The Games in the arena at Rome were a venerable institution for centuries. They were going strong when Christianity was born. Indeed, brutal bloodsport was popular all over the ancient world (as Christians would experience in their flesh repeatedly over the centuries when the cry “Christianes ad Leones!” went up and they were killed for the amusement of their neighbors).
Notably, there is no record of the apostles or Jesus preaching against bloodsports. If it comes to that, there is also no record of them speaking about abortion except in very veiled terms. (Galatians and Revelation contains a passing condemnation of “pharmakeia”–whence we get the word “pharmacy”–that gets translated as “witchcraft” and might refer to psychotropic drugs, abortifacients, or both.) But that’s it.
That does not mean abortion was peachy with the apostles and Jesus any more than bloodsports were. Contrary to both atheist and Protestant Fundamentalists, the Bible was never intended to be the Big Book of Everything. Certain things are simply assumed by the authors as being Understood and don’t happen to get mentioned in the New Testament documents, or if they do it’s not spelled out.
So, for instance, though the New Testament blesses marriage, it never provides us with instructions on how to conduct a valid marriage. That’s because it assumes people are not idiots and knows that they have already been getting married for centuries and will just keep on doing that with whatever modification and customs Christians will add to the normal rites.
Similarly, wherever the issue of human life is broached in the years after the apostles we find that the Church has the same horror of abortion that Jewish culture had and that it evinces an implacable hostility to it every time the subject comes up. That’s not an accident. That’s the early Church–everywhere in north, south, east, and west–reflecting the Tradition they were handed by the apostles.
And yet, (returning to the matter of bloodsports) despite the Church’s deep hostility to things like the Games, the early Christians undertook no program to demand that either abortion or bloodsports be outlawed. Instead, they did something far more radical. By their persistent self-sacrificial witness, they made them unthinkable.
Christians, for instance, commonly adopted infants who were simply left to to die by exposure. They lived lives of self-sacrifice and were noted for their generosity. They drew the famous praise of their pagan neighbors, “See how these Christians love one another.”
More than this, when persecutions broke out they were noted for their extreme and even terrifying courage when they were offered to the wild beasts in the arena. In a culture that praised Stoic values, it was unnerving to see people Romans assumed to be trash going to their deaths so bravely. (For an extraordinary eyewitness account of a scene that played out many times in the early Christian centuries, read the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity, in which the incredibly gutsy Perpetua finally goes to her death by steadying the shaking hand of her executioner so he can deliver the coup de grace after her tortures.)
It is really crucial to get that the early Christians really were people who deeply believed that by sharing in the sufferings of Jesus they were not being defeated, but were winning their crowns and advancing the Kingdom of God. With Tertullian, they believed intensely that the blood of martyrs was the sperm of the Church.
Consequently, with every death they suffered, they had a disquieting way of turning their sufferings into both an accusation against their killers and a taunt as well. They lived in a mental and spiritual world where this defined their self-understanding:
Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Re 12:10–11).
They could do this because they really and truly believed that Jesus had, by his cross, death, and resurrection, defeated sin, hell, and death and given them power over the world, the flesh, and the devil. When they prayed
With the LORD on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me? The LORD is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. (Ps 118:6-7)
…they weren’t kidding around. They believed that their death in Christ was their crowning triumph and that by that death they would not only conquer death but even conquer sin in themselves–and in their enemies. They took seriously both Jesus’ command to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. Because they believed Paul when he said:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Ro 12:19–21).
Instead of trying to force their pagan neighbors to adopt a moral code they did not believe, they forced themselves to live by Jesus’ high and hard demands and, as centuries went by, slowly persuaded their neighbors that Jesus was Lord and Jesus was risen.
With that process of Christianization came certain changes in outlook that eventually made things like abortion, exposure of children, and bloodsports morally intolerable. The stories from the period show us, not Christians jockeying to get Caesar’s ear and outlaw bloodsports, but martyrs like Telemachus going into the arena shouting “For God’s sake, forebear!” and being killed by a mob that is (as mobs sometimes are) struck with shame for their lynching. The distance in time between his death (c. 391 AD) and the final bloodsport in the Colosseum (404 AD) suggests that we are looking at a long process of conversion. But the fact that he is remembered for his act also makes clear that such Christian witness played a vital part in the ultimate death of the Games. Changes in law came, not in spite of popular morality, but as an expression of it. The culture could no longer endure to look itself in the mirror and permit such things.
For similar reasons, by the way, crucifixion was banned as a form of capital punishment. It simply became unendurable to inflict on human beings what had been inflicted on the Son of God. Once again, law followed the change in culture and the culture came from the Christian cultus.
Why do I mention all this?
Because for forty years conservative Christians have been pursuing the fantasy of outlawing, by brute legal force, an abortion regime that 80% of Americans have absolutely no intention of getting rid of, least of all the Party which created it and to which the MAGA “prolife” movement have monomaniacally enslaved themselves. They are attempting to do with abortion what Prohibitionists attempted a century ago: to end a problem simply by cutting off supply while taking no account of demand. Moreover, they are actively working to help increase demand by ignoring the fact that poverty is our #1 abortifacient and working with all their heart to defend GOP policies that punish the poor, repeatedly destroy the economy, and place enormous pressure on vulnerable women to abort.
In addition to that, the MAGA “prolife” cult have adopted a mentality which is, in many ways, mythological in placing abortion at the center of our social ills in such a way as to blind them to the fact that it is an expression, not the cause, of even deeper pathologies.
Take for example this extremely common argument claiming that “Roe v. Wade is the root of today’s violence“.
This is simply not true and is a supreme example of the use of the unborn as human shields for beloved conservative sins. The transparent and obvious root of today’s violence is four centuries of racist oppression and growing economic inequity. Abortion is but one expression of that, not the root.
The virtue of prudence consists in the clear-eyed recognition of what is so. Clear your mind of cant, including prolife cant, and stop accepting simple-minded lies and shibboleths just because they make you feel good about being prolife.
Our abortion regime is the creation of a civilization that has chosen since its founding to let the strong prey on the weak and leave the weak to prey on those weaker than themselves. It is a social pressure release valve designed and implemented by Republicans to let violence be directed down the food chain of prey whom they refuse to help, whom they prefer to exploit, and about whom they could not care less, except as sources of revenue and votes.
The GOP consistently institutes policies designed to prey on those poorer than themselves, policies which put pressure on the poor to abort in order to afford to live. The abortion regime it created is a confession that, rather than change those policies, it would prefer to see the poor kill their children. The fake kabuki of being “prolife” is simply a way of harvesting votes from the controversy their policy created while manipulating conservative Christians into weaponizing the unborn against all the other people the GOP wants to exploit, oppress, harm, and klll.
Abortion didn’t cause that. Abortion was only legalized in 1973. Abortion didn’t cause centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, sundown laws, Green Books, the murder of Emmett Till, the assassination of Martin Luther King, redlining, or the detonation of the black community in Tulsa. Nor did it cause the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and a host of other black victims of police violence.
Shifting the conversation about abortion from the oppression that occasioned its legalization is just one tactic of denial. The weaponization of the unborn against all the other forms of human life the Church defends but the white racist GOP wants to ignore and walk over is at the very heart of the failure of “prolife” witness. Because it is an attempt to make somebody else to do the self-sacrificial offering and demand of them that they adopt a moral code they do not believe rather than prolife Christians sacrificing their own comforts on behalf of the brown and poor.
Such an attempt to impose a Christian moral code of self-sacrifice on a culture that does not accept the Christian gospel of the cross and resurrection is a fool’s errand. Its primary concrete result, as we have already seen, has been to wed the “prolife” movement to a grotesque, incompetent dimestore antichrist who commits outrages against human life and dignity on a daily basis. (As I write this, we are learning that Trump regards dead troops as “losers” and “suckers”. Defending that, not the unborn, will be the work of the “prolife” MAGA heretic for the foreseeable future, because defending everything this man does is now the primary task of the MAGA “prolifer”.) And all in pursuit of a fantasy of change in law that the vast majority of Americans would never tolerate and that neither party will enact.
So if Roe is not going anywhere, then what can we do to protect innocent human life?
More on that tomorrow.