Alabama, and the Harsh, Judgmental Jesus

The recent shock of a number of Southern States passing laws prohibiting abortion and the excessive punishments to offenders left me in a quandary as to how to best respond. The pro-life movement in the US is largely a conservative Christian response to Roe v. Wade, involving Catholics, Evangelicals and the Republican Party. As such, there is no one consensus as to how to solve the abortion problem, nor indeed, a consensus as to when a fetus is a “person.” The evangelical lawmakers and Christians behind the recent draconian measures in states like Georgia and Alabama represent only one faction of Christians in the pro-life movement. I will call them the followers of a harsh, judgmental Jesus.

It should come as no surprise that the states most eager to implement these extreme laws have ugly histories of racism and denying civil rights: Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, the Deep South and Utah. And of course, the fact that religion in those areas tend strongly patriarchal, thanks to both Mormonism and the Southern Baptist Convention. What troubles me most is that those claiming to act on Christ’s behalf are resorting to punitive measures (punish the woman and her doctor) rather than looking at root causes. Poverty, systemic racism, income inequality, misogyny, unaffordable health care, childcare expenses and the resistance to sex ed in schools, all are contributing reasons why we have abortions. While we spend billions on war, the military and incarceration of more per capita than any other Western Democracy, we balk at spending for affordable health care, childcare and thorough sex education.

Although this punitive, judgmental wing of the movement does not reflect the entire movement, Catholics for example, are much more consistently pro-life, they have had great success in influencing the language and tone of the debate. What began in the 70s among fundamentalists largely as a knee-jerk reaction to the Carter administration’s firm stance against “segregation academies,” (Christian private schools that denied Blacks), ended up being an effective dog-whistle to rally Catholics and evangelicals to the conservative political causes of the Republican Party and the Moral Majority.

While there is no doubt in my mind that misogynistic patriarchy (men in charge of women), racism and partisan politics play huge roles in this judgmental wing of the movement, these are symptomatic of a larger problem, a problem that has dogged the church for centuries: a coercive Kingdom of God. The overt “dominionism” that has plagued the church for a millennium and a half, the misguided belief that the church is to use the same playbook as Rome, is to blame here. Rather than seeing Jesus as anti-Pharisee, Jesus becomes the Uber “law-giver.” Rather than forgiver, he becomes a Jesus who would force the victim of rape or incest to bear the pregnancy, and then, to not even offer to cover medical expenses.

This wing of the movement has consistently shown little regard for a true “pro-life” ethic, concentrating on the rather convenient “rights” of the “unborn,” and neglecting the rights of women, minorities and the poor: others that would inconvenience them and require empathy and compassion. Being pro-life in this manner requires little personally of these modern day Pharisees. No, they will suffer not at all from these laws, but will cause great hardships and sufferings, if implemented, on “the least of these.”

As the Methodist minister Dave Barnhart has stated: 

“The unborn” are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn. It’s almost as if, by being born, they have died to you. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus but actually dislike people who breathe.” (Facebook, June 25, 2018)

While I personally view any abortion as a tragedy, I recognize the moral “grayness” of much of the decisions we are forced to make in this life. Life does not offer us a series of clear-cut, black and white choices to make, in spite of what the followers of the harsh, judgmental Jesus would like us to believe. This is why I believe that, rather than letting the Pharisees control a woman’s womb, these decisions are best left to the woman and her doctor.

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