In a 1998 article, Wheaton’s current president, Philip Ryken, cites these words from Thomas Boston (d. 1732):
Our generation-work … is the work we have to do for God and the generation in which we live, that we may be useful not for ourselves only, but for our God and fellow-creatures… There are, by the wise dispensation of God, several generations … in the world, one after another; one goes off the stage, and another succeeds. Each generation has its work assigned it by the sovereign Lord; and each person in the generation has his also. And now is our time of plying of ours. We could not be useful in the generation that went before us; for then we were not: nor can we personally in that which shall come after us; for then we shall be off the stage. Now is our time; let us ply it, and not neglect usefulness in our generation.
These words could describe Wheaton’s first president, Jonathan Blanchard (d. 1892). Blanchard threw himself into the issues facing his generation—especially the unpopular cause of Abolition. Abolitionist James Burr, who spent years in a southern jail for trying to help slaves escape, is buried on Wheaton’s campus, most likely through Blanchard’s influence (Maas, Marching to the Drumbeat of Abolitionism: Wheaton College in the Civil War, 98).
Blanchard’s 202nd birthday last week came three days before Roe v. Wade’s 40th birthday (Jan 22). I have no doubt that if Blanchard was alive today, he would agree with missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin’s assessment of the great moral evil facing our generation. Newbigin spent forty years in India before retiring to Britain. He is one of the wisest voices from our grandparents’ generation. In December of 1996, at the age of 89, he made his final address to an ecumenical gathering. In his plenary remarks at the WCC’s World Conference on Mission and Evangelism, gathered in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil he challenged his audience with these words:
I am going to raise one particular issue which I have never raised in public before and which I did not intend to raise when I came to Salvador. It is connected with this ribbon on my wrist. When we stood in the old slave market on Saturday morning on those rough stones which had felt the bare and bruised and shackled feet of countless of our fellow human beings, when we stood in that place so heavy with human sin and suffering and we were asked to spend two minutes in silence waiting for what the Spirit might say to us, I thought first how unbelievable that Christians could have connived in that inhuman trade; and then there came to my mind the question: Will it not be the case that perhaps our great-grandchildren will be equally astonished at the way in which our generation, in our so-called modern Western, rich, developed culture, connive at the wholesale slaughter of unborn children in the name of that central idol of our culture—freedom of choice? I know—and as I say, I have never raised that issue in public before, but I do so because I was told to do so—I know that to raise it is exceedingly painful, as painful as was the struggle against the slave trade, as painful as was the World Council’s program to combat racism. But I have discharged that commission. In the context of this Conference it is simply one example of the costliness of that attempt to ensure that the gospel is not domesticated within our cultures, but continually challenges our culture. (Signs amid the Rubble, 118)
During my four years as a student at Wheaton, I have seen the college address Newbigin’s concern in two ways. First, the undergraduate student group, Voice for Life, is a member of Wheaton’s social justice consortium. This is a basic move often absent in evangelical responses to social evil. In other words, a biblical view of the world leads followers of Christ to a deep concern for the poor (See Blomberg’s Neither Poverty Nor Riches). Legion are the testimonies of those whose lives have been permanently transformed by taking a year to read through the Bible marking Scripture’s references to the poor.
Those who explore Scripture’s teaching on God’s heart for the poor find that God expects his people to show a special concern for the orphan, the widow, the alien, the prisoner, and the oppressed. It is a good sign to find those concerned with the United States’ treatment of unwanted children (orphans) working together with those concerned about the plight of immigrants and the oppressed. These concerns should not be separated, and the fact that student groups working on these concerns are sitting at the same table reflects a wise pursuit of kingdom-shalom. The evil that is abortion will end only when it is clearly named as similar to the evil which manifested itself in America’s historic systems of racial injustice, Germany’s Auschwitz, and South Africa’s apartheid.
Of these three parallels, it is undoubtedly America’s sad history of human slavery which provides the closest parallel to the current tragedy of legalized abortion. Then as now, those opposed to human rights for the oppressed are often smart, nice, and sincerely spiritual people. Yet when one considers slavery’s social cost to our nation, a debt for which we have yet to make full amends, one begins to realize that the social costs of our nation’s decision to kill over fifty million unwanted children during the last forty years will only be adequately assessed by our great grandchildren. I find the parallels between Dred Scott v. Sandford (March 6, 1857) and Roe v. Wade (Jan 22, 1972) deeply sobering.
Secondly, I am thankful that President Ryken and the board of trustees have taken a firm stand against Wheaton’s participation in legalized abortions. In December (2012), Wheaton’s lawsuit against the federal government was reinstated. The central issue in the lawsuit is a new federal requirement which would require Wheaton to pay for the abortions of its employee’s embryos. Wheaton’s refusal to capitulate to the most powerful government in the world is both courageous and costly. And even as I write this post, I am reminded of our need to regularly pray for wisdom for all involved.
“If Newbigin is right, and Abortion is to our generation what slavery was to Blanchard’s, then how should Wheaton students respond?” This was the question posed to me by one of my fellow PhD students last week. I would suggest we respond in four ways:
1) Prayer. At the least, January 22nd must be set aside as a day for prayer, fasting, and repentance. This has already been done by the Roman Catholic church in the United States. Protestant Churches need to follow their lead. Evangelical Pastors also need to set aside time to preach and pray on Sanctity of Life Sunday, which takes place on the Sunday closest to January 22nd every year.
2) Education. Personally, two educational moments were transformative during high school. One was beginning to hear God’s heart for the poor (Prov 24:11–12), the other was watching an actual abortion take place on video. After seven weeks, with the exception of abortions that use some kind of poison, every abortion involves tearing off limbs so that an unborn baby bleeds to death.* It is important for those who have not had an abortion, or who have little affective response to the persons injured, to understand what is actually taking place. Equipping Christians to dialogue on this issue is essential. Here a group like Justice for All, would be helpful. I do not believe they have ever been invited to do their full educational program on Wheaton’s campus, although JoannaWagner (2011), the former president of Wheaton’s Voice for Life club, now works with the organization. Whether with pictures, dialogue, research, or publications, Wheaton students and faculty must engage seriously in abortion education. There are unique tasks for each discipline (art, biology, biblical studies, business, history, journalism, literature, law, philosophy, psychology, political science, social work, theology, etc.) which must be accomplished by this generation if the evil which is abortion is to be ended. The issue must be engaged with “bold humility” and hearts that have been transformed by Scripture’s teaching on the poor.
3) Political Advocacy. As students, we must seek our city’s shalom . The current president of the United States was a local state senator when I was a college student. One personal lesson from this historical fact is the reminder not to despise the day of small things. We would do well to listen to wise proposals for action made by Amy Black (Honoring God in Red and Blue) and Ron Sider and then work toward applying them as our vocations allow. Certainly conversations with friends and coworkers is a place to begin. Those looking for help with the conversation will find much that is helpful here.
4) Sacrificial Service. If we have not love, we have nothing. A love that is reflected in sacrificial service must be the mark by which we evaluate our action. Love does not mean silence, or Roe’s 80th birthday may well see the death of one-hundred million orphans. Yet most of us have family members (at home or at church) who have suffered from the tragedy that is abortion. Today our orphan problem is wider than the fifty million who have already died. It includes the ongoing issues facing their mothers, fathers, and siblings. It includes our current care for expectant mothers and the children in our foster care system. Many of these wider concerns are already being addressed, but there is certainly room for further involvement by Wheaton students. If nothing else, now is a time to research and understand the issues involved. CareNet is doing a wonderful job locally at providing resources for women who find themselves facing an unexpected pregnancy with the difficult choices a new child can bring. There are opportunities for sacrificial service there, in the foster care system, and especially in the city to address the wider issue of abortion with an obedient and costly discipleship (Foreman, Shattering the Darkness: The Crisis of the Cross Today).
Others will have different ideas on how to respond, and I welcome the feedback. There is much to learn as we pursue faithfulness in the generation-work to which God had called us. May God grant us wisdom, love, and strength for the task.
*In the United States, 60% of abortions take place within seven weeks of conception, some 38%, or some 460,000 per year, take place after 7 weeks. For more on statistics and abortion procedures see here.