‘Life is Sacred’ Is Not A Christian Premise, And We Need To Stop Pretending It Is

Christians in the public sphere who don’t know what Christians actually believe are a constant source of frustration for me. One of the most prominent examples of this recently has been this strange phenomenon of save-the-baby’ers who frantically cling to whatever heartstring-tugging abortion-stopping tagline they can find. In many ways, this is politics-as-usual and should be expected from a democratic system – where it becomes frustrating is when some of these save-the-baby’ers turn out to be Christians – turning their own religion into a childish parody of itself in order to create an emotional sensation. They do this by claiming that their faith – the faith of the apostles, the church fathers, and the martyrs – teaches that life is ‘sacred.’

This is particularly problematic because it looks like something Christianity could almost teach: new life comes from God, killing is contrary to every shred of gospel imperative, it would seem that Christians could very nearly almost believe that life is a sacred thing, and is therefore something to be preserved above all else – the problem with this train of thought is that Christians do not believe this. In fact, it is directly contrary to what Christians actually do believe about the value of life.

The proof of this is in the story of Jesus’ life and the lives of (as I said above to highlight the irony here) the apostles, the church fathers, and the martyrs. The vast majority of these people – presumably you know where I am going with this – willingly accepted death as consequence for refusing to give in or recant on some commitment they considered to be worth dying for. Not one of these exemplars of the faith held life to be sacred, rather, they all died because something else was more valuable than their own lives. If life really is considered to be a sacred thing – to be honored and revered above all things mundane – then presumably what is meant is that nothing is worth dying for (at least, nothing non-sacred). What we see again and again in Christian history, however, is that Christians have repeatedly found many things to be more valuable than their own lives. As it turns out, a quick survey of the martyrs (and whatever commitment they died for refusing to recant/stop doing) reveals an impressive list of things which Christians accept as being more valuable than life.

As a matter of fact, the early Christians under Roman persecution actually took their children with them to the stake to be martyred,* because it was considered better to die a Christian than to be raised a pagan. Scripture is clear and history illustrates that though we seek to protect the lives of others as part of seeing them as icons of Christ in the world, we do not consider human life in and of itself to be an overriding good, and in fact we believe there are many fates considerably worse than death.

Believing that human life itself is an overriding good is a tempting position because it so nicely suits our modern sentiments that there is nothing in the world (or at least very little) that is worth dying for – it perfectly underwrites our own narcissism that we are special and our lives are of immeasurable value. But this is a modern, cultural belief – not one that is derived from either Scripture or apostolic tradition. On the contrary, Christians throughout history have found much to be worth dying for – I find Hauerwas’ description of Christianity as “extended training in dying early” very persuasive. 

This is not to say that Christians cannot be pro-life, simply that we need to be more creative about arguing for it from a Christian – rather than a cultural (and specifically American) – perspective. The “I can do what I choose with my body” is similarly a premise which is utterly nonsensical to Christians. In baptism (and this offering is repeated at each Mass), we offer ourselves – our souls and bodies – to Christ and are made parts of His body. The reality is that in accepting the sacrifice of baptism, we die to ourselves and no longer belong to ourselves, but to Christ. So no, Christians cannot claim bodily autonomy – we belong to Christ in all that we are. 

Once again, I am not attempting to argue that the Christian position on abortion is either pro-life or pro-choice (in fact I hate those terms, and think that any serious Christian must have a more nuanced view than either of them), merely that Christians – especially when speaking as Christians in the public sphere – need to be more intentional in insuring that they are using arguments that do not completely contravene what Christians actually believe.

*Stanley Hauerwas, “Abortion, Theologically Understood”

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