[In late 1983, I founded the New England Christian Action Council (NECAC) when I lived outside Boston, completing my M.Div. at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The motto of the NECAC was “biblically committed to protecting the unborn” and my initial newsletters were entitled “Contrabortion,” written for grass-roots pro-life Christians. I started my engagement with the subject in a reactive posture, that is, defining and critiquing it. But being committed to the biblical foundations in Genesis 1-3, I grew consistently more proactive across the years. So here are the original unvarnished articles, as my thinking was at the time.]

Contrabortion, Vol. 3, No. 1, Summer, 1986

The Ethics of “Silencing the Foe and the Avenger”

John C. Rankin

How then should we respond? [to the prior article in the same newsletter: click here]. Simply, our calling is to simply live and proclaim the substance that reflects: 1] openness and eagerness to be publicly accountable for our position; and 2] motivation by hope. This contrasts directly with the “pro-choice” strategy and mindset, and our ability to project this reality into the public arena will be the determinant factor as to whether legalized abortion is ever overturned in this nation.

The biblical key to this is found in Psalm 8:1-2, and in Jesus’ use of it in Matthew 21-22. The passage reads:

O Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained strength because of your enemies. to silence the foe and the avenger.

This passage sums up the power of God’s redemptive love: the God whose glory is beyond your reach has been pleased to put that very same glory, or strength, or praise, on the lips of the most humble in our midst — defenseless and innocent children. The contrast is striking. And at the end of the passage, it speaks prophetically to the Messiah. It gives reason why God is pleased to do this — to silence those who oppose the Gospel.

This hits the very core of God’s ethics in redemption. In the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were seduced into rebellion and thus brought destruction upon themselves, God did not send in an army of angels to “set things right.” One reason is that God is the author of choice, and was not going to force himself upon us. Indeed, we could not share in the image of God, in its creativity, responsibility, purpose and identity had we been puppets on a string, or like the animals. God so loved us that he took the risk of giving us his image, knowing some would choose death, but knowing that we could not choose life other than to have true decision making options. But this ethics of choice, as important and valuable as it is, was defined as secondary to life. In other words, God gave us choice, but commanded us to choose life. Freedom of choice is only helpful inside that boundary. That is why the “pro-choice” ethic of the abortion supporters today is idolatrous — it places “individual choice” over the sanctity of human life. This is the twisting and ironic nature of sin: it honors something which is good (choice), but then pushes it beyond its true goodness. The result is the advance of sin and death.

So God honored that choice by not forcing us into obedience — rather he instituted a plan to allow us to choose life a second tine. This leads us to glean his radical definition of strength, as highlighted in the prophecy of Genesis 3:15:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman,and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

Here, God was speaking to Satan (incarnate in the serpent), and proclaiming judgment. The metaphor employed is that of a man crushing the head of a snake, but just prior to the crushing, the viper bites his heel with deadly venom. The “your offspring” refers to Satan, and the “he” of the fourth [clause] refers to the male offspring of the woman — the Christ. It is a prophecy of the cross, where Jesus crushes Satan and the authority of sin with his atoning death. The devil thought he won until the resurrection. Accordingly, God reverses the reversal, and this is the biblical definition of strength, power and authority. God is so powerful, that he is able to lay aside all his divine power in becoming a man, born of a woman (through the womb which has suffered the depth of the curse), and dying naked and forsaken on the cross, and yet still crushing Satan. God’s most profound weakness is infinitely greater than Satan’s most aggrandizing strength.

Psalm 8:1-2 captures this central definition of strength accordingly, and defines it in the context of childlikeness. It explicitly says that Yahweh intends to “silence the foe and the avenger” by putting his strength (or “praise” as the Septuagint and some English translations render it) on the lips of children and nursing babies.

In Matthew 21-22, we come into a situation ripe with church and state tensions. Jesus marches into Jerusalem as the people proclaimed his praise. The Jewish religious elite had struck a Faustian bargain with the Roman government for a type of “separation of church and state,” where they would keep their temple and religious practices so ling as they did not interfere with matters of politics or social justice — so long as their religion was stripped of any power. Into this unholy matrimony cam Jesus, who by his very nature threatened the status quo. He walked through the streets to the politically charged phrase of “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and then he marched into the temple area and took authority over the money changes in an act of judgment, and he took authority in healing the blind and the lame in an act of mercy. He thoroughly mixed politics and religion, demonstrating his full and final authority over both.

The children, who had been observing Jesus all along, now broke out in open enthusiasm at the deeds of the Messiah, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David.” In the downtown streets, it was an affront to King Herod for Jesus to be recognized publicly as the King of the Jews, and here in the temple courts, it was infuriating to the chief priests and teachers of the law to see Jesus acting as the Messiah. They sought to have Jesus rebuke the children, but instead Jesus quoted the first half of Psalm 8:2 in reply: “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise.” He justified the children, celebrating the strength of childlikeness, and used their strength of praise as a catalyst to silence the religious leaders and their false opposition. He did not quote the second part of Psalm 8:2 which speaks of silencing the foe and the avenger, rather he opted for understating his case, and followed through with action.

At this point, it is well to consider the “strength” of childlikeness. What does it involve? The pristine elements that are celebrated include: 1] implicit trust; 2] innate desire to learn; 3] the openness to ask questions and make observations at face value with nothing to hide; 4] natural childlike identity and self-esteem in humility; and 5] always looking for love, not seeking evil. These traits are demonstrated as the children trust their parent’s example of identifying Jesus as the Messiah., learning it for themselves as they witness the events, their spontaneous and open response in shouting the Messianic phrases, their childhood ease of not being concerned with what the Jewish religious leaders thought, and their basking in Jesus’ love, not even caring about the evil intent of the chief priests and teachers of the law. There praise had the power of [ ] requiring the foes of the Gospel to give account [of] why they opposed Jesus. It sparked a debate that carried into the next [two] days. The process and elements of that debate are noteworthy.

The central issue was the definition of the Messiah. The whole thrust of the religious leaders’ opposition was couched in an attempt to discredit Jesus as the Messiah. In observing his deeds and authority, they were unable to challenge him — they could not argue with observable facts. Thus they attempted to circle around the subject with secondary issues, hoping to trip Jesus up and have their excuse for rejecting his claims.

The first issue was to question his source of authority, and in this fashion, to cast aspersions on his character and reputation. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” Jesus met their question directly and honestly, but knowing their intent, he insisted on playing fair. So he promised them an answer, if they would first answer a complementary question. He was requiring them to be accountable to him for the accountability they sought out of him. The strength of childlikeness is seen in the openness of Jesus, but he adds to that a wisdom which Paul reflected on years later: “In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults (1 Cor. 14:20, NIV), a wisdom that Jesus also reflected earlier in Matthew’s Gospel: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (10:16, RSV). Jesus knew the chief priests and elders were seeking to trap him, so he tacitly acknowledged them by giving them a question that they would feel trapped by. He was saying, if we may interpolate justly, “I will be glad to work my way out of your trap, if you are willing also to work your way out of my trap.” Thus he asked them what they thought of John’s baptism: “Was it from heaven, or from men?” The religious leaders knew that if they acknowledged it was from heaven, then they would also have to confess Jesus as the Christ. And they knew if they said it was a human act only, they they would face the furor of the people around them who believed in John the Baptist as a prophet. Jesus was standing inside the temple courts, and surrounding him and the small group of religious leaders were throngs of common people, delighting in the words of Jesus. In visualizing the reality of this situation, we grasp more powerfully what was happening and what was at stake.

So the chief priests and elders refuse to answer, and Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Jesus did not need to give credentials — everyone there, Jewish leaders included, knew he had superior authority, as his words and deeds marked. Jesus, being the truth, could alone afford to make understatement. It left his religious opponents in a tizzy, groping for what to do next. And they could not utter a complaint against how fairly Jesus was handling the confrontation. Jesus seized the opportunity to give three parables, where he asked the questions, and gave some answers, to the deeper issues at stake — namely, inclusion in the kingdom of God. The Jewish leaders had only been able to plead ignorance to the question of John’s baptism, they had only been able to negate — they had nothing positive to bring to the debate. In view of this pleading of ignorance and negation, Jesus did not need to prove his authority, he merely exercised it by teaching in the context where the chief priests and elders had refused to express their convictions. Jesus took nothing away from them, he only contributed where they had already forfeited whatever authority they thought they had.

Now comes the second issue. Since the attempt to challenge his credential and character had failed, [some disciples of] the Pharisees grouped with the Herodians to trip Jesus up on the classical church and state question: taxes to Caesar. He once again balanced childlike strength and mature wisdom in giving answer. Jesus diagnosed their flattery, evil intent and hypocrisy, and posed a simple question about the denarius coin: “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription>” So obvious and direct, and the answer so clear — “Caesar’s.” Okay, said Jesus, then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his. End of matter. There were amazed with his answer, and could do no better than to walk away.

Now that character assassination had failed and the church/state trap did not work, the Sadducees come in [to] try a third strategy, introducing a third line of secondary concerns: theological nitpicking. An interesting sidelight at this point is what interesting bedfellows opposition will make. The Pharisees (Jewish religious leaders) and the Herodians (political cronies in favor of Roman occupation) normally were enemies — but in perceiving the threat posed by Jesus, were willing to work together. The Sadducees were members of the Sanhedrin. Seeing the Pharisees stymied by Jesus, they now jump into the fray, united by their opposition, and at the same time trying to discredit Jesus on their favorite theological subject where they had been trying to discredit the Pharisees. And why not (from their perspective) — why not kill two birds with one stone? So the Sadducees [employ] an extreme example of multiple widowhood and remarriage to disprove the resurrection based on their assumption of marriage in heaven. Their wrong premises and conclusions are exposed as Jesus says: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God … [God] is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Jesus makes quick work of this theological nit-picking, but of concerted importance are the two verses that follow this passage (Mt. 22:33-44): “When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching. Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.”

Character assassination, the church/state trap and now theological nit-picking had all failed to trip up Jesus. The crowd is growing in size and enthusiasm (as we can make an educated guess), and the religious opponents of Jesus are growing more isolated and running of options. We now see it explicitly stated that the Sadducees have been “silenced,” the very prophecy of Psalm 8:2. And the Pharisees, in the confused movements of common opposition to Jesus, but glad to see the Sadducees flustered, now are able to come at it again. Perhaps, they think, they can hit Jesus with the ultimate question, trip him up, and prove that they, not the Sadducees, are the true Jewish leaders.

Thus the fourth issue is brought into the debate: the ultimate theological question — what is the greatest commandment in the Law? The Pharisees now try to foil Jesus at the source. He answers with marvelous authority: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang n these two commandments.” In response the Pharisees simply remained grouped together with no answer. The air is thick, the moment is poignant, and all eyes are focused on the rabbi from Galilee. Jesus is in full control. Character assassination, the church/state trap, theological nit-picking, and now the ultimate theological question have not been able to find any blame in Jesus. The important but secondary issues are resolved, there is no more challenge, and thus Jesus brings the debate back to the original and overriding issue: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son  is he?”

This whole debate with the children shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David,” as they proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah. It was due to their objection to Jesus as the Christ that the religious leaders sought to silence him. And because they could censor his deeds, they addressed these four secondary issues as the means. So now Jesus asks them a simple question. A sound interpolation of his question can be phrased accordingly: “Okay, you do not believe I am the Christ. And yet you cannot challenge my words or deeds. Then please tell me who the Christ is, if I am not he.” A simple childlike rationale, so obvious and straightforward. Jesus gave them a question for which they were prepared for the standard pat answer: “The son of David.” In other words, they responded: “Why do you think we are so upset with you Jesus? You allowed the children to proclaim you as the Son of David in the very Temple courts, you are letting them call you the Christ. And if course, we know that you are not the Christ (though we cannot prove it).” Fair enough, Jesus could reply: “I know your objection. Now let’s examine it more closely. Let’s go to the root of the issue and look at the key definition of the Christ.” Jesus then asks them (Mt. 22:43): “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” ‘ If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?”

Since all the religious leaders were only able to negate the claims of Jesus by unsubstantiated bias, he was now calling on them to agree with a positive definition. And this they did — the Christ is indeed the Son of David. But what does this mean? Jesus appeals to the common authority of Scripture in focusing on this agreed to fact. But now he moves beyond to examine its significance. How can the Christ be David’s Lord and son at the same time? The Pharisees did not know the power of Psalm 8:1-2, the power of Yahweh whose glory, praise and strength is both beyond human reach, and upon the lips of infants at the same time. So they could not fathom this paradox from Psalm 110:1 either, as Jesus brought it to light in view of defining who the Christ is. And whereas Jesus employed understatement by not quoting the second half of Psalm 8:2 about silencing his enemies, he allows the quote of Psalm 110 to introduce that reality now, for he has accomplished it. Thus we reach the resounding climax to Matthew chapter 22: “No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.” The foes [ ] of the Gospel had been truly silenced! Jesus brings the whole debate back to the primary issue, and his opponents bail out.

Now, Jesus had to do this — he had to silence them. He was the Lamb of God, without blemish, come to take away the sins of the world. And like a lamb let mutely to the slaughter, he was prepared for death. He could not have atoned for our sins had there been any fault found in him. Having silenced his accusers in public forum, he was now free to remain silent when they later accused him in front of Pilate in the “kangaroo court” setting. Jesus did give direct answers to Annas and Pilate, celebrating the fact that he had spoken openly, had nothing to hide, and was the bearer of truth. But he remained silent in face of the chief priests and elders on the evening before the Passover, owing them nothing. They had not been able to confute him in the public, so now they were trying to stack the deck against him in a secret and illegal trial. Jesus did this because he knew they were not taking his life away from him by substantiated accusations, rather he was laying it down of his own accord, just as he would take it up from the grave by his own power (cf. Jn. 10:17-18; 19:10-11). Jesus Christ was in full control, he was absolutely free. He was free not to defend himself before these hypocritical accusers, he was free to lay his life down for atonement of sin, he was free to rise from the dead, he was free to give that resurrection life to all who would call on his name, he was free to set us free. Having silenced the negative rhetoric and noisy static of his enemies, Jesus was free to proclaim the eternal truth of God to those who were willing to listen.

This whole confrontation between Jesus and his opponents in Matthew 21-22 is rich with wisdom for us, and it would be easy to continue on into chapter 23, or to do a study of this factor throughout John’s Gospel. But for our present study, let us sum up what we have thus far gleaned:

  1. Jesus directly challenges false myths about church and state, demonstrated his lordship over both.
  2. He does so by addressing the primary question of who Christ is.
  3. He combines the strength of childlikeness with maturity of thought.
  4. The praise of the children is catalyst for examining wisdom and truth.
  5. He made himself open to the scrutiny of his enemies, having nothing to hide. But he required such openness to be a two-way street.
  6. He accomplished all this in public forum, inviting the presence of all who were within earshot.
  7. He was in full control of the whole process, demonstrating his true authority.
  8. He was in complete command of the facts.
  9. He was free to move the question back to the deeper issues at stake, in his use of questions and parables.
  10. He employed the ethics of understatement, being confident in the truth. [ ]
  11. He knew his theology better than the religious “experts” and thus appealed to the common authority of Scripture as an unimpeachable basis for his argument. He met them on their own “turf.”
  12. He was free and willing to allow his opponents the time to focus on secondary issues (though their motivations were ulterior).
  13. He never once told them to shut up — he did not silence them by force or coercion. Rather, his whole thrust was positive, and against it did their own negative program boomerang. He took nothing away from them — they silenced themselves. He was above reproach.
  14. He honored choice in such a process, not by spoon feeding the answers, but by asking penetrating questions where they could have opportunity to think through the issue and arrive at their own decisions, right or wrong. But, they were held accountable for their choices.
  15. When all was said and done, in the four secondary concerns, he brought the discussion back to the central theme of who the Christ is. His purposes and directives were never sidetracked.
  16. Having thus silenced his enemies, he was empowered to move on and accomplish his mission. His positive thrust negated their negation, reversed their attempts at reversal, and embraced the negative reality of death with the positive power of his resurrection. His positive accomplishment could not have happened apart from his direct assault on and overcoming the source of opposition.
  17. Jesus exemplified the ethics of openness and hope in all he did.

The priority in a Christian pro-life agenda is to silence the rhetoric and noisy static put forth by leaders and advocates of legalized abortion, as they seek to sidetrack the debate. First, we need to realize that they are indeed foes [ ] of the Gospel. The majority of “pro-choice” advocates are anti-Christian in philosophy and deeds. For those Christians who succumb to “pro-choice” rhetoric, we must gently but firmly identify the idolatry of such a position (e.g., 2 Tim. 2:24-25)., asking them to define a positive or redemptive rational for abortion (making exception for the life of the mother as genuinely threatened). Since they cannot, we need to know that abortion and redemption are opposites [see prior Contrabortion article] [see my paper presented at the March, 1986 regional convention of the Evangelical Theological Society, “Abortion and the Destruction of Creativity]. Knowing that, we then need to follow Jesus’ example to accomplish such a silencing.

His example is fully sufficient. All that is lacking here is a diagnosis on the points of analogy with the abortion debate today.

  1. “Pro-choice” advocates operate under a false definition of separation of church and state, portraying the abortion debate as a minority religious group seeking to impose its unwelcome view on others.
  2. The central issue is one of ultimate authority. Is Jesus the Christ? Is there a a God? If not, it doesn’t make a difference whether abortion is legal or not. If so, then it does — profoundly. The question of the value of unborn human life is key, and its answer depends on the religion or value system one holds to. The fact that human life begins biologically at conception is as certain as the deeds of Jesus in clearing the temple of the money changers and his healing of the blind and the lame. The religious leaders who opposed Jesus did not dispute the facts of his deeds — all they could do was to use their bias to avoid facing them. And “pro-choicers” today cannot refute the biological facts of conception — all they can do is use their bias to avoid facing them too.
  3. Knowing how to appeal to the strength of childlikeness, with complementary maturity of godly wisdom, is the means to touch hope in the lives of people, of reaching beyond their defense mechanisms. And if they remain impervious, then they will be silenced.
  4. This open praise of childlikeness can thus serve as a catalyst, helping “pro-choicers” to identify with the pristine qualities of childhood. Accordingly, and as memories of their own childhoods are sparked, we have moved them one step closer to identifying with the plight of the helpless and innocent unborn.
  5. A Christian pro-life position has nothing to hide, no ulterior agenda to conceal, and no skeletons in the closet. Forgiveness in Christ for past sins, with its daily transforming power, makes this possible. Thus, we can require openness of our opponents, not so much by word, but through example. If they embrace openness, the truth is made known: if they refuse, they disqualify themselves.
  6. Christian pro-lifers are eager to address abortion advocates in public forum.
  7. Submitting to the lordship of Christ, Christian pro-lifers are able to be in godly control of similar confrontational situations. We are able to display the authority God has invested in us, being at peace in the midst of the storm.
  8. Christian pro-lifers are able to have solid command of the facts. And if we are ever presented with facts we do not know, we celebrate our childlike humility and desire to learn, admit it, learn the facts in question, and go from there. It is fun to be free.
  9. Christian pro-lifers are free, yes, even called, to consistently refer the discussion to the deeper issues at stake, namely, inclusion in the kingdom of God.
  10. Christian pro-lifers are free to understate the case, free not to ram it down the throats of opponents. By understatement we draw them in, whereas overstatement drives them away. Understatement saves them from the excess of believing their own self-deception. We can speak of abortion as “the deliberate cutting off of life in the womb,” and without more stringent language.
  11. Christian pro-lifers are able to know theology, science, history, law, sociology, etc., better than “pro-choicers.” For those who oppose the Gospel live in hiddenness and fear — they are unable to embrace knowledge with full openness. Since we know that all truth is God’s truth, we are free t learn it wherever and from whomever. We are thus free to meet our opponents on their own turf, and build an argument and witness they cannot criticize.
  12. Christian pro-lifers are free and willing to go the route, or “extra mile,” on secondary questions; i.e., rape, poverty, racism, population control, women’s rights.
  13. Christian pro-lifers do not employ coercive tactics or gimmickry in presenting their argument. We renounce the intimidation of “holier than thou” attitudes and tactics. Our whole proclamation is positive and above reproach as we remain faithful to God, seeking to add life to our opponents, not take anything good away. In the face of this, their own negative program stands in contrast, and will crumble of its own accord.
  14. Christian pro-lifers honor true choice, the decision making process that honors the prior sanctity of human life ethic. We appeal on this basis, as it reflects on the image of God in all people. We are not interested in force feeding the answers, but trust in the presentation of truth and posing of questions that help people think on their own.
  15. When all is said and done, Christian pro-lifers bring the discussion from the secondary issues back to the central one. We are not sidetracked. Unborn human life is sacred and must be protected.
  16. As Christian pro-lifers accordingly silence the foes and avengers, freedom is gained to move beyond with a positive and less hindered program of reaching out to others. When the noisy interference of false “pro-choice” rhetoric is removed, the majority of Americans (who are instinctively pro-life, but have been deceived into a passive position) can see the attractiveness and truth of our position.
  17. Christian pro-lifers have the sacred calling yo 1) exemplify openness and eagerness to be publicly accountable, and 2) to motivate by the ethics of hope.

Thus, we come full circle, and we rejoice in a biblical strategy for protecting the unborn. We are always conscious that we are addressing the most painful and pervasive problem in modern society, where one third of child-bearing women in America have been through abortion, where 90 per cent of post-adolescent Americans personally know someone who has been through it. Thus, we always celebrate the offer of forgiveness for those who turn to Jesus. And whereas those who disobey will be ultimately silenced in the face of God’s judgment, we labor to invite people to the silence and awe of worshiping him now, so the promise of eternal life which transforms our lives beginning now.