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Family Planning in Jurassic Park, Part 2

John Hammond created a controlled environment in his laboratory. It looked quite different in the jungles of Jurassic Park.

Morality and ethics too often seem designed for controlled environments and pristine conditions – which hardly describes any human community I know. The great divide in the United States between a “pro-life” and a “pro-choice” position provides a classic case in point. Both positions make assumptions that rarely obtain in the real lives of the people they supposedly describe.

It’s time to retire these labels as utterly inadequate for addressing the complexities of our social context and the profound mystery of life itself. I do not mean that we should abandon goals, ideals, and principles. I do mean that they are always contextual and more complex than we first thought.

In the first of this two-part series, I declared my own position: I am “pro-choice” because I am “pro-life.” Simply put, I want to affirm the sanctity of life by affirming a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. Of course, there’s nothing “simple” about that.

So here I’ll go back to Jurassic Park to suggest why the language of both choice and life are problematic and propose a possible alternative. This is definitely a work in progress; help me make it better!

Contextual Choices and Dino-Bait
To put it mildly, running away from a hungry T-Rex limits one’s choices. The effects of a tropical storm, electrical outages, and an unfamiliar terrain limited those choices even further in Jurassic Park.

Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about carnivorous dinosaurs, but every culture and human society shapes and determines the limits of our choices, sometimes just as severely as the situation in Spielberg’s film.

I don’t believe anyone is truly free to choose anything apart from the cultural contexts that shape even our most privately held desires. Most of us are usually quite unaware of how deeply others around us and the wider society shape what we think, what we want, and the choices we make.

“Liberals” generally find these contextual limits on choice perplexing if not repugnant. Modern western culture continues to laud the rugged individual, autonomous and free, even when its limits appear in bold relief. (See my recent blog series on Jesus and Ayn Rand.)

Robert O. Self’s recent op-ed in the New York Times describes particularly well the significance of context for the choices all of us make. Or rather, the significance of refusing to acknowledge the difference context makes in our ability to choose “freely.” His analysis of dividing “culture” from “economics” alone deserves careful reading.

Continuing to insist on a woman’s “right to choose” not only perpetuates the illusion of context-free choices; it also places a burden on her that no one should have to bear alone. Rather than the language of “pro-choice,” perhaps it’s time to talk about the “dignity of discernment.” How could we create spaces and communities for women to engage in discernment with dignity about their bodies and relationships?

Liminal Life and Dino-DNA
Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight’s geeky character) stole dino-DNA from Jurassic Park for his corporate backers. So, did he steal life in that moment or only the potential for life? Do you know the difference? Can any of us really be so sure what life itself is let alone when it begins? How about when it ends?

Miscarriages, for example, happen for a number of reasons. Most occur because the fertilized egg simply wasn’t biologically viable. It had the potential but failed to achieve all the miraculous things required to actualize that potential.

Would Arizona’s Governor Brewer classify a miscarriage as an illegal abortion? That doesn’t seem any less absurd than what the law she just signed does in fact do: define pregnancy as starting two weeks before conception, before the egg ever encounters a sperm. If the desire for ever greater precision in these matters now extends to the potential for life, then it’s likely time to ban male masturbation.

Declarative statements about life seem far more elusive after standing with a family at a hospital bedside as a loved-one sits in a coma; the heart beats but the brain has stopped functioning. Is that life? Agonize with that family before you answer. I have, and I have no satisfying answer.

Any attempt to define precisely when life begins or ends is futile. It’s always messy, it never conforms to “Plan A,” it perpetually offends everyone’s sensibilities, and it belongs in the realm of spiritual awe, not hackneyed political debates.

Rather than the language of “pro-life” (is anyone really “pro-death”?), perhaps it’s time to talk about the “integrity of inquiry.” Life, after all, is not self-evident. It always refers to a particular entity, and is therefore always a matter of degree, quality, and circumstance. Whether we’re talking about ovulation or hospice-care, everyone deserves to inquire about what life is with integrity, with all the complexities and ambiguities on the table.

The language of “choice” and “life” will likely persist in our public debates for some time. While they do, I will continue to insist on at least this much: no more bloody coat hangers and knitting needles in back alleys. The lives of desperate women mean too much to subject them to that.

But I do hope for more: dignity in discernment, integrity in inquiry, and compassion in community.

I refuse to believe that such a position is too much to ask, even in the vexing polarization of the U.S. But it will mean that “liberals” might need to let go of the supremacy of the individual just as “conservatives” will need to let go of their certainty about what life actually is.

It does seem abundantly clear, however, that we cannot rely on political discourse alone to provide this kind of space. We need faith communities and religious leaders willing to take courageous stands in ambiguous situations – both for the sake of women’s bodies and for sake of the profound mystery of life.

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My God-Given Right to Viagra

Women should pay to prevent a pregnancy but the government should pay to ensure that men can have erections. That absurd opinion is why, in large measure, we’ve been having a mini-meltdown recently in the blogosphere, the press, and public discourse generally in the U.S.  I wish I were making this stuff up.

Some of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that just went into effect on August 1 mandate insurance coverage for basic (and sometimes not-so-basic) women’s reproductive health. That’s not the only kind of coverage for women, but that’s the stuff that’s getting all the attention, and for good patriarchal reasons. Let’s recall that since January 1, 2006, Medicare has provided prescription drug coverage for Viagra (among other drugs to alleviate male sexual impotence, and some private insurance companies do the same).

Health care in the United States is wildly and unnecessarily complex, but this much seems clear: Our society is willing to pay for men to “get it on” but not to protect women when men do so. This is yet another sad and alarming instance of the current war on women.

I would dial back that rhetoric a bit if the situation weren’t quite so dire. Alas, there is a war going on, and women’s bodies are on the front line. The now-infamous legislation in Virginia mandating a medically unnecessary “vaginal probe” before an abortion is just one among too many examples. (I blogged about this “war” a few months ago.)

But let’s consider a broader critique that appeared a few years ago about Medicare coverage for Viagra. The mini-outcry then was about covering access to “elective” medical help.

Back then, Dr. Ira Sharlip from the University of California in San Francisco conceded that Viagra and other such drugs “treat a condition that compromises the quality of life but doesn’t threaten life.” But then he added, “There are many drugs that are approved for quality-of-life indications. It wouldn’t be right to single out [impotence drugs] as frivolous when there are so many others in the same category.”

Dr. Sharlip meant things like the “purple pill,” for acid reflux, or intensive doses of Ibuprofen for pain, or knee surgery for better walking, or sinus procedures for better sleeping, or…the list goes on and on. What exactly is “frivolous” when it comes to health and quality of life? That’s a key question for which I have no ready answers. But I do know this: making a distinction between men and women in that equation is wrong.

There are many reasons why I, an Episcopal priest, theologian, and gay man, should and do care about this. Among those reasons is this: the supposed “religious exemption” argument that is now being trotted out by politically religious reactionaries as an escape hatch for caring about women and women’s bodies – and not just women, but everyone who isn’t, frankly, a white, straight, wealthy, married man.

A recent Kentucky appeals court ruling that involved this vague “religious exemption” ought to send shivers down the spine of every religiously-affiliated U.S. citizen, and indeed everyone in this country. In brief: Kentucky’s court refused to intervene in a tenure dispute at Louisville Theological Seminary after tenured faculty had been let go. Because the institution in question is religious, the court cited the “religious exemption” escape hatch and dismissed the suit brought by the fired faculty members.

Is that really the standard we want to set in a democratic society that is increasingly marked by religious pluralism? Do we really want to say that our courts of law provide no recourse whatsoever, even in basic breach of contract disputes just because they pertain to religious institutions?

What about a religious exemption for individuals and not just institutions? Parents apparently have the right to refuse to vaccinate their children for “religious reasons,” even though this could put others at risk in public schools.

Or consider yet another recent court decision, this one by a federal judge who ruled that the Roman Catholic owners of a Colorado heating-and-cooling company are exempt from the mandate to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health-insurance plans – for religious reasons.

Unless a “heating-and-cooling company” is now a new way to refer to a church, this ruling surely qualifies as a classic slippery slope. Should I worry that a plumber, who might also be a “conservative” Christian, will refuse to fix my toilet if he finds out I’m not a heterosexual?

In the midst of all this, it’s time for liberal/progressive Christians to be very clear about what the latest health care brouhaha entails, and it’s not about respecting religious freedom. It is instead about whether men have the right to control women. (See this opinion piece in the New York Times.)  This story is, sadly, as old as our species: Men want to have erections whenever they please and make women pay the price. I really do not believe the Jesus I read about in the Gospels would approve.

I no more have an inherent right to erection-enhancement drugs than I have a right to control women’s bodies or, for that matter, the body of any other human being. But what if all of us did have a right to access whatever we needed to ensure the best quality of life for ourselves, our partners, our spouses, our children, our families, and our communities? And what if that included both Viagra and The Pill? That would be a society more aligned with how I read the Gospels.

Let’s be clear about this, too: religious institutions have the right to their religious beliefs and to practice those beliefs. We need to be very clear about that Constitutional “free exercise” clause. At the very same time, religious institutions do not have the right to violate basic human rights and freedoms – at least not in a democratic society. How we adjudicate these complexities will be vexing as we move forward, and faith communities need to be very careful about where they want to plant their religious freedom flag, as these recent courts cases illustrate so well.

The truly peculiar faith of Christians ought to play a role in all these social policy decisions, not by dictating what others should believe about God, but by voicing a vision of human thriving and quality of life to which all deserve access as a God-given right.

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“Enchanté, Madame”: Why Good Policy Alone Won’t Save Us

Christ is risen and we’re killing the planet. I know – you’ve heard something similar countless times. Another species extinct. Another ecosystem threatened. Global climate change. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Maybe you haven’t heard this one quite so often: If it’s okay to rape women, it’s okay to rape the planet.

That grisly connection is, alas, being performed right now on legislative stages in Washington, D.C. and in far too many states. The link between the current war on women and the war on the planet (the former talked about incessantly these days and the latter, not so much), is subtle but vitally important.

I firmly believe that the many complex “issues” we face today are woven together in complex, lovely, troubling, spiritual ways. I want to try to evoke that here, if only as a preface to the great work our species must now confront. So let’s consider just a few of the dots that need connecting at the moment:

  • First, access to birth control and abortion (which is still technically legal in this country) is under attack. If only this were old news. I appreciate the moral quandaries faced by people of good faith about abortion, but now we’re seeing restrictions appearing even when the health of the mother is at stake, and even in cases of rape and incest. So, is it really okay to rape women? (For more on access issues, read here, which is wonky and policy-heavy, but important; or Rachel Maddow’s take on it here.)
  • Second, access to clean water, clean air, and a safe food supply is equally under attack. This doesn’t appear often enough in the headlines. According to some, the current Congress is the most anti-environment Congress in U.S. history. (Read more about that here; though this is a partisan source, it nonetheless provides helpful links to actual legislation, and it’s disturbing.)
  • Third, access to the truth requires tedious knowledge of legislative riders, appropriations bills, and countless other political arcana that make most people reach for a cocktail instead. The U.S. House, for example, recently passed a much needed piece of legislation for student loans, but paid for it by reducing health care funding that might affect women the most. (The word “might” is important there and I recommend Ezra Klein’s take on this here.)

These are not sexy dots to connect. But connect them we must. Consider this recent pithy observation about environmental responsibility from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the world is “not just a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” (Read a great essay on this here.)

I can’t help but wonder if far too many men think the same way about women – women’s bodies as warehouses, incubators, resources, objects. We’ve had a few decades now of insightful analysis about the link between male privilege and ecological degradation – men can control “mother” nature just like they (try to) control women. But I’m not at all convinced that such a link has sunk into our collective consciousness. (Even less likely to have sunk in are the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and global climate change…but I digress.)

So I wonder: How might all of us think differently about our own bodies, the bodies of others, the bodies of non-human animals, and the body of this planet? Would thinking differently make a difference in how we live, the social policies we support, the politicians we elect? I hope so. But what does “thinking differently” mean?

What about “enchantment”?

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book that proposed precisely that and I’m still trying to tease out its implications. The book is by James William Gibson, called A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. It’s an insightful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and lovely book. I also believe Gibson captured something critical and essential: arguing about environmental policy won’t solve any of our problems unless we rekindle our nearly forgotten enchantment with nature.

By “enchantment,” Gibson means many things at once: nature isn’t anyone’s private property; it isn’t just a “resource”; it has its own life and value and beauty quite apart from humanity; and it’s uncanny, uncontrollable, lovely, grotesque, compelling, beyond categories of human meaning making. It is, in a word, enchanting.

I really want to think more and write more about this, and I will. But for now, in the midst of these Great Fifty Days of Easter (Easter is a season, longer than Lent), I frequently find my spiritual attention gravitating toward the image of the “new creation.” The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just for him, and it wasn’t just for every other human. In some way, Easter proclaims God’s stubborn commitment to life for everything, without exception. Now that is surely peculiar, thankfully.

So, could that great Gospel proclamation lead us to a re-enchantment with the world and all its many wondrously uncanny and glorious bodies? Could it, at long last, dismantle the utilitarian and objectifying posture toward women’s bodies that so many politicians, not to mention religious leaders, seem to adopt? Could Easter move us to find each other and the world around us enchanting?

I believe it could. And not a moment too soon.

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Harrowing Hell & Holy Liminality

Betwixt and between. Neither here nor there. Departed but not arrived.

Justice proclaimed but not yet fully practiced. Equality enacted but repeatedly denied. New life promised in the midst of death.

These are profound but often difficult moments. Some decades ago now, anthropologist Victor Turner analyzed moments of transition when someone has started to leave one phase of life but hasn’t yet moved fully into the next. Think adolescence, that awkward slice of life when one is no longer a child but not yet an adult. Turner referred to these as “liminal” moments, taken from the Latin word “limen,” for threshold.

The fecundity of these in-between states dates much further back than Turner, to ancient mythology. “Liminal deities” preside over thresholds, gates, and doorways, lending spiritual significance to border crossings. In Greco-Roman mythology, Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods and guide of the dead, just as Janus became the god of doorways, of beginnings and endings. Janus, the god with one face looking forward and another looking back, is often associated with New Year’s Day, January 1.

Liminal moments can be challenging and disconcerting; just ask any teenager. My own constitutional impatience makes it difficult to rest after finishing a project; I’m eager to start the next one. Communities and institutions in transition frequently want to skip over all the unsettling liminal bits, those untidy passages where the past still haunts and the future remains unclear. Sloughing of the past too quickly risks losing what we might need to make a leap forward.

But there are other kinds of liminality, too. Moments of getting stuck between a past that we won’t relinquish and a future we’re unwilling to embrace.

The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) heralded a long overdue transition toward racial equality in the U.S. Not only is a racially just society still woefully elusive, current legislative initiatives would drag us back to the “Mad Men” era if not a virtual Jim Crow. A woman’s right to make decisions about her own body should have been settled decades ago even as contraception is once again on the legislative table. The Supreme Court overturned state sodomy laws in 2003; lesbian and gay couples can now have sex without fear of prosecution but they can’t get married.

There is much work to do, and neither nostalgia nor utopia will help us. Navigating the liminal “betwixt and between” thus proves both rich and challenging. The past is familiar but sometimes painful; the future is hopeful but unknown. Today, on the Christian calendar, I’m reminded that Jesus hallows the liminal by harrowing hell.

The day between Good Friday and Easter, “Holy Saturday,” is a truly peculiar day. Suspended between the Cross and an empty tomb, Christian communities and clergy busy themselves with Sunday preparations.

Christian tradition has Jesus doing something on this day as well – descending into the underworld to rescue all those held captive by the Devil. This is the sacred version of “no child left behind.” In Janus-like fashion, the crucified Jesus refuses to forget the past even as he looks forward to a promised future.

One of my favorite depictions of this Holy Liminality is in the Byzantine Church of the Savior in Chora, Istanbul, where a gorgeous fresco covers the apse. It depicts Jesus, standing on the gates of hell that he has just smashed, raising Adam and Eve from their graves. Actually, he’s dragging them out from death. I can’t help but see both astonishment and a touch of reluctance in their postures: “Really? You remembered us? But where are we are going? What lies ahead?”

On this day, this Holy Saturday, in the midst of busy preparations for the Feast of Resurrection, let us pause, even for a moment, to remember what we marked yesterday: the lengths to which imperial forces will go to maintain the status quo. Let us remember as well all those who came before us, the pioneers and visionaries who carved an arduous path toward a better world. Let us remember all those who did not live to see that promise fulfilled. And let us remember all this to fuel the hope we need for the work still to do — a profound hope indeed, which, as tomorrow’s feast reminds us, was first announced by women.

The promise of tomorrow cannot be won by forgetting yesterday. That makes this particular Saturday not only peculiar but also, and therefore, holy.