Model Theology: An Introduction to Post-Modern Explanation

by Robert C. Brow


Chapter 9

 Models of Murder and Abortion

In the first chapter of the book on Adultery Robert and Mollie Brow show how among all nations the ten commandments function as categories of moral judgment. The commandments are given to us as absolutes, but their content is left open for us to define by the moral discussion of particular cases. We then went on to explore the huge model shift in the interpretation of the seventh commandment that emerges in the New Testament. And we argued that what Jesus said about adultery is rooted in a model of God's kind of loving, and that is the heart of Paul's astonishing picture of mutuality in marriage.

 Ideally a similar kind of model analysis should be made for each one of the ten commandments. In this chapter we focus on the sixth commandment, and briefly outline some models that are used in the discussion of murder.

 In the Sixth Century BC among the Jains of India there emerged a model of total ahimsa or non-violence. Not only should there be no killing of humans, but the life of any kind of animal is sacred. To this day the Jain community of Calcutta go to great lengths to avoid killing a mosquito or bedbug. The best known modern example of this kind of thoroughgoing non-violence was Albert Schweitzer. We looked at his model of Jesus' teaching about Advent in chapter 7. At the age of 36 Schweitzer qualified as a medical doctor and established a hospital in the village of Lambarene in French Equatorial Africa. As the foundations were being laid he refused to allow the killing of a nest of termites. And in the laboratory he agonized over the killing of bacteria by the medicines he was using.

 At the other extreme there are those, such as in the Mafia, who use a model that allows the killing of any human who interferes with the family business. Similarly in God of Many Names we identify an ideology of Tribal Nationalism where the supreme good is the power of one's own tribe, and any means including the killing of enemies is justified in that model. Hitler offered a Nazi model in which many Germans were persuaded to imagine "We are the super race, and any that stand in our way such as the Jews must be exterminated." In such an ideology genocide is an essential part of the model, as for example among the Bosnian Serbs in our day. But to be fair we should remind ourselves that for centuries Christian Serbs and Greeks had themselves suffered attempts at genocide at the hand of others. Among the Hutus and Tutsis of Ruanda genocide is equally mutual.

 As we begin to construct and evaluate various models for killing and murder we observe that every species of plant competes with others in their habitat, and the plants that cannot defend themselves are exterminated. Various species of animal do the same with each other. But among humans most of us reject Schweitzer's religion of total non-violence, and we also reject the acceptability of murder and genocide.

 In between these two extremes there are various models which begin with the assumption that murder is always wrong, but in some situations such as police action the killing of another human is not murder. Among Christians there are Mennonites would prefer not to have a police force, and they adopt a pacifist model in dealings with enemies. Other Christians agree that war may involve necessary killing to defend one's own territory, but they agonize about fighting a war in Viet Nam, using force to defend another nation such as Kuwait against Iraq, and even the use of our military to kill in their peace keeping duties.

 Model theology invites us first to respect, and then attempt to understand "from the inside" each model that pictures the difference between murder and necessary killing. But having done our best to understand other models we eventually have to choose one or another model to live by and take our stand.

 As Christians we will also want to explain our reasons from the Bible. Others will want to give their reasons based on other humanistic foundations. A bigot is not a person with strong convictions, but rather someone who adopts a model without any willingness to understand and discuss the sincere commitment of others to another model.

 Finally we venture to illustrate the interpretation of murder from some different models of abortion. This moral question has very bitterly divided loving people on both sides. And as in any moral discussion, it is always helpful to begin by clarifying the extreme forms of the model and then quickly move to setting out as many points of agreement as can be found.

 One extreme model is that a fetus is part of a woman's body, and she alone has the right to decide what to do for the supreme good of her own body and her particular life aspirations. At the opposite extreme is a model in which a fertilized fetus is already human with all the potential of its life, and for us to terminate its existence by any means is therefore an act of murder.

 Both of these extreme models agree that an abortion is a form of killing. And in the case of abortion what is killed is a potential human being. They also agree that the voluntary killing of a human being for wrong reasons is an act of murder. One might add that, having called abortion murder, one cannot imagine someone with a pro-choice model lobbying for the death penalty or even ten years in jail for a woman who had an abortion. On the other hand an extreme advocate of freedom of choice would reject the demand of a woman who demanded an abortion in the ninth month. "Cut me open and chop off its head." That would be viewed as criminal and probably be called murder by all reasonable people. Recognizing the points of agreement is a necessary preliminary to any kind of conflict resolution.

 The dividing line between the two kinds of model is sharpest in the case of a morning after pill taken by a woman who has been raped. She fears that one of her ova may have been fertilized and the still invisible fetus will result in a child that she does not want to bring into the world. In one model the taking of the morning after pill has risked aborting a fetus and the murder of a potential human being. In a pro-choice model the woman has the right to decide whether or not she wants to have a child by this man.

 It is now possible for medical science to know very soon after conception whether a fetus is likely to result in a malformation. In one model, if a woman takes a pill to dispose of a fetus which she thinks is defective, she is as guilty of murder as if she killed a handicapped child. Advocates of another model might point out that God has given every woman's body a form of quality control which rejects by miscarriage at least one third of all her fertilized ova. So if a woman does the quality control herself in the first or second month, this should not be called an abortion but a voluntary miscarriage. That still leaves open the moral discussion of whether abortions are acceptable in the later months.

 Some are quite sure that in some cases the voluntary miscarriage of a fetus may be right and necessary, but they are equally sure that there comes a point at which the killing of a kicking viable baby in one's womb is a murderous act. For them a newly fertilized ovum does not yet have the dignity of being called a human being, but by the seventh month they give it that dignity. That kind of model is not as tidy as the models at the two extremes, but it accepts the fact that many of life's difficult moral decisions involve making decisions where the logic is blurred at the edges.

 Now having outlined the two extremes, and some intermediate models of whether abortion should be called murder, Christians will want to ask themselves how these models relate to what the Bible says about the life of a fertilized fetus before birth. For example in the case of John the Baptist we read that "Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit" and "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb" (Luke 1:15 and 41). These words imply that in some sense the Holy Spirit is already active in the life of a fetus from conception.

 But Christians will also need to tangle with the fact that the prohibition of murder in the Ten Commandments is followed in the next chapter by a command about capital punishment (Exodus 20:13 & 21:12). Evidently a distinction was made in Jewish law between the criminal act of murdering another human, and the necessary killing of some humans as a consequence of murder and war. In what circumstances could a miscarriage or an abortion be viewed as a necessary termination of human life? But if we ask this question are we not opening up awesome possibilities for mercy killing, the idea of a just war, and even genocide?

 Having made these distinctions based on Old Testament law and the law of many nations, Christians then have to ask how this relates to Jesus' model of love for neighbours, and even enemies, in the Sermon on the Mount? Is killing in self-defence or to prevent the eventual birth of a human fetus a murderous lack of love?

 Theologians will also discuss of the meaning of human life and death. If God has arranged to dispose of at least one third of fertilized ova in the first few weeks, did these potential humans ever become children of God? And if God has arranged that the life of all humans must eventually be terminated, in some cases within minutes of birth, do we view God as the ultimate murderer? Or do we turn the question around and view death as the necessary gate into eternal life?

 Our logic does not proceed far in such directions before we realize that it is emotion rather than logic that ultimately settles the question for us. Model Theology must therefore assume that in the commitment to one or another of these models of abortion there is a very powerful sub-conscious component. This is not a question of interesting alternatives but a very personal matter of life and death.

 Some women see any legislation against abortion as a gross interference in their very life and freedom. This should be a private matter between a woman and doctor. Other men and women are horrifed by a government that legalizes the murder of thousands of innocent babies who are denied the right to life. The latter view is supported by a long Church tradition that is opposed to abortion. And some Roman Catholics accept without question the pronouncements of the Pope on both abortion and contraception.

 At the extremes the opposite models offer the absolute certainty of a logic that is crystal clear and totally uncompromising. On each side the enemy is obvious for all to see and the battle must be fought to the finish. Those who adopt an intermediate model have to admit that they cannot prove they are right in any particular case. They admit that the logic of moral discussion is blurred at the edges. And for them the real enemy is the bigotry that makes the moral discussion of particular cases impossible. This is discussed in an appendix on Situation Ethics at the end of the book on Adultery.

 Model Theology is not a philosophy that attemps to settle which of these alternative visions is the truth. The purpose is only to clarify as simply as possible what the alternatives are. Armed with a clear idea of the alternatives humans are then free to evaluate each model and all the emotions connected with it, and then they must choose how to order their lives.

 Admittedly after committing themselves to a particular model preachers will attempt to persuade others that this is the right model to use. They may argue that their model best expresses the mind of God as revealed in the Bible. But whatever model we adopt to order our lives and explain our commitment, Model Theology will remind us of why others have made a different commitment, and encourage us to respect and even love them just the same.

 Chapter 10...