Several weeks ago, I was having dinner with friends in the town of Bridgewater, PA—a sliver of land at the confluence of the Beaver and Ohio Rivers northwest of Pittsburgh. As tends to happen whenever orthodox Christians gather, the conversation turned to cultural decline. As we discussed the latest outrages, though, I couldn’t help but observe our surroundings.
We were on the patio of a casual restaurant within sight of the gentle Beaver River. Between us and the riverbank was a pristine lawn, crisscrossed by walking trails. The weather was mild and clear. Around us, people conversed contentedly while dining wholesomely and affordably, in perfect security. To all appearances, here was the very image of the good society: pleasant, safe, and prosperous.
I mused aloud: Unless a person is steeped in a tradition of moral theology, the notion that our culture is in a state of decay will sound simply incredible. The secular citizen might acknowledge an injustice here, a minor outrage there—but the MacIntyrean concept of a new Dark Ages? Madness.
But as the ongoing Planned Parenthood revelations demonstrate, our Potemkin society conceals more than just notional corruptions.
* * *
In The Brothers Karamazov, the tortured intellectual Ivan challenges his pious brother Alyosha with the problem of theodicy. He focuses on the suffering of the helpless:
“Tell me yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn't consent,” said Alyosha softly.
But we have so consented.
We have built a society whose balance depends on the institutionalized killing of the unborn. We have built a society whose progress, as that concept is popularly understood, requires the corpses of these unborn victims.
Could we achieve a new balance that would accommodate the nearly one million children who are aborted every year, that would support all mothers financially and socially? Could we advance medicine without murder? Could we redefine “progress” so that it disallows advances that capitalize on the spoils of abortion?
And it’s not about them—those selfish women, those evil abortionists, those unscrupulous researchers. In the same way that Pennsylvanians and Vermonters shared, even in an attenuated way, the sin of slavery, we all participate in a society that sanctions and benefits from abortion. To deny this is to embrace the atomized morality that opens up the conceptual space for Anthony Kennedy-style “meaning of life” libertarianism.
Like Justice Kennedy, we use soft language to conceal hard truths. There are the guilty euphemisms of the abortionists: “products of conception,” “tissues,” “choice,” and so on. And there are the more popular evasions that, while less perverse, still serve to obscure uncomfortable realities. We call the workings-out of our particular rendition of international capitalism “natural”; we look at a permanent underclass and speak of “freedom”; we give nearly every innovation, regardless of its human cost, the name of “progress.”
In all of these cases, we use language to distance ourselves from our responsibility to others, and from our responsibility to the truth. In so doing, we obscure the human victims—“that baby beating its breast with its fist”—on whose suffering our social stability is founded.
Not coincidentally, we tend also to downplay the divine victim. Our pieties play up Christ’s affirming love, not His atoning sacrifice. If we emphasized the cross, we would confess that we adore a god more perfect and more demanding than those of our making: History and Progress. But it is only in and through His sacrifice—not through our modern bromides—that suffering is redeemed and evil vanquished. And so Ivan is rebuked:
“Brother,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes, “you said just now, is there a being in the whole world who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!’”
Secular culture views suffering as unredeemable, and so is eager to eradicate it. At least, it is eager to eradicate those forms of suffering in which there is no competition for the role of victim, and the solution does not impinge on other commitments. When things get complicated—a woman suffers due to a pregnancy; her child suffers due to dilation and extraction—someone's suffering will be de-emphasized or denied. (Perhaps women who get themselves into these situations don't deserve sympathy? Perhaps fetuses don't feel pain?) Our psychology requires such evasions. We could not bear to see how our comfort depends on the anguish of others.
It is in Christ that we see clearly both that suffering is redeemed and that we must work to eradicate suffering as far as is possible in this world.
* * *
That riverside restaurant in Bridgewater is a portrait of social stability and broad comfort—all the more impressive because the river valleys around Pittsburgh were some of the most economically devastated regions in all the United States through the late twentieth century.
But in his challenge, Ivan promised an incredible and universal gift in return for the torture of the innocent: lasting happiness. All we have to show for our bloody abortion regime is stability and comfort—and even these are far from universal. It is a villainously lopsided bargain, but we accept it because while voiding it would be painful, papering it over exacts no such cost.
Defenders of Planned Parenthood have sought to downplay the videos, to equivocate, to ignore. (The last of these is becoming increasingly difficult.) So we must not relent in confronting the public with the truth—and not in legal or procedural language, but with the stark idiom of moral condemnation.
Legal change—the defunding of Planned Parenthood, for starters—is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the repentance of a whole society. We must learn to hate evil enough that we are unwilling to overlook it for the greater good.
Brandon McGinley is a 2010 graduate of Princeton University. He writes from Pittsburgh, where he works for the Pennsylvania Family Institute.
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