By Chelsea Langston Bombino
We inhabit a moment of political polarity. This moment is not unique to America’s history or cultural context. Yet when we are the ones living out this moment, it can feel particularly acute. The recent state laws restricting access to abortion have led to a not uncommon, but particularly poignant and sometimes painful level of public (and I imagine for many of us, private) discourse. The purpose of this article is not to debate the merits of or problems with recent state-level legislation. Rather, this article will explore the need for embodied compassion on two interconnected, yet distinct fronts: 1. the tone and rhetoric we use to discuss the protection of all forms of vulnerable life, and 2. the substance of public policies we support.
Incarnated Empathy in Public Discourse
There are compelling personal narratives from across the spectrum of human beliefs and experiences. Yet a redemptive compassion for those with whom we share profound difference is often absent from the conversation. One can still deeply disagree with the actions or opinions of another while recognizing the raw humanity, brokenness and profound suffering in their stories. We don’t have to change our opinions about the proper role of government in limiting access to abortion to expand our moral imagination and recognize the very human stories on both sides of this issue.
To be human is to be dependent. We were not created to live in isolation. And we cannot fulfill our responsibilities to bear the image of our Creator apart from the communities that make up the fabric of our lives. A proper view of the human person acknowledges the interconnected nature of our whole selves: mind, body and spirit, to each other and the rest of creation. It is a mistake, then, to simply think of the navigating and structuring of our lives together in a pluralistic society as an exercise in zero-sum rights-fighting. Empathy, recognizing the inherent humanity of one another’s experiences, is essential in our pluralistic public square.
Too often in public discourse we position our own political stances against the opinions and experiences of others without engaging in the compassionate recognition of the image of God in each person. In making our political points, we often neglect God’s call for our interdependence upon one another and His communities of creation He has given us to express our multidimensional humanity. In heated, faceless, digital moments we cut off our capacity to empathize with our civic neighbor, let alone those whom we believe to be our political other.
Empathy is not agreement. Nor is it capitulation. Empathy, even and especially with those with whom we disagree, is bearing the image of Christ. In a 1957 sermon reflecting on Matthew 5:43-45, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reflected on the centrality of embodied compassion to the living out of the Gospel message. Matthew 5:44 states: “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” Reflecting on this passage of scripture, Dr. King said that the verses, “...glimmer in our eyes with a new urgency...this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization.”
Dr. King made the case that we are called to recognize the image of God, even in people and political systems where there is deep brokenness. We are distorted, individually and communally, Dr. King argued, when we engage in hate. But perhaps most poignantly for our current political moment, Dr. King emphasized above all else the redemptive, transformative act of loving one’s enemies, “Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the root of love is the power of redemption.” King went onto discuss how human-centered, empathetic, agape love is not just an individual, private call between one individual and another. Embodied love of the other in the form of empathy can lead to communal, nonviolent civic action.
Embodied Civic Compassion in Policy
Public justice teaches us that our empathy must go beyond our tone and even beyond civility in the public square. Empathy must shape the substance of policy itself. As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus’s central commands. We must love and honor Him with our whole selves, including upholding what we believe He teaches is best for human flourishing. In the context of life, public justice requires that government protect every human life, including the unborn and vulnerable women facing especially difficult circumstances. We must also love our neighbors as ourselves. These guideposts for living are not just applicable to our personal, private lives. They also must shape our public lives together and serve as the basis for our spiritual exercise of civic engagement in our political communities. In this current moment, many Christians will (rightly) support, to some extent, the opportunity to legally limit access to abortion that is being presented through recent state-level legislation. For many Christ-followers, myself included, public legal actions that protect the sacredness of life in the womb are incarnated expressions of how we honor God in the public square. And yet, from a public justice perspective, this alone is not enough. Not in rhetoric, nor in substance.
In an article in the Washington Post, Charles Comosy, associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, writes,
Our essential relationality cannot be captured by legal assumptions that presume autonomous individualism….Pregnancy is perhaps the paradigmatic example of the intrinsic relationality of human beings….Given these biological realities, all sides of the abortion issue make a profound mistake when, in their rhetoric and proposed legislation, they artificially cut one-half of the relationship [either the mother or the child] out of the discussion.
Comosy encourages the reader to consider how legislation can holistically care for both mother and child and recognize the inherent dependence that exists in this intimate relationship. Ideally, the incarnation of civic empathy would shape policies that represent a holistic ethic of life. In a public justice perspective, full-bodied compassion requires government to fulfill its right role to protect human life through both restricting the taking of nascent human life and affirmatively supporting vulnerable women facing crisis pregnancies in the workplace, through healthcare, and through other social services. Public policy proposals should, wherever possible, seek to affirm the image of God, dually and inseparably present in both vulnerable pregnant women and their babies. Such policies are emblematic of a “both/and” approach that recognizes our civic duty to honor both mother and child and their mutual, interdependent flourishing.
The Center for Public Justice's Guideline on Human Life makes clear that government has a role in protecting life at all stages, from conception through natural death, and therefore the termination of a pregnancy should not be “an ordinary or standard means of family planning, or for the social and psychological convenience of those responsible for a pregnancy.” And yet, public justice urges that government provide affirmative protections and supports to all vulnerable people, to the unborn and to women and families experiencing unplanned pregnancies. The Guidelines make clear: “Opposing abortion and trying to outlaw it are not sufficient ways to achieve the goal of protecting the unborn and supporting life.” Government should do everything within its proper area of responsibility to advance the wellbeing of vulnerable women and families before, during and after pregnancy.
What are examples of affirmative, governmental supports to vulnerable pregnant women and families with young children? According to a Kaiser Family Foundation Issue Brief,
While Medicaid pays for nearly half of all births and must cover pregnant women through 60 days postpartum, after that period, states can and have made very different choices regarding whether eligibility for Medicaid coverage is continued.
The Brief notes that women are particularly vulnerable in states without expanded Medicaid. This is especially relevant considering the Centers for Disease Control's recent report shedding light on maternal mortality and noting that many deaths happen after the birth of a child, the vulnerable period extending well beyond 60 days for some women. One such example of a piece of proposed legislation that affirmatively supports both mother and baby is federal bill H.R. 1897, the federal MOMMA Act (sponsored by Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL) as well as an identical Senate bill, S. 916 introduced by Senator Durbin (D-IL). These policy proposals would expand the provision of Medicaid to pregnant and postpartum women from 60 days to one year. This would provide a much needed layer of protection for women at heightened risk for medical complications, specifically African American and Hispanic women. These bills would also support the babies of vulnerable women by ensuring their moms are thriving, healthy, and equipped to provide them with care.
Another example of a way in which government is positively, proactively supporting pregnant women and new moms is through recommendations like those recently released through the US Preventive Services Task Force. In February, this panel of experts released a report that called upon medical providers to look for patient risk factors that indicate a heightened chance of developing perinatal depression and referring these women for mental health services. According to an article in the New York Times, this guidance, under the Affordable Care Act, will mandate that insurance companies cover the full cost of counseling services for the population of at-risk women. It is important to note that this policy change could have a demonstrable, positive impact not just on pregnant women, but on their children. Further, the Times article notes that the Task Force found,
[Perinatal depression] increases the likelihood that babies will be born premature or have low birth weight, and can impair a mother’s ability to bond with or care for her child. The panel reported that children of mothers who had perinatal depression have more behavior problems, cognitive difficulties and mental illness.
Public justice insists that to empathize with our civic neighbors, we must consider the government's affirmative role in recognizing the inseparability of a pregnant or postpartum mother from her child. Policies, both on a legislative and regulatory guidance level like those mentioned above, honor the interlocking human dignity of both mother and child.
Christian citizens and institutions have an opportunity to be Gospel witnesses, both in our speech and our civic actions, in the public square. It matters how we embody empathy, in both the tone of our communications and in the substance of the government actions we support. Individual wellbeing is a myth. The wellbeing of an individual life is intimately, intricately bound up in the lives of those around them. This is true first inside the womb, and then it is true for the rest of our lives. Each of us, though we don’t remember it, was dependent on our mother, and by extension, the communities of support our mother had while we were in the womb. Let us remember our continued, utter dependence on God to sustain us and guide us and to forgive us and sanctify us as we seek to do His will through our citizenship. We could look at this polarized, fractured state of our communities as a sign of our brokenness, and this would be true. But we can also look at the deep divisions in our pluralistic public square as a daily reminder of how dependent upon God and each other we are to continue to empathize with our civic neighbors, and even our political opponents, across deep differences.
-Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of the Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. Sacred Sector is a learning community for faith-based organizations and emerging leaders within the faith-based nonprofit sector to integrate and fully embody their sacred missions in every area of organizational life. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Sacred Sector Program Coordinator Virginia Creasy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WANT TO GET INVOLVED?
1. Sign up for the Shared Justice monthly email to stay updated on this series and more.
2. Write for us! Email email@example.com for more information.
3. Form a Political Discipleship group and advocate for a local issue of concern. Political Discipleship is an 11-week praxis-based curriculum that helps Christians form lifelong habits and practices of citizenship. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.