Speaking Life and Love
February 27, 2018
by Sarah S. Howell-Miller
If you ever want to leave a pastor speechless, invite him or her to speak at a Planned Parenthood event.
I got such an invitation at the beginning of the year from a friend who is on the board of a local Planned Parenthood chapter. The event marked the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and was designed to give different perspectives on the history and future of the landmark decision. On the panel was a journalist, a doctor, a lawyer…and me.
I was both excited and terrified by the invitation—excited because I am passionate about bringing faith and theology to bear on conversations around fraught societal issues; terrified because I worried that a church member sensitive to the ways Planned Parenthood’s work has been politicized would take issue with my participation.
I told the friend who invited me that I needed to talk to my senior pastor. When I did, I shared my apprehension about whether I might ruffle feathers simply by being on the panel. Her response was a simple acknowledgement of what I also believed: it’s important for voices from the faith community to be part of these conversations. Especially when we’ve been invited to the table, we ought to be there.
When I arrived, I was introduced to the other panelists and given a brief overview of the night. While attendees gathered, they had the opportunity to engage in a virtual reality experience called “Across the Line,” which puts you in the shoes of a woman trying to access a health clinic. It uses actual audio from protests across the country. What the protestors shouted was cruel, vitriolic, even violent—and much of it was heavy with the name of an angry God.
I was shaken by the experience and carried it with me into the panel discussion. My first question was an impossibly broad one, asking how the faith community writ large thinks about the issue of abortion. I admitted that I could speak only for myself within my tradition, that I knew little about other faiths’ understanding—but that what I did know was that across the board, the core value was that of the sanctity of life.
And as I looked out on the room, I said what I knew—that everyone there believed in the sanctity of life, that the violence and vitriol spewed by those pro-life protesters was itself incompatible with life, that their words were words of destruction and death.
Of course, only a small percentage of Christians would ever say the things those protesters said. But the violence and misogyny found in concentrate at those protests are lurking around the edges of much of our pro-life rhetoric. Do we dare to face that, root it out, and seek a new way forward?
Faith communities must become aware of the ways in which our pro-life commitments often seem to go from conception to birth and no further. We need to ask what being pro-life means for how we talk about healthcare, immigration, war, gun violence, the death penalty, elder care, racism, and more.
Banning abortion doesn’t lower abortion rates; if we want to lower them, we should focus on what does and become truly pro-life, not just in ideology but in terms of the practical outcomes of our advocacy efforts. We must take the risk of finding that the problem—and therefore the solution—is so much more complicated than we would like for it to be.
Although I sweated through my clothes as I talked, I’m glad I went. In a space where the church has too often been known only to vilify and condemn, I was given the opportunity to speak life and love. This is what we are called to do.
May we all strive to speak life and love wherever we are, whatever we are facing, however difficult may be. When we do that, Christ speaks to us and through us. May we take every opportunity to bring him to the table with us.
Rev. Sarah S. Howell-Miller is an associate pastor at Centenary UMC in Winston-Salem, NC.