The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon

“CHOOSE LIFE” REVISITED

November 3, 1985


For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? ‘ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?            But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. I command you this day, by loving your god, by walking in god’s ways, then you shall live and multiply, and your god will bless you. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day that you shall perish; you shall not live long. 1 call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving your god, for that means life to you and length of days.

Deuteronomy 30: 11— 20

“Choose Life” Revisited

Last summer we had quite some excitement in the social field here in Southern Ontario. In fact, there was so much going on that the summer of 1985 will stand as evidence that the standard rationalizations for why Unitarian Universalist Churches close in the summer – because nothing of note ever happens in the summer – this standard rationalization is neither eternally nor unqualifiedly true.

One event was the citizen’s arrest of Dr. Robert Scott, one of the associates of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, by the Rev. Ken Campbell, our neighbour up in Milton, head of an organization which hides its intent behind its name of Renaissance International. Since the police and the crown were refusing to prosecute Dr . Morgentaler and his associates until actions currently in the court were resolved, Pastor Campbell decided to take the law into his own hands, against the advice of the police, and attempt a citizen’s arrest.

Personally, I believe Rev. Campbell did not intend to have Dr. Scott arrested; certainly he knew what the chances were when before his action when the police announced that they had no intention of accepting custody or charging Dr. Scott. Rather, what Pastor Campbell intended was a media event. It was a deliberately staged action to keep the issue in the papers and on the TV screens and radio programs. A media event is an attempt to keep the news media paying attention to an issue by giving them an event to focus on. Living as we do in an age of media politics, where access to media controls the issues to which our knee-jerk politicians react. We live in an age where the action is on the fringe and the reaction is in the centre, and the “Fifth Estate” acts as the bridge, the synapse of action/ reaction.

We also live in an age of slogans. Because of the passivity of the watcher, television has a short attention span, and so a good slogan catches on better than an in-depth analysis. Get a catching slogan, one which aligns your cause with God and motherhood and your battle is nearly won.

This morning I do not wish to spend a great deal of time on the ethics of abortion. My concern this morning is the facile sloganeering of the anti-choice forces, and the fact that this summer they distorted, out of context, one of the key spiritual insights of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But lest you fear that I am ducking the issue, let me state my personal position, which is my prerogative by our tradition of the free pulpit. I believe the decision to terminate a pregnancy is a deeply personal one. No man can know what it is like to carry a potential new human being inside one’s body. No man can know first hand the difficulties women go through when an unwanted pregnancy occurs. Women need the maximum freedom to choose, often when the choice is between two bad options.

I have matured over the last ten years in my opinion on abortion. I used to be unqualifiedly in the pro-choice camp, and while I remain there, my position has mellowed . I still believe that the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy must be made by the woman involved, with supportive concern from her physician, her significant others, and her spiritual advisor. But my ethical position on the question of whether to terminate a pregnancy has matured. I see the issues now as much more complex than either the strident right-to-lifers make it or the strident pro-choice, get-your-laws-off-my-body people. I am closer to the latter than the former; I do believe our present system in Ontario discriminates against the poor and the rural women for whom access to abortion is restricted by the moral judgments of hospitals which refuse to have committees, which have committees, and they never meet, or whose committees meet to ritualistically decline all abortions regardless of the merits of each case.

In my life I have sat with several women as they made the difficult decision. I listened to their pain as they chose between two evils, not quite certain which would be the less. Decisions these women made were not made easier by the placard waving guilt mongerers who continue to parade in Harbord Street.

The anti-choice forces have attempted to control the language of debate by labeling themselves “pro-life” and their opponents, “anti-life”.  This use of language is an example of the sloganeering I was speaking of before.  They do not speak fairly, showing us pictures of fully developed fetuses only weeks before birth and referring to the pictures as they speak of zygotes – fertilized cells – moments after conception.  (The worst example of this is in the film, ‘Silent Scream’, which shows a seventh-month fetus while speaking of first trimester abortion.)  But the worst is in the very name they have chosen for their movement: pro-life”. It implies to be against them is to be “anti-life”, and during this spring’s media blitz they did, in fact, label their opponents with that word.   To be opposed to their attempts to restrict legal abortions is to be aligned with death. And borrowing a line out of context from the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible, they exhorted us to “Choose Life”

“Choose Life” sweatshirts and tee-shirts are available for sale at the Way Inn Coffeehouse next door to the Morgentaler clinic Ken Campbell set up.

My personal struggle with the phrase stems from the fact that I cannot simply write it off, cede it to them and let them run with it. First of all, it is bad theology and if I stand for anything it is quality in theology.  Secondly , it is a slogan other people have taken and applied more thoroughly and thoughtfully to a completely new, contemporary style of life, a style which chooses meaning in life over the cynicism that masks the despair of living with the threat of destruction over our heads and the manipulations of the capitalist market .

Let me tell you about the bad theology, first, and then I’ll unpack the heavy last sentence about the other meaning, the one I want to choose, when I claim the slogan “choose life” for myself.

The section of Deuteronomy it comes from – which I read this morning – is a section of law created for the community of Jews who returned to Jerusalem from the Exile in Babylon. Parts of it are older, probably written in Babylon in anticipation of the return. For those of you who are unfamiliar in the history, when Babylon conquered Israel in the 6th c. BCE, all the leaders of the community, intellectuals, priests, artists, people of prominence, were captured and forced to live in Babylon. There they raised the next generation of Jewish leaders, away from their own people, a minor, captive people. The Judaism which has nurtured Jewish people in diaspora has its seeds there.

The problem with the Babylonian captivity was that Jewish people there were assimilating. They were getting used to living in Babylon and they were beginning to like it. They were beginning to lose their identity as a people, so the leaders petitioned the emperor for permission to return to Jerusalem. When they did return, they discovered that the leaderless people left behind had in one generation mutated into Samaritans, half-Jews, Half-Babylonians, worshipping not the god of the Jews but the fertility cults of the Canaanites and the gods of the Babylonians.

So Deuteronomy, which takes the forms of three speeches by Moses, revised and revised old sections of Jewish tradition to the use of the new situation. And particularly did it speak against worshipping idols .  Idolatry is the worst of crimes in Deuteronomy, in fact, it is the origin of all other crime.  Idolatry is worshipping something not worthy of worship.  It is placing as a core value something which has no life. Hence when Deuteronomy says, “I put before you this day life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life, that you and your descendants may live”.  It is in the context of what one worships . Does one worship dead wood and stone or does one worship the Living God, the God of Life?

Life means more than length of days, it means the fullness of joyful living.

It means living with a ‘yes to life, to affirm life in the face of its difficulties . The choice implied in the Hebrew is the choice between a shallow life in service to an idol or an embracing of life in the face of its negation.

So here comes Ken Campbell, opens his Bible and finds the phrase ”Choose Life”. He recognized an excellent slogan and appropriates it, implying in the process that all who oppose him are choosing death over life.

But in so doing he creates exactly the sin the book of Deuteronomy is trying to wipe out. For he begins to idolize the fetus. He states that the potential life of a zygote, a not yet sentient, only potential human being, is more worthy than the life of the mother. Secondly, in his whole ‘Renaissance! program, he idolizes the traditional family, placing traditional family values over the creativity of life for individuals and communities of men and women. Ken Campbell, for all his professions of Christianity, is an idolater! For the family is more important than individual persons, the traditional value system more important than the fact that something new might be happening in human society, something valuable and worthy, something we might even say is of God.  Ken Campbell, despite the fact that he professes to “choose life”, chooses death – the dead, old system of values which is more important than the difficult lives of individuals, more important than the search for meaning in the choices, the hard, difficult choices women and men have to make!

But I for one refuse to give up the Biblical heritage to the Ken Campbells of this world, the people who make an idol of the Bible and miss its message, who miss the wisdom we can glean from the spiritual struggles of its authors. The phrase ‘choose life’ is one that can have meaning far deeper and richer than the meaning Pastor Campbell and his partisans would give it.

Deuteronomy was put together to nurture a people who had survived the death of God. That is, the old Hebrew God they had worshipped before their conquest was dead. They could not continue to believe, to pray, to sacrifice as they had before, for something new had happened that changed the world. They had been conquered and sent into exile.

The message which nurtured those exiles in their years in captivity was the reassuring voice of the author of the second part of the book of Isaiah. Second Isaiah calls attention to the fact that new things are happening, “Behold”, he cries in God’s voice, ”for I am doing a new thing”.  The challenge is to perceive the new thing God is doing and be open to the spiritual meaning in it.  Behold the new Jerusalem you are going to build, behold, the new community you can create, behold, there is something different happening here, behold, there are possibilities for reconciliation and renewal. Isaiah’s voice is the one which leads directly to the creation of Jewish culture, for it is his voice which reassures the exiled that there is meaning in their transformations. It is his voice which reminds them to affirm the new, the deeper spiritual vision into the nature of life, available to them because the old forms had died.

When I say the exiles endured the death of god I am using a conscious anachronism. Their language talks of being abandoned by god, in our time, we speak of the death of god. The experience of death is often an experience of being abandoned by the dead ones; the spiritual content of what the exiles went through and what we see in the death of god is similar. The old forms, the old ways of speaking and worshipping no longer suit.  Like the exiles, we must look for the “new thing”.

In the face of these difficult times, we may choose life or choose death.  To choose life is to say yes to it in face of its difficulties.  Not only its financial difficulties, not only its personal and interpersonal difficulties, but its ethical and moral difficulties as well.  It is to say in the moment of difficult decision, I will embrace the moment and hold it to myself.  It is to say in these hard times that life, deeply drank and thoroughly know, is to be cherished.  It is to say that life is not just length of days but is a quality of consciousness best summarised in the word love

”Choose Life” is a slogan not only of the anti-choice movement, but of the anti-nuclear weapons movement as well.  I am fascinated by a difference between the quality of dialogue within the two different groups.  One quite clearly wants to remove the ethical difficulty from the individual and legislate a morality they name with life but which reeks with fascism. The other speaks of the need to call moral force to preserve life, not an individual fetus in the developed, consumerist First World, but the life of the entire planet, of all living beings, both plant and animal.  One wishes to reduce responsibility by collectivizing it:            that is, by making the decision to abort a legislative one, no individual is responsible for the product of her womb. The other wants to increase responsibility by collectivizing it:       that is, by making all humankind responsible for the ethical dismantling of the machines of destruction. As Dr. Joanne Santa Barbara said to the Peel Peace-makers meeting Wednesday evening, ”Once the genie is out of the bottle, we can’t put it back in”.  We will never not know how to make a nuclear bomb unless we use them. The survivors might now know.  The future she envisions is one of a long struggle for the moral transformation of human life, to one where the responsibility for the continued existence of the planet is borne on everyone’ s shoulders.

“Choose Life” is a slogan that can be used to the restriction of human moral agency by the Ken Campbells of the world, who would take away our right to choose; or it can be used to struggle against the spiral into the maelstrom of nuclear destruction.

“Choose Life” is a choice put before us as individuals, as well as to use as a society. As individuals, it is to opt for living in the face of complexity and novelty.  It is to opt to seek after meaning in life, not to let the way of our culture dictate its meaning to us.  It is to commit ourselves to struggle with life’ s questions as Lovers struggle, striving to understand because we love life and loving life deeper as we grow in understanding, seeing the world expand as our understanding expands.  To “choose life” is to hunger after its deep qualities that our personal and communal lives may be enriched.

I put before you this day life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life, that you and your descendants may live.

Reverend Mark DeWolfe


Thank you!

Kathy, Judy, Joan, Bert, Camille, Tisa, Susan, Anthony, Fiona.
Without your help, this work would not have been possible.

Brigitte Twomey