This week, many Christian churches throughout North America will celebrate the Sanctity of Human Life in protest of the ongoing prevalence of legalized abortion in our society. My goal in this article is not to enter into this controversial debate, but simply to present the Orthodox position on the moral and legal issues around abortion.
The Orthodox Christian Church has always asserted that life begins at conception. Numerous written proofs aside, the Church calendar celebrates both birthdays and conception days. Most well-known is March 25th, when Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. Significantly, this celebration takes place nine months before Christ’s birth on December 25th... In addition, we also celebrate the conceptions of Saint John the Baptist (September 23rd) and Mary the Mother of God (December 9th).
The sanctity of conception flows from the Orthodox teaching that God creates all of us in His image and likeness from the beginning: “For You formed my inward parts, You knitted me together in my mother's womb.” (Ps. 139:13) Our dignity as human beings does not primarily derive from national citizenship upon birth. Rather, we possess inherent value and worth because God loved us and cared for us and called us His children from the very instant He granted us the spark of life at conception.
Following on this logic, the Church has always condemned the conscious and wilful act of destroying the foetus as the taking of a human life. Basil the Great, a Church father writing in the 4th century, puts it very bluntly: “A woman who deliberately destroys a foetus is answerable for murder. And any fine distinction between its being completely formed or unformed is not admissible among us.”
No doubt many of you have by now labelled me a hard-line conservative, placing me on one side of a battle in which clear lines have been drawn. On one side are those who argue for the legal precedence of a woman’s rights over that of the foetus she carries in her womb. They assert that the state is not subject to the morality of the Church, but must represent the interests of all its citizens, religious and non-religious alike.
On the other side are those who affirm basically what I have said, but go on to argue that the laws legalizing abortion should be repealed on the basis that they condone murder. They argue that both the United States and Canada were founded on Christian principles, the laws must reflect those principles if they are to be true to their identity.
As morally conservative as I am, I would like to take a “third way” on the issue of legislation. The Orthodox Church has always held that, in the words of one prayer, the state exists to “provide peace that Your holy Church and all Your people may calm and ordered in all godliness and sanctity.” As long as the Church and its members are able to continue “working out their salvation” (see Phi. 2:12) in peace, the state can use whatever political system is expedient to meet the needs of its citizenry.
It is for this reason that the Orthodox Church has been willing (if not always able) to exist under the Roman and Ottoman Empires, in Tsarist Russia, under Communism, not to mention socialism and democracy in their various forms. Although the Church has always welcomed Christian impulses in its civil authorities, it has never demanded that they institute a theocracy of any kind. It has simply asked them to provide a space of peace in which it can conduct its life of faith and worship.
The Orthodox Church in North America now lives in a democracy, which has as its basic mandate equal representation for all citizens, believers and non-believers alike. If our civil leaders wish to be elected to office, they must guarantee such representation, regardless of their personal creed. This is the dilemma of Christian politicians in a democracy. They must champion the will of their constituency, even if that will contradicts their own fundamental principles. Otherwise, they must forfeit their office.
The simple reality of democracy is “majority rules.” And the majority of Canadian citizens are not opposed to legal abortion. As a Christian, I may vehemently disagree with them, but I accept the democratic process as the least imperfect system for the attaining peace and harmony in 21st century. So as long as democracy allows the Church to continue to live in faith, I will continue to live with democracy, if uncomfortably and with a sense of outrage at its many moral failings, including its failure to protect its unborn citizens.
Am I failing my duty? Should I not be fighting every day to build a Christian nation through political and social lobbying? While such events as the “March for Life” taking place this Sunday in Washington, D.C., serve as a important voice of conscience for a society increasingly deaf to the suffering of its most vulnerable members, I do not believe that marches and other similar social actions alone will bring an end to social evils like abortion. Nor, as an Orthodox Christian, do I believe that my primary purpose is to establish a theocracy and legislate my beliefs for all to follow, or else suffer the consequences. Why? Because the Kingdom of God cannot be legislated into being. Like that other Law of which Saint Paul says, “By works of the law shall no one be justified,” mere legislation at best cuts off the poisonous flower of evil; it cannot reach its dark roots, which feed off our society's basic spiritual ailment: the devaluation of the human person created in the image and likeness of God.
And so this Christian will continue to fight the war against the evil of abortion and build the Kingdom of God, not primarily on Parliament hill, but first and foremost on the more fundamental and essential battleground of my own heart, where I strive to repent of the sins that devalue me as a human being. Only then can I begin to offer a vision to those around of me of what it means to be real human being—God's precious child from conception to grave and beyond, to resurrection and eternal life.