This was not the sermon I had planned to preach this Sunday. This is a sermon I had hoped to never preach.
But here we are. Yet another shellshocking moment in our time of explosions: The COVID-19 pandemic, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and more. And now this past Monday, when a draft of the Supreme Court’s majority decision regarding Roe vs. Wade was leaked to the news—which is in itself (draft documents leaked) unheard-of in modern times. As for what this draft says: five members of the Court, all installed by conservative presidents (Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) have decided to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which, almost 50 years ago, established access to abortion as a constitutional right which the States may not infringe upon. The decision was to erase this altogether.
The world as it has been for almost 50 years: gone in an instant.
Note that it is male and female Justices deciding this together, which defies the impression that here we have a typical sexist situation of men making decisions about women’s bodies. That’s not what’s happening here. It’s patriarchal men and patriarchal women together making this decision about women’s bodies, to the great dismay of other non-patriarchal men and women who strongly disagree.
But what is this decision, more precisely? Justice Samuel Alito is the author of the majority decision, and his opinion takes on an aggressive, aggrieved tone. “The right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions.” “The Constitution makes no reference to abortion and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision.” Roe vs. Wade has been “a highly restrictive regime on the entire nation.” (Regime? Regime? Do you hear that language of regime, what it implies?)
Note that even Justice Alito, but especially Justices Barrett, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, and Thomas, during their nomination hearings, assured the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that they considered Roe vs. Wade and the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision upholding Roe settled law and they had no agenda to challenge them.
This is Mother’s Day, and I believe that mothers ought to be able to CHOOSE to be mothers.
It should be emphasized that the leaked majority decision is a draft. Aspects of it might change. Its aggressive, aggrieved tone might be softened. Who knows what the end result might be. But it has nevertheless landed like a bomb in our midst. Like a bomb landing amidst what ought to be the peace of Mother’s Day, making mothering a thing that some women can be forced into against their will.
Molly Jong-Fast, writing in The Atlantic, has words to say about this. “Forty-nine years after the greatest feminist victory of the 20th century, [we hear Samuel Alito say that] ‘Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences…’ It’s worth pointing out here,” Molly Jong-Fast continues, “that in 1973, five years before I was born, when women had far fewer rights—when they couldn’t even get a credit card without the permission of their husband or father—Roe was decided 7–2, with five Republican-appointed justices in support. The world has become profoundly more pro-choice than it was in 1973; even Catholic countries like Ireland have legalized abortion. Yet here in America, the clock is spinning backwards with stunning and terrifying speed.”
The clock is indeed spinning backwards.
It is stunning.
It is terrifying.
Therefore, we gather. We Unitarian Universalists rally ourselves to our best sense of what justice calls us to in this time, and we think together, we act together. If the pandemic with its enforced social distancing made you forget why this church exists, maybe the decision coming down from the Supreme Court will help you remember. We gather together to breathe. We gather together to get clear. We gather together to resist, to reform, to renew, and to do this with resilience.
All times when we are lonely are tough times. But to be lonely now?
Today, on Mother’s Day–because we believe mothering ought to be something women can freely choose—we are talking about what just happened and also: what’s wrong with it, what’s fishy at the bottom of it, and then what to do about it.
We’ve already seen one thing that’s wrong with the majority decision of the Court: the Justices who voted for it essentially lied during their confirmation hearings. They lied.
And there’s so much more that’s wrong.
Conservative writer for the New York Times Bret Stephens says that this decision is not conservative but radical. “What is conservative?” he asks. “It is, above all,” he says, “the conviction that abrupt and profound changes to established laws and common expectations are utterly destructive to respect for the law and the institutions established to uphold it — especially when those changes are instigated from above, with neither democratic consent nor broad consensus.” I would add, especially when only 19% of the nation believes that abortions in all circumstances should be banned. Only 19%. Meaning that this Court is trying to reshape America to serve only 19% of its people, to the detriment of the other 81%!
It stinks of politics. Which leads to yet another wrongness about this decision. Justice Sonya Sotomayor says it like this: “Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?” “If people actually believe that it’s all political, how will we survive?” “How will the court survive?”
Now, in the face of all the uproar and fallout, a “non-scalable” fence is being erected around the Supreme Court building, walling it off from protesters–the same kind of defense, I want to point out, that the Court denied to clinics providing abortion services back in 2014 and needing protection from violent activists.
It’s just disgusting. And it goes on and on. Beyond the wrongness of being radical, and beyond the wrongness of undermining the legitimacy of the Court, is the wrongness of the path the majority opinion against Roe opens up to nullifying other civil rights. The majority decision says quite plainly that rights that are only implied and not explicitly laid out in the Constitution are invalid. So it’s not far-fetched to worry about what happens next to the right to same-sex marriage, the right to contraception, the right to be free from discrimination based on race or gender, and so on. To be fair, Justice Alito did preemptively reject that argument, saying, “To ensure that our decision is not misunderstood or mischaracterized, we emphasize that our decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right. Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.” That’s what Justice Alito said.
And I say, I don’t trust you anymore.
All five of the Justices said they would not target Roe vs. Wade, but here we are.
It stinks. So much feels wrong about this.
Obvious wrongness has to do with how this decision dehumanizes and degrades women. How it takes away from women the most basic right of bodily autonomy. As the powerful Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When Government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”
And then there is the obvious wrongness of the sheer hypocrisy of the “pro-life” movement.” By no means is it “pro-life” when you want to save all embryos which are only potential human beings, but side by side with that, you argue for absolutely no restrictions on guns which would lead to saving actual human beings. As one meme puts it, “Pro-life would be 20 Sandy Hook students starting high school.”
By no means is it “pro-life” when you also argue that government has no business ensuring paid parental leave, universal child and health care, universal mental health care, universal child care, and so on. We are already ranked at the bottom 5% of Western democracies in health care for women and babies. How much worse can it get?
And then what does “pro-life” mean anyway, when a woman has been sexually assaulted and impregnated and she’s forced to go through the pregnancy and give birth to a baby who will ensure she never forgets that terrible trauma? Or when a woman hemorrhages due to a placental abruption, causing her parents, spouse, and children to have to make the impossible decision on whether to save her or her unborn child. Or when a woman who’s been working two jobs just to make ends meet and has to choose between bringing another child into poverty or feeding the children she already has because her spouse walked out on her?
Tell me: what is pro-life about any of this?
As Methodist pastor Dave Barnhart, from Birmingham, Alabama says so well: “The unborn” are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn. It’s almost as if, by being born, they have died to you. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus but actually dislike people who breathe. Prisoners? Immigrants? The sick? The poor? Widows? Orphans? All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible? They all get thrown under the bus for the unborn.
In fact, let’s take an even closer look at “the unborn” as the focus of the radical right. Because here we will find something not just wrong, but “fishy.” By that I mean pernicious, shameful, disgusting. What I am about to say is no means is an indictment of all pro-life folks, because you can be pro-life but completely unaware of the history of that movement and what it’s based on. You can.
Yes, for some people, “pro-life” is a considered moral stance. Absolutely. But as Jefferson Cowie, a historian at Vanderbilt University, says, there are two other decidedly less noble dimensions to the anti-abrortion position. One is what we saw in spades with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan: “the politicization of the issue to rile up the electorate.” Says Jefferson Cowie: “This is less about policy and more about pure and simple voting harvesting. Obviously, there is very little support for neonatal care or curbing the death penalty, so ‘pro-life’ is a ridiculous misnomer. They are less pro-life than they are pro-political power — their own.”
And then there is this dimension. I give you Jefferson Cowie again and his naming of the dimension of “state and regional sovereignty. Regional politics,” he says, “is still defined by a resistance to federal authority. If the federal government can run any aspect of regional culture or politics, the logic goes, then they can run it all. This has been a concern on just about everything since Reconstruction, including lynch law, fair employment practices, the Brown decision [desegregation of the schools], busing, prayer in schools, and abortion. This issue runs deep — consider the career of George Wallace who liked to say the federal government has put the courts in schools and taken God out. This is the remnants of the Lost Cause still blowing in the political winds.”
Do you get that—”the remnants of the Lost Cause still blowing in the political winds?” If you are a fan of another historian, by the name of Heather Cox Richardson, you know what I am about to say. Really, what is at the bottom is a Confederate states-rights argument that wants to preserve White Supremacy, and the only way to do that is to shrink the power of the federal government, elevate the rule of the States, and also to jury-rig the election process so that the radical right stays in power even if it is completely out of line with what the vast majority of Americans want.
What do you think about that? The stink of the Confederate’s Lost Cause at the bottom of the “pro-life” movement? This is no joke. Come to the sermon chat after the service to find out more about this.
I mean, there has got to be something fishy at bottom when, in 1973, the Southern Baptist Convention approved the following resolution on abortion: “Be it further resolved, that we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” How very Unitarian Universalist, right? But now look at how radically things have changed. Just last year, the Southern Baptist Convention moved to “affirm that the murder of preborn children is a crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law,” and then they said, “We humbly confess and lament any complicity in recognizing exceptions that legitimize or regulate abortion, and of any apathy, in not laboring with the power and influence we have to abolish abortion.”
Something about this whiplash change stinks….
Therefore, we gather. We Unitarian Universalists rally ourselves to our best sense of Love and Justice, and we think together, we act together. I would even say all this more strongly. That our mission here at West Shore is to rally people of liberal faith to the miracle of Love in action, for the sake of healing and justice in our lives and in the larger world. Because, when things feel as stuck and as scary as they do right now, positive change feels like … a miracle.
So what can be done? What can we do?
My answer is short, but to explain it will take a bit: here is my answer: to act from a spiritual place.
Start with the spiritual place part. This is about dwelling within a larger perspective. This is about imagining what is happening in a way that avoids demonizing the five Justices on the Supreme Court and the 19% of Americans and more who are cheering them on.
Start with Universalism. Universalism says that all people seek happiness as best as they understand it in the moment of their seeking. Even the worst people imaginable. What’s at heart is always good, but what’s bad is how people can understand what’s going on, which isn’t corrected simply by learning more facts or reading a book. Everyone’s understanding of anything is rooted in group loyalty, survival strategies, unconscious agendas that need to be brought to light. This is why we must love each other as hard as we know how, and be patient. Growing wiser is a journey for us all.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t fight for love and justice, as best as we know. We fight! But we fight with honor. We fight yet not lose sight of our responsibility to treat even our worst ideological enemies with kindness and mercy. We fight, knowing that the picture we have may very well be partial and we ourselves have a thing or two more to learn.
And then there is this. We fight with a sense of humility. I have spoken about this before: of the interdependent web of moral learning. How each of us achieves perhaps our greatest learning about the difference between right and wrong by doing things that hurt others, and we experience the consequences of that, we learn the hard way from that. This happens to be a time in America when many Children of God are learning about authoritarianism and racial hatred, and their mistakes will harm us all. Yet they must go through this—how else will they learn?–and since we are part of an interdependent web of all being, we will suffer with them. But what must soften our resentment and melt our hearts into compassion is the fact that we also learn by hurting others. No one is exempt from this interdependency. The hurt that we cause others—from which we can learn so much—is the gift of others to us. So let our present suffering be a gift to those who are bringing harm to us.
When I try to see our situation from a God’s-eye perspective (as best as I can fathom that) this is the picture that comes.
I commend this vision to you, as you seek to act from a spiritual place in this time.
As for specific actions that this congregation might take: here is what I recommend:
1. Organize a new Justice Task Force that focuses on reproductive rights. Clear and dedicated leadership is imperative. Ohio is one of 25 states likely to ban abortion if allowed to. So the way forward is to organize. Create a dedicated Task Force. According to the process laid out in 2012, this would require four members of West Shore committed to this work who are not already leaders in other Task Forces. They would need to provide a mission statement and an action plan to me and Gloria Bemer because we are the co-leads of the Justice and Outreach Council. We would be most happy to help a group like this get off the ground.
2. I recommend that one of the first things this new Task Force does is leverage the public witness power of our church building and hang a sign out front, right beside our Black Lives Matter sign, that says something like: “This Church Supports Abortion Rights.” As I hope my sermon has already made clear, to hang these signs side-by-side is entirely appropriate, given how the “pro-choice” movement has fishy racist underpinnings.
The process for moving on this is clear. The new Task Force on Reproductive Rights would create and circulate a petition for hanging such a sign. If at least 10% of West Shore’s membership signs on, then it goes to our Board. The Board can either recommend that we then enter into a lengthy process of a congregation-wide exploration of this issue (as we are doing with the 8th Principle), or it can judge the situation requiring immediate attention and make the decision itself to hang such a sign.
3. I furthermore recommend that this new Task Force guide this congregation as we get closer and closer to the November elections: to ensure that folks are fully informed about who the pro-choice candidates are, and to empower people to vote. This, and to explore other ways this congregation can make a difference.
4. Finally, here is something else: something we can all do: make your annual pledge to this congregation. Again, I know that the enforced isolation of the pandemic has led all of us to re-evaluate our priorities, and, moving forward, to demand that what we give our time and money to truly matters. Well, this congregation truly matters, in all times, but especially in times like this. Our mission is to rally people of liberal faith to the miracle of Love in action, for the sake of healing and justice in our lives and in the larger world. When things feel stuck and hopeless, what we truly need indeed is a miracle. Don’t underestimate how your financial support makes it possible. If you have not yet pledged, pledge, and pledge generously. If you have already pledged, maybe you will consider increasing it just a bit more.
We will be in this fight for the long haul. So we need to think long haul and act long haul.
This religious community is essential,
for alone our vision is too narrow
to see all that must be seen.
Together, our vision widens
and our strength is renewed.Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed
The times need it.
These extraordinary times.
You and I and all: stepping up together.