Sunday, May 30, 2010

Frederica Mathewes-Green (March/April 1995)

From 1991 to 2005, I had the pleasure of interviewing a fascinating array of writers, theologians, politicians, artists, and musicians for the Wittenburg Door, the original--only?--magazine of religious satire. From the preparation required to conduct them to the editing required to make them both clear and funny (the Door's two requirements, although not necessarily in that order), these interviews changed my life (mostly for the better). Although I conducted most of the interviews by phone, I was on several occasions able to hop a plane and question my subjects in person thanks to the generosity of Bob Darden and the late Mike Yaconelli, the editors who underwrote my adventures. It was a generosity made all the more special by the fact that the Door was usually deep in the red. For such acts of genuinely Christian charity (or fiscal insanity, I'm not sure which), I remain intensely grateful. Several of my interviews--R.C. Sproul, Chris Yambar--are still online in their entirety. What's posted below is one of the ones that's been MIA for awhile.

Pro-choicers who enjoy stereotyping pro-life activists as Bible-thumping extremists with Southern accents and itchy trigger fingers will have a hard time with Frederica Mathewes-Green. A contemporary of President Clinton, she spent the late '60s and early '70s blossoming as a flower child, rejecting the Catholicism of her upbringing in favor of syncretic, Eastern mysticism.

It was a mystical experience of another kind, however, that ended up having the greatest impact on her life. While hitchhiking across Europe with her husband, she experienced a Damascus Road-style conversion, eventually going on to study for the Episcopal priesthood, join the Orthodox Church (where her husband serves as a priest), and become one of the pro-life movement's most compassionate, articulate, and original voices.

The mother of three, Ms. Mathewes-Green traces her decision to change her position on abortion not to some hoary document authored by a patriarchal church council, but to a 1976 issue of Esquire that ran an eye-opening piece called "What I Saw at the Abortion Clinic." From then on, the idea that the fetus wasn't human no longer washed with her. Neither did the idea that abortion represented a safe, dignified exercise of female free will.

In late 1994, Multnomah published her first book, Real Choices, a collection of interviews with women who've had abortions, interspersed with studies, statistics, and observations like "As sexuality is snipped from the fabric of personhood and isolated as sheer mechanical act, severed from context and emotional ties, women are lonelier than ever."

If there's such a thing as a bleeding-heart conservative, Frederica Mathewes-Green is it. Heck, she even goes by a hyphenated last name. She hosted the Door 's Arsenio Orteza in her Baltimore home and turned on the pro-life charm as only an ex-flower-child-turned-wife-of-an-Orthodox-priest can.

DOOR: There are Christian Republicans and Christian Democrats, Christian vegetarians and Christian carnivores, Christians who oppose the death penalty and Christians who support it. Can there be Christians who are pro-life and Christians who are pro-choice?

DOOR: Don't answer right away. Think it over. We have lots --
M-G: No.

DOOR: -- of time.
M-G: No.

DOOR: Something tells us you've already given this question a lot of thought.
M-G: The heart of Christianity is all about taking care of the last and the least and the lost. There is no compassionate or logical argument for taking the life of any human, but in particular the smallest members of our human family. To me there's something suspect about even wanting to.

DOOR: But many people--including some Christians--argue quite persuasively in favor of abortion.

M-G: The arguments in favor of abortion are so desperate and contrived. They overreach to such an extent that you have to wonder why it's so necessary to kill these children. Why is it so urgent that we have to so desperately try to find excuses to kill our youngest sisters and brothers? The whole thing has an unsavory quality to it, entirely distinct from what Christianity is all about.

DOOR: Some people--including some Christians--would say pro-lifers are more unsavory than aborted babies.
M-G: I guess the argument most used by Christians in favor of abortion is that it's a matter of conscience, and that even if it's a terrible thing to do, that has to be between the woman and God.

DOOR: What's wrong with that argument?
M-G: We're never commanded to follow our instincts against the better advice of the community of faith. In Romans Paul says that pagans know God's will, do it or fail to do it, and that their consciences either encourage them or condemn them. But he's presuming there's such a thing as a formed conscience.

DOOR: That sounds coercive.
M-G: But when you're under authority and accepting the apostles' teaching and fellowship, you're being taught by the church, and your conscience gets formed around moral laws that are promulgated by the community and the gathered wisdom of the church through the ages.

DOOR: That might be well and good for you liturgical types, but what about the average "just-me-and- Jesus" Christian in the pew?
M-G: There still isn't any mandate that I can see for people to go off on their own and say, "My conscience told me to do this."

DOOR: What about all those Christians--from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr.--who've changed history in the name of conscience?
M-G: But your conscience can tell you to do all kinds of convenient things. I believe this is the difference between liberal and conservative Christianity: liberals believe that man is basically good, and conservatives believe that man is basically fallen. If we are basically good, then the longings we find in our hearts will be good ones. If we are basically fallen, then we have to look at the longings we find in our hearts very closely because they may be leading us in a bad direction.

DOOR: Can you give us an example, besides abortion?
M-G: Look at all the people who fall into adultery because their hearts tell them to. The longing is overwhelming: "It can't be wrong if it feels so right." Sorry. It's still wrong.

DOOR: We're sure Pat Boone will be thrilled that you're quoting the lyrics of his daughter’s greatest hit as an example of adultery advocacy.
M-G: By the way, I once filled two cassettes with nothing but pro-life songs. One of the best known is Pat Boone's. … [Singing] "Let them walk into the sunshine ...."

DOOR: We have to say, you sing better than most people we interview. How many songs did you find?
M-G: Like forty-eight. It was a huge list. They were all Christian, and they were almost all baby songs. A lot of them had baby talk in them, with women singing in tiny baby voices, pretending to be babies.

DOOR: Sounds ... interesting.
M-G: A lot of it was pretty revolting.

DOOR: That's what we meant to say. Sounds revolting.
M-G: They're intensely sentimental, not really good music--

DOOR: Um, we'd love to trash the Christian music industry all day, but you were talking about liberal-vs.-conservative Christianity.
M-G: It's a funny thing. Liberals keep accusing conservatives of being unrealistic: we don't understand how hard it is for women, that teenagers are going to "do it" anyway--

DOOR: That's not true?
M-G: I think the reverse is true. It's liberals who are unrealistic. They're starry-eyed about the sweet goodness of human nature. I would think the history of this century alone would be enough to show the appalling depths to which humans, believing they're doing the right thing, can fall. That's why we need external controls, why our conscience is not enough, and why Christianity has always condemned abortion.

DOOR: Always?
M-G: One of the earliest documents from the church fathers, the Didache, says, "You shall not kill a child by abortion." That's from the year 110.

DOOR: Did they mean by "abortion" what we mean by abortion?
M-G: Abortion probably wasn't practiced as much as infanticide, although both were very accepted by the pagans, Greeks, and Romans. The way the Romans handled abortion was just chilling. It was routine, for example, for middle class families to save their first two children and then expose all the other children to the elements to improve the chances of the first children's getting a better education, having more expensive clothes, and so forth.

DOOR: What happened to the so-called maternal instincts of these pro-exposure moms?
M-G: I don't know how that attachment gets eradicated. But from the inscriptions that have been found, it seems as if even mothers didn't care much, that the prestige and advancement of the family--especially of the father--was more important than anything else.

DOOR: If pro-lifers have pro-choicers over a barrel when it comes to prenatal life, isn't it the other way around when it comes to postnatal life? Robin Williams once joked, "I wonder how pro-life all these pro-lifers would be if someone were to say to them, 'O.K., here's your very own ... crack baby! M-G: That's an astoundingly vicious joke! What he's saying is, "You see these disabled babies? If you don't take them, I'm going to kill them. I wish I had killed them! If I had caught that baby in the womb before it came out and drew its first breath, I would've slashed it to pieces and pushed it down a garbage disposal. Since I wasn't able to do that, now it's your responsibility. You have to raise it."

DOOR: But somebody does have to raise it.
M-G: And fortunately pro-lifers are doing that. Pro-lifers are adopting these babies in huge numbers.

DOOR: How huge?
M-G: There's a waiting list of between 100 and 150 couples waiting to adopt a Down-Syndrome baby. There are waiting lists for terminally ill babies, AIDS babies, for every kind of child in trouble. There's tremendous demand. I had a friend who wanted to adopt. She got in line for a little boy who was blind and black. But she lost out. She didn't win the prize of being able to adopt this little blind, black boy. So she got in line again.

DOOR: What for this time?
M-G: A dwarf from Greece.

DOOR: It's probably too late for a Michael Dukakis joke at this point.
M-G: It was a girl.

M-G: My friend came in third that time. Two others were ahead of her in competition for this baby.

DOOR: How does one compete for these babies?
M-G: This sweet girl--she lives in Kansas City and had to go to an interview in New York. She took a Greyhound bus because she doesn't drive or have any money. She went for the interview and presented herself. It was like interviewing for a job. She tried desperately to show what a good mother she would be. She lost, but she's still hoping to adopt. This kind of Robin Williams message says, "These babies are so repellent, who could love them? Gosh, I wish they were dead. Maybe we should just round them up and gas them." It makes me think he's not adopting. But I know that pro-lifers are adopting these babies. I don't know if pro-choicers are.
Another argument, the illogic of which drives me nuts, is "Look at these abused children. Why weren't they dismembered earlier?" The argument that child abuse justifies abortion--"Look, this kid got burned with a cigarette! I wish they'd ripped his arms and legs off two years ago when he was still unborn."

DOOR: You alluded to the Holocaust. Is that kosher, so to speak?
M-G: I think there are fair and unfair aspects to it. Somebody once said that the Holocaust is essentially a copyrighted experience to Jews. So if you use it as an analogy to anything else, Jews will find it instantly offensive. That's why I don't usually use the Holocaust as a direct analogy. Where I would refer to it is as an example of how depraved the human heart can be in thinking it's doing good.

DOOR: Pro-lifers also compare themselves to the Civil Rights protesters of the '60s.
M-G: That's more legitimate, though there's a backfire in that, too.

DOOR: What's that?
M-G: Any "rights" argument argues from autonomy and individuality, and ultimately that leads to arguing rights against rights. When I argue the baby's rights, someone else argues the woman's rights, and we end up with a deadlock.

DOOR: Isn't deadlock better than defeat, from a pro-life point of view?
M-G: Well, when you have a deadlock between a little, tiny person and a great big person, the big person always wins.

DOOR: Still, haven't rights-based arguments help broaden pro-life sympathies beyond religious boundaries, to include libertarians, for instance?
M-G: Rights-based arguments do work to derail the question, to confuse people, to keep them uncomfortable. But rights-based arguments don't provide solutions or a vision for resolution. That's why in Real Choices I criticize the pro-life movement's unrelenting emphasis on the baby, the baby, the baby.

DOOR: First Debby Boone, now Amy Grant.
M-G: -----

DOOR: Uh, you were saying --
M-G: Statistics show that over seventy percent of Americans now say, "It's a baby. Abortion kills. Killing is wrong." We have convinced them it's a baby. But they also say abortion should be legal. So this unrelenting emphasis on the baby is not getting us where we need to be.

DOOR: What will get pro-lifers where they need to be?
M-G: We need to forsake this autonomous "rights" language in favor of a more holistic vision of the mother and child put together as one: anything that hurts one hurts the other; anything that helps one helps the other. If we fall into the trap of seeing mother and child as enemies, we are buying into visions of a society that is insane. It's insane to think that mothers and their children need to compete and that only one can survive. Insofar as pro-lifers have fed into that Punch-and-Judy show, we've made a mistake. It's time to back out.

DOOR: And do what instead?
M-G: I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, "Love them both." That's the message of the future, to try to find a way to keep them both together.

DOOR: Is it realistic to expect that pro-lifers will find a way to do this?
M-G: There are several reasons for why the battle is overwhelmingly against us at this point. First, when you have 4,400 women having abortions every day--

DOOR: Excuse us, but that sounds like an inflated figure.
M-G: You'll find it backed up by Planned Parenthood and the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

DOOR: On some days there probably aren't even 4,400 couples having sex!
M-G: Speak for yourself.

DOOR: -----
M-G: Anyway, when you have 4,400 women having abortions every day, there's a demand that isn't going to be resolved by simply making abortion illegal. Second, it's not only women who "want" abortions--of course, I say they don't really want them--but it's the boyfriends, the bosses, and the woman's parents, too. It's not just that one woman. It's a whole constellation of other people who believe that this is the right thing to do. So you're not going to be able to remove abortion from society without radically restructuring society.

DOOR: In today's climate, people hear words like "radical" and "restructuring" as paving the way for the shooting of abortion-clinic employees.
M-G: Well, Jesus didn't shoot His enemies. He didn't come as a general. He didn't seize political power whether it was offered to Him by Satan or His followers. He didn't run for Congress or try to pass laws. What He did was take a towel and wash the feet of His followers.

DOOR: "Foot Washers for Life"? It's not much of a rallying cry.
M-G: It's a mystery, but it looks to me as if that's the way God changes His world, through servanthood, meekness, and humility.

DOOR: Where do protests outside abortion clinics fit into this?
M-G: It could be argued--and I find it persuasive--that there's nothing you can do outside a clinic now that looks good.

DOOR: Nothing?
M-G: The one exception I would make is my friend Mariam Bell. She works for Child Health U.S.A., the child-abuse agency. She's been married for twenty years, has never had kids, and has desperately wanted to adopt. For the last five Saturdays at a clinic in Alexandria, VA, she's set up a folding table with a lot of helium balloons, coffee, donuts, and a big banner that says, "CHOOSE ADOPTION." When women drive into the parking lot, they pass by her table, pause, and a lot of times they chat.

DOOR: Then what?
M-G: In five weeks she's had eleven women turn away from the clinic. Not all of them decided on adoption, but they all decided they didn't want an abortion.

DOOR: That day.
M-G: That day. They all decided they need to think about it some more and maybe not have an abortion at all. She gives out a folder that has a lot of information in it, plus profiles of herself and other couples that want to adopt. So the woman who drives away from there can read about them and look at their pictures and, perhaps, decide for a private adoption.

DOOR: Are balloons, coffee, and donuts the future of pro-life activism?
M-G: It's a very positive approach, and popular.

DOOR: It's been a long time since pro-lifers--especially Christian ones--were perceived as popularizing positive alternatives to abortion.
M-G: PR is always a problem. In the early days of Christianity, the church condemned abortion, infanticide, and the abandonment of any sick or ill people. But the church also built orphanages and hospitals and established and upheld marriage and fidelity, to better cherish the least, the last, and the helpless.

As we see Christendom finally break down here at the end of the twentieth century, one of the things we have to expect is a return to cruelty and pragmatism in the discarding of human life. It is because the wave of Christianity is receding that it now becomes possible to kill our children again.