Every so often, there comes a moment when the clash of our culture’s values becomes jarring. This is one of those times.
Michael Vick was released from prison this week. You’ll remember he’s the NFL football player who was convicted of felony dog fighting charges. The stories that came out described horrifying, stomach-churning violence against dogs. It’s the sort of unconscionable violence, a nightmare of conscious-less horrors that morally bankrupt hearts can devise.
Of course, that has meant that the PETA folks have targeted him as the worst person in the world. As soon as sports call-in shows began discussing the possibilities for his reinstatement to play football again, the screams began: this is an unredeemable action and that he should never be allowed to play football again. Some today actually insisted that he have a brain scan which would supposedly display his remorse. I haven’t yet figured out what sort of scientific scan has been developed to show moral attitudes and the state of a person’s heart, but apparently PETA has one handy.
Some others pointed out that the NFL has reinstated wife beaters, drug users, alcoholics, associating-with-shady-characters characters, gun-concealers, those accused of attempted murder and more. And nobody has started campaigns to ban them or asked them for a brain scan. It’s only when it involved the mistreatment of animals.
In other parts of our society, people fail, get convicted of felonies, serve their time in prison and often return to make a living in a similar line of work that they were involved with before the failure. Michael Vick’s line of work is football, but that’s not allowed…because his failure involves the mistreatment of animals.
I am not for a second condoning anything Vick did. It’s reprehensible. I am, however, questioning the values that seem much more bothered by the mistreatment of an animal than the mistreatment of another human being. Or raising the mistreatment of animals above other crimes for which people are convicted, serve their time and go on to rebuild their lives. Even if you buy the evolution myth that humans are just another animal, this seems to indicate a seriously messed-up reversal of values. Everything seems upside down, or as Tony Campolo used to say “somebody switched the price tags”.
The discussion over the defined value of human life is, of course, at the center of a much broader cultural debate. The Vick case is even more interesting when set next to the furor over President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame last week. A commencement speech by a man whose position and policies on abortion is at odds with Roman Catholic teaching on the nature of human life was unacceptable for many people.
There were protesters outside the gates for most of the week, many holding posters with pictures of children in the womb. Dozens of Catholic bishops publicly registered their disapproval. Some graduates and their families (a thousand or more by some accounts) boycotted the official proceedings to have a separate celebration more in line with their convictions about life.
The Obama speech has been parsed fully in other places (here,and here), but the essence was to define the way we as a nation talk about life issues. He pleaded for Americans use “fair-minded words” in their descriptions of those who hold opposing positions.
I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it – indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory – the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature. Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.
OK. But “fair-minded” is really how it sounds to the one whose position I oppose. As much as we try to make it a matter of tone, it is in reality a matter of content, and I’m not sure we can really separate the two. Honest, truthful, passionate words may not ring as “fair-minded” to others. Truth can have a bite—and that’s not always a bad thing. The discussion of life’s value cannot be carried on dispassionately; the issues are too crucial.
Now for the most under-reported story of the week—which is ultimately also a function of language chosen and language avoided. The Gallup organization reported this week that a little over half of the American population now identifies itself as pro-life. It’s a fascinating shift that was largely ignored by the mainstream media or was spoken as a rapid gloss in the middle of the Notre Dame story.
It’s easy to cry “media bias”, but maybe it’s not bias as much as a worldview that is utterly incapable of imagining that the accepted primacy of “choice” is not as iron-clad as once thought. This is a matter of how people view reality. If you think that the pro-life position is a left-over myth from another time, you will underplay it. If you think that it does not square with current scientific research, only arises from simplistic, traditional Southern religious teaching or that all who articulate pro-life views are hypnotically repeating a mantra issued from Colorado Springs, you will see Gallup’s poll as a momentary fluke, not to be taken seriously.
But “fair-mindedness” demands that the press at least consider that there are pro-life Americans who hold a consistent ethic on abortion, torture, adoption, stem-cell research, rehabilitation of felons and more. If 51% of our population leans that direction, it should be a part of the discussion and the language we use about life issues.
It seems to me that the value we assign to life and our contribution to this crucial cultural conversation emerges from our perspective on life.
Some start by looking around at others and what makes sense in this moment according to their best understanding of science, philosophy, justice, economics, government, politics, compassion, dominant world opinion, emotion and more. It’s all coming from this world, right here and now. Life’s value is self-defined.
Others start their view of life by looking up, because “in the beginning, God created…male and female, He created them.” (Gen.1:1,26) Our moments make sense in relation to the authority and wisdom of the God from whom all life emerges, so that all of the science, philosophy, justice, economics, government, politics, compassion, dominant world opinions, emotion and more are subject to God and His prior claim on human life. It comes from a larger place, way beyond us. Life’s value is God-defined.
When life issues arise in conversations, let’s be kind and gentle and fair and listen well. Let’s also speak truth, with honesty and boldness about our most precious God-given gift: life.