluded that he did not sacrifice his daughter, only committed
her to a celibate life. I do not find that reading convincing. Instead, I think
that this where the text is aware of itself. Such a story, such a detail, is
better left untold.
      The conflicted story of Jephthah: He is blessed
and given success by the Spirit of the LORD, but still lives as if it all
depends on his ability to negotiate, bribe, or overpower. He loves his
daughter, but he loves his honor more.
was he, despite his grief, still willing to kill his daughter? I don’t think it
is just because of his honor. I think it is something else: He had already
become a killer. Who we are is a huge component of what we do. And, what we do
– which, for Jephthah, was killing people in raids and in war –what we do has a
huge impact in making us who we are.
      It is so much easier to take a life when
we’ve already got blood on our hands. Remember Lady Macbeth? “Out damned spot!”
Jephthah has become a killer. News flash: We’ve all got blood on our hands. One
way or another, we’re all guilty.
was he, despite his grief, still willing to kill his daughter? He had already
become a killer. Who do we want to become? What kind of actions will help us
become that kind of person?
      Frederick Bauerschmidt poses this
insightful question in an article on abortion and Christian ethics. He notes
the history of the abortion debate as one of competing rights – the “right to
life” of the fetus or child and the woman’s right to “control … her own body”
(290). With our passionate American insistence that we all have the “right” to
our own opinion, no real progress in the debate is made (291). Instead,
Bauerschmidt points out, “Moral questions are not simply questions of what one
should do, but also questions of who
one should be” (292). He does not
want us to miss the “impact of the action on the agent” (292).
      It reminds me of Paul’s use of the same
kind of reasoning when writing the Corinthians about sexual immorality, in this
case the patronization of prostitutes. (Just in case you are wondering,
Christians were never and still are not perfect in every way!) Paul talked
about the question as one that involves the human body (just like the moral
questions around human life), and, in particular, the way our bodies are joined
to Jesus as “members” of his body and in the hope of resurrection. “The body is
meant for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Corinthians 6.13). “All
things are permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial” (6.12). For a
body that is designed to be united with Christ, a body that anticipates the joy
of resurrection, we need to focus on what is beneficial to that union and to
that hope, that is, on what kind of person do we wish to become?
proposes another Bible story as an example and answer to this question of what
we want to become. It does not answer, at least not directly, the question of
what we should do, certainly not the question of what we should do in terms of
public policy. But instead of addressing the “what is permissible?” question
that Paul makes clear is entirely inadequate, the story addresses a more
profound question: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10.29; Baurschmidt, 300-302). We
shared this story with the children. Bauerschmidt suggests that “the moral
achievement of the Samaritan was not the [noble] decision to help the wounded
stranger”, even to do so across the barriers of race and religion, “but the
ability to recognize that he had no choice but to help this wounded and
vulnerable one” (301). It is about who he has become.
      Personally, that’s who I want to be – a
lover of my neighbor, even if the neighbor is strange, even if the neighbor is
an enemy. I want to act on that love reflexively, not because I am good or
noble, but because “the love of Christ urges [me] on” (2 Corinthians 5.14). Whether
that neighbor is Jimmy, 15 years older than me, with Downs Syndrome, whose
favorite phrase is “I wanna Coke”; or Earl Clanton, who was executed on
Virginia’s death row in 1988 for a gruesome $8 robbery and murder, whom I had
the privilege to meet, and who wrote to me about how he had become reconciled
to God; or a combative and demented old lady who landed her best left hook on
my cheek while I was praying for her (that could be me someday); or even my own
children when they drive me nuts. If I practice loving my neighbor, I will live
out the value of human life instead of arguing over it.
Bible gives us two great deliverance stories. The first is Israel’s deliverance
from Egypt. It is a story that begins with infanticide, genocide, and human
slavery. The second is the story of Jesus coming to deliver the entire human
race. It is a story that begins with infanticide – all the children two years
old and younger in Bethlehem and its surrounding villages killed by an insecure
and power-hungry king. And it is a story that reaches its climax with the death
penalty – Jesus hung on a cross to die. John Paul II remarks, “Truly great must
be the value of human life if the Son of God has taken it up and made it the
instrument of the salvation of all humanity” (60).
      It is great, so great that the “damned
spot”, the blood on our hands, is washed clean once and for all. So great that
nothing we do is beyond redemption or beyond hope. So great that we can become the
people God has made us to be – lovers of God and lovers of our neighbors.
      Pope John Paul II. 1995. The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae): The
encyclical letter on abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty in today’s
New York: Random House.
      Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt. 2011. “Being
Baptized: Bodies and Abortion.” Chapter 22 in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, 2nd
edition, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Oxford: Blackwell
      The Social Principles of The United
Methodist Church (2012).

      Dennis T. Olson. 1998. Judges. In The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon Press.