The Metaethics of Language: You Have the Power to Choose Life

John C. Rankin

[excerpted and adapted from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, Vol. 2, not published]

When I first set to composing the words of the banner before our first Sacred Assembly for the Unborn in 1989, I was not sure exactly what I wanted to say, except that I had “the ethics of choice” and “the power of informed choice” in mind. But how do we translate them into the metaethics of language in the marketplace of ideas and sentiments – that is, being sure people understand what we mean with certain language. From the Greek, meta  means that which surrounds, and ethikos means how we treat people (“ethics”). So all language connotes more than immediately meets the eye.

So I set about to trying to sum up the concept in as few words as possible, trying to incorporate the phrase and explain it at the same time. I thus arrived at a phrase of 37 words (I do not know where in my files, if at all, these words might still exist).

When I called a friend who was working in concert with the company making the banner, and relayed to her my choice of the 37 words, she was incredulous. “John, you can’t put a dissertation on a banner. It has to be simple.”

“But Ruth,” I replied, “This is not a dissertation. I have worked very hard to make it as simple as it is.”  No go. Ruth explained that the banner could have no more than five words, so that it could be read and grasped in a moment’s notice. Otherwise its effectiveness would be moot.

The following exercise, as I reduced it to the seven final words (seven passed muster with her), was a most valuable task. One of the greatest tasks for a sound theology is to communicate the fruit of a biblical education in language that the wider culture can readily grasp, and in contexts where they are most likely to have interest in paying attention. This I tried to do with the 37 words, but that was more serviceable as an introduction or summation when teaching a class, not for a banner. To be able to know the simplicity of the order of creation, and then to engage the complexity of the reversal, and to finally be able to extrude the simplicity into the language of the reversal of the reversal is the challenge. The two polarities usually in evidence are a) to keep the simplicity and avoid the complexity, with such a gospel viewed as “simplistic” to the well educated and culturally competent; or b) to deal with the complexities so much that the simplicity is lost, and such a gospel is viewed as complicated and unreal to those who need to know that Jesus loves them. Only the proper ordering of creation, sin and redemption maintains the true balance.

Even so, to know the simplicity, to delve into the complexity, and to emerge with simple truth able to address complex social sins, is another matter. It involves a lifetime of being a disciple. At that moment in the spring of 1989, I needed to learn this lesson thoroughly. And I am grateful to God for what emerged. I learned how to capture the substance of the ethics of choice with language that was simpler and which touched the motivation of the human heart. I also was trying to do two things at the same time with the banner. First was to reach out to abortion-minded women and truly enable them to intelligently and emotionally reconsider at the same split moment. Second was to employ such language that the abortion-rights advocates could not slander, and thus perhaps, touch their souls too.

Before and during my studies at Gordon-Conwell, and as I entered pro-life ministry, I began to grasp the biblical ethics of choice. From my studies at Harvard where I encountered the feminism expressed by abused women, I came to articulate the power to give. Both of these streams – not yet fully integrated into the theological paradigms I have since defined – came together as I sought to choose the words for the banner. It was language for chauvinized women – whether they were protestors on hand to oppose our witness, or whether they were en route to having their uteri vacuumed out: You have the power to choose life.

The first six words equal the centerpiece of feminist sympathies: “You have the power to choose …” And pagan feminist thinking believes the concept of the power to choose is their formulation of an identity in stark opposition to a biblical worldview. Unfortunately, too much of the church has forfeited this territory to the pagan feminists – the language of “power” in the face of the gender wars at large, and the language of “choice” in face of the abortion debate in specific. Biblically, most of us pro-life Christians had instincts that were otherwise, but we did not possess the theological perspective or language to express ourselves better. This is still the rule today, as elitists in politics, academia and the media easily intimidate the pro-life instincts of many people. It is time to reverse this reversal of sex, choice, life, /God, and redeem the language of choice to protect the unborn according to the order of creation of God, life, choice, sex.

Such a banner, in its simplicity, reverses the fiction that biblically rooted pro-life advocates want to impose their will on others. The words “You have” underscore the language of acknowledgment and gift, of the power to give. We are stating what both the abortion-rights activists and the abortion-minded women “have” to begin with – they possess something which we acknowledge a priori. It is something neither God, nor we, desire nor will take away, consistent with the ethics and power of informed choice. Already, the ministry of first the Gospel is being communicated. Our power to live in the light places our agenda on the table for all to examine and critique, and its ethics are thus self-evident.

The words “You have the power” strengthens this language of acknowledgment, and in adding “power,” feminist yearnings find resonance. To touch and resonate with the POSH Ls [peace, order, stability and hope; to live, to love, to laugh, to learn] of the image of God in false context, so as to redeem them for true context. This is further symphonized with the addition of choice – “You have the power to choose ….” These six words are as central to all feminist theories as any summation can make. We know that the abortion choice is largely the result of male chauvinisms, and many feminists and abortion-rights activists are in painful reaction to having been so violated.

Thus, these six words minister to the nephesh of the broken remains of the imago dei within them, as the POSH Ls are touched. Ironically, as these six words are read by the abortion-minded women, especially those being pressured by a boyfriend or other male, these “feminist” words begin to work the reversal of the (feminist) reversal support for human abortion. It gives a moment of breathing space for such women to stop and reconsider – “Am I exercising the power of my own choice, or am I being bullied into something I really don’t want to go through with?”

When the final four-letter word is added to the phrase, “You have the power to choose life,” the de facto feminist ethic of misinformed choice is revealed. The power of informed choice requires accurate definition of terms, it requires an acknowledgment of reality. When “life” is put in, the object of “pro-choice” is no longer amorphous. It takes on flesh, it becomes real in its consequences. The power to choose? The power to choose what? Are all choices equal (e.g., dualism), or are some good and some evil? Back to the Garden and akol tokel versus moth tamuth. Does “pro-choice” as a political slogan refer to all unrestricted choices, such as a male’s “choice” to force or dominate, or should the choices of the chauvinist be opposed, since they are evil choices? Or does the pro-choice slogan represent a deception where the only choice considered “sacred” is that of human abortion when wanted or “needed?” In order to reverse the reversal, “choice” must be defined accurately so as to be redeemed.

And the fruit of this banner in 1989-1991 at New England’s largest abortion center was dramatic, as elsewhere itemized.

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