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On Overcoming Shaming

(This entry also posted at
Jennifer Baumgardner, a noted feminist activist, has recently designed and marketed a t-shirt that has sparked an (inter)national response, becoming a lightning rod for the emotions that surround the abortion debate. The shirt simply declares:
I had an abortion.
Baumgardner created the t-shirt to “combat the stigma that still shames and silences those who have had an abortion” (for more on this see the article entitled “Full Frontal Offense” by Rebecca Hyman in bitch, Winter 2005). The goal is to radically personalise the abortion debate. “To be vocal about abortion – not by supporting an abstract 'freedom of choice,' but instead by naming abortion as a fact of women's experience – is thus to break the dual threat of political and public shaming that keeps women silent.” Of course there has been a rather mixed response to the shirt (to say the least!) – even with feminist circles.
So how should Christians who seek to journey in love relationships with the suffering and the marginalised respond to this shirt? I can deeply empathise with Baumgardner's desire to see shaming and silencing overcome. Too often Christians have damned others for engaging in activities that they disagree with thereby creating devastating structures of shame that result in deep hurt and brokenness.
Yet I cannot embrace abortion as a morally neutral (or positive) act. Not because I believe that the human fetus is a “person” from the point of conception or whatever. The point at which a fetus becomes human seems somewhat irrelevant to the debate (in part because it is insoluble). Rather abortion seems to clash with Christianity because Christianity is an affirmation of the goodness of creation and life. Conception begins a genuinely creative process that, at some point, creates new life. To terminate that process seems to be an act of hopelessness that contradicts, or at least misunderstands, the Christian hope.
As well Christians tend to miss the point of the cause of abortion. If the majority of abortions are performed for (1) financial reasons (the woman or the family is too poor to be able to sustain another child) and (2) health reasons (the fetus has displayed some sort of physical or mental disability) then Christians are called to commit themselves to journey in love relationships with the poor so that there is enough for everybody and (2) re-affirm, in both word and deed, the value and humanity of people with disabilities. If this were done the vast majority of abortions would be avoided altogether. A third category should be added, but I suspect this is the minority: (3) those who have abortions because they are pursuing wealth, power, and influence, and having a child would result in a major blow to these objectives. In response to (3) Christians should be modeling a commitment to radically different objectives such as peace, justice and reconciliation.
Of course there are always exceptions. We can all imagine nightmare scenarios where an abortion may be the best solution but even then it is not something Christians celebrate – rather they journey alongside the woman, grieving the tragedy she has experienced with her, and providing her with the strength and support to overcome.
So how does one hold this view of abortion and not contribute to the shaming and silencing of women who have abortions? The first step is recognising that as long as we don't journey alongside of the poor or affirm the humanity of the disabled, or live for radically different objectives, we are all complicit in the act of termination. The first step is taking personal responsibility, recognising how there were so little genuine alternatives available (certainly there are always options but how realistic, how genuine those options actually are can vary greatly).
The second step is to become an open and welcoming community to all those who engage in activities that Christians do not condone. This is somewhat complicated for it means being welcoming without sacrificing the genuine Christian vision or identity. It seems that contemporary Christians have mostly been unable to find the balance here. Either they drift too far to one extreme, developing a laissez-faire attitude to all things moral and adopting the “whatever works for you is the right thing” attitude that is so prevalant in our society. Or they drift too far to the other extreme and stigmatise and excommunicate those who engage in actions that the church cannot support. It is the second extreme that has come to shame and silence women who have abortions. Yet those who belong to the first extreme are equally complicit for developing a morality that contributes to an apathetic and self-absorbed lifestyle.
Simply put, Christians need to model communities where all are welcome to come as they are and openly share their experiences – whether that be things that have been done to them or things they have done themselves – and find a tender, loving embrace in response. Perhaps most importantly Christians are called to model God's forgiveness, announcing that God's love has broken into the world and cannot, and will not, be defeated. In this situation Christians are called to take suffering onto themselves, not impose suffering on others.
Therefore, although I empathise with Baumgardner's motives I will not buy her t-shirt. Often, in response to shaming we can go the extreme of reveling in the acts that have caused shame in an effort to overcome it. Indeed, much of the discussion revolving around individual rights seem to do just this. Individual rights is a brilliant way to avoid any sense of corporate responsibility. “I am entitled to security, to comfort, to self-fulfillment, therefore I don't have to plead the cause of the needy, I don't have to concern myself with where I spend my money…” and so on and so forth. I can't wear Baumgardner's shirt because abortion is the result of some grievous problems in society. I can't celebrate abortion because I can't celebrate the abandonment of the poor. I can't celebrate the dehumanisation of the disabled. I can't celebrate the pursuit of power, wealth and influence – and I certainly can't celebrate the rape of a teenage girl that results in pregnancy. What I can do is learn to love people the way that Jesus loved and not define them by certain acts. Why do we so often define people by one or two specific actions? Let us learn to see the beauty, the worth and the wonder that fill all people. When we see people in this way we will treasure them not damn them.

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