Who Are Christians Called To Be in a Post-Roe World? | Sojourners

Who Are Christians Called To Be in a Post-Roe World?

While many lawmakers deny the intricacies of reproductive health, most people in the U.S. hold more nuanced views.
An illustration of pink bubbles on a purple backdrop with various things in them, such as a baby in utero, pro-life and pro-choice signs, a Bible, a law book, and a hand holding a sprout.
Illustration by Alex William

THE REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH landscape in the United States has changed drastically in the last year, and it continues to change. But some things remain the same. One consistent aspect of our ongoing national conversation is that many of those who support the greatest restrictions, including on access to abortion and other elements of reproductive health, claim Christian faith as a primary motivator.

I spent much of my young adulthood in evangelical contexts where people had strong opinions about faith and reproductive rights. Most evangelicals I knew believed that life begins at conception and thus abortion should be broadly prohibited by the law as akin to murder. In these spaces, the Bible was considered the main — sometimes the only — source of authority when it came to navigating ethical questions. I’ve come to realize, though, that the Bible hardly speaks anything straightforward into the intensely personal realm of when human life begins and what decisions should be made in complicated, real-world situations.

I wonder, then: What does it look like to wade through this murky territory as people of faith? Who are Christians called to be in a post-Roe world?

The intricacy of life

JESUS ONCE TOLD this pithy story: A person throws seed on the earth, and she sleeps and wakes up, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, she does not know how. Of its own accord the earth bears fruit, first stalk, then head, then the full grain in the head. And whenever the fruit presents itself, immediately she sends the sickle, because the harvest has come (Mark 4:26-29, my translation). A person plants seeds, Jesus says, and that person has no idea how these seeds grow up into grain.

This is what God’s kingdom is like, metaphorically. It is also what life is like — literally.

I know this from gardening. I can do my best to plant in good soil at the right time of year, water well, and fertilize as needed, but I do not make the plants grow. I can no more create a tomato or a pumpkin than I can conjure a unicorn out of thin air. The vegetables develop of their own accord. I can only tend and support the process. There is so much beyond my control.

Life, at its essence, is a mystery to us. It may seem easy to say that life begins at conception, but the reality is more intricate. The beginnings of human life are anything but clear-cut — and not only because in natural conception 50 percent of fertilized eggs stop developing before pregnancy can be detected. Melissa Florer-Bixler, writing for Sojourners online, explores this complexity beautifully. She describes sitting in the hospital with people nearing the end of their life and with pregnant women facing difficult choices; as a pastor she has seen the often-blurry lines that divide life and death. She calls these liminal spaces “the gray edges of life” — a “holy space of in between.” Pregnancy, Florer-Bixler writes, can be thought of as “the holy gray of life’s beginning.”

Wrapped up in the phrase “holy gray” is a sense of profound mystery — a recognition that the journey of human life, like the growth of grain in a field, can be influenced and nurtured but will not be controlled. Life grows of its own accord, and we watch in wonder — as plants grow up and bear fruit, and as zygotes become blastocysts become embryos become fetuses. Perhaps the unease many of us may feel around attempting to define the beginning of a human life is appropriate. Perhaps this unease is sacred.

Grappling with the mystery of human life and its beginnings includes contending with the fact that a human life does not begin in isolation. The new life grows within a pregnant person’s body, within the web of relationships in which they reside. We can hold the mystery of life’s beginnings in productive tension with the agency of the humans who tend this process.

Listening for God

I AM DRAWN to Indigenous thinkers’ embrace of God as Mystery. Cherokee theologian Randy Woodley often refers to God as Creator, Great Spirit, or Great Mystery. In Woodley’s own spiritual practice, as he has written, he’s looking for the “[m]oments in which Great Spirit’s silence can be heard in [his] heart. Moments in which Great Mystery’s unspoken words can take root and grow.” These moments are often found in the natural world. Likewise, Potawatomi author and poet Kaitlin B. Curtice urges Christians to “[seek] to know what it might mean to feel the sacred pulse of Mystery around us and in us.”

Great Spirit’s silence. Great Mystery’s unspoken words. Mystery’s sacred pulse. These, to me, are beautiful visions of God and faith. We can see this mystery not as threatening but glorious.

Sometimes, though, Christians respond to Sacred Mystery by trying to draw boundaries — not unlike Peter’s response to the Transfiguration. As the gospel stories tell it, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to a mountain to pray, and as Jesus was praying, his face began to shine like the sun and his clothes became a stunning bright white. Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus. What does one do with such a stunning vision? Peter had an answer. Let’s put up three shelters: one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah. In the face of an extraordinary miracle beyond his understanding, Peter had his own ideas about what an appropriate response looked like. And he wanted to jump into action to implement these ideas.

Mary’s response to the supernatural events she witnessed stands in contrast to Peter’s. When an angel appeared to Mary, speaking of divine favor and an invitation to mother the Most High (Luke 1:26-38) — and then again, when shepherds showed up at Jesus’ birth with wild tales of angels singing “peace on earth” (Luke 2:8-20) — Mary responded by pondering these things in her heart. She also responded by seeking out the company of her older relative Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45) — creating communal space to hold her contemplation.


An illustration of pink bubbles on a purple backdrop with various things in them, such as the silhouette of a pregnant woman, a hand holding a sprout, the Bible, the Supreme Court building, and more.
Illustration by Alex William

Mary’s choice (“Let it be with me according to your word,” Luke 1:38) to carry God in her womb was meaningful because it was just that: a choice. It was something she beheld with awe and delight. My spirit rejoices, she sang. God has been mindful of me. God lifts up the humble and fills the hungry with good things (Luke 1:46-55). The implication: The child in my womb will be a part of this. That is amazing, and it is exactly what I want. I want to raise this child to delight in God, to be about justice, to defy empire and build community and extend God’s mercy always.

Mary had a vision — a strong and beautiful one — for the life forming inside her. She did not rush into action or need control. Instead, she pondered. She drew on inner and communal wisdom. She listened for God’s Spirit, and she moved with strong, courageous humility. Perhaps this posture is the invitation that Sacred Mystery holds for us.

Questions for flourishing

IN THE FACE of Mystery, what do we as Christians know? I find myself returning to the origin stories of Earth and all her systems, and of humanity, in the first two chapters of Genesis. I return to the goodness of all creation. And of humankind — all humankind, all genders — made in the image of God and given the incredible gift and responsibility of caring for our world (Genesis 1:26-28). We are different from other created beings (Genesis 2:19-20) but not separate from them.

God has created a gorgeous, tough, wonder-filled planet that brims with life in every corner. Humans are invited to enjoy, to take responsibility, and to join God in working for good in the places we live. As Christians, we know that humans are God’s image-bearers, meant to have agency and live lives of dignity. And we know that we are to support the flourishing of Earth and all her beings — to love God and love people (e.g., Matthew 22:37-40).

When I think of what love looks like in the complex space of reproductive rights, I think of what I learned from my pastor, Lina Thompson, about the way the Maasai people of Kenya traditionally greet one another. The greeting: “How are the children?” The answer: “All the children are well.” What if Christians carried this question at the forefront of our minds: How are the children? How are all the children?

We might, then, ask of our laws: Is this policy helping kids thrive? Is it providing what parents need to raise healthy, flourishing children? In a debate often centered on defining life’s beginnings, these questions broaden the picture. They look toward the well-being of whole families and whole communities. They are also the kinds of questions often asked when considering whether to continue or end a pregnancy. Do I have the resources to take care of this child such that he or she will be well? If I have children already — are they well? And am I well — both because I matter, and because my children may suffer if I am not well?

These questions call forth wisdom and responsibility. And they are different for different families. Some families might ask, What vision might God have for this child’s life? What calls forth this child into the world? Other families might ask, What is our capacity to care for this child well? And even, What does wellness mean? What do health and flourishing look like? What biases do we possess? The answers are not easily assumed.

It is crucial to ask these kinds of questions — questions that take seriously the complexities of specific lives and circumstances. Questions that resist the urge to draw rigid lines, and that honor the dignity and agency of children, pregnant people, and their families.

Leading with humility

WHILE CURRENT LAWS that prohibit abortion access in many states deny the intricacies of reproductive realities and women’s health, most people in the U.S. hold more nuanced views. A 2022 Pew Research study indicated that 42 percent of U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal with some exceptions while 29 percent believe it should be illegal with some exceptions. Most people can see gray areas and complexity. Some faith-based pro-life arguments may leave many Christians wondering if their instincts toward nuance, mercy, and the moral agency of individuals and families stand at odds with their religious commitments. But this is far from the case.

As a former evangelical, I once felt the need to draw clear lines and offer concrete answers to complex questions. I now believe that the God who is Sacred Mystery does not expect us to have all the answers, let alone impose these answers on anyone else. Our aim as Christians should not be coercion or control but deep listening and faith-filled pondering. As people of faith, what we have to offer our world is not a set of simple answers to life’s difficult questions; rather, we offer mercy, freedom, and love.

Social psychologist and public theologian Christena Cleveland writes beautifully in God Is a Black Woman of a dream where God invited her out of everything she had known of (white-male-dominated) religion and into a wild place of beauty and life. “I sat up in my bed,” Cleveland writes, “and pondered the dream. I had a choice: I could follow the mystical, intuitive path toward life or stick to whitemalegod’s barren but certain world with its overreliance on logic, reason, tradition, certainty, and consensus.” Perhaps God is inviting Christians more broadly onto that “mystical, intuitive path toward life.” We may have to give up previously held certainties. But we may find something more beautiful and wonderful — if also sometimes disorienting in its mysteriousness — in their place.

As we learn to live on this intuitive path, with the openness it calls forth in us, we learn to hold our own beliefs with humility. After all, as Rachel Held Evans wrote in Faith Unraveled, “to be wrong about God is the condition of humanity.” We all have things we are wrong about. We do well to remind ourselves that our views are not the only conclusions reached by thoughtful people of faith.

As Christians, we are called to approach our world with more humility than arrogance, more courage than defensiveness, more of Mary’s pondering and less of Peter’s rushing-to-action. As we do so, we become less concerned with perfecting definitions and drawing lines, and more concerned with exploring together what full, abundant life looks like. We learn to ask whether all the children are well. We honor the image-bearing dignity and agency of all humans — and especially of pregnant people, whose agency has been taken away in many places and is threatened everywhere. We listen to others and trust their wisdom about what is best for their lives, families, and communities.

In a post-Roe world, this is where we find ourselves as people of faith. It is where, at our best, we’ve always been: choosing to love, honoring agency, embracing mystery, upholding dignity, seeking communities’ flourishing, relinquishing control. It is not an easy path, but it is a good one.

The cover for Sojourners' May 2023 issue about the mysteries surrounding birth in a post-Roe v. Wade world. There are several illustrations in pink bubbles, such as a pregnant woman, the Supreme Court building, and a hand holding a tiny sprout.
This appears in the May 2023 issue of Sojourners
for more info