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Multi-faith clergy gathering urges emphasis on Christian education
BY Joseph Esposito
FAIRFAX, Va.-A return to God's biblical teachings is essential to ending abortion, according to prominent speakers at the National Pastors’ Conference on Life Issues. Clerics from several denominations attended the meeting sponsored by the National Pro-life Religious Council, Oct. 21-23, a few miles from the nation's capital.
While focusing on how to promote a culture of life in Christian Churches, participants accused many religious leaders of replacing the Gospel message with modern popular psychology. Such thinking has allowed abortion and physician-assisted suicide to be misunderstood and tolerated.
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Achtemeier, a Presbyterian, set the tone of the conference. “The omission of the rule of God is an acceptance of an entire worldview which has invaded our Churches. The individual is all, sovereign, supreme-that's what set the stage for the acceptance of abortion,” she said.
Achtemeier said in a society where “salvation has become equated with ‘getting yourself together,’” a recommitment to God is essential.
She told the clergymen that they need to emphasize the sovereignty of God over life, death, grace, and mercy.
“The biggest failing of the Church is in Christian education,” she stressed. Parishioners need to be instructed about right and wrong.
They need to hear more about the prophets of the Old Testament. A greater understanding of Christian tradition, she said, would teach that “it is not up to us to determine when an individual should die.”
Despite her criticism, Achtemeier expressed optimism for the future. “We are an embattled group in the pro-life movement,” she said, but “I have the unshakeable belief that God will win this battle. The message we've been entrusted with is the Gospel and, yes, it's very good news.”
Leonard Klein, a Lutheran pastor in York, Pa., and former editor of Lutheran Forum, said that the “crisis in churches is in part — in very large part-that people don't know what the faith is.” As a result, “virtually every mainline [Protestant] Church has fallen prey to an ideology of choice.”
Klein offered a number of reasons why this has happened. Among these were the aggressiveness of feminists, devaluation of the sacredness of marriage, the onslaught of liberalism, and the real — but rarely discussed — role of the devil. On this latter point, he said, “Where God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel.”
He also emphasized the collapse of authority from the pulpit. The typical Protestant clergyman, he argued, became “less a bearer of tradition and more a religious professional.” He became “not a pastor, but a guru, who backed away from things which would get him in trouble.”
Klein's suggested remedies include a return to tradition, teaching the faith, bolstering the sacredness of marriage, nurturing children in their worship, and developing courage.
Another prominent Lutheran, Carl Braaten, executive director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, picked up on the theme of good and evil. Acknowledging that it is extremely unpopular to raise the issue, he emphasized that the devil is at work in the world.
We are locked, he said, in a “cosmic struggle between the Prince of Light and the Prince of Demons.” Therefore, while “politics may be necessary for the here and now,” he noted, “political engagement, per se, will not suffice. The stakes are much higher than the cultural wars.”
Braaten urged faithfulness, commitment, and steadfastness. He told those involved in the pro-life movement to remember that “the Church will always be a resistance movement in the world,” but the message of the Cross should give us encouragement. “In Christ, the decisive battle has already been won. That is what the liturgy is all about,” he said.
One of the nation's most prominent Southern Baptists, Dr. Richard Land, discussed the ideological struggle that has taken place in his denomination in the last generation. In the early 1970s, his coreligionists believed abortion was a Catholic issue.
The society then lost touch with its first principles — the principles of natural law — and became barbaric. ‘Barbarians are not only at the gate,’ he said, ‘but have been ruling us for some time.’
By 1982, however, Southern Baptists adopted policies that stated human life begins at conception and abortion is always murder. Recent polls indicate that 86%-88% of people believe it's morally wrong to kill an unborn child, he said.
Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, also talked about spreading the pro-life message. Befitting his tradition, he gave the pastors ample biblical passages to support that position. These included Psalm 51, Psalm 139, Jeremiah 1:5, and Ephesians 2:10.
He also gave an impassioned account of what we have lost through abortion. One third of all babies conceived since 1973 have been aborted. He asked if we could have aborted the next Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Billy Graham, or the person who could have discovered the cure for cancer?
Sadly, he said, our society has adopted a “basic pagan view of human life-that human life is not special in any way, [and] certainly, it is not sacred.” This worldview, unleashed by abortion on demand, has dehumanized our society. “Only the light of the Gospel can change attitudes, beliefs, and hearts,” he said.
Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things magazine, added a Catholic perspective. Father Neuhaus, who was an active participant in the civil rights movement, said the impetus for abortion gained ground in the 1970s because the American liberal tradition adopted it as a part of its agenda.
The society then lost touch with its first principles — the principles of natural law — and became barbaric. “Barbarians are not only at the gate,” he said, “but have been ruling us for some time.”
A former Lutheran minister, Father Neuhaus reminded the audience that in the late 1960s and early 1970s the Catholic Church stood virtually alone in opposition to abortion. It wasn't until Dr. Francis Schaeffer brought evangelical Protestants along that the pro-life movement became a more broad-based effort.
Still, he said, “Always remind people there is no solution in sight. The problem has no fix anywhere on the horizon. What we have done is lay the foundation for the pro-life movement in the 21st century.” Our goal today is to bear witness, he said.
Father Neuhaus added, “We have not the right and not the reason to despair. So much has been done. There is no more unsettled issue in the U.S. and, indeed, in the world. This should be a source of enormous gratification.” Remember, he stressed, that victory is ultimately assured because “this was Christ's movement before it was our movement.”
In addition to Churches represented by these speakers, participants came from Methodist, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ denominations. Also attending were pro-life leaders from the U. S. Catholic Conference and the National Right to Life Committee, both of which have been active in the organization.
More information about the National Pro-life Religious Council can be obtained by writing to Rev. Ben Sheldon, its executive director, at Post Office Box 535, Elverson, Pa. 19520.
Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.