Crucifix on the Klein MatterhornAt the heart of my Christian faith is the belief that each and every person I encounter is absolutely cherished by God. I believe every human being is ineffably sacred in God’s sight. This implies a moral responsibility on my part to do my very best to treat them accordingly. If God loves each person, followers of God’s way must love each person too.

This is a mystical vision. It is a mountaintop perspective. It is very hard to sustain it, especially in the vicious street fights of politics. And it is often very hard to see any evidence for it. But this belief is not really evidence-based. It is faith-based.

I am a Christian, born and raised in the Catholic Church before a teenage conversion to Protestant Evangelical faith. By now I find that both strands of my religious history are deeply interwoven and help to define who I am. I think that both of these strands, at their best, teach this vision of the equal and immeasurable worth of each human being. Catholic tradition, especially as articulated by the Vatican II documents and by Pope John Paul II, taught me a “consistent pro-life ethic.” Protestant evangelicalism, as exemplified in men such as Billy Graham, taught me that God so loved the world (each and every person in the world) that he gave his only son on the cross for our salvation. For my salvation!

I am also a Christian ethicist, a moral teacher, and writer. So inevitably my work brings me into occasions in which it is my responsibility and my opportunity to address hot-button issues like abortion, health care, war, torture, or gay rights.

Most conversations about these kinds of issues are profoundly unsatisfactory to me. Academic conversations tend to be highly technical, theoretical, and irrelevant to everyday life. Popular conversations tend to be angry and polemical, partisan and politicized. Neither type of conversation ever really feels very sacred to me. Academics are often scoring their tenure points while politicos are scoring their partisan points.

Over the years, I have tried to do something a little different when I engage difficult issues such as abortion. I try to play neither academic nor political games. I instead try to discern what it might mean to deal with the substance of the issue as if every person involved is sacred in God’s sight, and I likewise try to deal with my dialogue partners as if the same were true.

Frances Kissling Listens to David GusheeWhen I met Frances Kissling and dialogued publicly with her at the Princeton “Open Hearts, Open Minds” conference, I hope that this is the spirit that I brought to that conversation.

I saw in Frances and most of the pro-choice activists and thinkers at that meeting a serious concern for women in general, and women facing unwanted pregnancies in particular. I could tell that they were drawn into this issue because they had caught a vision of the suffering of women whose pregnancies create a crisis for them, and the even more intense crisis that this would be for them if they had no legal recourse to an abortion. Their fixed gaze on the needs and the suffering of women impressed me, and I respected it. Anyone who cares deeply about the suffering of other people is on the right track — because that is one of the ways we demonstrate our love for the sacred persons around us.

I do continue to think that our gaze on this issue must be at least bi-focal — on the suffering pregnant woman, and on the developing human life that she is carrying. I do sense that decades of defending the rights and needs of the pregnant woman have trained many in the pro-choice side to avert their eyes from the child. But I also recognize on the part of many pro-lifers the parallel averting of gaze away from the woman and her situation as she experiences it. Decades of advocacy in a polarized debate have caused both sides to miss the intertwined sacredness of woman and child. And it is certainly clear to me that the only way those whose gaze is fixed on the child will succeed in saving more of them is if they learn not only to look at the woman, but to love her.

This vision goes with me to other issues. I have been an advocate for the apparently astonishing view that no matter how much we want to prevent another terrorist attack that would destroy sacred human lives; this does not mean we are free to create a system that abuses suspected terrorists — because those swept up as suspected terrorists are also sacred human beings whom God loves. This view shapes my thinking about the right of all our nation’s children to have a good education, quality health care, and parents who love them. And it means that I refuse to go along with the contemptuous demonization of particular groups that sometimes sweeps us away — most recently exhibited in very disturbing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria.

I find allies anywhere I encounter someone whose words and deeds show that they are operating on the basis of something like this vision. Often, sadly, these allies are not my fellow Christians, for sometimes the passionate commitment of my co-religionists to the positions they advocate causes them to forget their obligation to love even strangers and enemies. No, in public life, my favorites are those who surprise me with the tender and respectful way they encounter the sacred humanity of those around them. They give me hope.

About the images: (top) Atop the Klein Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland stands a giant wooden representation of Christ on the cross. A metal placard beneath is engraved with the same phrase in four languages: “Mehr Mensch sein.” “L’homme d’abord.” “Uomo prima di tutto.” “Be more human.” (photo: mightymightymatze/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

(second) Frances Kissling listens to the author at the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words” conference at Princeton University in 2010.


David P. GusheeDavid P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the co-founder and board chair of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a columnist for the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and Associated Baptist Press, and a contributing editor for Christianity Today. Dr. Gushee also currently serves on the Church Relations Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has published 12 books, including Kingdom Ethics, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Getting Marriage Right, and Only Human.


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Mr. Gushee omits two big issues in his essay: the role of the man in contributing to the unwanted pregnancy and the societal norm that readily abdicates male responsiblity for their sexual behavior onto women.

Hi Diane. My understanding is that Dr. Gushee, who takes a "pro-life" position, was writing about ways in which he has had better, more sincere and open-eared conversations with his colleagues who take a "pro-choice" stance on abortion and, like Frances Kissling, value the rights of women — and not necessarily who's culpable or responsible. Wouldn't this somewhat defeat the focus of the essay by assigning blame?

I listened to the Francis Kissling podcast interview yesterday and kept saying, "Yes!" "Yes, yes!" I remember the Abortion question that was posed online, I believe by Speaking of Faith; I remember answering that question and reading the other responses. I also remember feeling like it didn't quite get to the heart of the matter, perhaps because of the medium? But I was so hopeful that somehow Krista would be able to create a healthy dialogue about such a polarizing issue.

We need face-to-face, honest, respectful conversations with each other where we first acknowledge, above anything else, that this person with whom I am speaking is my fellow human being. We need to approach each other with open-heartedness. I feel about the phrase, "open-minded" the way Ms. Kissling feels about the phrase, "common ground." Having the expectation that a person with deeply-helpd convictions about a thing will somehow approach a conversation with an open-mind is counter-intuitive. The success of a conversation between any two people, but especially two people who stridently disagree about X, is about open-heartedness. But it requires a humble attitude and it requires a person to know and acknowledge that all their deeply seated convictions do not mean they have all the answers.

I want to be in conversation with those fellow Christians without being told that because I hold to a certain point of view about a certain topic, then I am not really a Christian. I want to be in conversation with people who hold different convictions than me and understand why they hold them and how it came to be. Then I want them to know the same about me. I'm no longer interested in changing anyone's mind about anything anymore. I don't think that should be the point.

Ms. Kissling's parameters for holding conversation with "the other" needs to be applied to all conversations. Especially those hot-topic, often political conversations. We need to assume the best in each other and stop assuming that because another human being has a different perspective or belief, that he or she is our enemy.

Thank you so much for the podcast and this article. I hope it is widely-read.

What a thoughtful reply. Please let us know when you have conversations like this. Many of us are looking for helpful, pragmatic models and ways of speaking that help in this effort. And, please share this essay and show with your friends and colleagues too!

In October 2010, I attended a weekend-long conference (for lack of a better word) on Christian Mysticism. It ended up being more about Inter-religious dialogue. On the third and final day we met at an Episcopal church to hear a panel of authors and professors talk about why mysticism is important to them. In attendance were Jews, Pagans, Wiccans, Christians, and Muslims. No one fought about anything because all of us were there with open hearts, truly desiring to see the Virigin Point in each person. More important to each of us than anything else was how we can promote peace in our communities. No one was there to convert the "other" because each person in attendance had an already deep respect for the paths and traditions of the "other." When we each would talk about our own spiritual journey or our tradition, someone from another tradition would inevitably say something to the effect of, "That's an aspect of your tradition that I find so lovely, that I wish were an aspect of mine."

It was a soul-feeding experience.

nice, and the philosophy of Love is unquestionable in my mind but - do we not still have to make tough choices? Will we allow unlimited abortion? Does the parent, father, society have something to say about it? It can be sweetness and light until real choices for society have to be made and we have to chose real positions as voters in our society.

My choice is to Support the Woman and Save the Baby. I know 3 women whose doctors told them to get an abortion because of the threat to their health or because the baby was deformed. Because the church preaches only against abortion and not empathy for the woman these three women had no church leaders to turn to. They had never heard empathy from their religious leaders that would have led them to visit with their clergy person. When clergy condemn from the pulpit they should envisage a woman in the congregation who is faced with a pregnancy crisis. What do these preachers think this woman is going to do? Certainly not refrain from an abortion. We need to learn to love the women and support them.

As one who was raised in a very liberal Unitarian household and became a born again Christian in my early 20's, this article speaks to the core of who I am. The tensions between how I was raised and what I now believe have followed me for the last 20 years. It is only in the last few years that I am beginning to understand how the two halves fit together. I so appreciate the dialogue that recognizes that there can be good in both ways of moving in the world.

For the 173 detainees remaining in Guantánamo after nine years, most of whom are innocent, many of whom have been tortured:

The Detainee

Marooned
on an island
called Delta

trapped
in an iron bubble
never bursting

threadbare
the hope
tethering me to life
in year ten of my exile
my captivity

In nightmares
I see my wife's face
hear neighbors denounce me
for bounty
my father convinced
his son is an outlaw

My tears are my food
day and night

My only solace
the Book
of God's word


I just love the way you work. Thanks for sharing this great and interesting stuff. Fabulous post! I really enjoyed that.