Posted in musings

on abortion and disability

I’ve noticed lately an uptick in the discussion on abortion among my online friends and on the radio; I’m pretty sure it is due to some recent state laws (or proposed laws) related to the topic, but I have been avoiding political topics like the plague recently for various reasons so I don’t know the details. So I am not planning, here, to go into legal details. I don’t know what is best from a pragmatic perspective, balancing the needs and rights of every person in a far-from-ideal world full of broken and sinful people and circumstances.

But a lot of the arguments I have seen remind me of the atrocities commemorated every March 1st on the Disability Day of Mourning. There are parents who believe that their children’s lives will be not worth living because of their disability, who think it would be better if they didn’t live at all then live with that suffering, and quite logically decide to kill them. There are reporters and juries and judges who believe that the burden of care and support placed upon these parents by their disabled victims somehow makes their crime less heinous and more deserving of leniency and compassion. None of these parents wanted a disabled child, after all. Their entire lives were overturned and their expectations and plans were dashed because of these children’s existence. And since the victims weren’t going to have great quality of life anyway, due to their disability, surely we can all identify with their parents and the hard decision they made stemming from their grief and anger and stress (again, all the fault of the victim). On the Disability Day of Mourning, the disabled community remembers these victims, speaking their names, attributing to their memory the individual worth and human value that they were denied in life.

And when I read what my friends have to say in defense of abortion – focusing on the pain and grief of the mother, on the brokenness of the situations that most commonly lead to abortion, on the emotional and physical caregiving demands placed by the fetus on an unwilling parent, on the potential for child abuse and poor quality of life for the unaborted child – it makes me think that if we (as a society) can say these things about the killing of the unborn, it won’t be long before we can say them about the disabled. Because yes, all those points are true and valid and need to be addressed, but they do not invalidate the humanity of the vulnerable and needy and young – of the child who did not ask to be conceived, or to be born with a disability, but who as a result of the brokenness of the world finds herself in need of care and support with no open and loving arms extended to her.

How do we love and support those who unexpectedly find themselves parenting a special needs child with no clue of how to handle things – or who find out they are pregnant and know they have no resources to raise a child? How do we protect children whose parents sink into abusive or neglectful behaviors because they are overwhelmed by the support and care necessitated by their child’s disability or believe their disabled child to be less valuable or deserving of love – or because they never wanted a child and are suddenly pregnant and have no love to give to the child of a rapist or abuser? Whatever the best answer is, I’m fairly sure it doesn’t involve killing those children, anymore than it would involve killing the adults who find themselves in parental positions they are inadequate to cope with. We need to reach out with hands gentled by our own knowledge of the brokenness of the world and of each human heart, and smooth the troubled path before the feet of these parents and their children: sometimes to guide, sometimes to lend a helping hand over obstacles in the way, sometimes to carry, and sometimes to chart a splitting of ways. And at the same time, we need to make sure that the amount of support a person needs – the extent of their dependence on caregivers – does not impact the value we ascribe to their life.

Otherwise, we end up attempting to erase a problem by erasing a person.

Posted in musings, quotes

when fear skews our ethics

“…a growing body of research suggested that investing in education and work for women propelled economic development and led to lower birth rates. Later in the 1967 meeting University of Chicago sociologist Philip Hauser alluded to this research when he asked the delegates: ‘Do we really know whether the classical approach of family planning propaganda and clinical services is more useful in reducing birth rates than the same effort spent on building a road into the village or constructing a soap factory where women can work or furthering education for girls?’ But population control activists tended to dismiss an emphasis on female workforce participation and education as a strategy dreamed up by unrealistic feminists. And Polgar [head of research for Planned Parenthood Federation of America] didn’t mention the alternative approach from the podium. Instead, he gazed out at the delgates and, according to minutes from the meeting, ‘urged that sociologists stimulate biologists to find a method of sex determination, since some parents have additional children in order to get one of specified sex.'” – Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, pg 99-100

“Others talked about the necessity of an Asian pregnancy police, foreshadowing China’s system of birth permits under the one-child policy, and suggested flying planes over India once a year to spray it with a ‘contraceptive aerial mist.’ And the racist application of birth control was no longer confined to the developing world. In 1973 African American and Native American women across the American South and Southwest alleged in federal district court that they had been sterilized under threat of their welfare benefits being withdrawn. Gerhard Gesell, the judge who heard Relf v. Weinberger, concluded in his ruling that the women had been coerced. He estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 poor American women had been sterilized under federal programs, adding, ‘the dividing line between family planning and eugenics is murky.'” – Ibid, pg 104

The idea was that families would have fewer children if they didn’t have to keep trying and trying to have a child of the sex they desired. Instead of a family having 3 or 4 or more daughters before having a son, and having 4 or 5 total children, the parents could eliminate those daughters, or most of them, and end up only having 1 or 2 children. In the 1960s, when the world was as scared of population growth as we are of climate change, that reduction in the birth rate was the pot at the end of the rainbow. But instead of choosing to support economic development and female empowerment (which has historically led to lower birth rates on its own), Western nations and foundations decided to tie their aid money to population control programs, leading to mass sterilizations, countless abortions, and the eventual skewing of the gender ratios across the world due to Polgar’s final vague and understated observation above.

Was it all just a response of fear to the specter of a world overfilled with people, starving and suffering and dying? While I think that played a role, there was a definite racial component to the issue, as the decreasing birth rate in the West combined with the economic development of the rest of the world struck fear into the hearts of white Americans and Europeans worried about losing their hold on global power and wealth. And the result of those fears, both the altruistic and the selfish racist fears, was death and suffering – for the men who underwent forced sterilizations during Indira Gandhi’s rule in India, for the women whose babies were aborted because of the one-child policy in China, for the aborted babies themselves (mostly girls), for the men who are growing up to find themselves consigned to singleness due to a shortage of women.

It is never wise to forsake the path of righteousness in response to fear. We must have a more constant moral compass than that of pragmatism and self help, or the very things that we think good, in our efforts to avoid what we fear, will end up hurting us (or others) in ways we never dreamed of, just as much or even more than the things we were trying to avoid. Such a moral compass will also help us determine whether or not our fears are ethically just – as a fear of humanity starving and suffering would be, while a fear of the global gains of other races would not. Population control wasn’t the solution for the fears of the 1960s; economic development and education accomplished the same ends without the oppression and injustice. Maybe Christianity was right when it said that children are blessings; and maybe if we worked together for the common good instead of seeking our own good at the expense of other human beings we could conquer the evils we fear without causing greater evils yet to roam the earth.

Posted in musings, poems

side by side in the common good

What is the duty of the person who sees injustice, oppression, or need, and has some ability to protest or make amends?

Is it to step daintily around the problem, hoping that the filth and blood will leave your feet unstained?

Is it to click a few “Likes” on a Facebook page, or write a vaguely angry status, and then move on to happier thoughts without even a prayer?

Is it to give thanks for your own more comfortable situation, and avoid the suffering that your happiness may not be lessened by their pain?

Of course not.

It’s easy to see that, on paper; it’s harder to see it happening in your life, everyday, in the major decisions and the small choices: in your quickened steps and averted gaze as you walk past the homeless man with the cardboard sign; in your fear of personal heartache that prevents you from fostering or adopting a child in need; in your unobtrusive isolation from the other in jobs, neighborhoods, and churches made up of people who look and think like you. Every little thing builds up, until one day you have completely blinded your mind and numbed your heart to the ache of the world around you, content in your own personal happinesses, and you don’t even realize the small and withered thing you have made of yourself and your life – your one precious and beautiful life, that could have been a source of good to better the whole world.

In the 1950s, a poet named Maurice Ogden wrote a poem called The Hangman about a village where everyone is murdered, one by one, by an ominous hangman of whom they all live in fear. Each time another is hung, the rest of the villagers sigh in relief and continue with their lives, until at last only the narrator of the poem is left – and he realizes that the hangman has now come for him as well:

“…’I answered straight and I told you true,
‘This scaffold was raised for none but you.

‘For who has served me more faithfully
‘Than you with your coward’s hope?’ said he,
‘And where are the others who might have stood,
‘Side by your side in the common good?’

‘Dead,’ I whispered; and amiably,
‘Murdered,’ the Hangman corrected me.
‘First the alien, then the Jew…
‘I did no more than you let me do.'”

“Side by your side in the common good” – for we are not solitary and independent creatures, no matter how much our culture values individualism and autonomy. We need each other. We need to receive help from each other, and we need to give help to each other, both for the common good of our community and for the private good of our own soul. It is so easy to let our fear and our desire for comfort and convenience shutter us away from the needs and gifts of other people, especially people not quite like ourselves, but it leads to broken homes, neighborhoods of strangers, and the general fragmenting of society that is so painfully being put on display this election season.

I write this not as someone who is living this out well, and has the answers figured out. To be honest with you, I’m only just beginning to see how my own fear and selfishness have prevented me from following God boldly in the midst of a broken and hurting world. Will you come join with me, hand in hand, to learn again how to share our hurts, carry each other’s burdens, and sing each other’s songs of joy and of lament?

Posted in art, musings, quotes

{fine art friday} -Japanese Madonna and Child

One of the beautiful things about the Church is her universality – her appeal to people from all cultures and eras, and her significance and importance to them. The stories of the Church – the stories of Christ – and above all the stories central to the Gospel – fulfill the echos whispered in different ways in human traditions and legends, and fulfill the longing questions of our hearts. So while each culture is able to remain fully Christian and hold true to the meaning and teaching of each story, they are also able to take those stories and imagine them in culturally significant ways. Most notably, we appropriate the people and events of those stories to our own cultures by making them “look like us.” We envision Jesus and His family and disciples to fit our own ethnic background, and we layer the Church’s stories into the rhythms of our own cultural sense of time and emotion.

So in the parts of the Church heavily influenced by Europe, we see Jesus depicted as a white man, and we see the fasts and feasts of the Church, the focal stories, aligned with the seasonal changes of the Northern Hemisphere. The birth of Jesus, for example – the beginning of a new hope for humanity – comes at the Winter Solstice, as if by His birth He reverses the plunge into darkness and heralds the dawning light. Many of even our most traditional and spiritual Christmas songs focus on this aspect of the birth, something that makes singing them in the paradisaical Arizona winter somewhat odd… Likewise, His resurrection is celebrated in the height of spring, surrounded by all the natural reminders of new life.

Likewise, in other areas of the world, one can see different cultural influences on the artwork and life of the Church. This set of four paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, by an unknown artist from Japan, illustrates that in several ways.

Clockwise from top left: Madonna of the Cherry Blossoms, Madonna of the Bamboo Grove, Madonna of the Moon, Madonna of the Snow

Obviously a significant difference between these and Western Madonnas in that both Mary and Jesus are Japanese. It makes the motherhood of Mary, the humanity of the Word made flesh, more immediately and emotionally palpable to the people painting and praying with theses images; it allows them to feel close and connected to these people who, after all, are not just historical people but living members of the body of Christ.

Something else I learned about these paintings, and Japanese art in general, that I also found very fascinating was that the four seasons of the year are central to Japanese art and poetry. Back in the tenth and eleventh centuries, nature was seen as a powerful, frightening, and unpredictable force, and aristocratic poets began to simultaneously tame it and use it as a lens to understand human emotion (which was probably also a powerful and unpredictable force that they wished to tame and control more completely!). As one author put it, Japanese culture focused mainly not on nature itself, but on a “secondary nature” –

…not a direct apprehension or participation in the natural world but a culturally constructed view of the non-human realm as representative of inner feelings experienced through profound associations made with outer phenomena connected with the rotation of the seasons and cycles of the year that are meaningful for their symbolic and aesthetically oriented value. – Steven Heine, in a review of Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Art by Haruo Shirane

By placing Mary and Jesus within each of those four seasons, the artist not only signifies their presence with us at all times of the year, he or she also meditates on the presence of Jesus, the importance of the incarnation, the loving motherhood of Mary, through all the various emotions we undergo as humans. He is with us in the springtime when the cherry blossoms give us hope for renewal and revival; He is with us in the autumn when we watch the lonely moon in our own melancholy and withdrawal. The cultural patterns of the year are drawn up into the eternal promises of Christ; they are not obliterated by His presence, but glorified.