Friday, May 17, 2013

Monsters, Personhood, Race and Abortion

I'm not claiming to be an expert on any of this but I do want to add some of my thoughts surrounding this case and I would love to hear what others think about it too.

“Dr. Kermit Gosnell is not the monster the media is making him out to be”  these were the words of his defense attorney after he was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for the murder of three babies and death of a woman who had attended his notorious abortion clinic on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia, PA.  Strangely enough, I agree.  If you aren't familiar with the case here is a non-biased link which sums it up pretty well

When this case first surfaced a few years ago I would have agreed with anyone who called him a monster.  I remember the horror and disgust I felt at the descriptions in the news of the filthy and deplorable condition of his office when they shut it down.    I remember cradling my new daughter’s head in my hands and cringing at the thought of a baby’s spinal cord being cut by scissors as “procedure”.   A good friend of mine called me just as I had absorbed a huge dose of information about this case and I began to spew out the details and my emotional reactions.  I was expecting affirmation of all I said but instead my friend listened to my tirade in polite silence.  Then she told me that she was also very upset about the same news but for different reasons.  She knew the man, not the monster.  She had gone to school with his kids, she told me of a woman that we both knew and respected who had been going to him as her gynecologist for decades.  Our friend trusted him and admired him as a doctor who was reaching out to care for the young, poor, black, and underserved women of Philadelphia.  She was so upset at the way the media was making him out to be a heartless beast.  Suddenly this monster in my mind was a friend of a friend, a person whose good intentions had gone severely askew; but a person, nonetheless.  As furious as I am about his actions, demonizing this man does nothing to promote life or diminish the continuing tragedy of abortion.

The question of personhood is central to much of the talk surrounding abortion.  Though he did not testify in court, it is clear in his plea of innocence that Dr. Gosnell believes viable fetuses to be non-persons.  That belief allowed him to objectify children that could survive outside of the womb as tissue to be extracted not people killed.  A brief look at world history reveals that the ability to see people as less than human paves the way for genocide.  It is not murder because they are not people.  Labeling criminals as “monsters” also strips them of their humanity.  If we want a society that recognizes that personhood has a clear beginning at conception then we must maintain the belief that personhood continues throughout one’s entire life.

I called this friend yesterday to see what she thought about the outcome of Dr. Gosnell’s trial.  She was relieved that he did not receive the death penalty, and also relieved that the trial had not been as sensationalized by the media as it could have been.  She also no longer held any illusions about him as a misunderstood champion for the poor.    What we both found most distressing was that his irresponsible actions had gone unchecked for decades. 

I could not help but wonder if authorities would have intervened sooner had the majority of his victims been white.  Did is earlier reputation as “the people’s doctor” blind people to the atrocities that he was carrying out?  The fact that authorities turned a blind eye on the countless reports of abuse and negligence seems to affirm that the scourge of racism is felt even by the unborn.  I am actually not advocating that abortion be made illegal and thus return women to dangerous back alley abortion clinics much like Dr. Gosnell’s.  I am urging people on both sides of the debate to consider the fact that African-American children are the primary victims and that they seem to be valued as less than human by our society even before they are born.  Though you may not agree with this whole website the data in the following link helps to make this point more clear.

We live in a sick and violent society.  Dr. Gosnells’s clinic revealed symptoms of much deeper problems in our community.  It is good that his clinic is closed and that he will no longer be able to hurt women and children.  But it is foolish to believe that now that this “monster” is out of work that this problem is solved.  The fact that women still sought out and paid money for his services despite the awful conditions reveal deep seated problems that still exist.  If we want to change our society we need to hold individuals to account for their actions, while still respecting their humanity and also seek to transform the forces that are still producing such a high demand for abortions. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013


 Happy Ascension day!  This is the day on the church calendar that we celebrate Jesus ascension.  I led worship last Sunday at Jubilee and decided to focus on this story and thought I might go ahead and share it here too.  My husband Michael has been trying teaching himself to read the New Testament in Greek and I had some fun learning a little for this.  We sang "Christus Victor,""Holy Holy Holy," "Over my Head," "Only in God is my Soul at Rest" and "Our God Reigns"  We also had special music from Genia and her siblings Christ and Georfie from Congo Brazzaville.   She sang a song about Jesus being the living water and had also written a song about Jesus walking on water.  She taught some volunteers the songs and moves she made up to go with it.  When she was done I asked if anyone could translate and there was a visitor who spoke perfect French who could help us fully appreciate the message.  Hope you enjoy!
Acts 1:1-11 
1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying[a] with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Of all the stories in the Bible of Jesus' life on earth- his immaculate conception, countless miracles of healing, feeding crowds, taming the weather and walking on water, his resurrection and ascension into heaven – one of the hardest ones for me to wrap my head around is his ascension. I read a commentary that said when folks believed the earth was flat and didn’t know what was beyond the sky it was not a stretch for them to think of a flat earth sandwiched between heaven above and hell below. Now that science and technology have allowed us to probe and explore the depths of our earth and our vast universe and even consider universes beyond our own, belief in a bodily ascension in which Jesus went “up” to heaven seems really hard to believe. So this week as I read and reread this story and countless sermons and commentaries on it in preparation for today, I tried to read the ascension with new eyes. To lay aside my doubts but to also lay aside images of old European paintings of Jesus swirling up in a cloud, his blond curls blowing in the wind, while is disciples gaped in amazement. I have been trying to imagine what it was really like to be there and what it means for us, his disciples two thousand years after the fact.
Forty days after his resurrection the eleven living disciples that he had chosen were staying in Jerusalem because Jesus had promised the gift of the Holy Spirit would come to them soon. When he appeared to them this time they wondered if he could go ahead and restore the kingdom of Israel already. After all they had been through with him they still didn’t get it. They wanted an earthly king to establish an earthly kingdom. Jesus assured them that it was not for them to know the times that his Father had set, then he told them that they will be his witnesses throughout all the world. They were asking Jesus what they hoped for when he rode into Jerusalem on palm Sunday,  "Can you go ahead and rule us as an earthly king?" Instead he empowered them by sending them out to his witnesses. After this “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight." Where he would have authority over everything not just Israel. 
“He was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The last time we saw a cloud in the Bible is the story of the transfiguration in which Peter, James, and John see Elijah, Moses and Jesus together and hear the voice of God from a bright cloud. It is also upon a cloud that Jesus tells us he will return. The Greek word used for cloud in this case is Nephele which is the same word used to describe the cloud that guided the Israelites through the wilderness and the clouds in Revelation upon which Jesus and angels proclaim the glory of God. Shekinah is a word that doesn’t appear in the Bible, but ancient Rabbi’s used it to describe the presence of God like the pillar of cloud that guided the people. Shekinah is derived from the Hebrew verb שכן to settle, inhabit, or dwell. So here we have two words the greek “Nephele” makes us look up to the clouds the Hebrew “Shekinah” makes us settle down. 

When you picture a cloud in your mind what do you think of?  Something light and airy, fluffy and blown by the wind? All of these are true. When you think of dwelling or inhabiting what do you picture? Something solid with walls and a roof, unmovable, unshakable, permanent, rooted, safe? All of these could be true too. But let’s try to stretch our understanding a little wider have you ever thought about how much a cloud weighs in pounds? Scientists say that a little cumulus cloud weighs about the same as 100 elephants! A thunderstorm cloud is like 200,000 elephants! There is a tremendous weight to clouds. So when we imagine Jesus being taken up in a cloud, that is the presence of God, we can see the power and weight of God’s glory, something like thousands of elephants, revealed in something as light as a cloud. In his ascension Jesus went away with a promise to endow us with his Holy Spirit. I imagine his Ascension less as a bodily trip into outer space as a bodily vaporization of a solid Jesus into God’s Holy presence that then becomes accessible to each of us like drops of Holy Spirit rain in a cloud- showering down healing, blessings and his very presence to sustain us as we wait for fullness of his Glory to be revealed.

While on retreat at Conyers Monastery this spring I found some goose down by the pond. I picked up some soft as a cloud down and and held it in the palm of my hand. When I closed my eyes I could not tell the down was there, but I felt warmth on my palm, assuring me of its presence. Psalm 91 says, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” God’s love and protection for us is complete but not confining, we have the freedom to move and can easily blow Him off or scurry away and leave God’s presence but if we enter into those gentle wings or that bright cloud we will be filled with warmth and comfort and safety. 

The Angels said, “what are you doing looking up?” Jesus had already given them a job to do, to go and be his witnesses.  They just assured them that it was time to shift their gaze to one another and trust that He would return and the Holy Spirit would come to help them. So how do we bear witness? He is present in our listening ears and kind words spoken, in acts of generosity and service in bearing one another’s burden and washing one another’s feet. In our courage to speak truth to power, to challenge oppressive structures, to declare authority over powers and principalities that seek to destroy. How do you know he is there? I was talking with a friend who went through a very hard time and kept asking God for help yet nothing changed. She began to lose her faith in God. But then when she had the courage to leave that bad situation she realized God was there all along, waiting for her to move in faith, and giving her the strength by the Holy Spirit to do it. We have been entrusted as the hands, feet, eyes, ears and mouths of Jesus and to let people know where we have seen him. So have you seen Jesus? Have you felt his presence? What is your story?