15 March 2005

Colson versus Wallis

Are life issues a seamless garment, as Sojourners' Jim Wallis would have it, or is there a hierarchy of values, among which pro-life people must choose, as Chuck Colson argues? Here's Colson in his 21 February Breakpoint commentary, "Moral Equivalency":

Why help the poor if we don’t believe all lives are equal in God’s sight? If you support ending the life of a child because it will be born into poverty, how can you logically call yourself an advocate for the poor? The religious left is trying to tell us that you can take away the reason for doing something and still expect people to do it. Nobody’s going to win the allegiance of serious evangelical or Catholic voters by offering handouts to the poor with one hand while taking away their human dignity with the other. Sorry, Jim Wallis, all issues are not morally equivalent. The first one, the right to life, is non-negotiable. It undergirds all others: Take it away, and the whole house of cards collapses.

This is from Wallis' response:

As I told Christianity Today: "Christians can't say, 'All we care about is someone's stance on abortion. I don't care what they do to the economy, to the poor, I don't care what wars they fight, I don't care what they do on human rights.' It's almost like we care about children until they're born and then after that, they're on their own. We're cutting child health care, cutting child care for moms moving out of welfare. No, you can't just care about a child until they're born." My message to both parties - to both liberals and conservatives - is that protecting life is indeed a seamless garment. Protecting unborn life is important. Opposing unjust wars that take human life is important. And supporting anti-poverty programs that provide adequate support for mothers and children in poverty is important. Neither party gets it right; each has perhaps half of the answer. My message and my challenge are to bring them together.

Finally, Colson again:

The difference between us Jim, when it comes to politics, is that I don’t think we can evaluate a political agenda and say that a candidate is 80 percent correct on a biblical scorecard if he wants to help the poor, reform the prisons, defend everyone’s human rights, care for the widows and orphans, but is pro-choice. My belief is that his pro-choice position undercuts all of his professed concerns in other areas of life because it is simply inconsistent. If I’m mischaracterizing your position, I apologize; we’ll have to blame the New York Times and others, because this is the way your position has been characterized. I must say that in your open letter to me quoting your interview in Christianity Today that you suggest this when you say “It’s important for the Democrats to change the way they talk about a moral issue like abortion.” And then acknowledge in the same sentence that they will, however, “retain the legal option of abortion which Democrats are going to do because that’s part of their plank.” That is not giving the same biblical validity to the pro-life position as it is to helping the poor, let alone giving it the prime position. So if that is what you’re advising the Democrats to do, I think you’re off base. I could not advise any politician to take that position because I think it’s contrary to the clear thrust of the Scripture. There is a hierarchy of values, which is the point I tried to make in my piece.

So who's in the right and who's wrong? It probably depends on what is at issue: how to vote at election time or how Christians ought to be mobilized for political purposes. My sense of the matter is that Wallis is focussed very largely on the latter while Colson is more concerned with the former. And this in part is what brings them to different conclusions.

Chuck Colson

That said, I believe the approaches of both Colson and Wallis are seriously flawed, though not always in the same ways. A few observations are in order here:

(1) More pro-life than thou. I myself would certainly wish to claim the pro-life label, as I've repeatedly indicated before. However, I don't believe this is the proper place to begin in articulating a biblical understanding of the role of government. Thomas Hobbes believed in the right to life so strongly that he saw the desire for self-preservation as the defining feature of the human being and its protection as virtually the only reason for government. Yet few would wish to follow Hobbes in freeing the governing authorities from moral and legal constraints to enable it better to fulfil this role. A focus on the protection of life, while in itself proper, can become lopsided if allowed to trump all other considerations, especially a proper understanding of the distinctive calling of government and its place within human society. After all, a tyrannical régime is fully capable of proscribing abortion and euthanasia -- that is, doing all the right pro-life things -- while otherwise arrogating to itself arbitrary powers. One is tempted to point out the numbers of Christians in Europe in the 1930s who embraced national socialism and fascism because their proponents opposed godless communism, which they rightly took to be an obvious evil. We all know the consequences of that choice.

This is not to say the protection of human life is not important. It surely is. At the very least a just government must protect the lives of its subjects. But a pro-life stance ought not to be used as a way of avoiding the process of thinking through the normative task of government in God's world.

(2) Wallis' consistent life ethic. Much as I would like to follow Wallis here, I don't find him altogether persuasive on this point. He is right to try to find common ground between opponents in the abortion controversy. His acknowledgement that the Democratic Party in the US is unlikely to change its position on abortion is simple realism. Given this state of affairs, it makes sense to see whether pro-choicers can be persuaded to come on side of efforts to decrease the actual number of abortions being performed. I don't think Colson can fairly fault Wallis for seeking some sort of common ground here.

At the same time, lumping together such issues as abortion and capital punishment is exceedingly unhelpful. Although I would not favour the reinstatement of capital punishment here in Canada and other jurisdictions where it has been abolished, I am far from denying the justice of capital punishment, if it can be fairly administered, which I have come to doubt. The fact that abortion unfairly extinguishes an innocent life while capital punishment repays a capital crime can hardly be overlooked. Efforts to seek justice which are unable to make basic distinctions along these lines are likely to go awry.

Jim Wallis

(3) Unhelpful rhetoric. Here's Wallis in an interview with SFGate.com:

I often ask people, "What do you think God is most preoccupied with, those 30,000 children dying every day or whether we call it civil unions or gay civil marriage? Which do you think God spends the most time worrying about?"

This sort of rhetoric is of no more use to us than those who would throw WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") at every dilemma. It offers nothing in the way of helping us to think through the normative task of government. For someone who pleads for consistency in pursuing a life ethic, Wallis here seems unable to grasp the genuine interconnectedness of such issues. Although he elsewhere claims to believe that healthy marriages and families are important to the doing of social justice, he appears to believe that securing a legal definition of these institutions is not particularly important and can be bypassed with impunity for purposes of achieving practical common ground. As I've written before, I think this is naïve, at very best.

By contrast, a coherent political philosophy must account for the genuine pluriformity of society, including the role of government in protecting this pluriformity. This requires us to gain a solid, historically-informed, empirical grasp of these social forms, as clarified in the light of scripture. Based on this grasp, we must then ask: What is the role of political authority in justly interrelating these forms? What role should it play in protecting, not only human lives (though this is certainly a basic precondition for the doing of justice), but the full array of human callings as experienced within the context of a complex, differentiated society? Inevitably, given the jural side of reality, government must of necessity define legally the communities found within its territory, and it must do so justly. Mistaking a business enterprise for a family or a friendship for a marriage will inevitably have deleterious consequences for all four entities, as well as for the larger society. Wallis appears unable to comprehend this.

(4) A hierarchy of values. Colson's ranking of political issues in a hierarchy is not altogether unproblematic either, even if he sees some things that Wallis does not. It is certainly true that judgements over matters of war and peace are prudential in character and subject to legitimate differences of opinion, as Colson admits. However, if a government mishandles its foreign and defence policies to such an extent that they threaten to destabilize large swaths of the globe, then one can hardly blame citizens for voting against such a government, even if it makes all the right noises with respect to abortion and euthanasia. Here, of course, the focus is not so much on mobilizing Christians to live out their citizenship in a more redemptive way, as on guiding their votes as they are called to choose between two or more existing but seriously flawed options. Colson has obviously taken a partisan line, throwing his support behind the Bush re-election effort last year. In so doing, however, he had to ignore some rather basic flaws in the current presidency, including a dangerously destabilizing defence policy and a claim to be above both domestic and international law. Wallis is correct to be concerned about these; they are not small matters. Colson does not take them seriously enough, if he acknowledges them at all.

(5) Lack of discernment re: ideologies. One of the reasons I wrote my Political Visions and Illusions was to try to get Christians to exercise spiritual discernment with respect to the underlying influence of the several secular ideologies within the political realm. This entails digging rather more deeply than most people are wont to do when confronted with political alternatives. Most of us are, in fact, likely to focus solely on issues, as if adding up so many right answers on the issues of the day will automatically make for a good agenda worthy of support. Thus Colson can extol Bush in his Breakpoint commentaries and talk glowingly about the impact of a christian worldview in his country, while entirely ignoring the spiritual roots of the predominant form of liberal individualism conditioning the agendas of both Bush and Kerry. Wallis is not much better in trying to stitch together a "seamless garment" of life issues which ends up being little more than an eclectic amalgam of good intentions, but lacking altogether a coherent, undergirding political philosophy. If Colson and Wallis could manage to delve beneath the surface and hash out the more basic issues, they might be able to achieve a breakthrough in working out their own disagreements.

So how about it, gentlemen? Shall we give it another go?

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