Pro-Life Orthodoxy

by Protodeacon Philip Jenson

Abortion. Say that word among almost any group of people and you will encounter three different responses. Some will say how sinful it is and how many lives are destroyed by abortion. Some will launch a spirited defense of a woman's right to abortion, adding that it is unacceptable for others to get involved in this decision. The third group are those who remain silent either because they feel so uncomfortable discussing this matter, or perhaps because abortion has touched them personally or someone close to them.
As Orthodox Christians, how should we react to this very divisive and emotionally charged issue?
Unlike all other forms of destructive behavior which are tolerated in our society, abortion is the only one based on a belief that says certain categories of human life are disposable. While recognizing that the Church does not condemn anyone but only the sin, and even then does not do so without at the same time offering reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing, abortion is not an issue we can ignore. If someone were to open up a chain of icon-smashing shops tomorrow, and had as their main purpose the destruction of icons, would Orthodox Christians do nothing and say nothing? Certainly not. What are we who believe that mankind is made in the image and likeness of God going to do as members of a society in which millions of living icons are destroyed each year?
Here are some suggestions:

Pray. Just as we pray for the safety of those who travel by land, sea, or air, we can pray for the safety of those who are on life's journey in the womb and for expectant mothers bearing these children. In fact traveling by land, sea, or air is safer than the journey in the womb. Just as we pray for those under persecution, we should pray for those who are the innocent victims of this horrendous destruction of human life. Let us pray that God will raise up people to befriend and assist those women who feel under pressure to submit to abortion.

Let our faith come first. Everything we do should be rooted in the life-giving faith that we have received. This makes all other belief systems secondary. It's too easy to allow our identity and viewpoints to be shaped by politics, the mass media, by advocacy and interest groups, by friends and associates. None of these, regardless of political party, media source or other belief system comes close to the divine truth the Church has given us.

Pursue a godly life. Each of us can be a saint -- this is what God has intended for us. There is much confusion in the world today, an abundance of godlessness, as well as an abundance of false religion. Despite this, many people still recognize holiness when they see it. If we are to be effective witnesses in the pro-life movement, we must not be perceived as religious politicians, or as politicized religious followers. If so, our words and actions will have no effect. We must struggle to be what our faith calls us to be: people seeking to be humble, compassionate, holy, righteous and loving.

Let us be accountable to our pastors and bishops. As Orthodox Christians, we must be sure that all that we do in support of the pro-life cause is worthy of a blessing. Likewise, we should do what we can to support and encourage our bishops to stand firm on the Church's teachings regarding abortion.

Become more familiar with the Church's understanding of the Incarnation of Christ. Over the altar in many churches is the icon of the Mother of God of the Sign, reminding us of the prophesy of Isaiah: "The Lord will give you a sign: behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a Son and shall call His name Immanuel." Here we see the Christ child, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, shining forth from the womb of His Mother. To deny that life begins at conception is to deny that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." We must prepare ourselves so that we are better able to proclaim Christ's Incarnation.

Incorporate three particular feast days into your life -- the Conception of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Conception of the Theotokos, and the Conception of St. John the Forerunner. Nine months before the celebration of their births, we celebrate their conceptions with hymnography that praises the new human lives that have begun. Entering into the mystery and experience of these celebrations helps us better comprehend the Church's affirmation of the sacredness of life.

Become an evangelist. The more people we evangelize, the more we become the salt of the earth, the closer we are to seeing a change in society's attitude toward abortion. In Why We Haven't Changed the World, Fr. Peter Gillquist points out that salt has an interesting attribute. Whatever you're cooking, you don't use salt as the primary ingredient. A little bit of salt affects the character of the whole pot. If you doubt the potential affects of evangelizing just one person, consider how many people you know well enough to carry on a conversation with: family, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, customers, class-mates, etc. For many of us, the number would go into the hundreds. By sharing your faith with just one other person, you have not only helped another person, but you have opened a new window to shine the light of Christ into the lives of many others who are touched by that life.

Avoid seeing politics as the solution. The political process can be useful to bring about changes in society that reflect Christian values, but we must be careful that not to put excessive trust in politicians to bring about social justice. This is ultimately the Lord's work. Meditate on the words of Psalm 145: "Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob . . . who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin."

Be well informed. If you have not done so already, read Real Choices by Frederica Mathewes-Green. This finely-written and compassionate book focuses on personal stories of many women that have experienced the tragedy of abortion. The book also discusses life-affirming actions that can help women in their time of need. To those who already consider themselves pro-life, it will open their eyes to misconceptions about the reasons these women choose an abortion.

Have a visible presence in support of life. Some are motivated to write to elected officials, some to join in demonstrations, others to promote political candidates who hold pro-life views. There is also a lesser known way to become involved, a type of Christian service that the media rarely covers. My parish has developed a relationship with the local Evangelical-Protestant run Crisis Pregnancy Center. This ministry tries to reach out to young women in crisis through positive, caring, life-affirming actions. The center offers free pregnancy tests, counseling, free maternity and baby clothes, financial assistance, spiritual direction, and other services to help both mother and child. Working with the Crisis Pregnancy Center has allowed our small parish to do something in this area that we could not do if we were to try alone. Orthodox Christian life consists both of faith and good works. Let us all do all we can to help both pregnant women and the unborn children they are carrying.

Philip Jenson is a protodeacon at St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church, Brier, Washington.