I watched with sadness as the tragedies surrounding Cecil the Lion and Planned Parenthood played out in the media recently. To me, both stories seemed unjust, but on social media it appeared that we were only allowed to pick and defend one cause—a majestic lion or unborn children.
The 2016 election cycle will surely highlight the differences between how different people define life. Candidates are already fine-tuning their talking points, but life is not an issue that can wait until 2016. This issue of life cries out for defense now, and not in ten-second policy bullet points. The value of life is more than public policy. But, whether we were indignant over Cecil or over Planned Parenthood, doesn’t the fact that our sympathies were being aroused for life provide a starting point for reconciliation? Does it not indicate that we have an innate regard for God’s creation?
When I read about the Planned Parenthood videos, I thought about the women watching them who had undergone abortions themselves. Having become a mother almost four years ago, I’ve had that amount of time to become acquainted with (and, one year ago, to double up on) that most intense of emotions: maternal guilt. The hormonal and emotional changes that accompany not only parenthood, but pregnancy—planned or otherwise—are, in a word, fraught. I battle guilt on all fronts of my children’s existence, rational or (usually) not. And the anguish that some women might be experiencing due to these organ-harvesting revelations immediately moved them out of the camp of, “People I’m tempted to judge” and into the camp of, “People for whom I have empathy.” I’m not presuming that everyone who’s ever had an abortion carries a weight of guilt about it, but for those who do—and I’ve known plenty of them—these videos must have been a stinging blow on top of an already heavy burden.
I think that one of the basic tenets of valuing life should be that we take care of each—whatever comprises “each” and “other.” It’s taking care of the “other” that is especially challenging. To me, this means taking steps toward the people in my world I disagree with rather than throwing ammunition at them. It means a recognizing that all people possess feeling hearts—not just me. Our current opinions and past experiences don’t disqualify us from a seat at the table of humanity.
While I don’t find it necessary to pick between a lion and a fetus to prove I care, as a believer my moral compass isn’t self-chosen so much as it is God-ordained. Karl Marx charged that religion is “the opiate of the masses,” to which Tim Keller, pastor of New York City’s Redeemer church, responded that, “It’s more like the smelling salts.” The gospel of grace should be the smelling salts that awaken my heart and sympathies to the human beings around me—even the ones with dissenting opinions.
When I take my son to the local children’s hospital for therapy appointments, I am without fail blown away by the array of difficulties people can face. Feeding tubes, wheelchairs, inability to communicate, disfigurement. From kids on the autistic spectrum to the catatonically disabled, life shows up in myriad ways. The shapes life is found in don’t change the fact that life is valued by the one who created it. At any moment, those Jesus called “the least of these” could be the people right next to me, not just the people who look like me, are in my demographic, or who agree with me.
So where does that leave me when it comes to recognizing the sanctity of life? How am I to engage, rather than alienate, people about this issue? What would a society or culture that respects life comprehensively even look like? How much would government even need to be involved in questions of protecting life in that kind of society? If it seems I’ve made more queries than statements, that’s because I have more questions than solutions. But maybe that’s a good place to start: Admitting that not one of us has all the answers.
If that all sounds more philosophical and whimsical than practical and realistic, then maybe putting the Bible’s vision for honoring life into practice starts like this: More praying for (and with) others, less commenting on Facebook about other peoples’ politics. More than anyone, I know I need that reminder.