Monday, March 26, 2007

The Ethics of Politics and Illness-- the Edwards case

On 60 Minutes last night Senator John and Elizabeth Edwards bravely faced the Inquisition at the hands of Katie Couric. She was pleasant enough while busily probing the private parts of their lives, like an overly friendly proctologist. Elizabeth as you will know has had cancer. And it has recurred, this time in 2-3 spots in her bones. And it is incurable, though with treatment the inevitable could be put off a long time. Kay Yow for example, the coach of the women's N.C. State basketball team, has been battling this sort of cancer for 20 years and is still coaching.

But John Edwards is wanting to do more than coach and influence a few budding athlete's lives. He wants to be President of the United States. Now I must tell you I like John Edwards a lot, on a lot of grounds. He and Elizabeth are good members of historical Edenton St. U. Methodist Church in Raleigh N.C. John is a graduate of UNC law school and a big Tar Heel fan. Obviously I have an affinity for this man.

But more to the political point, he is an old school old style moderate southern Democrat. One who is basically conservative on personal ethical issues and progressive on issues like the environment, health care and the like. There aren't that many Democrats out there like Sam Ervin used to be, who do not agree with the radical fringe of the Democratic party, but John Edwards is one. I like his work of late with the Poverty Center in Chapel Hill, and I like a lot of the positions he takes on key issues, including the Iraq War. I think many of his basic positions are coherent and consistent with the ethics of Jesus and various NT writers if they were to take a stand on such modern issues.

But leaving all that aside, should he even be running with his wife battling terminal cancer? As Katie Couric not so gently asked last night-- shouldn't he just withdraw from the race and attend to his wife's illness and give her more time to be with their kids? Won't this cancer become a distraction? How could he concentrate on major crises we must face if he's busy worrying about his wife? Aren't they in denial by carrying on as if nothing had happened? Well these are good and fair questions and it was interesting to listen to the answers.

One thing that especially struck me about these two last night is how much they love each other. John kept talking about how "we are running for President". That is the way it is with them-- they are indeed a couple, in it together through thick and thin. And both of them have an altruistic desire to be good public servants, to give back to the country which has blessed them so much. As you may know, John came up from very humble blue collar, mill-worker roots, which is why he relates so well to ordinary folks. This couple has a sort of optimism about the potential of Americans for good, that reminds one of John Kennedy at his best. This couple has asked "what can I do for my country", and they believe they can make a difference. Whether they are right or wrong, these folks do not fit the mold of cynical, world-weary, unscrupulous politicians. They are honest, open, and yes they are ambitious.

Elizabeth said last night that she did not want her legacy to be that she was the one who deprived the country of her husband's best service. She said she felt fine and was excited to continue on the campaign trail. And John said he didn't want anyone voting for him out of sympathy. Rightly so. We need to elect the best candidate, not merely the one we most empathise with personally.

And of course they are both right that we do not know how long any of us are going to live. Tomorrow is not promised, and life does not say please, it just keeps coming. One person once said to me "life is what happens when you are making other plans." How true. But this couple has decided not to let the "stuff which happens" decide how they will live the rest of their lives. I think this is brave rather than foolhardy, I think this is living on the basis of faith rather than fear of the inevitable, because of course all of us are terminal in this body in this life. It's just that some of us haven't read the memo yet or we are in denial about it.

So I say, leave them alone. If Elizabeth says she is not letting him quit and that's her decision, then fine. If she says they will continue to make time for their children and family life as they always do, then lets not accuse them of being bad parents, or selfishly ambitious folks. There is in fact a strong sense of calling they have on and in their lives. They believe they are supposed to be doing what they are doing, they believe its what God wants, and who are we to say otherwise? So lets see how the next year and a bit play out. Let's see how they do. Let's pray for the health of Elizabeth, and let's not wave the C word in front of their faces any more. Whether you like their politics or not, they are good Christian people. Let's respect their decision.


Robert D. Lukenbill, III said...

Dr. Witherington,

I completely agree 100% with what you have written. I believe that out of all the candidates so far who are running John and Elizabeth Edwards are the only ones who have exhibited the intestinal fortitude to stand up for Christian values. It is a shame that the media tries to exploit her weaknesses to pry them out of the presidential election this early, however, that is what Satan is best at isn't he? Thank you for covering this television interview for I was at Church services last night and could not tape or DVR the news spot.

Darryl Schafer said...

Somewhat related:

How do you feel about Barack Obama?

Curious Presbyterian said...

However, Edwards' hiring of the two anti-Catholic bloggers, and his mishandling of that affair, may have damaged him irreparably.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I agree with you. I have been a slow convert to Edwards--as an old-fashioned Baptist and a Democrat from the democratic socialist wing. I was NOT impressed in '04, especially after he became Kerry's running mate. But I liked how quickly he repented of his stance on the war; his views on poverty, healthcare, and the environment. Since it is unlikely that I will see Dennis Kucinich get the nomination, and Obama seems more flash than substance, and Clinton is promising to continue the occupation after elected(!), I am liking Edwards more and more. I am worried that he can do the job with Elizabeth sick, and she is clearly the better campaigner. But if they think they can still do this, then okay.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Curious Presbyterian: I doubt that tempest in a teapot is going to hurt him much. I agree the matter could have been handled better, and those bloggers apologized as well. Of course you never know all of what a person thinks before they speak on a subject, and this is one of those cases I am afraid.

As for Obama, I think he is a good speaker, and has some good ideas. The problem is of course that neither he nor Edwards have reams of experience in Washington, as they are relatively young. But then, that didn't stop W. from becoming President who had no Washington experience at all. An Edwards-Obama ticket would be interesting to say the least. That might galvanize a whole bunch of different demographic groups.


Jeff said...

There is much about Edwards that bothers me (though there are certainly some things I like). I admire his wife and agree that they made the right decision.

I don't like his background as an ambulance-chasing lawyer. I really don't like the fact that he is pro-abortion (even partial-birth abortion).

I don't like that he is in favor of raising taxes, and affirmative action. That he wants to raise the minimum wage (which ends up hurting the poor, not helping them), that he wants to throw more money at education (does not help -- what is needed is competition). I also don't like that he is in favor of special rights for homosexuals.

It bothers me that he buys into all the hype surrounding climate change and is in favor of crippling the auto industry by raising fuel standards. And the fact that he is staunchly pro-union is troublesome.

Having said all that, he is probably the best the Demeecrats have to offer. :-)

Eddie Torr said...

I thought that John and Elizabeth came across as genuine people last night. I thought that Katie did also. I felt for her, as well, since she lost her husband to cancer.

I'm glad that there are people like the Edwards and Jimmy Carter who do not wear their faith on their sleeves, but, instead try to live it out in service to others and as ethically as possible.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Jeff, you are certainly wrong about some of what you think John Edwards views are, but God bless you anyway. I would encourage you to go to his website and see what he says about himself, rather than listening to second hand news.


Blake J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben Witherington said...

Hi Blake: I would not pay any attention to the Washington Times, which is not a fair or for that matter helpful newspaper as far as I can see. I believe that individual patients should of course have the right to fair treatment, at a fair price.

So far as I can see John Edwards was not an ambulance chaser. I personally would never take another Christian to court, but the issue of Big Hospitals or wealthy doctors taking advantage of patients is a serious issue. You could see what he did as a justice issue, at least in some cases.



Blake J said...

sorry for the mistake above!

I am curious as to your thoughts on the biblical guidelines for lawsuits in relationship to Mr. Edward's prior work suing doctors and hospitals.

I certainly do not doubt Edward's Christian faith, but I do question the legitimacy of how he made his millions.


Blake J said...

Thanks for your thoughts.


Mr. Imperial said...

Growing up in NC while Edwards was still a senator, all I can remember about him was all my high school teachers complaining about how he hurt the NC education system. I wish I had paid more attention in high school to what his policies actually were...too many people get stuck on hearsay and don't actually check out what a candidate believes in before they vote.

Ken Carl said...

I have to agree with Jeff!

While I am sorry that Mrs. Edwards is ill, I certainly hope he doesn't get into the White House.
In fact, I will go even farther and say that I am not sure how people can call themselves Democrat and Christian at the same time based on the Democratic party line on all of the issues that Jeff mentions.

I don't understand how people can separate their Christianity from their politics but that is what they do. So many people say they are a Christian and in the same breath say, "Yeah, it's ok to murder that baby". And instead of presenting the truth they condone gay marriage. It's just the decline of our society in action.

HoosierDaddy said...

I liked Edwards going into the campaign, but after the anti-Christian bloggers I walked away. You only get as much respect as you stand up for. I support he and his wife's decision in this matter but that doesn't mean he'll get my vote.

Deacon John M. Bresnahan said...

I find your oohing and aahing over Edwards sickening. As a Catholic I was willing to overlook his hiring a viciously anti-Catholic blogger at first. But then when he refused to show them the door when it was publicly called to his attention (if he did not already know) it was telling Catholics that callous nastiness toward Catholics on the internet is just fine with him. There are thousands of Catholics like myself who will not forget this gratuitous insult --even if it is not something on your radar worth bothering with.

byron said...

Ken, with respect, I suspect that there would be many who might wonder how it is possible to be Republican and Christian. Those in glass houses...

I doubt that a Christian could endorse any political party without qualification.

Bill in Boston said...

My biggest worry with the decision to continue is that Elizabeth's health could be adversely impacted by the stress of another campaign. Stress can have dreadful effects on human health.

Ben Witherington said...

It would be one thing if John Edwards said he supported anti-Catholic blogging or various of the views you seem to think he holds.

But actually it is a Christian virtue to call people to account, forgive people, and then give them a further chance to straighten up and fly right. Saying you are not going to vote for someone because they forgave a mistake and gave a person a second chance is an odd criteria for a Christian to use.

And of course it would be perfectly possible to say "I don't see how a person can be a Christian and support the militarism of the Republican party, which is as much or more destructive to life than abortion."

But I quite agree with the comment that a thinking Christian person is likely to have problems with both parties on various issues-- and I do.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

In pluralistic societies, no political party will be "Christian" even if, as in several European countries, it has "Christian" in the label. What Christians should pray and work for are government policies that promote public justice for everyone--as much as such is possible.

Christians disagree with EACH OTHER, never mind non-Christians, about whether abortion should be legal or can ever be a moral choice under any circumstances. There the debate has been stuck since the late '70s. Yet the Netherlands and Belgium manage to combine liberal abortion laws with very low abortion rates. Why can't we try the same? With liberal laws on the subject, but policies that remove most of the reasons why elective abortions are sought we get past the stalemated debates over when personhood begins, reproductive choice, etc. Is it a compromise? Yes, but that is the nature of pluralism--and pluralism is not the Rule of God, but a recipe for civic peace and relative justice in a world that is not yet the Rule of God.

By either side in this debate, as with so many others, insisting on an all or nothing approach, we get civil unrest, high abortion rates (whether legal or illegal), clinic bombings, and hysteria in the place of true moral discourse. (One side yelling "baby killer!" while the other replies "woman hater!" is NOT moral discourse, whatever else it is.)

This issue is only an example. On a host of others, we also have to try to get relative justice, not perfection. For instance, I, as a Christian pacifist, would love to see the military dismantled. Not going to happen. And no pacifist is going to be elected president in my lifetime. So, I have to try for someone who is relatively more peaceful and diplomatic, with policies that work more closely with international law and just war theory norms. I have to hope that some military budget is cut and redirected, some nukes abolished, some wars ended, some human rights upheld. I won't get the Peaceable Kingdom--but hopefully I get MUCH better than under any president since 1980. And so it goes.

Jeff said...


Thanks for your reply. I was not basing what I said on hearsay, but on actual quotes from Mr. Edwards, as well as some of his votes in the Senate.

I can cite the votes and quotations if you wish.

But perhaps he has changed his view on some of these things. If so, I would sincerely like to know.

Thanks for the dialogue.

Robert D. Lukenbill, III said...


I noticed you had said (and if I am wrong I apologize) that you believed that brother John is pro abortion (partial birth). I assume you are basing this on the facts of his voting stats. I would like to challenge readers to think a little outside the box politically. Remember just because someone casts a vote does not mean they necessarily believe in the practice themselves, regardless what the issue. Politicians need to align themselves so that they are in the best position to gain edge on other issues. For instance, it would be wise to vote for abortion (even if you are against it) if you already know the vote is slanted in favor of the issue, if you could possible get some other politicians to give you votes on a particular issue you are trying to achieve for your particular district or state. That is called politics. It is not deceitful and most politicians trade votes, especially if their vote is not going to cause an issue to go one way or another. Just my humble opinion and something for you to chew on.

Brianmpei said...

Brilliant post on so many levels. I don't know Edwards but I do know that the media has no business telling anyone what their personal choices should be.

And it's fantastic to read a conservative follower of Jesus who doesn't equate following Jesus with following a particular political party, I feel a little less alone today. Thanks!

Ben Witherington said...

Robert you are so right in what you say. Most Americans do not understand that you can tell very little about a senator's personal views from their voting record, because of the stupid way legislation works in Congress and the Senate. I cannot tell you how many times legislators have been fried for things they did not believe in, simply because they had to vote for a bill that had a zillion riders and pork barrel projects tacked on to it, many of which they opposed. Being a senator means in such a ridiculous system to be appearing to contract your own cherished views because there was some other compelling reason to vote for some omnibus piece of legislation.


Ben Witherington said...

I meant contradict your own beliefs.

Charity said...

It is wonderfully refreshing to read the thoughts of Christians who have expanded their view of politics beyond the scope of abortion. There are so many other issues to consider. Thank you!

Daniel said...

I definitely agree with your sentiments that it should be their (private) choice as husband/wife on whether or not to continue the campaign. Not so sure I agree with how easily you dismiss his socially liberal (and verifiable) voting record. Of course many Americans (including myself) do understand that personal views can be obscured in voting records involving "deal-making" and "pork-barrelling". Call me an idealist, but I still believe that personal conviction should trump political pragmatism. This is also why candidates can and should use simpler, clearer English when talking to the public (in interviews, websites/blogs etc). A simple "I am (for/against) ____" goes a long way, and such simple declarations on a number of issues of import to many US Christians are conspicuously absent from his website, for example, nevermind his voting record. And of course you can be Christian and against "Republican militarism" (and Edwards voted for the war, remember). But why the tit-for-tat dichotomy? Why can't/shouldn't a Christian politician be against BOTH (unjust) militarism and (unjust) abortion? Elementary logic - one wrong doesn't justify another.
Another point of agreement - few on either end of the political spectrum excite me, for the above reasons.
Regarding his "Christian" forgiveness of the bloggers, he's quoted as saying "they have both assured me that it was never their intention to malign anyone's faith". Really... hmm... even when Marcotte referred numerous times to Jesus as "Jeebus"? Forgiveness is obviously Christian... Biblically speaking, so is refusing to continue intentionally aligning (yoking) oneself with those who demonstrate such offensive anti-Christian hostility.

Bill in Boston said...

Dr. Witherington,

I do want to say that I have great respect for you and your opinions. I do disagree with a statement you made above. Please let me know if you feel my perspective is skewed.

You stated:

"And of course it would be perfectly possible to say 'I don't see how a person can be a Christian and support the militarism of the Republican party, which is as much or more destructive to life than abortion'."

I do not believe this statement is accurate.

I assume that by "destructive to life" you are referring to actual deaths, rather than also mixing in the concept of quality of life. Many would argue that abortion improves quality of life, at least for parents -- ignoring the issues such as guilt and the benefit of the child. Whereas war could only possibly improve quality of life in a long term sense.

However, reduction of quality of life simply cannot be placed on the same moral plane as ending life. The magnitude of the evil of the latter is orders greater than the former.

So, looking at the destruction of life as actual killing of human individuals, let's look at a recent example to test whether the United States is guilty of more deaths through war or abortion.

A liberal (and disputed) estimate of the total number of deaths caused by the Iraq war of 650,000 was published last year by the medical journal "The Lancet".

In contrast, the number of abortions in the United States in 2003 alone was 848,163 (source: CDC.) I could not find published data for subsequent years, but the previous three years in thousands were 857, 853, and 854. So, while the abortion rate is declining, it is doing so slowly.

In any case, during the four years, 2003-2006, for which the 650,000 war dead figure was quoted, I do not believe an estimate less than 3 million abortions performed in the US would be reasonable. Moreover, wars are usually interspersed with periods of peace, during which abortions continue unabated. Therefore, this analysis is actually heavily biased toward inflating war deaths relative to abortion deaths in the long term.

Based on the above facts, I think that with regard to the United States, "Abortion is more destructive to life than the militarism of the Republican party" is a much more accurate statement.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bill: There is a fly in your ointment. You need to add war deaths and capital punishment deaths and compare that to deaths by abortions. Then you would get a fair read on the situation since capital punishment is also favored by these same folks we are referring to. Me personally, I am totally pro-life. So I oppose all three forms of life take.


FrankDG said...

While I greatly enjoy your blog -- I have to take issue too on the abortion vs Republican militarism post. I am no defender of the Republican Party by the way but an estimated 40,000,000 plus abortions have taken place since Roe vs Wade. The Democratic Party has radically defended this holocaust along with a slew of other postions that are unbiblical.

Personally I tend to agree with George Washington when he stated that "It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion."

FrankDG said...

Oops -- Washington speaking on political parties and associations in the above quote.

Bill in Boston said...

Dr. Witherington,

According to the Death Penalty Institute (which opposes the death penalty), there have been 1076 death penalty executions in the United States from 1976 to March 21, 2007. For the time period I cited above, 2003-2006, the number is 237.

So, the number of death penalty executions in the U.S. is negligible relative to the numbers I cited earlier. In fact, it is surely far smaller than the margin of error for either the war or abortion death count estimate.

Therefore, we can revise the statement to say, "Abortion is more destructive to life than the militarism of the Republican party and death penalty executions combined."

Death Penalty Institute U.S. Execution Statistics

Alison said...

Sorry Dr. Witherington, I am afraid to say it, but you are way off on this one, including your war/capital punishment vs. abortion figures. The abortion figures are exponentially higher unless you are counting every war, everywhere, since the beginning of time, including those the US is not involved in - and maybe even then. And I am opposed to all three, by the way. Most egregious of all is when someone says, "I am personally opposed, but ..." and then votes another way. I don't care what politics you are. You can't do that and maintain any posture of credibility. I don't always agree with you, Dr. Witherington, and this is not the first time I have though you gullible, but this is really beyond the pale.

Patrick George McCullough said...

Amen. John Edwards gives me more hope for politics than any politician I've seen for a long time.

And on this quote: One person once said to me "life is what happens when you are making other plans."

I believe the person who said that to you was borrowing from John Lennon and his song "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)":

"Life is what happens to you
While you're busy making other plans"

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Friends:

I would stress that I am as opposed to abortion as anyone, but I must confess that I simply do not believe the figures about the number of abortions in the last 10 years. I simply do not believe it.

Let's take for example the state I live in--- the state of Kentucky. How many abortions would you guess happened in 2005? This is the second poorest state in the union. Well according to the records it would appear to be perhaps 150 or so, not thousands of cases. Are all the other states in the union different from Kentucky. I doubt this poor state is the most progressive when it comes to avoiding abortions.

Abortions I find deplorable but I am sorry, I do not believe that we have aborted a further fourth of the whole national population over the past 10 or so years in America. I simply don't believe it. We are asked to believe that about one out of every two nubile women had abortions in some states, and this happened repeatedly year after year. I am sorry, but someone has grossly exaggerated here.

And frankly war destroys not only human lives, it destroys whole societies. It destroys crops and lands. It maims and mentally destroys many of the survivors, often innocent bystanders just like those aborted. War destroys culture and religion. If we are really going to measure which does more overall damage to a country-- war certainly comes out ahead of abortions.

And if we are asking which does more damage to the perpetrator's own ethics, while both are horrible, war wins that one hands down as well.

Abortion is in my view a sin. War, in my view, is a bigger sin because of the scope of what it destroys, affecting humans, plants, animals, the environment, food, clothing, shelter and I could go on.

And just one more point. Why would we not add in the figures from at least Afghanistan as well if we are counting war deaths?

In any case, I don't really want to argue in any way against the idea that abortion is something sinful and horrible, but then so is the death of innocents in war as well, and all of these lives are of equal value in the eyes of God.


Daniel Davis said...

Dr. Witherington,

I am in agreement with your full application of a pro-life value. Additionally, I can sympathize with those who ask pro-lifers to assess the entire scope of politics, not merely one issue.

However, I have a problem with politicians sacrificing values in order to "gain an edge" (as one commenter said). If someone is personally opposed to abortion, it is reasonable to assume that they believe abortion is the destruction of innocent life. That is a major belief to offer on the altar of political expediency. Such actions leave me wondering what other values will be sacrificed in order to further another agenda? How then can I trust someone who does not live out privately and publicly his/her beliefs/values?

Granted, there is give and take on both sides. Although abortion is a prominent issue, the deeper issue to me seems to integrity between faith and actions. Hence, I would almost rather have a leader who is internally and externally pro-choice than someone who is internally pro-life (currying favor with middle-of-the-road pro-lifers) and externally pro-choice (gaining the support of that powerful lobby). The incongruence between values supposedly held and actions taken is most troubling to me.

Michael Gilley said...


In your last post you stated that you believed war to be a "bigger sin" when lined up against abortion. If it envolved more people I could see that but you listed the reasons as being what it affected. So, was your point theological (cause I'm not sure about the New Testament speaking of God playing favorites with certain sins) or was it simply a quanitified statement?

Also, when were politics and Christianity ever supposed to be mixed? It is under my impression that the New Testament speaks of not resisting the government (its actions) as God uses it to keep evil at bay BUT government always was a secular entity during Jesus' and the apostles' times. If politics is all about acquiring and sustaining power, as it always has been, then how can that be married to the teachings of Christ, that the first will be last and if you want power, you must give it away? Jesus and the earlier Fathers taught nothing but pro-life, especially when it came to children, BUT does that mean the government should have the right to enforce such moral issues? I believe it is up to the people (at least in this country)whatever the majority happens to be. Either way, such teachings are hard and should be applied by each of us who believe. You cannot force others to conform. Put away your sword, for by it you will die. And they will know us by our love. It is wrong to condemn others for their pasts. The only justice that can be practiced by followers of Christ is that of mercy. So, I think it important to keep in mind that government and church are seperate and always meant to be until that Day. We instead are a people of our own, living in a land that is foreign to us awaiting the time that we shall go home. I don't believe it's possible to be a fully devoted follower of Christ and be stand for all the things presented by any political party. Voting in the senate one way or the other is another thing. It doesn't always reflect the convictions of the voter.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for this post Daniel.

Let me offer you a not so hypothetical scenario, and lets see what you say.

Let's say there is a bill in Congress just now-- a bill which helps small businesses stay in business. This is a worthy goal. You are the sponsor of the bill as a congressman, and you have promised your constituency that you will press for it until it is made law.

Quite apart from your wishes, various riders are added to your bill in committee, not when it passed the House, but after it went to the other chamber, the Senate, and one of the riders included a provision not to change the current abortion law, but to continue to fund partial birth abortions.

What should you do since you are the sponsor of the 'Davis fairplay for small business bill'? Should you: 1) repudiate the bill; 2) continue to support the bill but make clear you disagree with that rider on the bill.

The bill now address multiple issues. If you do 1) you have reneged on your promise to your constituency who badly needs this bill as you are in a state with many failing small businesses. If you do 2) lots of unscrupulous people will say you support partial birth abortion, since it was part of your bill when it became law after the Senate passed it.

I think you can see the problem here. There are very few clean, one issues bill in Congress or the Senate.

What say ye?


Brad in KY said...

Dr. Witherington,

First, I'd be interested to know where you found the statistic concerning the number of abortions in the state of Kentucky.

If we can't trust the CDC figures that you apparently reject, then why should we trust the figure you give for KY?

Second, it's a bad move to generalize from the fact that there are few abortions performed in KY to the conclusion that there must be fewer abortions overall. The reason is that in order to have an abortion a person must have access to a facility that will perform abortions. KY only has two such facilities: there are Planned Parenthood Clinics in Lexington and Louisville. Both of these locations are far from many of the poorest areas of the state. By way of comparison, I think there are at least three abortion clinics right across the state line in Knoxville, TN alone.

Daniel Davis said...

Thanks for the scenario which, unfortunately, is all too common. In such a scenario, some sacrifice must be made: 1) the bill to small businesses; 2) the value regarding pro-life. I do not say that the value regarding a promise kept is on the table. To vote against the amended bill is not to abandon the effort. Rather, this bill has evolved into something that one can no longer support in good conscience - a decision, by the way, to be expected if one's constituents elected the politician knowing his/her commitment to his/her values. In such a case, the particular bill would be sacrificed in order to avoid lending support to a clearly immoral plan that is destructive to the very fabric of the society one is trying to serve.

That being said, I do not live in a pretend world. I fully realize the consequences of that action. "Lots of unscrupulous people" will make a great deal of that decision and paint the picture of a politician unfaithful to his/her word and against small business. Indeed, that decision might very well cost future political ambitions - as it did Kerry in the infamous "I voted for it before I voted against it" gaffe. We understand what he meant, but it was used fiercely against him.

The above refers to the issues in general. As it regards Mr. Edwards, I am not comforted by either his 100% pro-choice rating by NARAL while in the Senate nor by his public letter opposing the confirmation of Justice Alito on the grounds that Alito does not find a "right to choose" abortion inherent within the Constitution.

Again, I do not mean to make abortion the primary issue upon which all decisions must swing. Rather, I am discomfited by actions being inconsistent by supposed values. I cannot see into Mr. Edwards' heart to understand all his motivations. Thus, I am left with the task of reconciling what I am given. I cannot help but feel as if a pro-life personal value contradicted by public words and actions is simply to make an independent voter like me feel better about him.

Bill in Boston said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for your response. I will reply in two parts: first regarding the numbers and then regarding which is more evil, war or abortion. (I may not get to the latter until tomorrow, though.)

1) Regarding the numbers

I think you inadvertently made an error with the decimal point in your calculations. I initially made a computational error myself as I attempted to verify your numbers -- so errors afflict all of us!

Let's take 850,000 as the total number of abortions in the nation annually (the actual number of abortions were slightly higher for most years in the past decade). Multiplying that by 10 years gives us 8,500,000 abortions. Dividing this number by 300,000,000 gives us 0.0283 (or 0.031 using the population in 1997).

This means that about 3% of the total population has been aborted over the past 10 years.

The abortion figures I am quoting are from the Centers for Disease Control. These are tallies of the number of abortions reported from each state and I believe they are ultimately sourced from the hospitals and clinics that perform abortions for the given year. I think this is a highly reliable source of information.

Also, the annual numbers of reported abortions were actually higher during the Clinton administration. Since Bill Clinton supported abortion rights, I think his administration would have had incentive to make sure the numbers reported by the CDC were not inflated.

Regarding the number of deaths in Afghanistan, the greatest (and once again disputed) estimate I can find is 50,000. This would bring the most liberal estimate of the combined Iraq-Afghanistan death toll to about 700,000.

However, the Afghanistan conflict began at the end of 2001. Therefore, we must at least now also include abortion figures for 2002. This would bring the abortion death total for years 2002-2006 to about 4,250,000.

Therefore the number of abortions is likely at least 6 times greater than the number of deaths due to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and death penalty executions combined over the same period (2002-2006).

Infoplease: Compilation of Abortion Statistics

Abortions in the US in 2003

Daniel said...

I likewise abhor the tragic loss of life conveniently/trivially labeled "collateral damage" or "civilian casualties", but I respectfully disagree with your ethics-math which says "10 unborn children killed matters less than 10 civilians killed plus some houses and stores and trees and cultural icons." Those other things matter too, but it's an entirely different dimension of value in God's eyes, and you simply can't put them on the same level as actual human lives. This is easily seen in that one would easily destroy innumerable buildings in order to save one human life (not a subtle endorsement of the abhorrent practice of clinic bombing).

Also you said:
"War, in my view, is a bigger sin"

Just curious, do you mean all war, or just the current operations in Iraq/Afghanistan? Am I misinterpreting your sentiments as absolute pacifist, or do you account for just wars - like WWII, where several of my Jewish family were killed by the Nazis before the Allies (finally/belatedly) acted?
"What say ye"? :)


Todd Billings said...

If I read the article correctly, CDC abortion data does not include figures from California, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. (see the "Limitations" part of the study), therefore the actual abortion numbers should be higher.


Todd Billings said...

I have to respond to this comment to this too.

" You need to add war deaths and capital punishment deaths and compare that to deaths by abortions."

I don't think you can even compair the relationship between all war and capital punishment deaths to abortion deaths.

Some (not all) War and capital punishment deaths include the justifiable killing of a guilty human being.

Furthermore, some wars prevent the killing of innocent human beings. (what Dan is pointing out)

But abortion *is* the unjust killing of an *innocent* human being.


Robert D. Lukenbill, III said...

Wow! I am away for 12 hours and this topic went nuclear. I think there are many of you who are misunderstanding Dr. Witherington's position and John Edwards. Neither of them, from what I have read as an unbiased (well mostly :)) third party, believe in murder of any human being. I have read the reports that show John Edwards voting for the legalization of Partial birth abortion or the banning thereof, and the stats do not tell us why he voted for this particular issue. It seems many of you live in a fairy world where politicians say exactly what they mean and vote only for the issues they are willing to die for. Americans need to wake up and smell the coffee. If Christians are going to take back the White House and make this another God fearing country we need to compromise some votes in order to win certain issues in our districts or states, that is politics. I believe Solomon did these very same things in his kingdom in order to expand her borders, as did other Kings of the Bible. I am not saying it is the best way to handle the situation but it is the most expedient. Bottom line is John Edwards is anti-murder in any shape or form. Why does he need to say that, nor does any politician?

God Bless you all!

Todd Billings said...

"Bottom line is John Edwards is anti-murder in any shape or form. Why does he need to say that, nor does any politician?"

Because some politicians support abortion.

How can you be against the taking of an innocent human beings life and at the same time support abortion (the taking of an innocent human beings life)?

I would love to learn that Edwards is pro-life. Could you please show me where he has publically denounced abortion, stated that there should be laws limiting abortion, and/or voted appropriately.

I would also like to know if he has given his support to a "woman's right to choose."

Does planned parenthood/NOW support him?
How about the National Right to Life?



Todd Billings said...

This is taken from the NARAL website (July, 2004)

NARAL Pro-Choice America, the nation’s leading advocate for personal privacy and a woman’s right to choose, is elated about Sen. John Kerry’s selection today of John Edwards as his Vice Presidential running mate. Since 1999, Sen. Edwards has cast 20 votes on the right to choose and family planning issues; of that number – all were pro-choice votes.


Shane Vander Hart said...

I know I'm a little late posting on this. I wish the Edwards' the very best, and am praying for them as they face this current challenge.

Dr. Witherington, I can appreciate your stance on the Iraq war. I am also thankful that you are also anti-abortion. I think you are mistrusting CDC statistics without cause however.

I would seriously consider Senator Edwards as a candidate if I knew that he was pro-life. Unashamedly I would say that abortion is a litmus test for me. I'm not really thrilled about any of the major candidates from either party.

Nathan said...

As a lay Methodist, I'm a casual fan of this blog. And I certainly pray for the Edwards family as they face the recurrence of Elizabeth's cancer.

But where to start with the rest of this?

Edwards as an "old school moderate Southern Democrat"? In what sense is the guy a "moderate"? He's built his entire candidacy so far on a blatant appeal to the far left fringe of his party -- as evidenced by his choice of Marcotte as his campaign blogger. The whole rationale of his candidacy has been his presenation of himself as the liberal alternative to Clinton and Obama, a true believer who is one with the angry nutroots of the Left.

You cite his position on the Iraq War as worthy of praise. Edwards position on Iraq can be summed up thusly: gung-ho for the War when it was believed Saddam had WMDs, but now that we know he didn't have them, it was a grave mistake and we were misled. This is perhaps the least principled position on the War one can take. It's pretty much the direct opposite of leadership.

His political positions match those positions Jesus and other NT writers themselves would take if they were alive today and voting American citizens? How exactly is this different than the Christian Coalition and its often-ridiculed-and-rightly-so "voter guides"?

How about the fact that he never misses an opportunity to bemoan our "Two Americas" as he lives in the most grotesque example of conspicuous consumption in Orange County, North Carolina -- 28,000 square feet of John's personal megachurch. The hypocrisy is palpable.

And it's appalling that the guy thinks he's even remotely qualified to serve as President of the United States. Six years in the U.S. Senate -- couldn't manage re-election -- and a career as a plaintiff's lawyer. Even Bush the Younger had a better resume.

Finally, we're disputing abortion numbers from the CDC because they just don't seem right (and because they weaken our questionable "war is worse than abortion because it hurts the environment, too" position)? Seriously?

I usually enjoy this blog and agree with its author, but this one is a real head-scratcher.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Nathan, clearly you must be talking about a different John Edwards than the one I know. And a good deal of what you say is false. For example, of course it is possible to vote on principle in favor of going to Iraq because you believe there is imminent danger from WMD and no one doubts that Hussein was 15% shy of plumb not to mention wicked. But then when you discover that not only were there no WMD at all, but that also we were not told the truth about this matter in the first place. Then of course you would need to rethink the matter if you had any ethics at all. You would need to consider whether it meets the criteria for a just war, meets the Geneva standards etc. In fact it does not on either count. A principled person will, upon better evidence, rethink his judgment, and be honest enough to admit his mistake. John Edwards did this which is more than I can say for some of those who are in denial about the whole nature of why we are in Iraq and what is and is not happening there.


Ben W

Nathan said...

Rest assured: if the Iraq War were still politically popular, John Edwards would still be its biggest supporter.

Ben Witherington said...

So, in your view Nathan, John Edwards is just another opportunistic politician who sways which ever way the prevailing wind blows?

I'm sorry, but you are dead wrong. Exactly how popular do you think his stand in favor of universal health care of some sort is with the general American public? Would you say that is a view a majority of Americans would support in a heartbeat? I don't think so.

And there are a dozen other positions John has taken that frankly don't meet the popularity standard you are suggesting.

So I would suggest you rethink your position on John Edwards and his principles. If you disagree with him on issues, that's fine, but don't pretend to know his motives for his change of vote on Iraq, if your guess conflicts with what he has actually stated. And I would especially say-- repent and think better of your fellow Methodist Christian brother!!

P.S. to Daniel--- I certainly did not say or imply that an innocent civilian in war is of more value than an unborn child. I said they were of equal human worth.


Ben W.

Nathan said...

From the mouth of John Edwards, in an interview with the American Prospect concerning his changed view on Iraq:

"But it was wrong for two reasons; it wasn’t just wrong for one. It was wrong because, first, the basis for me voting for it was the weapons of mass destruction, and that was just false. But the second is I felt a great conflict then about giving George Bush this authority, because I didn’t trust him. And I resolved that conflict on the side of voting for it. Now seeing what’s happened, I would not resolve that conflict that way. This president should not have been given the authority to go into Iraq and I think on both fronts -- that’s the thing I can confidently say to you -- on both fronts the vote was wrong."

You can read the whole thing here:

Not a word about just war theory or the Geneva Conventions.

His first rationale -- that now we know there were no WMD all along -- is the worst kind of political Monday-morning-quarterbacking, and as I said earlier, is the opposite of leadership. Leaders must make decisions based on the information available to them at the time. They are not afforded the benefit of hindsight.

(Elsewhere in the article, Edwards takes the knee-slappingly laughable position that inspections weren't given the opportunity to work. Hilarious!)

Notice how he takes a question about HIS vote to invade Iraq, based on the SAME intelligence available to the president and the rest of the world, and pivots into a more comfortable position: that George Bush sucks. Again: not leadership, and has nothing to do with principles.

Dr. Witherington, no one has to guess as to Edwards' motivations or rationale for his political positions -- they're there in black and white for anyone to read.

And I would also remind you that George W. Bush, who has made many, many mistakes, is also your Christian (and Methodist) brother, and perhaps you should consider repenting for thinking so little of your Christian brother to believe that he purposely lied (about what?) to take us to war.

No, the John Edwards you know and the Edwards I know have apparently never met, seeing as how one of them is apparently a figment of the imagination.

PS. Regarding Edwards' courageous and oh-so-unpopular position on universal health care, how convenient that CBS News and the NY Times recently asked this very question -- and found that 2/3 of Americans favor the federal government ensuring that all Americans have health insurance. Something tells me the number is even higher in, say, a Democratic primary?

Bill in Boston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill in Boston said...

Dr. Witherington,

In this second part of my response, I want to address the second issue you raised in your reply regarding whether war or abortion is more evil.

First, I want to point out that I think the numerical comparison of deaths caused by the U.S. from war and abortion is very valuable because it provides us with an objective measurement.

Because of our Christian faith, we stipulate at the outset that we do not devalue the lives of aborted children or war victims relative to one another. We believe that each life is precious to God. This allows us to make an "apples to apples" comparison (or deaths to deaths, in this case).

You have been helping me to refine the analysis by including more aspects of deaths that Republican policy can be seen to directly impact. This is fine with me, however, I want to note that my goal has not been to implicate particular parties, but simply to determine the relative magnitudes of the number of deaths that each issue creates and that this nation must take responsibility for.

However, in your last reply to this discussion, you now appear to be drawing back from making this direct comparison.

You said:
"Abortion is in my view a sin. War, in my view, is a bigger sin because of the scope of what it destroys, affecting humans, plants, animals, the environment, food, clothing, shelter and I could go on."

Once again, we have returned to the issue of the magnitude of evil of taking a human life compared to destroying anything else on earth. I contend that they are not at all comparable in worth.

It is indeed true that God values animal life, but do you believe that Jesus had a number in mind when He said "Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows"? The fact is, we have not been informed of any animal that has been found valuable enough to be taken to heaven, or to be redeemed by our Savior, or to be given the ability to know God or to make moral judgments. The fact is, human beings are infinitely more valuable to God than animals.

Plants, clothing, etc., and everything else you mentioned are temporary and passing away. They do not compare in value either. Again, what is the value you would assign to them relative to the life of a human being?

As an example, when we talk about the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, we almost always hear it evaluated in terms of the roughly 3,000 people who were killed. It is uncommon to hear people mourning the loss of the twin towers, or of the entire companies that were wiped out, etc. This is because we know in our consciences that human life is preeminent over all other concerns.

So, when the result of the analysis that you helped to shape shows that abortion has claimed at least six times more lives than the particularly bloody Iraq and Afghanistan Wars during the same time period, can you really claim that the magnitude of the evil done by these wars is greater than that done by abortion?

Ben Witherington said...

Bill, I guess we will have to disagree on this.

The sheer numbers don't decide this issue at all. War destroys not only lives, it ruins relationships between whole countries. It alienates allies, antagonizes foes, ruins the means of product, kills the crop cycle. The damage is much more vast and systemic than the damage that comes from abortion.

Consider for example the case in Darfur. The war not only killed huge numbers of people, it led to famine and the starvation of thousands more. I am afraid it is simply not possible to argue that all these abortions change things systemically in the same way war does.

Have abortions in America ruined our relationship with say Mexico or Canada, our nearest neighbors-- well no. Have these abortions ruined our ability to feed our families--well no. It has a more private effect, and effects far less people.

Consider the use of agent Orange in the Vietnam war. Not only did it kill many people, it disabled others, ruined the water supply in places, caused abortions, disfigurement, disease. I could go on.

So while I am all for making clear that abortion is wrong, indeed it is a form of destruction of the innocent, it simply does not have the same systemic effects that war does-- and what you cannot say is that sheer numbers of abortions outweighs all the systemic effects beyond deaths that happen in war. War has longitudinal and long term effects for millions of people that you can not claim abortions have.

You may well say that allowing abortions changes the character of a country. To some extent this is true. I cannot say it has changed me, or my views on the subject, but certainly it deadens the conscience of those who practice it or have an abortion. So I am not unaware of the psychological damage it does.

But having been to places and seen the effects of war overseas, you could never convince me that abortions, even lots of them, have the same systemic or long term affects on a society.

I do however believe this-- that how a society treats its weakest and most vulnerable members, says a lot about that society's actual values. It says a lot about a Christian's values as well. So for example, having great passion for protecting the unborn, but being unwilling to lift a finger to help the poor, the indigent, the disabled, the senior citizens, or the children of the poor, or crack babies frankly says a lot of not very good things about such Christians. If you don't care as much for the born as you do for the unborn then you have surrendered the belief that all persons are of equal sacred worth in God's eyes.


Ben W

Brad in KY said...

Dr. Witherington,

I'm not in agreement with your response. First, on what grounds are you accusing pro-life conservatives of not caring for the poor, the elderly, the disabled, etc.? On the grounds that conservatives tend to favor leaner, less intrusive government? If government solutions were the only solutions to these problems then you'd be correct. However, I take it as rather obvious that there are other - and better - means to combat these problems. So, if that's what you mean, then I think your generalization if fallacious.

Second, the issue with abortion is that unborn children are intenionally murdered. Obviously, if forced termination of the poor and elderly became the law of the land then I think you could expect a similar counter-movement much like the pro-life movement against abortion. So I think the issues you pose against pro-life conservatives are disanalogous in this sense.

Obviously Christians have an obligation to help the poor, the elderly, the prisoner, etc. as you suggest. My objection simply is that you unfairly accuse others of NOT caring about these issues simply because we may not agree on the means by which these problems should be addressed.

Ben Witherington said...

Brad I can only speak from my experience on this one, and I am certainly not tarring everyone with the same brush.

I will simply say this--- I have found far too many Evangelicals who care about the unborn, but in fact have a very negative attitude about helping those already born. I have experienced this over and over again.

Take for example babies born into impoverished inner city situations. It is certainly not their fault or choice who they were conceived by or where they were born. And yet many of these children will never be helped by conservative Christians. Why is that? Don't they deserve the same concern and respect as the unborn? I believe they do.

In my view a systemic approach to abortion is the Christian one-- it involves all of the following: 1)of course training in abstinence and a reaffirming of the goodness of virginity, perhaps especially in God's eyes; 2) birth control; 3) choosing adoption over having more than two children of one's own. There are frankly too many born children in this world who desperately need the help of the
Christian church, but we are not doing anywhere near enough to help them.

We had a speaker here at the seminary this past couple of weeks whose ministry was rescuing young girls out of prostitution in Thailand. God cares just as much about those girls as about the ones we have here in America.

We need to think globally about all the pro-life issues-- abortion, capital punishment, and war, precisely because we are the worldwide church of Jesus Christ, and Jesus loves the entire world.

It is often frustrating to have try to convince Christians to do the very things they ought to know on their own they should be doing-- its like pulling teeth sometimes.



Aaron Buer said...


I appreciate your blog and I deeply admire your willingness to rationally articulate what you believe while people pick apart every single word that you say. I couldn't do it.

Bill in Boston said...


I do not want our discussion to become unfocused. I was considering the issue you initially raised of whether abortion or war initiated by the United States (or the Republican party, for that matter) destroys more lives. In your original statement, it was clear you believed war claimed more lives. I have shown evidence to the contrary and have invited your critical review. Later, you expanded the debate to include the question of which is the bigger sin. In recent posts, however, you seem to be broadening the debate further to the issue which apparently motivated your original statement, that of which political party in America is morally superior, and represents the best choice for a Christian. This is not the question I am trying to address, as it is far beyond my capability to do so. I will continue to focus on the original problem and the question of which is the greater evil in the bulk of my response below.

Concerning your arguments on the effect of war, if your point had been simply that additional lives will be lost due to the consequences of war, and thus you consider it premature to make the analysis, I could accept your point. However, I would consider it unlikely that the number of lives lost would ever catch up to the abortion figures. Remember also that, to be fair, the analysis would have to then include abortion deaths in subsequent years. I do not think that anyone can make a valid historical argument that war deaths caused by the U.S., even counting the indirect causes you list, have ever approached abortion deaths in the United States over the long or short term.

However, it is clear you are making the point that other types of destruction can morally outweigh the destruction of innocent human life. To support this contention, you cite the greater apparent negative sociological and material impacts of war versus abortion.

If I were a secularist, I could easily accept arguments concerning sociological and material impact because I would find more value in collective benefit to society than in sparing individual lives. However, as a Christian, I do not believe this is a biblical paradigm.

I am trying to understand from a biblical perspective why the sociological and material impacts that you have been talking about can have greater moral weight than the taking of innocent human life. I laid out my views on this subject in my earlier post -- namely, that human life has preeminent value. You have a much deeper knowledge of the Bible than I do, and if you could give me examples where the factors you mention are deemed to be of similar worth to human life by God, this would be very helpful.

Finally, I want to return to the backdrop of our conversation. The bigger problem, which I think has been foremost in your mind, of which political party a Christian should vote for is obviously a complex decision. It amounts to choosing what each of us judges to be the lesser of two evils, all things considered. However, I am concerned that all too often Christians in both major political parties begin to absorb far too many political dogmas and confuse them with their Christian principles. We all must remember that we are Christians first, not party members or sympathizers first. Regardless of which party we align with, we must be the source of light to that party, exposing its dark corners and demanding change – rather than accepting these faults. Otherwise the poison of political expediency will invade our minds and begin to affect the way we live our own lives. As Christians, we know that in the Final Judgment, political expediency in our personal decisions made on earth will be our foe.

Scott said...

Hi Ben,

I always appreciate your heart in seeking truth and accountability. I wonder though if that search is fraught with difficulty when we apply a Christian lens to political leaders and policies. I'd like to look at a policy and judge it at face value for the principles it appears to espouse; but I cannot deny that a policy can carry diverse ramifications for all people in society. Can I judge which of those ramifications please the Lord and which do not?

When I think of the war in Iraq, I'd like to articulate my objections to it. But how might this impact an Iraqi believer who feels strongly that this conflict was God-send, that the removal of Saddam might eventually facilitate Christian ministry in that nation? Whether or not I agree with his stance, I can see how mixing my faith and my politics could cause him to stumble. I've similarly seen how my prior vocal stances on abortion and other issues of controversy have caused quarrels and misunderstandings; in retrospect, I sometimes realized that designating a policy as "consistent with my beliefs" was equivalent to accepting the selective disadvantage of certain subsets of society as "consistent with my beliefs."

Judging a political leader through a Christian lens is also a very difficult area for me. We live in a society that pays lip service to the idea of conservative values, and there is no particular disadvantage for a political candidate who is outspoken about a Christian faith. I don't mean to be cynical. I just want to be careful. I like some things that I've heard about John Edwards, but I don't know whether or not God looks upon his political career with favor. To me, God's political alliances are a mystery. In fact, given how Christ never articulated his own podium, I wonder if I am even encouraged at all to articulate my own agenda. If I were gifted like Nathan the prophet, then perhaps the integrity of my leader would be my domain and responsibility!

Perhaps there are some laws (i.e. pertaining to racial segregation or human trafficking) that are clearly contrary to the principles of scripture. But I think that most political controversies are not so easily categorized, when one considers that all political agendas give advantage to some at the expense of others. With gay rights for example, one believer of conscience can oppose a law that he feels will legitimize a homosexual lifestyle; but another believer will be drawn to the cause of that disadvantaged and persecuted population and seek to protect them. The political arena creates conflict not only among the spiritually misguided but also very much among true Christian believers. It is a conflict that I fear, because it arouses deep personal feelings and creates divisive rhetoric. You can see from the responses to this post that there are some who feel that their disagreements with you are very personal because of how you situate your political sympathies within the paradigm of your relationship with Christ.

If we are never at fault in what we say, then we are perfect. Is it possible to be never at fault in what we say when we judge the leaders and politics which powerfully and unpredictably impact many people in society? I think it's not, and that's why I've retreated from the political discourse in general. More power to you brother, if you can stay both humble and affirming in all of the ongoing and difficult debates.

Ben Witherington said...


This is just something for prayerful thought. Why do you think it is that abortion is nowhere mentioned in the NT as a sin, indeed nowhere in the Bible so far as I can see, but the taking of post-natal life comes in for all sorts of strictures, warnings, judgments. Why is this? It could tell us where the priorities are of the writers of the NT.

I certainly would not say that NT writers don't care about the unborn, and we know for a fact that there were lots of abortions in the first century world, so this profound silence is strange.

There are of course also the OT laws which speak of injuring a pregnant woman in a struggle, such that an abortion is caused. If the woman dies there are severe penalties. If the unborn child dies the penalties are less severe. Why? It seems they have a gradation of value in view, but I would not want to make too much of that.

The long and short of all of this is that 'innocent life' is not the sole possession of the unborn. They are certainly a special case, but there is a danger of making too much of that case in proportion to the life matters the Bible does focus on and spends no little time regulating.


Ben W.

James W Lung said...

Ben: I used to practice law in NC and have tremendous respect for John Edwards' ability and success as a lawyer.

I disagree totally and absolutely with your assessment of Edwards as a man and as a leader. He is just one more liberal empty suit.

I am reading with interest your comments on the abortion issue. I must say I am very disappointed.

Benson said...

Dr. Witherington. There does seem to be two John Edwards... I am aware that a lot of information gets twisted when we are talking about politics and especially when media is concerned with politics... and then even worse when "christian" media is concerned...

As an onlooker from north of the border (a country where Howard Dean looks conservative), I have picked up many people--liberal and conservative--believing that John Edwards leans left on many fronts.

Frankly, I don't have much of an opinion on Edwards as I don't know him personally nor have I followed him very closely politically... However, I would be interested in hearing what you have to say about the "two John Edwards"... Can the discrepancy really be only about people not knowing the "real" John Edwards that you seem to know... Or is it possible that there is another John Edwards? I am not saying there is... I just wonder how the John Edwards that you know and the one that the rest of America is talking about (both conservatives and liberals alike) seem to be different?

I have appreciated conversation from both sides of this conversation. I often find God's presence in the tensions.


Benson said...

James... You say, "I am reading with interest your comments on the abortion issue. I must say I am very disappointed."

I don't understand your stated disappointment with Dr. Witherington. Have you missed the place where he said, "I am opposed to abortion"... Are we to glean from your generalization that you are in fact "for abortion"


Todd Billings said...

Hi Dr. Witherington

I really think you should answer Dan's question about WWII. I believe the just of the question was "Is there *ever* a time to wage war?"

If the answer is no, I would add the question: Is it *ever* justifiable to kill another human being?

I'm also wondering if you think more or less people would be killed in Iraq if we left Iraq today?


The Vegas Art Guy said...

I was thrilled you allowed this discussion to meander past just the issue of the Edwards family and the challenge they are now facing. I now have a question that I hope you can answer. If there is no direct prohibition against abortion in the Bible then where did the whole pro-life thing start and what real Biblical principle is there to be pro-life? Is it something inferred? Is is circumstantial?

Also do men really have any voice in this since we aren't the ones carrying the babies to term?

James W Lung said...

Benson: Briefly: I am disappointed because Dr. W's comments on the issue of abortion are out of sync with what I believe.

Abortion is the issue of our time. I am disappointed when christian leaders whose theology I respect do not treat the issue with moral and theological clarity.

The "seamless garment" view Ben expresses is, in my opinion, untenable. Thoughtful followers of Jesus can and always have disagreed on war and capital punishment.

Until the onset of the sexual revolution and the rush of some in the church to embrace and accommodate all that it entails, the tradition of the church has always treated wilfull abortion of unborn babies as both sexual sin and homicide. Again until the onset of the sexual revolution, the only exception recognized was cases in which the physician delivering the baby must decide whether or not to kill the baby in order to same the life of the mother.

I am further disappointed because I am at a loss to see how a follower of Jesus can support a candidate who 1) supports the present legal regime regarding abortion, 2} cannot even bring himself to oppose partial birth abortion, and 3} has as his chief advisor on women's and "reproductive health" issues a woman like Kate Michelman, a person who has never seen abortion she would not celebrate.

I'll get over my disappointment. In fact, I already have, because I appreciate Ben W's ministry, am very thankful for his blog, and I am constantly reminded that none of us sees all of the truth. Only Jesus sees all of the truth. And we killed Him.

I am disappointed when christian leaders I respect

One's views on abortion reflect ultimately and precisely on

Bill in Boston said...


Here are two statements you made in the past few days in different responses:

"I certainly did not say or imply that an innocent civilian in war is of more value than an unborn child. I said they were of equal human worth."

"If you don't care as much for the born as you do for the unborn then you have surrendered the belief that all persons are of equal sacred worth in God's eyes."

The above statements are your own.

I also want to include a link to one of your many excellent articles on where you defend the assertion that abortion is murder Dr. Witherington Q&A

However, in your last response, you retreat from your position that "all persons are of equal sacred worth in God's eyes". Now you suggest that the Bible does not seem to value unborn life as highly as the born.

1) You have changed your mind in the past few days about the equal sacred worth of human life

2) You still believe that "all persons are of equal sacred worth in God's eyes", but you think the Bible is in conflict with this belief about God's perspective. If this is true, then you have crossed into the domain of liberal, anything-goes theology which I believe you formerly opposed.

Concerning whether or not the Bible supports equal sacred worth for the unborn, I want to look at the passage in the Old Testament that you alluded to in your response. I believe this passage actually proves that the Bible does support equal sacred worth for the unborn:

Exodus 21 (NIV)
22 "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life

It is clear that you are assuming that injury here only applies to the woman and not the child. However, that would render verse 23 as a purely redundant and unnecessary restatement of Ex 21:12 "Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death." Saying that the particular command in verse 12 was meant to be gender specific does not make sense either, then only the killing of a pregnant woman is condemned in this series of laws, not a woman who is not pregnant.

Another reason for confusion may be because the old version of the New American Standard version translated the word "prematurely" above as "miscarriage". The new version of the NAS has been corrected to read "prematurely". Here is a fragment discussing the actual Hebrew:

In fact, the Hebrew word used here literally means, "her children come out." This word, yatsa, is used in Genesis 25:26 to refer to the live birth of Jacob. Furthermore, the term yeled in verse 22, which means, "child" or "fruit," is not the term used to refer to the product of a miscarriage. In such cases, the term nephel, or "one untimely born" (Job 3:16; Ps.58:8; Eccles. 6:3), is used. If Moses had meant "miscarriage," he would have used the word shakol, which is used in Hosea 9:14.

Also, regarding your claim that abortion must not be a serious sin since it was not mentioned the New Testament, I would like to make two points.

1) Where did the NT writers specifically qualify their statements on murder as "post-natal"? In fact, there is evidence that abortion was not regarded as something different than murder in first century Judaism.

Here is what the first century Jewish historian Josephus said about abortion within the context of Jewish law:

"The law, moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind."

2) The "lack of mention" argument could be used for a host of sins. Infanticide was widely practiced in the first century, but does not receive explicit mention in the NT. I think this can be a very dangerous form of argument.

In closing, I want to thank you for patiently debating this point with me. I think that both of us can only be enriched from this process. We have covered a lot of ground on some very deep topics, and I don't think either of us can properly digest everything in such a short period of time. Thank you for providing me with food for thought. I have great respect for you and your work.

I would appreciate your insight. I probably won't be responding further.

God Bless You.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bill:

Nope I haven't in any way changed my view about abortion. I believe it is a sin, no question, a form of murder.

I do say however that the Bible does not focus on it at all, which means that calling abortion"the major issue of our time" is dubious from a Biblical point of view.

And since we seem to be interested in numbers, here's one I found today--- 30,000 children under the age of 10 die every single day from hunger. 30,000. That's over 900,000 a year. I am sure that God cares about them and the injust done to them just as much as he cares about the injustice done to the unborn as well.

My concern here is not to in any way neglect the abortion issue, but to broaden our focus to deal with all of the injustice issues involving innocent life. It is a mistake to monlithically focus on just one life issue, and its improvement. That's all I want to say.

As for the issue of just war, we've already discussed that on this blog before. The war in Iraq does not qualify, whereas a better case can certainly be made for WWII.


Ben W.

Daniel said...

Hi again, thanks for addressing the just war issue again, I'm new to this (enjoyable) blog so I hadn't seen it addressed before.
I'll just clarify one last time - probably :-) - where I, and I think at least some others, remain in confusion about the thrust of your position.
No one (I presume) is saying that God isn't passionately interested in unjust war casualties or starving children. And obviously what God is interested in, He mandates His children on earth be interested/invested in.
The issue is no one (I presume) would expect a leader, and a Christian one at that, to support a policy that says "a person has a right to arbitrarily make war" (murder) or "a person has a right to starve a child to death" (also murder). So if abortion rights means saying "a person has a right to kill their unborn child" (also murder), what justification is there for a politician supporting (voting for) such rights any more than supporting unjust wars or intentional startvation?
So again, it's not "either/or", it's "both/and". Your point that Christians need to care at least as much about a number of other social injustice issues is quite valid. Others' point, that politicians (like Edwards) should be consistent in their pro-life views/voting, is likewise valid.

Thank you,
Dan R.

Todd Billings said...

Hi Dr. Witherington,

In regard to abortion you stated: the "Bible does not focus on it at all, which means that calling abortion "the major issue of our time" is dubious from a Biblical point of view."

If the "Bible focusing on it" was the standard for determining what is the major issue, then I don't think slavery could have been considered the major issue of the 1800's.


Todd Billings said...

Hi Dr. Witherington

I forgot to mention that I completely agree that we need to focus on all the "injustice issues involving innocent life."


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Todd:

On the contrary, the NT says some very specific things against slavery if you read Paul carefully, for example in Philemon. As for abortion, it says nothing. Check out my forthcoming commentary with Eerdmans on Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians.

Ben W

Bill in Boston said...


The NT's lack of mention of abortion is not any more relevant than its lack of mention of infanticide (which was a very common practice in the first century).

Do you claim otherwise?

Robbie said...

What interested me most in hearing the 60 minutes interview was the Edwards' persistent reminder that "we are all going to die", and probably knowing how or from what cause helps one put this event in its place. Annie Dillard wrote a magnificent novel, __The Living__, several years ago and she explores the energizing and focusing dynamic of this dynamic in her usual careful, engaging and insightful way. Terrific story. Should have been a best seller. On a more contemporary and less focused note, I think TV's LOST may deal with this same dynamic in the "prophecy" of Charlie's demise. (I'm a few weeks behind because I don't watch TV live, so if the story has moved on, ignore this comment.) If LOST follows Dillard and Charlie is energized to do the most good and go out well, does this not follow the NT model of working while it is yet day? If this were me, I'd want to leave my husband and children with a lot of personal memories, yes. But I'd also want to leave them something bigger than my own personality. To live well, all of us must take death seriously. It helps make our days count for the Kingdom, but not so much in our own eyes. I'll be replaced as well as remembered.
Robbie Castleman

Todd Billings said...

Hi Dr. Witherington

Thanks for the feedback. I can see your point, (slavery has more direct mention than abortion) but as far as "focusing on" I still don't see a prohibition against slavery being focused on in the NT. You had to "read Paul carefully" to draw the correct conclusion that slavery was wrong.


Bill in Boston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill in Boston said...

Todd and Ben,

Quite apart from the slavery versus abortion Biblical focus controversy, I think there is an important complementary point to be made in conjunction with Ben's (I believe correct) interpretation of Paul's words in Philemon:

Leviticus 25:42
Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.

We have been freed from slavery to sin by Jesus and chosen by God to serve Him. Since Christians are now the chosen people of God, it is clearly then sinful to enslave any Christian.

Furthermore, since people are no longer chosen by birth into a nation, any person can become a Christian. If converting to Christianity prevents enslavement, obviously there would be an incentive for false conversion -- and this must be avoided. This fact makes it clear that all must be set free from slavery.

Bill in Boston said...


I just want to rephrase my earlier question to you so that it is clearer what I am getting at:

Since abortion and infanticide were both problems in the first century, does the lack of mention in the New Testament of both actions imply that both are less serious sins than the murder of an adult?

Todd Billings said...

Hi Bill

Thanks for your infanticide analogy (much clearer than my slavery one). I will use that one in the future.

I also appreciated your breakdown of the Lev premature birth verse.


Michael Speers said...

Bill in boston... Great Stuff.

Ben, I have not been following your blog for long, but can say I normally agree with you. Reading through the comments you've posted, I've had several points of disagreement and disappointment, most of which Bill and others have brought up already so I won't pain you to explain your rationale again.

But, I do have a couple of questions that have not been asked and are somewhat of a different subject, though not to different.

1. Are you against all war?
2. Where does the NT condemn capital punishment?

Forgive me if you've addressed these issues in earlier posts, like I said, I haven't been following for very long.

One last observation to one of your comments that "yet many of these children will never be helped by conservative Christians". Is that loaded language? Many will also not be helped by "liberal Christians" either. Where'd that get us? As a point of fact, conversatives give far more time, money and energy to charities of all kinds than liberals do. see article -

So it's not that conversatives don't care, it's that they don't care to give their money to the government to dish out, instead preferring to give more directly.

Thanks for your insight.

Luke said...

It seems to me that the republican sympathizers on this blog are confusing supporting laws which give people the freedom to do wrong, with actually doing wrong.

I am unaware of any politician, democrat or otherwise who has ever "ordered" a woman to undergo an abortion.

But how many pregnant mothers has George Bush ordered blown to smithereens?

The hypocrisy is amazing.

Luke said...

I should have said "any politician in this country." Because undoubtedly a case could be made for china and maybe elsewhere...

marc bennett said...

Hi Ben-

I get the impression from your posts that you feel John Edwards may have a softer pro-abortion position than his voting record shows. Are you aware that as a sitting Senator he scored 100% by NARAL on his pro-choice voting record? Do you know of any interviews, speeches or writings that show him as anything but totally pro-abortion?


Bill in Boston said...

To Todd, Michael, and all contributors on each side of the issue:

I thank you and thank God for all of your posts. I think it is crucial that as Christians we debate any points of moral disagreement between us because we believe in absolute truth. None of us can claim to have hold of it in all aspects except in our relationship with the epitome of truth, Jesus Himself. However, debates like this one are useful to test our beliefs so that we can refine them to be in greater conformance with the truth.

Bill in Boston said...


I think you actually undermine your argument with your statement about the president.

I will try to answer the question you proposed, i.e., "But how many pregnant mothers has George Bush ordered blown to smithereens?"

The answer is zero.

Furthermore, how many innocent pregnant mothers has George W. Bush given members of our military the freedom to intentionally kill?

Again, the answer is zero.

In no way has the president suspended our laws against such an atrocity. To do so would be evil. With rare exceptions, when our military men and women do kill innocent civilians, it is an accident. In cases where it is intentional, our military law demands prosecution of the perpetrators.

With the abortion issue, there is no controversy regarding accidental abortion -- nothing wrong has been done. However, when abortion is chosen by the mother (or both parents), the choice is made to intentionally kill the child.

Just as it would be evil for the president to compromise our laws to allow the members of our military the freedom to choose to intentionally kill an innocent war victim, so it is evil when lawmakers either choose to vote against (or choose not to vote) restricting and ultimately repealing the freedom to intentionally kill unborn children.

In no way have I said here that the president does not bear any responsibility for the war or war deaths. However, I am saying that if you place direct guilt on him for these deaths -- as you clearly do, then you must place guilt on lawmakers voting against restricting and repealing abortion rights. To do otherwise would be completely inconsistent.

Michael Speers said...


I was going to answer Luke with the same response "zero." Then I read your response.

Luke, "confusing supporting laws which give people the freedom to do wrong, with actually doing wrong."

Let me simplify the abortion issue to just one question. What is the unborn? That's the only relevant question. If it's a human being, it's murder, if it's not a human being, it's not murder. Most of the liberal "sympathizers" (to borrow your terminology) on this blog seem to personally believe it's a human being, but either don't want to force others to believe that way, too or they think war and other things outweigh this atrocity, thus making it okay to vote for pro-abortion candidates.

I'm guessing you believe the unborn is a human being. Do you think "supporting laws which give people the freedom" to commit murder is not doing wrong?

Does this sort of loose attitude carry over to other issues? Say slavery? What if a politician were to support laws giving people the freedom to hold slaves but doesn't believe in it himself? With your reasoning, he couldn't be held responsible.

One note about vote bartering in Congress. One commentor suggested that Edwards may vote in favor of abortion (though personally against it) to garner support for some other bill and a hypothetical was given suggesting that his vote wouldn't sway the outcome. What point is there in bartering if a vote is going to be a landslide? If my bill is going to win 75-25, I don't care if Edwards votes with me or not. Seems to me you only barter when necessary, when the bartered votes would sway the outcome. And who trades in human lives anyway?

Luke said...


I see your reasoning at least to a point. There is an indirect sense in which lawmakers bear some responsibility for abortions, but the mother and the doctor are the closest parties to the situation and since no one forced their hands, I think real moral culpability would have to stop there.

History, Biblical and otherwise, has always recognized the leaders of a given country be they kings or presidents or dictators to be directly responsible for the wars they wage. This doesn't exonerate the soldiers, as you are correct to point out, but it doesn't exonerate the president either. Unlike the case with abortion, moral culpability does not stop with soldiers but does and ought to move up the chain of command.

As far as zero pregnant women killed by George Bush, that is an absurd statement. There have been I think about 60,000 civilian casualties in iraq. It is almost a statistical impossibility that none of those were pregnant women. A responsible estimate would probably be in the low thousands.

Here is at least one example:,2933,197666,00.html

Andrew C. Thompson said...

Dr. Withernington,

This is somewhat off-topic for the thread of discussion, but one comment you made about Edwards caught my eye:

"I think many of his basic positions are coherent and consistent with the ethics of Jesus and various NT writers if they were to take a stand on such modern issues."

Do you have any interest in John Howard Yoder, and if so would you consider writing a blog post on him in the future?


Todd Billings said...

Hi Luke

A great resourse for getting a solid understanding of the prolife point of view would be "making abortion unthinkable" and "only one question." It is done by a group called "Stand to Reason" (

I found this blog though them during the whole Jesus tomb thing. (Thank you Dr. Witherington for your work on that whole fiasco)

Anyway, they make a very strong case for the humanity of the unborn (without using the Bible). So strong in fact that it changed me from being "kind of" prolife to being strongly prolife.

Michaels previous statement really does get to the crux of the situation: "What is the unborn? "
If you can answer that question, the whole abortion thing becomes a lot clearer.

When you stated:
"There is an indirect sense in which lawmakers bear some responsibility for abortions, but the mother and the doctor are the closest parties to the situation and since no one forced their hands, I think real moral culpability would have to stop there."

I think it shows that you may not consider the unborn fully human.

I think you can see this by substituting another human being for the unborn in your above statement.

What if lawmakers passed a law that said parents of a child, one year old or less, could kill that child if they wanted to? How about if they allowed facilities to be built that would help exstinguish the infant? And they gave money to those who couldn't afford to have the "procedure" done?
Wouldn't the lawmakers be making a statement about the value of that child? Wouldn't they be facilitating the killing of that child? Wouldn't they be morally culpable?

Read Bill's last two paragraphs again (10:08 a.m.)
I think his reasoning is really strong.


Luke said...


I'm sorry if I came across as not being pro life. I do believe that abortion is murder.

Todd Billings said...

Hi Luke

My mistake. "Making Abortion Unthinkable" really is a good resource anyway.


Bill in Boston said...


I have several points:

1) The Ultimate Question

You said that lawmakers lack moral culpability for abortion because they do not have direct involvement in the individual decisions to have abortions and because they never ordered anyone to have one.

Then here is the ultimate question (following on Todd's approach):

Why not legalize murder all forms of murder?

The decision to commit murder would then be up to each individual and no lawmaker would demand any individual murder. Therefore lawmakers would not be morally culpable either for initiating or perpetuating the new right to commit any form of murder.

Now do you see the error in this kind of logic?

2) Biblical View

As you may have gathered, I believe the real issue centers around a moral distinction between intentionally killing innocent people (as in abortion, but not typically in war conducted by the U.S.) and unintentionally killing innocent people (as in war) -- in addition to killing combatants.

I think the clearest Biblical example of this distinction can be found by comparing what the Bible says about David versus Manasseh.

David, a man after God's own heart, was involved in many military conflicts throughout his tenure as king. This fact did not go unnoticed with God. Because of it, he was not permitted to build the temple of God, but rather Solomon his son was to build it:

1 Chron 22
7 David said to Solomon: "My son, I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the Lord my God. 8 But this word of the Lord came to me: 'You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. 9 But you will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side. His name will be Solomon, and I will grant Israel peace and quiet during his reign. 10 He is the one who will build a house for my Name. He will be my son, and I will be his father. And I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel forever.'

So, a leader who wages war is not held guiltless before God.

However, contrast the consequence that God imposed on David with that of his descendant Manasseh, who was guilty of intentionally shedding innocent blood in Jerusalem. The Bible makes it clear that the sins of Manasseh, and in particular the shedding of innocent blood, were so severe that they were responsible for Judah's ultimate captivity in Babylon:

2 Kings 24
1 During Jehoiakim's reign, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon invaded the land, and Jehoiakim became his vassal for three years. But then he changed his mind and rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. 2 The Lord sent Babylonian, Aramean, Moabite and Ammonite raiders against him. He sent them to destroy Judah, in accordance with the word of the Lord proclaimed by his servants the prophets. 3 Surely these things happened to Judah according to the Lord's command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done, 4 including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive.

3) Answer Controversy

As far as my answer to your question "But how many pregnant mothers has George Bush ordered blown to smithereens?" President Bush did not order any pregnant mothers to be killed. The fact that pregnant mothers were unintentionally killed as a consequence of the war is not equivalent to ordering them to be killed.


I hope this information is helpful, Luke.


Michael Speers said...


Your question was "how many pregnant mothers has George Bush ordered blown to smithereens?"

The answer is zero. He has not ordered any pregnant women to be killed. Have some died accidentally? Absolutely. There are always unintended casualties in war. Pregnant or not is beside the point (not making light of pregnant women dying, rather I'm about to strengthen your argument, though it still remains weak). Much of the discussion here has been comparing deaths from war to abortion. I'll grant you all 60,000 (your figure) war innocents in four years. Still doesn't compare to 1 million abortions a year. If you believe abortion is murder as you say, which is worse: 4 million 'murders' (your word) in four years or 60,000 'manslaughters' or accidental deaths in the same span?

My suspicion is though you say abortion is 'murder', your heart and mind hasn't fully accepted this as truth and your eyes haven't seen the effects.

Todd is absolutely right, "Making Abortion Unthinkable" is a great resource. It will definitely change your perspective.

I pray everyone on this blog will get that resource. If you haven't seen footage of abortion or it's effects, you're at a disadvantage in this discussion. We've all seen footage of war on television. Give the pro-life argument the same advantage.

If the footage is too disturbing to watch, perhaps it's too disturbing to let happen.

Bill in Boston said...

Just to clarify, the ultimate question is:

Why not legalize all forms of murder?

Luke said...

I disagree that that is the ultimate question. The ultimate question is, why not ban all murders, including state sanctioned murders like war and capital punishment?

But regardless, I wouldn't protest if murder were legalized. In fact, I would feel much safer knowing that the government's power had been reduced in that area. But the fact is, the government will never legalize all murder, not because they value human life (which they quite evidently do not), but because those laws are necessary to maintain their monopoly on deadly force. Refusing to follow Jesus, they rule by the sword, rather than by sacrifice.

As a Christian, I can't see pressing charges against a murderer anyway. I would choose forgiveness. If the state wants to prosecute murderers, then that is between them and God, and God will measure them with the same standards that they mete out.

Todd Billings said...

Hi Luke

Murder is the unjust killing of a human being. Not all killing is unjust. It is important, as a Christian, to be able to distinguish between just and unjust killing (including just and unjust war, and just and unjust payment for a crime).

If you love your neighbor you would press chargers against a murderer. Pressing chargers (and laws against murder) help prevent others from being harmed/murdered. It is a loving act to protect others from unjustified harm.


Luke said...


It's not a matter of who is being the most loving. Jesus taught in the parable of the unmerciful servant that if we do not forgive others, then God will not forgive us. (matt.18) This is non-negotiable for the Christian. The unmerciful servant in the parable was really owed a debt by his fellow servant, and if he allowed him to go free he might defraud others, and that wouldn't be very loving, but notice that none of that is the real issue here. The issue is that the servant himself was forgiven, and thus he is compelled to always forgive. If you "forgive" someone, but still send them to jail, or have them executed, or turn them over to the state, all the while conscious that God has forgiven you everything, then the text clearly says that God will deliver you to the tormentors.

I wish you well,

Todd Billings said...

Hi Luke

If your understanding of Mathew 18 is correct, how do you understand Jesus’ teaching earlier in the Chapter?

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
(Mathew 18:15-17)

Why doesn’t Jesus say to just forgive him?

The apostle Paul says if one does not work he should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Why doesn’t he say, “If one does not work, forgive them, and feed them anyway?”


Luke said...

He does say to forgive him in verses 21 and 22. The sayings in verses 15 to 17 mean that forgiveness ought to be followed by restoration, not punishment.

Further, Jesus' instruction serves well to define the boundaries of Christian obligation in the face of criminal wrongdoing. I may be wrong, but I strongly suspect that you would tack on to Jesus' words additional courses of action beyond the putting out of fellowship, like "call the D.A.", "get a lawyer", "pass stricter laws so this won't happen again", "lock him up", "chop off his head", etc. But Jesus is crystal clear that once the Church has put someone out of fellowship with the intent to restore, that is as far as we are to pursue any matter.

Of course, there remains the question of what to do with someone who is not a Christian brother, and how to get justice in those situations? Fortunately, Paul provides us a clear answer in 1 Corinthians 5. He says, "For what have I to do with them that are without? Do ye not judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth."

Todd Billings said...


In the Mathew example Jesus doesn't simply forgive, they have to repent.

What if your non-christian neighbor was torturing and sexually assualting his non-christian children.
Would you just not judge him?

If he was christian would you just put him out of fellowship in your church? Where he could continue to abuse his kids.
And then if he said "sorry" you would bring him back and let him do child care?

We are to love our neighbors. This includes protecting them from evil.

Your views are cruel, and unloving.

Please reconsider them.

If you go to a church, talk to a pastor, counselor or someone with knowledge in this area to help you work through them. If you don't go to a church, please find one.

I think I will let you have the last word on this one.


Bill in Boston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill in Boston said...


I am in agreement with all of what Todd has written, and I just wanted to add the following thoughts.

There is a problem when teachings of Jesus that were stated as standards of personal behavior are extrapolated beyond the limited context where they were meant to apply. A particular abuse is when they are applied to human government. As one commentator recently observed, if the U.S. government had applied the principle of turning the other cheek during World War II, the proper response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would have been to request that the Japanese also attack cities on the U.S. mainland. Such self sacrifice would have been meaningless, because it would have been based on misinterpretation of the Word of God.

Likewise, from your writings it seems that your Biblical interpretation would either advocate or tolerate having human government forgive any trespass by an individual such that no punishment would be meted out on the perpetrator until God does so at the Final Judgment.

If you believe this is the correct approach (I obviously disagree) and that any other approach is wrong, then you need to explain how it was not unjust for God to command the law of the Old Testament. For instance, in Exodus 21:12-14, God commands the death penalty for murder. If you believe imposition of the death penalty by human government is evil, then you believe God commanded the Israelites to practice evil. This is an impossibility.

Feel free to have the last word.

Luke said...

Bill and Todd,

Thanks for the engaging discussion and for your notes of personal concern.

New testament ethics are surely a complex field of study, and I am not naive to the fact that there are sincere Christians on many sides of the debate. And I am aware that as a pacifist I stand in a minority opinion. Many of my own dear family members and fellow churchmen are comfortably on your side of the debate, and I am rarely without pressure to compromise my conscience on such matters as we have discussed.

However, my reading of the scripture, and particularly of the life of Jesus compels me to stand where I do. I have been where you are at, and I have argued for your side in the past. A paradigm shift occurred in my thinking nearly five years ago when I began to take seriously the words and the example of our Lord. I realize that my position appears foolish, and socially irresponsible to you, but I also remember the words of Paul, that "the wisdom of God appears foolishness to those who are perishing." No, that doesn't mean I don't think you are saved, but it does mean that I think your thinking is worldly, and lacks the radical cruciformity that is our calling in this life.

Todd, there are peaceful solutions to the scenario you present. I would certainly not ignore torture, and would do everything within my calling as a Christian to help both those children, and their abusive parent. For starters, my home would certainly be open to the children as a sanctuary. I think it is helpful to remember that nothing escapes God's notice, and no suffering occurs that He does not see, and cannot remedy in His own time and by His own means. For instance, God allowed Saul to persecute the Church, even unjustly killing many Christians. But God's purpose was greater than any of those early faithful could have forseen, and when they did see it, they were quick to forgive, and to receive their former enemy as one of their own. If I am going to err on any side of this debate, I choose to err on the side of being quick to forgive.

Bill, I appreciate your drawing attention to the matter of extrapolating Jesus' teaching. I think this is exactly the crux of the disagreement. I think, and I think many scholars such as NT Wright, Stanley Hawerwaus, John Yoder, Richard Hays, Walter Wink, and others, have convincingly demonstrated that Jesus' statements had that broader political context that later, particularly post reformation commentatators have ignored in favor of a highly privatized religion that only subsequently has public implications, and as you point out, does not apply to broad questions of empire.

However, you correctly perceive that I do think, and I am not alone and in good company on this, that Jesus' words were intensely political and were meant as direct challenges not only to the Roman Empire, but to all those interested in empire building. Jesus' teaching turns empire thinking on it's head - He presents a new way - almost anarchistic, but even more drastic than that, in that the greatest rulers in his kingdom are not rulers at all, but are the servants of all.

No, I don't agree that any Christian should have been involved in World War 2. And, no, I'm not going to into that here.

Regarding the Old Testament Law, I think you err in seeing the Bible as a static rule book, rather than as the progressive story of God's saving redemption. Recall the parable I cited earlier about the unmerciful servant. Before he was forgiven by his lord, he would have been justified in his treatment of his fellow servant. After he was forgiven, that treatment was no longer justified and we was limited to forgiveness. Timing is therefore everything. Jesus has come,

Luke said...

and He has proclaimed the forgiveness of sins. And like that servant, we are now compelled to forgive.

God's peace be with you on this Easter day,


Michael Speers said...

My brother Luke,

I am troubled by your interpretation of the New Testament. You said, "no suffering occurs that He does not see, and cannot remedy in His own time and by His own means."

You said this in response to another's challenge of what you'd do in the case of child abuse.

"His own means" (your words) includes Human government. Read Romans 13:1-7. It cannot be more CLEAR. Verse 4 in particular, "For he (talking about human authorities) is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer."

Did you see that? An agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Government is ordained of God to do certain things, one of which is to punish evil in this life.

You also say, "As a Christian, I can't see pressing charges against a murderer anyway. I would choose forgiveness." Two comments: first, people don't get to choose to press charges for murder. The state brings charges - period. Second, there's a reason you don't get to choose to press charges - you're NOT the one who was killed! You could neither choose forgiveness nor to press charges if you're not the victim of the murder.

As already stated, Romans CLEARLY states that the government is one of the ways God does dole out his punishment. Your only argument might be that it doesn't give government the right to capital punishment. I'd argue that you're wrong there, too. Read the said passage again. Swords weren't used for spanking. Nowhere in the NT does God take capital punishment off the table. You can only turn the other cheek on things that happend to you (I submit Jesus is talking about insult - open handed-slap is the picture there not a closed fist meant to do damage) not for things that happen to someone else.