The Consistent Ethic of Life
By David Gushee, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy
Union University, Jackson, Tennessee
- Paths to the Consistent Life Ethic
- Fundamentals of the Consistent Life Ethic
- Nuances, Criticisms, and Applications
Editor's Note: The article was originally delivered for the Staley Lectures at Cumberland College in April, 2000.
Paths to the Consistent Life Ethic
What moral vision shall Christians bring into our nation's public square? Is there a way to sort through the rich but multifaceted moral witness of the Scripture and of later Christian tradition and end up with a coherent moral vision? Can Christians get beyond our current moral divisions and offer at least a core moral witness to church and society upon which most or all can agree?
I want to propose today that what has been called the consistent life ethic (or consistent ethic of life, or seamless garment approach) is the best single statement of Christian moral vision currently available on the landscape of Christian thought. It is a perspective that emerges from Scripture, has strong roots in Christian tradition, and is quite relevant to contemporary experience. It is a moral vision that speaks effectively to at least those open to hearing the Christian voice in the public square. And, while it is not a recipe for ending the scandalous divisions that afflict the church's moral teaching and public proclamation, it is an approach that does extract the best moral commitments of the "left" and the "right" in American church life.
There are many paths that can be taken into the consistent life ethic. What I mean by that is that Christians from a variety of spots on the theological/ethical spectrum seem to be feeling their way toward--or directly embracing--a consistent life ethic. African-American Christians, feminists, the Catholic Church, white evangelicals, and some in the mainline or liberal churches have been making their way for some time toward a consistent life ethic.
Consider the following striking comments from the late Spencer Perkins, a black Christian leader who died suddenly just a few years ago. In 1989, Perkins wrote:
Abortion--and the pro-life movement--present black evangelicals with a dilemma. It is not that we question the evil of abortion; Jesus clearly would have condemned it. But for me, a black man, to join your demonstrations against abortion, I would need to know that you understand God's concern for justice everywhere....
It is not a simple, glib response, then, when I must counsel an unwed black teenager against an abortion, even though I believe with all my heart that abortion is morally wrong. I feel that if the love of Christ compels me to save the lives of children, that same love should compel me to take more responsibility for them once they are born." (quoted in Clark and Rakestraw, Readings in Christian Ethics, vol. 2, 268, 270)
Perkins was struck by what he called a "pro-life credibility gap." Those Christians who led the pro-life movement and were most visible in it were, in his view, not at all interested in issues of justice for African-Americans. Instead, as he put it, "Ever since I can remember, it has been almost axiomatic that if we blacks took a stand on an issue, conservative [white] evangelical Christians would line up on the opposite side of the street, blocking our way." What is the meaningfulness of the term "pro-life" if those who use it are not interested in advancing the well being (the "life") of a suffering black population here and now? That is Perkins' question, and it's a good one.
Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, made his way in the direction of the consistent life-ethic through questions such as these:
Why do many liberal and radical activists champion nuclear disarmament . . .and then defend the destruction of one and a half million unborn American babies each year? Are affluent lifestyles and sexual freedoms finally more important than helpless, inconvenient babies? Why does Senator Jesse Helms, one of the most visible advocates of the pro-life movement, support government subsidies for tobacco [despite] the fact that smoking kills 350,000 Americans a year. . . .Why do members of the National Right to Life Committee score far lower on other pro-life issues like opposition to the arms race, handguns, and concern for the poor than members of the National Abortion Rights Action League? Don't handguns and poverty obliterate precious human beings as surely as abortion? (Completely Pro-Life, 11-13).
If life is what you are concerned about, says Sider, then any assault on life, any threat to the dignity of life, ought to merit your moral concern. If not, you demonstrate not that you are pro-life but that you are pro-certain kinds of life, or pro-life at certain stages.
This is the way the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago put it: "Nuclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale; public executions are fast becoming weekly events . . . and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated [and today, practiced, in Oregon]. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern" (Consistent Ethic of Life, 14).
The larger pattern has been named by Pope John Paul II, as a "culture of death." He elaborates as follows:
It is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life that would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless . . . and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of conspiracy against life is unleashed. (The Gospel of Life, 22)
The demand for a consistent ethic of life, then, has emerged as an outcry, not always fully coherent, from those who have noted--or experienced--gaps in the church's moral vision and practice or who have paid attention to dangerous trends in the culture. Women notice a concern for babies but not for their mothers or for abused or exploited women in general. Blacks notice a concern for abortion but not racial justice. Those who work with the poor notice overall complacency toward that field of misery and degradation, while those concerned for the ill and elderly watch with shock as the acceptance of euthanasia grows. What is needed is a moral vision big enough to encompass the full range of moral problems that Christians face both in their own lives and in a confused culture. The consistent ethic of life is the best answer I have yet seen.
Fundamentals of the Consistent Life Ethic
A definition of the consistent life ethic could be crafted as follows: a moral commitment to respecting, protecting, and enhancing human life at every stage and in every context. This moral commitment is grounded in a particular reading of Scripture and a particular understanding of Christian theology that goes back deep into the history of the church. Michael Gorman describes the roots of a consistent life ethic this way:
The earliest Christian ethic, from Jesus to Constantine, can be described as a consistent pro-life ethic. . . . It pleaded for the poor, the weak, women, children and the unborn. This pro-life ethic discarded hate in favor of love, war in favor of peace, oppression in favor of justice, bloodshed in favor of life. The Christian's response to abortion was one important aspect of this consistent pro-life ethic. (Abortion and the Early Church).
Let us consider for a few moments the biblical underpinnings of this historically important perspective.
1. God is the author of human life.
Genesis 2:7 reads as follows: "The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."
The Bible tells us that God was directly and personally responsible for making the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve. The Scripture repeatedly harkens back to God's role as originator of the human race. As the potter shapes the clay, so God shaped us. This is a fact not only to be respected, but also to be celebrated, as the psalmist does: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (Psalm 139:13-16).
The Bible affirms that we exist by God's will, that we are the creatures of a loving creator God. The consistent life ethic is grounded here. It is impossible to sustain it with full vigor outside of a theistic worldview that includes a belief in God as Creator.
2. God made us "in his image" and "likeness."
Gen. 1:26-27 reads: "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."
While God created all forms of life, only humans are described as being made in his image (selem) and likeness (demut). To be made in the image of God probably means two things. One has to do with the attributes that we share in common with God. Our capacities reflect his in a small way--our ability to think, to love, to create, to relate to others, to make choices. To explain "image," various central God-like attributes have been proposed at different stages of Christian thought. It used to be that our reasoning capacity was lifted up for emphasis. These days it is relationality that is often described as most God-like or God-resembling. But whatever is emphasized, in various ways God made humans and only humans to be like himself. How remarkable that we were designed to share certain attributes of God our Maker.
The other dimension of meaning here has to do not with human attributes but instead human responsibilities. Bruce Birch has argued that this is actually the right way to understand the meaning of the imago dei-- "adam is God's own special representative, not simply by designation . . . but by design" (Let Justice Roll Down, 87). To be made in the image of God is to share in the tasks of God, the work of God on this earth. We will "image" God--represent God--to the rest of creation. We see the theme already in this passage, where God commands us to take responsibility and represent his rule over the fish and the birds, the livestock, and all the creatures.
Whichever aspect of the imago dei is lifted up for emphasis, it is a designation that confers awesome responsibilities on all who relate to human life--that is, all of us.
3. God has declared human life worthy of honor, glory, and respect.
Ponder the majestic language of Psalm 8: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor" (Ps. 8:3-5).
Despite our many obvious faults--our deeply embedded sinful nature--Scripture tells us that God has crowned humanity as a whole, and each human life in particular, with glory and honor. We are declared to be just "a little lower than the heavenly beings"--some translations say, "than God himself." Thus that is what we are, by God's decree--even when we don't look like it, even when our unworthiness of such a designation seems all too clear.
Thus far we have seen that God is the author of each and every human life. God made us in his image, his likeness. God has declared human life worthy of honor, glory, and respect. These are the theological truths that undergird the concept of the "sanctity of human life," which itself lies at the heart of the consistent life ethic.
To speak of the sanctity of human life is to claim that God has declared both by action and by his word that every human life is of immense value to him. Sanctity comes from the Latin sanctus, which means holy. Christians believe that God has declared every human life sacred, even holy, not because of our own moral goodness but because of the value that he himself has placed upon it. God sees each human life however humble or flawed as special, set apart; not to be trifled with, dishonored, or disrespected.
In addition, the immense value that God places on our lives has tremendous moral implications. Let's consider three of these moral implications:
1. We must value human lives according to God's standard not our own.
Listen to James 2:1-4: "My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, 'Here's a good seat for you,' but say to the poor man, 'You stand there' or 'Sit on the floor by my feet,' have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?"
If God sees human beings as of extraordinary importance, we must as well. If God loves people, we must too. Many have noted the way in which human beings establish varying rings or boundaries of moral obligation. This is an issue I discuss in The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust (Fortress Press, 1994). We draw invisible but very momentous circles of moral concern, including those within while excluding those without from the range of our care, protection, and sometimes even respect.
Yet a large part of the burden of Jesus' teaching, not to mention key elements of the rest of the Scripture, is to teach us to shatter those boundaries. With stories like the Good Samaritan, or Lazarus and the Rich Man, or the Sheep and Goats Judgment (Mt. 25), for example, Jesus makes it impossible for Christians in good conscience to confine the boundaries of moral obligation to a narrow few. Whatsoever we did to the least of these, we did to him.
The consistent life ethic is rooted in this moral claim: that human beings are to be valued according to God's standards rather than our own. This eliminates the possibility of embracing any mere instrumentalism in Christian ethics. We cannot value lives according to their perceived usefulness or attractiveness or "value added" to us. God bestows value on each life and that value remains constant from conception until death. We are to treat each other accordingly. Indeed, we must treat our own selves in this way--which is the reason why suicide has always been ruled out in the Christian tradition. Even the individual is not free to assign value to his own life. God makes that call, not us.
2. A second moral implication: we must work to prevent murder, violence, and other direct assaults on the sanctity of life.
Exodus 20:13 reads: "You shall not murder." This text, the Sixth Commandment, is a critical cornerstone of the consistent life ethic. The sacredness of human life implies reverence for life at every stage from conception to death. It implies that the right to life is the first and fundamental human right. It requires that believing Christians be on the front lines of efforts to prevent or end the shedding of human blood wherever this occurs.
Christians, especially in our own violent society, often forget or fail to notice early biblical statements of God's revulsion at the violence we do to one another. It is no coincidence that the primordial sin of murder is lifted up for such emphasis: "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand" (Gen. 4:10-11). These words from God to Cain are fully consistent with God's later decision to send a flood upon the earth and start over with Noah and his family. Listen--"So God said to Noah, I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth" (Gen. 6:13).
Cardinal Bernardin, and the Catholic moral tradition generally, grounds the moral piece of the consistent life ethic right here at this point: the "prohibition against direct attacks on innocent life" (Consistent Ethic of Life, 16). Such direct attacks--in abortion, murder, genocide, bombing of noncombatants in war, and so on--are ruled out by the prohibition of murder, which itself is grounded in the sacredness God has attributed to human life.
3. Finally, we must seek the flourishing of each other's lives.
Matthew 22:39 reads, "Love your neighbor as yourself." The sacredness of human life means not only that we refrain from killing each other (a negative prohibition), but also that we take positive steps to see others flourish. We have not exhausted the moral demands placed upon us as human beings by merely avoiding direct harm. We must also, at times, render direct aid. And we must support various institutions and initiatives in various spheres of life that contribute to the flourishing of human life. I think that this is fundamentally what is meant when we are called to "love one another" or to "love your neighbor as yourself."
Nuances, Criticisms, and Applications
I believe that the consistent life ethic does apply, as its name indicates, from womb to tomb. In a longer presentation of this material I walk through such issues as personal relationships, sexuality, race, poverty, genocide, divorce, war, suicide, capital punishment, euthanasia, genetic engineering and other biotech issues, and abortion, all as issues to which a consistent life ethic is directly applicable. Here, by way of conclusion, let me identify several nuances that must be built into the consistent life ethic for it to stand up to critical scrutiny. Addressing these concerns will give me a chance to offer a few issue-oriented examples.
Our responsibility to defend innocent life is more easily grasped and undertaken than the broader task of enhancing life. If a murderer is about to kill someone on the street, and I protect his intended victim, I have done my duty on the "defending innocent life" side. It would be a more difficult and open-ended commitment to work for the full flourishing of the intended victim's life in all its complexity. Yet this is supposed to be a basic moral commitment of Christian people under the consistent life ethic. It shows that the moral work of the Christian is never exhausted, though sometimes we Christians get exhausted!
Not every moral issue undermines or threatens life in the same way. Abortion is the direct taking of human life (in my view) right now; nuclear, biological, or chemical war may happen and must be prevented, but is not happening now. That makes it a threat to life at this stage. Generally, the more direct and immediate is the life-taking, the more direct and immediate is our moral obligation to address it.
In war, a distinction is drawn between the taking of innocent life and combatant life. Unless one is a pacifist, it is assumed that combatants will die in war and that this is morally permissible (though tragic) if the war is just. A consistent life ethic may lead one to pacifism; for me, it leads to a very strict application of just war theory and the desire for a culture and an international order that cherishes peace and life rather than reveling in death. But under no legitimate Christian approach to war is genocide or other intentional taking of noncombatant life morally permissible.
Some threats to life are subtle, long-term, and chronic rather than obvious, direct, and immediate. Poverty, for example, slowly "grinds the face of the poor into the dust," as the Bible puts it, rather than immediately ending life in most cases. Racism is the same way. Environmental degradation frequently poisons the planet in ways we don't even notice at the time. These subtle and chronic issues are all relevant to a consistent life ethic and must not drop off the radarscope.
Capital punishment poses a serious test case to the consistent life ethic because when rightly applied it is inflicted on the guilty rather than the innocent. This does make it a different species of issue than most other life issues. However, I think the Catholics have it right these days as they make this argument--while the State has the right to take life in defense of the innocent, it may do better in a violent culture to communicate its respect for human life by refraining from executing criminals at this time.
It may be argued that God takes plenty of lives in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. To this we must answer that first, there are dimensions of God's activity that Christians are not called to imitate, God being God and humans being humans. Second, all theological and ethical work involves a sorting through of biblical texts and themes and an arranging of them into a pattern that must then be defended. That is what I am trying to do here. Finally, Christian ethics, if it is to be truly Christian, assesses all Scripture in terms of Jesus Christ. His character, person, and work are the final court of appeal.
Finally, there is the question of the church's public witness especially as it relates to politics. The consistent life ethic offers a coherent Christian framework for thinking about party platforms, candidate perspectives, public policy agendas, and so on. It can help save Christians from unthinking partisanship or candidate loyalty. It helps us be proactive rather than reactive, and gives us something to stand for rather than against. My next lecture will take up the whole issue of the place of politics in the church's public witness. Let me end this one by saying that any public moral witness we offer will have about as much impact as the integrity of our living right now.
That is, it is only if we live out a consistent life ethic or something close to it that we will be able to speak it to the world. If in the church--let's just begin there-- we treat each other as sacred, made in the image of God, fully worthy of value and respect, from womb to tomb--then we might have something to say to politicians about what they should do. As Ron Sider put it: "It is a farce for the church to ask Washington to legislate what Christians refuse to live." (Completely Pro-Life, 25). So let us live it.