|by Denny Hartford|
Building the culture of life is simply too indispensable and too overdue a task to leave to Roman Catholics alone. This is, in a rather provocative form, one of the key exhortations of Evangelium Vitae (“Gospel of Life”), that remarkable encyclical from 1995 which aptly illustrates Pope John Paul II’s fervent desire that evangelicals, Orthodox and other Christians begin to embrace their common responsibilities to promote, enrich and defend the sanctity of human life. This really isn’t a surprising thing. John Paul II’s entire ministry has been one that reaches beyond the specific confines of Catholicism. His incredible travel schedule, his prolific writing, his boldness to speak the truth even in the world’s halls of power – all this is wonderfully appropriate to authentic and wide-ranging Christian leadership.
The passionate desire of the Pope to enlist other Christians into the duties of creating a culture of life should not be surprising for another important reason too; namely, because John Paul II’s exhortations are but an echo from the Scriptures themselves. The culture of life that His Holiness speaks of is but an application of the Kingdom of God, the combined lifestyle of Christians truly committed to doing righteousness and justice as they have been commanded by God. The hallmarks of the truly Christian lifestyle, therefore, include visiting the widows and orphans in their distress, defending the least of Christ’s brothers, forgiving one’s enemies, and walking in the beauty of God’s holiness. “Doers of the Word” are the necessary builders of the culture of life and John Paul II understands that this command applies every bit as much to the Orthodox Christian, the Coptic, and the evangelical as it does to the Catholic.
There is, however, yet a third reason why the encyclical’s frequent inclusion of all Christians should not be considered surprising. And that is because we have heard similar appeals from such echoes from the evangelical ranks as C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and, most recently, Charles Colson. These men, like John Paul II, have understood how sinister are the forces arrayed against the Church. But they also know the astounding and ever-available power of God. Thus, they urge all true believers in Christ to live as lights of the world, courageously, creatively, and in concert with one another in overcoming Satan’s work in our world.
This common commitment, however, may well have its most eloquent presentation in John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, and that is why I urge with such exuberance my fellow evangelicals to carefully read (and heed!) this powerful document. It is a finely woven argument possessing remarkable spiritual force. Many evangelicals may find themselves impressed at the encyclical’s strong biblical foundation – they may not know His Holiness is such a conservative and perceptive exegete! But they will be just as taken with the forthrightness and even confrontational tone of the encyclical. The whole world knows from his engaging persona that John Paul II is an extremely kind-hearted man but, with the issues of holiness before him, he is also unequivocal and very bold. For instance, note how plain-speaking John Paul II is in dealing with such actions as abortion:
John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae does indeed call things by the proper name. He does not compromise. He does not neglect or gloss over critical moral issues. He does not fall to “the temptation of self-deception” in any of its alluring forms. And like Isaiah, the prophet he quotes above, the Pope delivers the most relevant truths of God to a people in desperate need of spiritual reformation. Just what are these relevant revelations? In the introduction to the “Gospel of Life,” his Holiness clearly presents his priorities: “The present encyclical…is meant to be a precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life and its inviolability, and at the same time a pressing appeal addressed to each and every person, in the name of God: respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life! Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness” (§5.5)!
Basic to the encyclical then is to present a precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life. John Paul II’s own physical health, of course, is anything but vigorous; his frailty and fatigue and the effects of Parkinson’s disease are all in league against his ambitious spiritual leadership. But where our weakness is manifest, God’s strength is made all the more glorious so the Lord has energized the Pope to deliver in Evangelium Vitae a vigorous, spirited, even joyful affirmation of the sanctity of human life.
It is a beautiful irony so in keeping with the character of our wise God. But, beyond intellectual appreciation, God gives us something else in this encyclical. We also hear a powerful appeal to practically and immediately respond to the culture’s need.
Evangelium Vitae is not an argument in abstract; it is a realistic charge for all Christians to fully submit themselves to Savior and thus show the path of redemption to a to a world that has so completely, desperately lost its way. The encyclical addresses that world, by the way, in remarkably strong terms. John Paul II has accepted the role of a prophet and as such he expresses the indignation of a holy God against those who have so brazenly embraced violence and injustice. For instance, he refers to “a veritable culture of death” that has sold out to abortionists, euthanasia proponents, and others affiliated with the devil. He speaks of a “war of the powerful against the weak”; of a “structure of sin” which protects and promotes the shedding of innocent blood; of a “conspiracy against life” which has included politicians, doctors, the media, businessmen, and so many others. The Pope even refers to a democracy that has surrendered its moral responsibilities as a “tyrant state” whose laws on such things as abortion have no morally binding force.
Oh yes, John Paul II can seem a sweet, though frail figure but, in this hard-hitting encyclical, he reveals the confident eloquence of a holy prophet as well. Like all true prophets then, John Paul II must give the bad news in full in order that the good news he also bears (God’s mercy for the sincerely repentant) can be thoroughly understood and properly received.
But were did it all begin? From whence comes the culture of death? The French Revolution? The Third Reich? The election of Bill Clinton? No, John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae takes us back a bit further by exploring the grim realities of human sin as revealed in Chapter One of Romans. Again, evangelicals may well be surprised to see the excellent job of exegesis here. But then even the skeptical cannot miss the Pope’s faithful dependence upon the Scriptures throughout the document.
The Pope points out St. Paul’s emphasis in this biblical passage that the freedom God gives us is relational. In fact, it is even more appropriately described as a ministerial freedom. We are our brother’s keeper. Conversely, when we reject God, the social fabric is torn apart and the devil himself enters the scene, tempting man to not only turn against his Creator, but subsequently to turn against other men – and eventually, against himself. His Holiness comments:
Notice the politically incorrect observation made by John Paul II here. He believes in a real devil! Satan is a real personality, not a mere fantasy or a negative force or the aggregate fears of ignorant folks. No, the Pope takes this devil very seriously, stressing that the devil not only has a definite agenda (murder and theft and destruction as John 10 describes) but that the devil alluringly aligns himself with human beings. This is an important truth to realize. The culture of death enveloping us is a co-creation. It is a product of men and devils working in cooperation. Sometimes men are all-too-aware of this partnership; other times they are duped by their own carnal desires and play into Satan’s hands without fully realizing what is happening. The devil, of course, can portray himself as an angel of light in order to deceive the ignorant and unwary.
The Bible also speaks of doctrines of demons. Entire systems of thought; whole philosophies and even religions can actually be the manipulations of a very smart set of fallen angels – fallen angels whose hatred of God is spent in a millennia-old campaign against those created in His image. In our day, these demonic doctrines have cast a very wide net, putting moral purity almost out of the arena and creating that culture of death that now threatens. Writes John Paul II:
A darkened conscience is tragic enough when contained in one person. Who knows, for example, how Cain is paying for bringing murder into the world. But the encyclical emphasizes the ripple effect such actions have on the entire world. Let me list just a few of these, all of them still rippling from that consequence described in Romans One:
John Paul II stresses this theme of alienation throughout the encyclical. He decries “a cultural context frequently closed to the transcendent” (§64.1) and the “tragic obscuring of the collective conscience.” In doing so, he affirms the conclusions of evangelicalism’s most perceptive observers. For instance, note Charles Colson’s description of the same social scene in his excellent book, How Now Shall We Live? (1999):
Colson’s view is not an uncommon one among evangelical thinkers either. Bill Bright, D. James Kennedy, James Dobson, Norm Geisler, Carl Henry, Ravi Zacharias, and Cal Thomas are just a few of the names that come to mind. C.S. Lewis, the Anglican scholar and brilliant apologist for the Faith, saw this culture of death coming even in the years immediately following the Second World War. “We make men without chests, that is, without souls, and expect of them virtue and enterprise,” wrote Lewis. “We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” (Abolition of Men, p. 35)
When the moral landmarks are moved, the old rules busted, and there’s no Batman and Robin to swing into the urban jungles to require redress of injustices, can society even survive? Such a question could be asked of two of America’s most famous historian-philosophers, Will and Ariel Durant. The Durants were winners of the 1976 Humanist Pioneer award for their work in debunking religion and, in the mind of the judges, fostering an enlightened approach to the future as well as the past. However, in a telling interview they gave to the Humanist magazine in February of 1977, the Durants weren’t all that confident that religion, now that it was on the way out, could actually be replaced. “Moreover, we shall find it no easy task to mold a natural ethic strong enough to maintain moral restraint and social order without the support of supernatural consolations, hopes and fears…. There is no significant example in history of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.” Apparently, society left “glue-less and clue-less” wasn’t going to have an easy time of it!
Francis Schaeffer, the Presbyterian apologist whose pro-life leadership was so crucial to evangelicals enlisting in the movement, had an answer to the Durants’ dilemma. But it wasn’t a pretty one. In his book, A Christian Manifesto (1981), Schaeffer explained, “Humanism, with its lack of any final base for values or law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos.” (pp. 29-30) John Paul II agrees:
The Pope’s remarks above have a remarkable echo to an argument written years earlier by C.S. Lewis in his book on education, morality and the common good, The Abolition of Man. Lewis, writing before the United Nations, Roe v. Wade or China’s forced sterilization policies, was yet able to describe exactly how the tyrant state, rid of the shackles of religious morality and transcendent values, might conduct itself. In the context of an eloquent criticism against eugenics and birth control, Lewis wrote these words 55 years ago:
Evangelium Vitae’s description of the common home where all men live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality is a striking one. But, when this home is destroyed, it is inevitably followed by the tyrant state with its “bullying power” over men that G.K. Chesterton warned us about in his anti-eugenics works generations ago. Both of these Catholic champions, GKC and John Paul II, would agree with Lewis’ conclusions:
The “few lucky people” Lewis prophesied in 1947 are among us today in the sophisticated West. They include politicians, businessmen, media moguls, cultural icons and, most certainly, organizations like Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women, and the United Nations. The few lucky people” also include those scientists who are even now enacting some of the more gruesome prophecies of Chesterton, Lewis and even Aldous Huxley, the re-definition of man himself. Evangelium Vitae, in its typical confrontational style, addresses these scientists head on:
But, of course, this devilish agenda for the “abolition of man” need not occur without principled, passionate – and ultimately winnable fight and Evangelium Vitae has plenty to say about that too. As mentioned earlier, it is the call to concerted spiritual action that is the indispensable second step of the encyclical. The bad news is in; we must not turn away from the sobering (sometimes even sickening) realities. But now, as St. Peter told us, we must “gird our minds for action” (I Peter 1:13) and get on to the business of holiness and the building of a culture of life:
His Holiness underscores as a first priority in awakening this hope “the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life” (§28.1). Once again, this mission isn’t a Catholic or Protestant thing. Nor is it merely for the religious or the full time pro-life activists. John Paul II addresses this call to not only all “types” of Christians, but indeed to all Christians period!
Where does the adventure begin? Here is where the encyclical may be at its most controversial:
Ouch! It is tough enough to listen to the prophet speak in such uncompromising terms against the “bad guys” but like the non-Catholic prophets I’ve mentioned in this article, John Paul II reserves much of his exhortation in Evangelium Vitae for those within the fellowship of Christ. Oh yes, the document is very strong in its judgment of the world (for example, “structure of sin,” “conspiring against life,” “culture of death”) but His Holiness’ primary purpose is to get Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic, heartily committed to the first step; namely, a renewed surrender to “whole holiness” themselves. Our own people must be consecrated, drawn away from worldliness and back to the cross. Then Christians must be given the vision, the training, and the ongoing support to effectively pursue the sanctity of life.
This theme is paramount in the writings of Lewis and Schaeffer and Colson too. Discipleship of our own, they tell us over and again, is critical. Training in righteousness, compassion, modesty, self-control, intellectual disciplines, worship that goes beyond singing in the sanctuary to working good deeds in the world – these must become are our first responsibilities. Without them, our religious efforts “outside the fold” are but useless preening.
What does “whole holiness” look like? What constitutes the culture of life? There’s no doubt it will require a much more intensive commitment to pro-life activism by God’s people – a commitment that goes beyond mere sentiment and the occasional pro-life vote. Specific actions against the culture of death are required: educational outreaches of all kinds, “sidewalk counseling” at abortion clinics, extension of services provided by pregnancy aid centers, grassroots advocacy, visitation in nursing homes, peaceful protest, development of mentoring ministries, widespread and energetic programs of chastity promotion, and a lot more intercessory prayer. These organizational pro-life activities are applauded by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae. However, he also has a profound appreciation for those building blocks of the culture of life that are more oriented to personal and family actions. In this respect, his Holiness underscores the incomparable beauty of godly parenting; the teaching of Natural Family Planning; the nurture given by adoptive and foster parents; the inestimable value of a praying clergy; the morally responsible service of journalists, doctors and businessmen; and so on. “Whole holiness” should (and must) involve us all for the culture of life will not be built on organizational efforts as much as it will by the unrecorded prayers and the private acts of charity of millions of believers.
Certainly there are plenty of obstacles, both in our discipleship efforts aimed within the church and our prophetic, evangelistic efforts aimed at those yet outside the salvation of Christ. No one seriously expects this to be an easy task. Writes Colson:
Christ’s power is ever available to enliven and enrich the Christian society in which we collectively serve. And it is that power which creates in us a winsomeness to the watching world. Indeed, this is the key to not only our own spirituality but also to our effectiveness in evangelism, discipleship and to the task of building a culture of life. As the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” The resultant beauty of love in action is, indeed, our chief attraction to a very needy world. This point too is one stressed by Evangelium Vitae and by the Protestant authors I’ve mentioned.
Note Francis Schaeffer’s comments from The Great Evangelical Disaster (1984):
Now note a parallel exhortation from the encyclical:
Remember, too that before he was a priest, John Paul II was an actor. Before he was Pope, he was a playwright. Therefore, when he says we must utilize “various forms of preaching” and “all educational activity” to communicate the whole gospel of life to the world, it is an exhortation that we unleash all the creativity and character we have in this effort. Preaching in the sanctuary? Of course. Life-affirming curricula in the schools? Sure! But John Paul II is also urging us to recognize how vigorously and thoroughly we need to communicate the culture of life in the family, in the arts, in politics, and in the constant flow of education and inspiration that occurs in everyday life.
Let me give an example. Last Halloween season, our mail lady knocked at our door to ask my wife Claire this question, “Can I please ask you what the word ‘reformation’ means?” An unusual request from a civil servant? Not if you consider the situation. You see, in a deliberate response to the witches, ghouls, and other gory decorations that festoon the homes of our neighborhood during the month of October, we seek to create a much different impression. On our windows (and we’re at the very entrance of a community with hundreds of town homes), we have decorated with horns of plenty and other symbols of autumn as well as big day-glow letters that announce “Blessed All Saints Day – November 1” and “October 31 – Happy Reformation Day!”
The mail lady was simply responding to natural curiosity and, as a result, Claire was able to share with her several spiritual truths about these holidays and, beyond those, to the sure hope that we possess because of the redemption given us by Jesus Christ. By taking a little risk, exerting a little effort, and utilizing what John Paul II might describe as a “various form of preaching,” Claire was able to build a bit more of the culture of life for our neighborhood as a whole – and to one very responsive woman in particular.
In one of his closing sections of Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II writes, “In the proclamation of this Gospel, we must not fear hostility or unpopularity, and we must refuse any compromise or ambiguity which might conform us to the world’s way of thinking” (§82.3).
No fear. No compromise. Instead? Plenty of courage, compassion, and creativity. These are readily available in the power of the Holy Spirit to all Christians – and when unleashed, these virtues can miraculously renew our corporate Christian community and create a solid foundation for the culture of life. This is the stirring call set forth so movingly in John Paul II’s dramatic encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. Should it be carefully read by Catholics? Oh yes – much more than it is. But with its solid Scriptural foundation, its courageous willingness to confront the culture of death, and its “whole holiness” echoes of Lewis, Schaeffer, Colson, Evangelium Vitae should be warmly treasured by evangelicals as well.