Hard Time Killing Floor Blues
September 17, 2015
It is obvious to me from nature that killing children (born or unborn) is unambiguously a Bad Thing.
At the same time, the foregoing has not historically been taken as obvious--or, at least, human beings often have not acted in accordance with that truth. One could note in this regard the widely accepted Roman practice of the exposure of unwanted infants.
Why does it seem obvious to me, while at the same time it was not regularly treated as such by our ancient forebears to whom we owe so much in other respects? What am I taking for granted in my opening sentence?
What I am taking for granted is 2000 years of Christian reflection on nature and the created order, and on the implications of the gospel for our views of nature and the created order. Absent this, our callous disregard for our Creator will often--though not always--manifest itself as callous disregard for the creature, and especially for the weakest and most vulnerable of creatures. Even when it does not, we will often feel helpless and hopeless in the face of great tragedy.
Let me illustrate by a brief tour through a few ancient texts that deal with infant death. My first two texts are pre-Christian, and are brought to bear for the purpose of setting the atmosphere: how do some of antiquity's greatest thinkers handle early mortality?
In the "Myth of Er," the rightly famous conclusion to Plato's Republic, Socrates recounts the Underworld visit of the Pamphylian soldier Er. There Er is given a glimpse into the order of the cosmos and the ramifications of human choice. In his vision of the afterlife, there are rewards for virtue and punishments for vice before an eventual reincarnation:
They told their stories to one another, the [vicious] weeping and lamenting as they recollected all that they had suffered and seen on their journey below the earth--which lasted a thousand years--and the [virtuous] telling, in turn, about their happy experiences and the inconceivably beautiful sights they had seen....[F]or all the unjust things they had done and for all the people they had wronged, they had paid the penalty for every one in turn, ten times over for each....On the other hand, if they had done good deeds and become just and pious, they received commensurate awards (tr. C.D.C. Reeve).
This sounds well and good, perhaps, as far as it goes--the world is just after all. But we are brought up short by the very next sentence: "[Er] said some other things about the stillborn and those who lived for only a short time, but they are not worth recounting." Socrates, as it turns out, finds some lives to be worth more than others; the least value of all is assigned to the youngest of all. Because they never reached the age of choosing virtue or vice, they do not weigh in Socrates' balance.
Fast forward several hundred years to the sixth book of Vergil's Aeneid, in which the hero undertakes his own Underworld journey to speak with his deceased father--another episode in the tradition to which the "Myth of Er" belongs.
In the Great Beyond, Aeneas too sees those who have suffered untimely deaths, as Er had done. Vergil writes of Aeneas as follows:
Immediately after he has disembarked from Charon's raft,Instantly voices are heard: massed voices, the weeping of children:Souls never able to speak, just over the boundary's threshhold,Stolen by death's dark day, ripped away from the breasts of their mothers,Plunged in the grave's bitter sourness without any share of the sweetnessLife brings... (tr. Frederick Ahl)
The reader quickly notes a far greater sympathy in Vergil's narration than Plato had made Socrates to show; indeed, it is characteristic of Vergil's humanism to give full voice to such pathos. But it is just that: pathos, and nothing to be done about it. That too is characteristic: the dusk of tragedy and gloom that settles upon so much of human experience.
I do not wish to take away from what Vergil has to teach us, and I certainly wish to detract nothing from sympathy for Death's early plunder. At the same time, we find in antiquity another, and more hopeful, view of the very young, and even an eagerness to save them from the fates recounted in Plato and Vergil--a view again rooted in a divine order, but one of a very different cast.
In the anonymous second-century "Epistle to Diognetus," the author recounts the ways in which the manners of the Christians distinguish them from their unbelieving neighbors:
They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. (tr. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson)
The author does not deny the natural order of sexual ethics: all marry and beget children. And yet the faith of these Christians compels them to a greater consistency than was sometimes found in their cultural milieu, for they neither take their children's lives, as was often done, nor do they carry on a promiscuous manner of coupling.
While the Christian tradition of natural law would include both of these prohibitions and claim that they are accessible to all rational beings, it is nevertheless striking how often they are ignored. The faith of the early Christians constrained them not to ignore them. The bond of marriage was and must be kept sacred; children--even the stillborn--were a gift, rather than something better passed over in silence.
Justin Martyr, also writing in the second century, is more fulsome in his First Apology:
But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution....And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods. (tr. Marcus Dods and George Reith)
Justin contends that there are aberrant sexual behaviors afoot, that such behaviors are sin, and that they are done at the behest of an aberrant view of the divine. But love for neighbor and fear of incurring judgment for the guilt of sin--a judgment very different in kind from what is found in Plato's Underworld--prevent Justin from countenancing such behaviors.
Still and all, Justin does not say that the injunction of abstinence from such behaviors is available only to those who have received special revelation:
Indeed, the things which you do openly and with applause, as if the divine light were overturned and extinguished, these you lay to our charge; which, in truth, does no harm to us who shrink from doing any such things, but only to those who do them and bear false witness against us.
Note the conditional: they do these things as if the divine light were extinguished. We can draw two conclusions--first, that there is such a thing as the "divine light"; second, that it is present in some sense to everyone, for it has not been extinguished. Again, Justin means that Christian faith, rooted in a proper view of the divine order, gives one more impetus to obey the strictures that are already given in nature. Thus: "And again [we fear to expose children], lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers. But whether we marry, it is only that we may bring up children; or whether we decline marriage, we live continently."
My basic story could be fleshed out further, and also complicated to some extent, by the addition of a variety of other texts. But what does it mean for contemporary debates about abortion and same-sex marriage and their impact upon the still sizeable number of professing Christians in the U.S.?
First, we ought not to give up on the idea of objective nature, regardless of where the current prevailing cultural winds seem to be blowing. But, second, we should not be surprised when we have a difficult time convincing others that our views are "natural," as if such a thing could be determined in a void irrespective of metaphysics and theology. And so, third, we should not be reluctant to tie our views to an account of God and the gospel that clarifies nature and shows how it is restored in Christ. To persuade our peers of the value of a just ethical and legal regime is a great good; to persuade them that, in the end, such an ideal of justice coheres only in Christ, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," is far better. The bluesman Skip James had his finger on the pulse of the problem long ago, and we can do worse than to listen to him:
You know that peopleThey are driftin' from do' to do'But they can't find no heavenI don't care where they goPeople, if I ever can get upOff a-this old hard killin' flo'Lord, I'll never get downThis low no mo'
Eric Hutchinson is a Reformed Protestant layman and Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College