Dear cousin, can we talk?

Dear Cousin –

Gump Meme from Marcus

Since you made public on Facebook this post based on a scene from the movie “Forrest Gump,” may I also comment publicly back to you, perhaps toward some serious dialogue?

As you may have seen in my blog post entitled “He Did It. Trump Broke My Family” (which I shared on Facebook without specific identification of my family members), I am very upset over the “zero tolerance” policy that separates immigrant children from their families. In fact, to the extent that you support that policy, then we need to talk about the barrier that creates between us. As of August 9, 2018, there were still 559 children separated from their parents in what will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in American history.

For my Clark family, embedded in the Catholic faith, that policy should be understood as morally wrong and an affront to the teachings of Our Lord. Jesus said a lot about welcoming the stranger, especially in Matthew 25:31-46. That passage, which we read at my late wife Claire Marie’s funeral back in 1990, is known somewhat ominously as “the judgment of nations” and ends with these words: “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’”

Is our nation ready to be judged by this standard? Yes, I know there are countless acts of individual charity by millions of caring Americans, but I think Jesus had justice on his mind when he spoke those words. Are we ready to subject our public policy – be it on immigrants or abortion – to a standard of justice such as this one?

In addition to what Jesus said, the “zero tolerance” policy denies United States of America legally-approved access to asylum for people fleeing dangerous situations, punishing desperate people for even trying. Our Attorney General and President have lost in court over their attempt to ignore or twist the law that applies to asylees.

As for abortion, Jesus said nothing about that specifically, although I agree with one biblical scholar who says “There’s an impetus in the Bible toward the protection of the innocent, protection for the weak, respect for life, respect for God’s creation.” I like that part of the Bible most of all. And so, it is our Catholic teaching developed over the time since Jesus was here with us that abortion is morally wrong – and we Catholics must consider the church’s teaching on this carefully. However, I offer the qualification that it is not for me as a Catholic to oppose, as a matter of law, the choice for an abortion – given the multiple complications possible. There is also the fact that not all faith traditions or conscientious persons of faith agree that life starts at conception and therefore abortion is wrong. You might want to consider, for example, a Jewish position on abortion. It is as complex as the issue itself, which is precisely what a blanket prohibition of outlawing abortion refuses to recognize.

That is ironic because many proponents of making abortion illegal have a lot to say about attacks on their religious liberty, but they fall silent about religious liberty when it comes to prohibiting the choice for abortion. Here they want to impose their religious belief on others and deny to others the liberty of exercising their religiously-informed consciences. If we are to live as some of our founders fleeing religious persecution intended, in a pluralistic society of many faith traditions, and not live in a theocracy governed by a slice of people calling themselves Christians who rule over us, then we must constantly affirm and negotiate religious liberty as it applies to how we govern ourselves, given the differences between us.

There is this, also. At the heart of it all this is a matter of individual conscience as to whether to carry a child to term, based on often complicated and very individual circumstances. Even our Catholic faith assigns a high priority to the individual’s conscience on all matters. In that sense it is the woman’s conscientious choice before God, if she believes in God, as do many who choose an abortion. A Catholic woman would have to consider the church’s teaching in coming to a conscientious decision, but the Catholic teaching opposing abortion (or for that matter, the condemnation of abortion by some evangelical Protestants) cannot be the “law of the land” without trampling on the deeply- and conscientiously-considered choice of women, Catholics and non-Catholics and non-believers alike.

Perhaps I can see things this way because my Dad was brought up in a Protestant faith tradition that was based on a “personal relationship” with God, or Jesus Christ, and a direct one at that, not mediated by any church hierarchy. He believed that one stood before God without need of any intercession by a church authority. He did convert to Catholicism, on behalf of Mom, but not until after his Church of God mother died, to spare her feelings. To the extent that he took on some of the top-down “rules” of the church after becoming Catholic, that had mixed results in terms of his remarrying, but that is another matter to discuss with you at another time.

So, here is how I see the abortion issue as a moral choice, in the broader “respect for life” context. We Christians have not done a very good job of convincing our fellow Americans that we respect life – given our quietude on perpetual war, our atrociously high military budgets such as the $717 Billion FY2019 budget that President Trump just signed (“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” – said President Eisenhower), our failure to maintain a real safety net for people in poverty or the elderly (such as massive cuts being proposed for Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and affordable housing), our silence in the face of police violence unfairly directed at African-Americans and other people of color, our support for the death penalty (although Pope Francis is trying to guide us away from that), and too little concern over a climate crisis that threatens all life on this Earth.

You do not have to agree with me that this list I just made is about “respect for life,” but many of our fellow citizens do, wanting to see a public policy that protects the poor and elderly and infirm among us, and they are not even Christian. That is why some see it as hypocritical for Christians to oppose abortion while allowing these other assaults on life to go by. In that sense we have not won the argument in the political square that would reduce abortions. We are trying to get to respect for life on the cheap – asking for what the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called in another context “cheap grace” (“the grace we bestow on ourselves”). We want to say that we respect the life of the unborn but then turn around and enact public policies that put lives of the living at risk of grave suffering and even death.

Winning the political fight on abortion, including by any politically coercive means necessary when it comes to Supreme Court appointments (see the blocking of Merrick Garland and now the fast-tracking of Brett Kavanagh), is a “cheap grace” form of self-gratification in my view, if we cannot show the Love of Christ in respect for life across the whole range of issues that I mentioned. If we showed what Cardinal Bernardin once called “a consistent ethic of life,” then we would be dealing with the matter of procreation and child-bearing in that context of love and a supportive, fully pro-life society – which would reduce abortions to a minimum, but also provide that they be safe and legal for any woman who decided that was her best choice. Yes, we can outlaw abortion again, make it criminal, but it will not solve any of the problems that underlie choices to have an abortion. That will take a more holistic approach to exhibiting our respect for life, including welcoming the stranger and standing against the forced separation of immigrant parents from their children.

Given that, Forrest Gump in this meme you have shared does not know what he is talking about, and he really should not have such words put into his mouth because his character was wiser than this meme conveys. The simplistic and false equivalency between “freaking out” over zero tolerance policy and “freaking out” over making abortion illegal again is meant as a pejorative accusation of hypocrisy against people with whom you disagree (if the posting of this meme means you are okay with taking children from their parents and in favor of making abortion legal). Moreover, the meme infers that people are acting only emotionally in both cases (“freaking out’), when in fact those who oppose zero tolerance and support legal abortion do so on deeply-considered principles and after having given both issues a great deal of thought.

Thus, as often happens in divisive political rhetoric these days, the accuser (of “freaking out”) is in fact the one who is showing by memes like this that it is they who are “freaking out.” The meme accuses others of the very behavior it exhibits. If I am wrong about that, then write back and tell me how you justify from the Gospels that we have been hearing all our lives that we should not welcome the stranger or that we have a right to separate parents from their children when they come seeking asylum from us. Think about those 559 or so children still unable to be with their parents. And while you are at it, tell me why we Catholic Christians get to tell other people – get to tell women, to be more specific – with their different deeply held religious or ethical principles, that we will strip them of their ability to choose an abortion according to the lights that guide them?

Surely you must have thought through these issues before you shared a meme such as this? Sorry to go on and on about a meme, but it just struck me as dangerous thinking to reduce our differences and our need to dialogue to this kind of false equivalency broadside.

Can we still dialogue about such matters?



About jstephencleghorn

My name is Dr. J. Stephen Cleghorn. I am now a resident of Baltimore, MD. I continue to own a 50-acre certified organic farm in Jefferson County, PA that I operated with my late wife Lucinda between 2005 and 2011 when she passed away from cancer. The farm is now under lease to organic farmers and protected by "The Dr. Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez Conservation Easement” which protects it for organic agriculture and against the threats of industrial development that would violate the Rights of Nature. The blog’s name is taken from the writings of Saint Augustine who believed “Hope” to be the greatest of spiritual gifts. And, says Saint Augustine, Hope has two lovely daughters: Anger and Courage. Anger so that what must not be may not be; courage so that what should be can be. Anger and Courage. Now in late 2016, after the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, these are the spiritual gifts that must come to the fore if we are to have “Hope” for a loving culture and a sustainable world for future generations. When I first created this blog it was focused on the extreme form of fossil fuel extraction known as “fracking” that was threatening much of the state of Pennsylvania and many other parts of the United States. At the root of that struggle was and is a struggle to halt and reverse climate change. Now the struggle has turned to resisting an incoming Trump Administration that is an existential threat to the climate with its plans to ramp up extraction and use of fossil fuels. This blog will be about having the courage to stand up to the massive global corporations that would ruin our planet and its climate, take their profits and leave the mess to future generations of to clean up. We need to rise up, my friends, and be not afraid.
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