Wednesday, April 10, 2013

what is a who?

Over the past weekend I was the guest preacher at a mid-size Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Bismarck, North Dakota, where I sermonized on the recent Personhood Bills passed there (and in other states).  I was not only welcomed and given an enthusiastic ear, I was fortunate to happen to have come when students (several of them pictured on the school's website) from the local Seventh Day Adventist academy came to visit.  That's not sarcasm:  I was raised in the church and I took a few moments to introduce myself to the group before the service and offer to talk with them afterward as someone who had left the church at about their age but not out of anger or hurt but because I was looking for something it couldn't offer me.  Half the group took me up on that and we had a wonderful discussion in the hall.  That was probably the highest point for me in a weekend full of high points.

A Sermon Delivered to the
Bismarck-Mandan (ND) 
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and Church
On April 8, 2013

            If we had the technology available to us I’d show it to you, but since we haven’t I’ll have to settle for telling you about this movie I saw a few days ago.  It was called Cargo, and at seven minutes long it was a finalist in Australia’s Tropfest short movie competition
            It’s entirely wordless although not silent and signs are written in English.  Our protagonist wakes from a car wreck and in the first minutes we begin to understand he’s in the midst of a zombie infestation.  Now, stay with me here, especially if you don’t like zombie or horror movies, because unlike most of them this film has an upbeat ending. 
            Anyway, he wakes to what we assume is his wife zombified and kept away from him only by the seatbelt she’s wearing.  He flings himself out of the car but returns to do two things:  to kill his zombie-wife and to retrieve the cargo of the title:  their infant daughter in the back seat.  He hoists her onto his back in one of those backpack baby carriers you probably remember from the 80s and 90s and pushes himself to start walking.  There are zombie snuffles and groans and such sounds all around him as he makes his way through a forest.
            Before long, though, as he stops to catch his breath, he sees something that the viewer has already noticed:  There is a nasty gouge out of his left arm; his wife, or someone, has bitten him.    We realize by the look on his face what this bite means, and he begins preparations for his transformation.
            Now if you, like me, are a watcher of zombie movies, this is something we have never seen before.  Someone preparing to become a zombie.  What he does is the following:  he makes notes on the map in his pocket, x-ing out some areas previously labeled “safe” and marking some other places previously unmarked as “safe”; he writes on his left arm the amount of time since he was bitten; he collects from an interrupted child’s birthday party a balloon that he hands back to his daughter to hold; and then he pulls from somewhere below the screen so we don’t see where he’s getting it from some bloody, gory viscera we assume comes from a recent victim.  This last he puts into a regular plastic shopping bag and attaches to one end of a tree branch he carries.
            We follow our pair for a while through the forest, his gait getting slower and slower, his shoulders hunching further up with the weight of his child on his back, until finally he stops as he hears his daughter cry.  He turns and in that moment we discover what has happened.  He has fully changed and in our horror we know he is scenting his daughter on his back. 
            But his attention is drawn instead to the viscera dripping from the plastic bag just out of reach at the other end of the branch he’s shoved between his shoulder and the carrier strap.  It’s this smell that keeps his attention away from her and keeps him moving forward. 
            Finally he reaches a rise and the balloon dislodged from his daughter’s hand catches his eye and he follows it as it ascends.  Suddenly there’s a sharp pop and at first we think the balloon has burst but instead it is a human sniper who has targeted and shot him.  A moment later three armed survivors approach him and determine he is a zombie and fully dead.  For a moment we think they will leave his body there, but they stay back a moment longer than maybe they ought to and hear the hidden child’s whimper.  They find his daughter strapped to his back; across her belly is written “My name is Rosie.” 
            In the final scene we see two of the survivors digging a marked grave for the zombie while the third holds the baby to her like it’s the last salvation anyone has.  What has happened in this seven minutes is that the director and writer, Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, have managed what no horror film has managed before:  they have remade a stock horror trope into a complex, multifaceted, fully realized character.  Reversing the process, they have made a zombie a person.
            It is an odd juxtaposition to what has been done in North Dakota by the governor’s signatures affixed on March 26th to HouseBills 1305 and 1456 and Senate Bill 2305, the so-called Personhood bills, which effectively ban legal abortion in the state after a fetal heartbeat is detected—most experts agree that is at about six weeks after conception—and denies allowances in the case of rape, incest, or genetic disorders.  In effect, the state of North Dakota has bestowed personhood on fetuses in many cases before the mother has even realized she is pregnant. 
            To his credit, Governor Jack Dalrymple recognizes the probable fate of these bills:  The bills’ requirements “greatly increase the chances that this measure will face a court challenge [while] the likelihood of this measure surviving a court challenge remains in question.”  However, he has also stated that “this bill is nevertheless a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade [and represents a] new question for the courts regarding a precise restriction on doctors who perform abortions.”  That is certainly one way of putting it.  Another might be to suggest this is a shot across the bow by a greatly emboldened, massively financed conservative party whose cries against wasteful government spending and intrusion by big government into the lives of the governed ring hollow when it pushes an agenda like this.
            But in the words of the sainted Arlo Guthrie, that’s not what I came to tell you about.  You know more about that than I do.  You live this and I’m just watching it from the outside.  I came to talk about where the law got its ideas about who rates personhood and how that accords with our Unitarian Universalist principles and beliefs.   
While it is not true we are a Judeo-Christian nation it is true that many of our legislators subscribe to those beliefs. Judaism, Christianity and Islam follow a simple trajectory to determine who becomes a person.  A person is someone who has been born.  While the writers of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Psalm 139 refer to knowing a person in the womb prior to her birth, this refers to an omniscient God who is also aware of the fall of a sparrow, and not to fallible, unobservant people.   The Talmud explicitly states that “you cannot choose between one human life and another.” Only birth confers personhood.  Until the emergence of the child, literally the crowning of the head, a fetus is part of the mother and she, and not the potential human, has personhood.  Conservative Muslimsrecognize a ‘person’ as someone having been alive 120 days, or four months, the point at which a fetus becomes “ensouled,” although as with much Scriptural writing, the number is probably not meant as a literal time period but a poetic method for naming an uncertain amount, like Jesus’ answer that someone should forgive anoffender seventy times seven times. 
PhilipMitchell, professor of English at Dallas Baptist University, has articulated a solid summary of how Biblical peoples recognized personhood:  “Being [in] the image of God,” he explains, includes the following elements:  “dignity, glory, and honor…a specific…purpose and end…[whose]  intermediate goal and purpose in this world [is] the furthering of God's shalom--his reign of perfect peace and justice over all humanity…Humans have certain God-given rights, even if we are also capable of voluntarily giving those rights up …[and] our personhood is developed and renewed by the work of the Holy Spirit upon us.”  The great Biblical scholar Dr. Suess encapsulates this definition as a person’s a person no matter how small. 
The Biblical definition is not exclusionary since there is no suggestion that someone’s disability, say, a man blind since birth, is denied personhood, that is, has sinned.  In fact, the writer of John 9 explicitly rejects that:  “His disciples asked [Jesus], ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” A person’s a person, then, no matter how unabled by disease, injury, or even by choice.  Once conferred on her, a person never gives up his personhood, even in death.
            Historically, Unitarians and Universalists followed the Biblical definition of how a person formed.  There is, of course, a vast difference between belief and practice, and while nearly every nation has submitted its government to one or another theology, probably none actually held fast to the injunction to, as the writer of Matthew put it, “do for the least of these as you would for me.”  Nevertheless, there was a concerted effort in the nineteenth century United States to compel society to live up to its rhetoric.  Unitarian sympathizer Margaret Fuller’s relational Transcendentalism recognized “all persons, regardless of their relative power [or lack of it], as moral agents…often unjustly deprived of the opportunity to exercise self-determination.”  In the bitter pre-Civil War years this included not only women and slaves and natives, but children and prisoners, immigrants and laborers, the ill and the crazy.  The abolition of slavery, a product of Quakerand Universalist principles, both solidly Christian, solidly Biblically based, finally took hold of the popular will and Abraham Lincoln was inspired by it to declare the near-impossible-to-imagine Emancipation Proclamation.  
But it wasn’t until the 1932 drafting of the “Humanist Manifesto” that religious liberals appealed to something other than a Biblical rationale for what makes a person a person.  Curtis Reese, a founder of Religious Humanism, insisted human beings be treated as having inherent worth.  “Whatever purposes…the cosmos is working out, [people] are not to be regarded as a means for their realization.” Our very existence is worthy of celebration, as are our attempts to change our behavior on reflection.  God may or may not have known us in the womb but once out of it our responsibility is to know ourselves.
Religious liberals were confident enough to assert that, rather than its dominator, people “are a part of nature and [have] emerged as the result [of it].”  In so doing, these proto-Unitarian Universalists were convinced that “Nothing human is alien to the religious…the complete realization of human personality [is] the end of a [person’s] life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now.”  Further, “Religious humanism maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life”  and that “humanism will:  affirm life rather than deny it; seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from it; and endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for a few.” 
            Big, heavy, heady words.  We read in them the genesis of our principles of inherent worth and dignity for everyone; justice, equity and compassion in our relationships; the rights of conscience and a responsible search for meaning; and respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part. 
            If this, then, is the way a Unitarian Universalist ought to recognize the personhood of an individual—that is, that the being in question has inherent worth and dignity, has the equivalent rights for justice and compassion, a right of conscience and making a meaningful search for truth, and is a part of the interdependent web—how should he or she respond to the so-called Personhood Bills that seeks to claim these rights for the fetus whose claim to personhood is a beating heart?
            Here is where individual conscience and search for meaning comes in.  It is a hard question. It should be, the way anything worth really thinking about is hard.  My own answer, which may not be yours, is, yes, an unborn fetus is a person, not because it has a heartbeat or looks less like a fish than in an earlier stage or because it can hiccup, but because it is a part of nature no less than eggs and spermatozoa and cells.  Like any of us it has the potential for becoming more than the sum of its parts.
            However, its personhood cannot and should not trump its mother’s personhood, which is not a potential or a possibility but is a real, breathing, thinking, yearning being whose decision-making abilities must be held paramount above possibility.  There is no more moral right to insist a mother carry her charge to full term than there is to insist a brooding hen remain on its egg until it hatches. 
            Return to the story I started this sermon with, the short film Cargo.  Keep in mind it’s not meant to be an allegory or something heady.  Yolanda Ramke is not likely to have meant it to be anything more than a good story worth a few minutes’ think.  Consider all the decisions, most of them self-denying and all of them hopeful, that the unnamed father makes.  He marks a map for whoever finds his body; he takes care to avoid attacking his daughter; he arranges to have her familiar name used, giving her an identity.  I like to think that if the roles were reversed and it was the mother who wakens to the car wreck and lurches out of the door, we would have exactly the same film.  In the final shot we are shown that the survivors are giving him a marked grave, presumably so that an adult Rosie can visit it, probably not an activity most people would stop to do in the midst of a zombie infestation.  The father is himself given an identity even after death.
            A zombie carrying a child, a mother carrying a child. The authors of the Personhood Bills have written them so that a doctor who performs an abortion after a detectable heartbeat is punished, not the mother who seeks it out.  Is their assumption that women, subject to those wildly firing hormones, are incapable of making a balanced decision?  Would Governor Dalrymple and Senator Margaret Sitte and the other proponents of these bills come away from this film with the conviction that a pregnant woman has worse decision-making abilities than a man turning into a zombie?
            Unitarian Universalists are proud inheritors and upholders of humanist principles, of liberal religious convictions, of a historical progressive view that our obligation—maybe not out of the womb but once we are aware of injustice—is to make as much positive change as we can.  In the words of Lauralyn Bellamy, to give back love to a bruised and hurting world.
            A sermon ends with a call to action but I’m not going to tell you what that actions ought to be.  Again, this is your fight and I’m watching from the sidelines.  But here is what I want you to do now.  Take the hands of the people on both sides of you.  Feel the warmth, the flutter of their pulses, the throbbing life beside you.  However you act, whatever you choose to do, these are the people affected by it.

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