Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.
(Ps. 85:7, BCP)
Will long life will I satisfy him [who dwells in the shelter of the Most High],
and show him my salvation.
(Ps. 91:16, BCP)
Salvation is a healing. Most schoolchildren will remember only one word from Latin I: “Salvete!” (Good health to you! It doubles as “hello.”) To salve a wound is to treat it with balm and bandages.
So what does it mean for Christians to talk about God’s “salvation”? Pop theologians of the later 20th century have made entire careers out of the insight that “salvation” doesn’t only mean “eternal life in Christ.” So I won’t belabor that point. Instead, I want to ask after what change it makes to Christian conduct in the messiness of the world that our orientation to sinful life stems from the idea of healing.
Let’s get controversial: we’ve all heard pro-choice* arguments that rely on the assumption that the unborn child is manifestly not a human–or, at least not so manifestly human as the mother. Ergo, says this logic, the mother’s rights or “freedom” trumps the fetus’s.
But I’d venture that this reasoning is secondary to a deeper assumption, which hinges on the label of the baby (or, as the literature has it, the “pregnancy”) as “unwanted.” So in the pro-choice logic, this is the fundamental problem which must be solved: someone is carrying a fetus they do not want (for whatever reason).
Here’s where the pro-choice solution differs from the (in my view) Christian solution. In short, pro-choice logic demands an undoing–or, if that is not possible, an erasure–of the wrong that caused an unwanted pregnancy: poverty, rape, etc. It claims that “reproductive rights” will give women more power over their own destinies, and if a terrible and tragic event led to this unwanted pregnancy, then the women should not be responsible for bearing its enduring memory as a scar.
On the other hand, Christian logic recognizes the insufficiency of all solutions. All healing leaves scars (see Jesus’ hands and side: John 20:27). Unwanted babies are not “problems” to be “solved” (this terminology is increasingly used by pro-choice pundits on a macro level, where public policy is being debated), but wounds to be healed. And what sort of healing requires more violence and death?
As Sam Well’s says, Christian ethics is the transformation of the apparent givens of life into gifts.** While sin is not technically a “given,” it has woven itself into the fabric of reality such that God’s redemption must get creative (e.g., the incarnation) to overturn it. That’s the beauty of the gospel: we mucked the whole thing up, but God deigned to meet us in the pit and raise us up. Christian salvation isn’t therefore an undoing of sin, but rather an integration of the tragedy of sin into a larger, more expansive narrative–one that transforms tragedy into comedy.
I’m not saying all this is easy. Far from it. We cannot undo the tragedies we face, but we can deny the faux balm of unlimited individual freedom.
This applies to both men and women. The pro-choice claim since Roe v. Wade has been that more “rights” and “power” for women will counteract the wrongs that men inflict. We must recognize this as a myth of the state. Instead of increased freedom, we ought to learn increased restraint. Our common life imposes certain indelible limits: all human behavior entails consequences, and no medical or social advancement can neutralize them.
The Christian response is two-pronged, then: on the one hand, we cannot accept abortion as a solution to unwanted pregnancies. On the other hand, we cannot accept the conditions of the possibility of unwanted pregnancies, including the irresponsibility and recklessness of men. Though these conditions may be always with us (like the poor, as Jesus said: John 12:8), it is our charge to transform these givens into gifts, and practice healing on all occasions, that the world may see the salvation of God.
*Note: I’m using the terminology “pro-choice” and “fetus” instead of “pro-abortion” and “baby/child” as often as possible to avoid sounding polemical.
**Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, as quoted in William Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy, p. 86.