Monday, October 24, 2011

Class, Abortion, and Moral Horizons

Here’s another post originating from my experience in my most recent class, “Religion, Culture, and Conflict.” There’s bound to be a lot more – eventually.

We spent a few weeks on the Israel-Palestine conflict, trying to take a complex look at the issues, in an attempt to isolate the religious and non-religious factors – or, at least, to see how these two sets of factor relate. My professor is a formidable historian, so it was terrific to learn about the history of the geographic location. He is a less convincing expert on religious dialogue, so his solutions seem childish at time – (i.e. his solutions essentially ask each religion to watered itself down). He is even less of a theologian, so we never seem to get into the heart of the matter, theologically speaking. But all in all, it was a good few weeks.

Then we started discussing Christianity and modern violence, mainly in relation to certain abortion-clinic bombers. I was astounded by my professor’s real ineptitude in discussing this matter. I was amazed, simply astonished, by the fact that he didn't really understand the pro-life argument.

(Side note: I don’t support any abortion-clinic bomber, especially if human life is at stake. In fact, I see an unraveling of the moral code that the pro-life issue stands on when we go down this violent road.)

Essentially, my professor sees the abortion-clinic-bombers as beholding to some bloody Biblical tradition that uses archaic and Old Testament justification for killing random people. Of course, he did mention the fact that these people also happen to believe that fetuses are human persons, but this was so minor to the explanation of the matter as to be laughable. Instead, he presented the ideas and words of the bombers in rich and violent religious language.

What he was trying to do was connect these bombers with the Jewish terrorists we were recently discussing, who felt the need to bomb Islamist holy sites so that the Temple could be rebuilt and the Messiah could return. These types of justifications for murder are couched solely in religious dialogue and specific interpretations of holy scriptures. I don’t think he was doing this intentionally to avoid the “life” or “personhood” debate; instead, I think he really thinks that the debate here is about some absurdly esoteric religious creed, one that takes no root in reason, but simply dogma. (I also think it is his academic nature to try and make connections between different religious conflict; however, these sorts of absurd comparisons most often miss the heart of the matter.)

It wasn't the time or space, but I wanted to say, “Excuse me, how come we’re not focusing on the fact that these bombers truly TRULY believe that abortionists are killing human beings? This is as much about religion as fighting against Hitler or bloody dictators – or anyone else that is killing thousands or millions of innocent people. Of course, there’s a religious element to it, but only in the fact that human dignity is in fact a religious expression.”

Once we accept that the bomber believes in the personhood and rights of the unborn baby, we can see his actions in a proper light. Then it becomes understandable. Now, I still find it wrong and immoral; but I don’t find it religiously impenetrable. But this is exactly what my professor seemed unable to do.

If someone were an animal activist that truly believed that animals deserve as much rights and protection as humans, then it wouldn't be a far stretch to understand that they might take arms to protect this cause. If we were to analyze this thinker, it would be ridiculous to gloss over the fact that they believe that humans and animals are equal, and paint them as a ridiculous radical. What is radical about this person is their belief; their action is actually quite reasonable, once the belief is understood.

What I couldn't believe was that my professor quite legitimately didn't understand this. I thought, “Although I don’t agree with the pro-choice movement, I understand it. I see where it is flawed. But if I accept a few of their foundational principles, I completely understand why they believe what they believe, and why they fight like they do.” So why can’t my professor do this? He seems to be doing exactly what all of his talk about ‘religious tolerance’ abhorred: misunderstanding the opposing side, and thereby painting them as unreasonable extremists.

My good friend and colleague (in the loosest sense of the word), Mr. John Harmon Esq., told me of a phrase by Lonergan, “the moral horizon.” There are certain clear moral issues that are simply beyond the horizon of some, whether because of time-period or some other hindrance. For example, slavery was supported by good God-fearin’ Christian people, people who otherwise treated all with respect and dignity – and this wasn’t that long ago. We cannot grasp this contradiction of beliefs now. It seems so clear that slavery cannot coexist with a true understanding of Christianity.

But I am amazed by my professor’s lack of real understanding of the issue because he lives in our present times. But in the world of secular academia, Harmon chided me, my professor had probably never encountered a real legitimate argument against abortion. He has never been presented with an academic explanation. It is almost as if his present mindset cannot grasp it. To him, pro-lifers are embroiled in the same sort of ideological warfare that led to 9/11. The pro-life argument is beyond his moral horizon.

This still amazes me; and I wonder how I should act/react.

Final note: There has been a tendency in all that I’ve read for this class to point out the “hypocrisy” of those who believe their religion to generally preach peace, but who also see that it can justify acts of violence at time. My professor shakes his head at the “incompetent contradictions” of these backward people.

But every single secular state believes the exact same thing: that people want to live in peace, but there are times that violence (i.e. war) is necessary. Only extreme pacifists would disagree. So the abortion-clinic-bomber is not simply wrong because he’s killing life to defend life: almost every person believes this a distinct possibility. The bomber is wrong on other moral levels, ones that this post doesn't intend to discuss.

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