Rape, Abortion and Heroism

I was talking with a friend today on the subject of abortion. She observed that, when it came to the question of rape victims, a number of theologians who spoke out strongly against abortion in other situations were less willing to rule it out altogether. This brought to mind some thoughts that I had following various items of news surrounding the recent Amish tragedy. When we see the responses of different Amish people to the shootings — the girls who put themselves forward to be killed to save classmates, the reaching out in forgiveness and reconciliation to the widow of the shooter — we are dumbfounded by their moral heroism. However, as Christians we are also troubled. We are troubled by how far we fall short of this standard. We are more deeply troubled by the fact that the Scriptures demand nothing less.

We want to believe in a morality that does not ask us to do the heroic thing. No reasonable person could expect a woman to forgive her rapist or to give birth to his child. However, deep down we know that this is exactly what God would call us to do. We do not suffer from a loss of our moral bearings so much as a failure of moral courage and faith. Christian faith is by nature courageous; unbelief is cowardly. Faith is able to do that which is impossible with man as it throws itself on God and finds strength in Him.

We serve a God who calls us to be heroes. This is where the stress on radical discipleship that one finds in many Anabaptist groups is such a powerful witness. We see Christ calling the Rich Young Ruler to give his possessions to the poor in order to follow Him and we instinctively shrink back in fear, lest God demand the same of us. God could not ask us to do such a thing! We would not be able to do it!

That is precisely the point: we are not able to do it. This is why such a morality is only possible for faith and, where it occurs, is such a profound testimony to the reality of faith. Only faith is able to admit its own impotence and step forward nonetheless. Only faith has the necessary strength to draw on, as it trusts in the God who created heaven and earth.

We follow a Master who calls us to willingly take up our cross each day. We will always be presented with easy ways out, but we are called to willingly reject them and follow Him. We want a God who will plug the gaps in the safety structures that we have built around ourselves. We serve a God who calls us to be prepared to leave such structures and trust him entirely with our security.

How is such heroic discipleship possible? Here is another lesson that we can learn from people like the Amish. Heroism is not purely spontaneous, but springs up from the deep wells of character. Such character is best formed and sustained in community, as faith is best formed and sustained in community. So often the premium that we place on security is born of pure unbelief that is unwilling to risk relying on God. This stifling fear is contagious. What we need are moral heroes. We need examples of those who have stepped out in faith. Indeed, we are surrounded by just such a cloud of witnesses (Henrews 12:1). Each one of these can testify to the trustworthiness of God, to the fact that that which is impossible with man is quite possible with Him. Within our own churches we see people who have acted in faith and proved God faithful.

The Church is also the place where faith can be sustained when it faces deep trials. The pregnant rape victim should not have to face her trial alone. The Church can be there with her in her darkness, share her tears and help her to fulfill that which God would have her to do, proving God’s faithfulness in the process. God does not call us to moral heroism to torture us, but to deliver us. Through the pain of what He calls us to do we know that He is healing that which might otherwise have destroyed us.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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10 Responses to Rape, Abortion and Heroism

  1. Matt Wiebe says:

    “We want to believe in a morality that does not ask us to do the heroic thing.”

    That’s a great thought. Also the notion that faith calls us to do what we cannot do is a potent one. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: peterandthegoose.adversaria.co.uk» Blog Archive » Rape, Abortion and Heroism

  3. Pierre Benz says:

    “We want a God who will plug the gaps in the safety structures that we have built around ourselves. We serve a God who calls us to be prepared to leave such structures and trust him entirely with our security.”

    This is so true, and the scary thing is that I still find myself falling into this mindset. I guess it has a lot to do with our view that God doesn’t call us to live a radical life of obedience, but rather a life of “God will get me out of trouble, and if He doesn’t it’s kind of up to me to do as I wish.”

    Man, have I gotten into trouble saying what you have just said. Most people, especially women, tell me that it’s easy for a man to say or that God would never demand that from anyone. It’s quite amazing how hazy our view of what God demands has become in our so called sophisticated society.

  4. Jessika Huston says:

    It’s sad to see that all too often the church is not there with the woman “in her darkness”, but listening to the world instead… encouraging abortion rather than “moral heroism”. Thanks for the post, very refreshing.

    This reminds me of a book I read not too long ago, “Startling Beauty” by Heather Gemmen. (A true story…I would recommend it more for ladies to read, but very good anyway)

  5. David says:

    I tried to express similar sentiments in a seminar on ethics in university. I think most of my classmates resonated with your words, “No reasonable person could expect a woman to forgive her rapist or to give birth to his child.” Their response ranged from being just baffled to absolute outrage. It was a hard thing to say to unbelievers, some of whom may well have had abortions themselves, some of whom may have been raped. I wonder if perhaps some of the theologians you mentioned do not back-off a bit from the call to do the hard thing because they are unsure of how proper or fair it is to set such an impossible task before unbelievers, people unequipped by the Spirit to carry it out? Sometimes issuing the call to take up one’s cross is itself also a difficult form of answering it.

  6. Al says:


    Great to see you commenting! How are things with you at the moment?

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I have seen that book before and it looks very good. Sometimes I wonder whether biographies have more to teach us on such issues than lengthy theological tomes on the subject of ethics. The lives of the people of God have a God-given power to teach us lessons in a way that words alone could not.


    To be fair to many of the theologians who have written on this issue, a reluctance to say what the woman must do in such a situation is not always a matter of lack of moral courage. It can be an appreciation of the manner in which NT ethics work.

    NT ethics are not generally framed in the form of commandments. Rather, NT ethics involve a particular rhetorical form that recognizes the freedom that the believer has from the Law. NT ethics operates primarily according to a rhetoric of persuasion, rather than an rhetoric of command.

    The Church’s duty is to cultivate an ethos, not to enforce an ethic. There is a difference. Whilst there are certain things that must always be condemned and ruled out within the Church, our primary duty is not to establish and enforce a long list of dos and don’ts, but to encourage, support and enable people in living out the sort of life that Christ has freed them to live.

    On the particular issue of a pregnant rape victim, it is one thing to say that the right thing for her to do in such a situation is to bear the child. It is another thing to say that to her. There is always a danger of creating a form of ethics that is more about adherence to a certain set of norms rather than a matter of empowering people to live in the freedom of the Spirit for which Christ has set them free.

    This is why Christian biographies, models and support structures within the Christian Church can be so important when we face such issues. Rather than imposing a commandment upon the rape victim from without, they create a realm of freedom for the woman in which her choice for the way of Christ is made possible and positively encouraged, without being coerced in any way.

    As you have observed, expressing such a position to people outside of the Church is very difficult. When someone is not yet a participant in the liberty of the life of the Church any teaching that abortion in such a situation is wrong just seems to add cruelty to cruelty. However, whilst I am convinced that Christian ethics has much to teach the wider society, we should not presume that it is intelligible or possible apart from faith. This need not involve a limitation of the scope of Christian ethics, though, as all human beings are called to the faith that makes Christian ethics possible. It just means that our call to ethical life must always be the liberating call of the gospel. Otherwise Christian ethics just collapses into the legalism that one can see in many fundamentalist circles of the Church.

  7. luke says:

    I was just talking to a friend of mine about this issue. You’ve a good post on it. Christianity demands more from a human than he is capable, and most often the church isn’t really up to that standard. But when it does rise to that standard, it shines. And when another group (the Amish) exhibit the same degree of forgiveness and restoration as we are deficient of, it is right that we should be troubled. Something is askew. You should read the link I just put up on my blog that my bro Daniel wrote. It addresses this issue as well. It’s pretty pointed, but well thought out. Here’s the link.

  8. Al says:

    Thanks for the comment, Luke. I left a comment in response to your brother’s challenging post.

  9. charlotte says:

    Thanks, some interesting thoughts

  10. Pingback: Links for October 21, 2006 | Based on a True Story

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