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Prophetic Compassion or Political Savvy?

by James Gibson Marshallville UMC

A defining moment for the 1999 session of the South Georgia Annual Conference came on Wednesday morning during consideration of a petition to the General Conference calling for reformation of Social Principles paragraph 65J, the United Methodist statement on abortion. It was a defining moment not because of what it said about the division of feeling over the issue in question, but because of what it said about two generations of pastoral leadership and their vastly different approaches to ministry. While neither the present generation nor the rising generation are homogeneous, there does appear to be a clear dichotomy between the two.

The majority of the present generation sees abortion as essentially a political issue. Thus, any statement the church makes on the topic must take into consideration certain political realities, such as the assumption that no law restricting abortion will ever be workable that does not include “hard case” exceptions such as rape, incest and the life of the mother. The church, therefore, in addressing the issue, must be pragmatic and politically expedient, conceding that such “hard cases” may justify abortion. In the minds of the present generation, the question is, “What abortion law ought the church be advocating?” The church, like the issue, is viewed through essentially political lenses.

The majority of the rising generation views both the issue and the church through entirely different lenses. From its perspective, abortion is essentially a ministry issue and the church is the vehicle for doing ministry. These pastors are less concerned with passing laws and more concerned with saving lives. Perhaps because they have not been corrupted by “the system,” this rising generation of pastors has little use for the sophisticated arguments of their pragmatic elders. The politics of the issue aside, the question in the minds of the rising generation is, “How might the church best witness for the sanctity of human life in the midst of a culture saturated with death?” Answering this question requires prophetic compassion, not political savvy.

The present generation of pastoral leaders, at least in South Georgia, is not the radical fringe which seems to have taken control of numerous other sectors of United Methodism. Our present leaders are generally conservative, well-intentioned folk who wish to preserve some semblance of unity within the body. Nevertheless, their pragmatic approach to ministry has become an unwitting obstacle to the prophetic ministry of compassion which the church ought to be engaged in at this critical moment in human history. For state legislatures, the U.S. Congress and the courts, “hard case” exceptions are matters for debate and compromise. For the Church of Jesus Christ, “hard case” exceptions are exceptional opportunities to share the message of the Gospel, which can transform every human life, without exception.

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