Texas Abortion Ban: Not All Choices Are Equal Before God
Choices have real consequences, for good or evil, that do not disappear just because we chose them.
“Choice” has become a talisman of our times. While the term is usually used as an euphemism for “abortion” by those unwilling to admit openly what they support, that connection between “choice” and “abortion” has popularized a set of ideas alien to the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
A recent Sunday Gospel (John 6:60-69) affords a good opportunity to speak to the problem of “choice” in a Christian context. The associated First Reading (Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18) provides a similar opportunity to address that problem in a Jewish context.
Today’s world is — to put it most charitably — unclear about the relationship between “freedom” and “good.” For the Judaeo-Christian tradition, freedom (choosing) is a means — an indispensable means, but only a means — to achieve the end, which is the good.
Freedom is an indispensable means because it’s not enough for the good to be done — God would have otherwise made us robots — but that the good also be my good. By freedom, I acknowledge the good and, in that process, also recognize reality, because good and evil are not just my subjective choices but objective realities (or their lack). Taking an innocent person’s life, for example, will always be evil, regardless of my attitudes, feelings, or choices.
The Judaeo-Christian notion of freedom as means to the end of the good is very much in opposition to another vision that comes from various sources. That vision sees freedom not as a means but as an end; man’s goal is not to expand the good but to expand “freedom.” In this view, in our day pushed by atheist existentialists like Camus, the “good” is reduced to freedom, so that what is chosen is “good.”
This is the mindset of the “pro-choice” position on abortion: an abortion is wrong for you if you choose to think that way, but right for me if that’s what I think. Many “pro-choice” advocates also attach a disclaimer that they are “personally opposed” to abortion, but that opposition is logically and practically meaningless, because it is but a feeling that has no normative value beyond one’s own preferences.
Note that this logic really does not apply anywhere else in the moral world. If someone told you that your opposition to stealing is your “choice” but that others might choose “differently,” you would not likely applaud the “diversity of moral views” but recognize that morality itself is being undermined, because the same act of stealing can neither mean totally opposite moral things to two different people nor provide any moral principle on which society might enact, e.g., laws prohibiting theft or even criminalizing embezzlement.
Let’s explore Camus’ reduction of the “good” to freedom more thoroughly. Within his logic, what is chosen freely is “good.” That means what I reject is at best morally neutral and what I do not choose freely is bad. That greatly shifts moral lines.
Inside Camus’ logic, this shift may make sense. But — as I maintain is true — there is still a world of “good” out there that is bigger than and not dependent on my free choice then, according to this vision, what is objectively “good” can be subjectively “evil” in Camus’ world because I did not choose it “freely” and “authentically.”
What this means, in reality, is quite daunting: freedom “makes” the good good (rather than the good mine).
This leads us to another fallacy in how we approach these questions.
Because the Judaeo-Christian tradition sees freedom as a means by which the good also becomes my good, it means that freedom exists for the good. Freedom, properly understood, does not situate us in a choice between good and evil, either one of which is an equally valid choice as long as it’s embraced freely. Freedom exists to pursue the good. Freedom used to pursue evil is self-destructive.
That’s where the flaw in Camus’ (and modernity’s) view of freedom lies.
Good and evil are not equal choices. They are not both legitimate options in the face of “freedom.” If that were true, Judaism and Christianity would both be fundamentally false religions, because both teach there is such a thing as “sin” and that sin — moral evil — can be committed even when we choose “freely.” Proof of that is already on display in Genesis 3.
This, too, is a “hard teaching. Who can bear it?” Lots of people have walked away from Judaism and Christianity because both make moral demands that crimp an individual’s “freedom,” “authenticity,” or “style.” Let’s recognize up front that people can do that — but that it is not real Judaism nor real Christianity.
In John 6, two groups of people were given choices. “Many of his disciples” turned away from Jesus because they could not accept his teaching about how he would be really present in the Eucharist. “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
It’s interesting how the Gospel describes this defection. “Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer followed Him” (v. 66). In turning from Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, the Gospel does not present them as simply “dissenting” from one article of faith. In refusing that “hard saying” nobody can accept, these erstwhile disciples are said to have changed their lifestyle. They cease to follow Jesus, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), reverting to “their former way of life.”
But, as St. Paul elsewhere says, the decision for Jesus is not just a “free choice” but is one between life and death, away from a “senseless” former way of life (Ephesians 2:1-8) that was sensual and this worldly, a “former self” that was sinful and ends in death (Ephesians 4:20-31). In “returning to their former way of life,” those disciples are choosing futility, insensibility, and death. The fact they “chose” it did not make it any less futile, sensible, or life-giving.
Joshua poses the same problem for Israel. Having finally arrived in the Holy Land, after deliverance by God’s mighty power from Egypt through the Red Sea, sustained in the Sinai Desert for 40 years and now in possession of the land promised to Abraham, Joshua’s question “whom will you serve?” is not an invitation to religious pluralism.
It’s not that, having arrived as God’s Chosen People in Israel after those generations of trial, that Joshua could say “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” while Shmul could say, “eh, we’ll blend in with the Amorites” and Mordecai “you know, we’ll reform the faith and do this Jewish thing on the High Holy Days.” Elsewhere, Moses had been clear: this is a choice between life and death, blessing and curse (Deuteronomy 30:15). There is a choice, but death and curse remain death and curse — and do not get any better — because I chose them.
Choices have real consequences, for good or evil, that do not disappear because we chose them. Those disciples that walked away from Jesus over the Eucharist to “return to their former way of life” turned away from God. Today’s disciples who proclaim the Church’s teaching on sex or marriage or divorce is a “hard teaching, who can accept it?” likewise turn from God.
Perhaps we’re not as explicit — or honest — as those that ceased to pretend to follow Christ, and perhaps are more like perhaps some of Joshua’s Israelites who, professing fidelity to Yahweh left a corner of their hearts open for “the gods your fathers served beyond the River,” a lingering affection for that Golden Calf.
So, once we clarify what “choice” means and does not mean, once we understand the relation of freedom and the good on Judaeo-Christian and not ersatz modern terms, we still face the same challenge Joshua voiced in Shechem about 3,400 years ago: “Decide today whom you will serve.”
Because not all choices will be equal before God.