Abortion, the Exodus & 'freedom'

The idea of liberation through a change of masters shows how misleading it is to summarize the exodus through the popular slogan, “Let My people go.” The full form of the challenge is actually sallah ‘et’ammi weya ‘abduni, “Let My people go that they may serve Me.” The emphasis, I think, falls on that last word: that they may serve Me and no one else. The point of the exodus is not freedom in the sense of self-determination, but service, the service of the loving, redeeming, and delivering God of Israel, rather than the state and its proud king. The paradox should not be overlooked that if you rid biblical theology of slavery altogether, you will miss one important basis for the biblical efforts to mitigate slavery.

-       Jon Levenson (1993) The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament and Historical Criticism, Westminster, John Knox, p 144.

When I had lunch with my Dad today and I was explaining what I was learning in class, I told him about this idea. Freedom, in the Bible, is never ‘freedom to do whatever you like’. In fact, I’m not sure that ‘freedom’ is even the right word, because the term does seem to imply self-determination. Rather, the idea expressed in the Bible – beginning with the exodus and carrying on like a thread through to Paul’s writings in the NT – is one of deliverance from the old master (whether it be slavery, blindness, sin), into the hands of the new master, who is YHWH or Jesus. Slavery is not abolished, but rather continues under a master whose book of law is life, not death.

As our conversation continued on and we talked about this and that, Dad began to tell me about how he had got up in church the other Sunday, and encouraged individuals in the congregation to sign an open letter to the Victorian Premier. The letter urged the State government to overturn legislation that compels doctors to refer clients seeking an abortion to another doctor who can undertake the procedure, if the first doctor will not do it. Dad was virulently opposed to this legislation, because he believed it breached the principle of freedom of conscience. It is wrong to compel anyone to facilitate an abortion, he argued. People should have the right to refuse, if their conscience so dictates.

After lunch, it occurred to me that there was a connection between the conversation about the exodus story and the idea of ‘freedom’, and the question of ‘freedom of conscience’ in regards to abortion. I realised that neither the ‘pro-choice’ not the ‘pro-life’ camps really advocated ‘freedom’, though they both criticised the other for not doing so.

The pro-choice camp advocates freedom for women to choose to have an abortion, but an obligation on doctors to make sure women have access.

The pro-life camp urges freedom for doctors to choose not to facilitate an abortion, but an obligation on women to carry a child to full term.

Both positions advocate freedom – the first for the woman to be able to choose, the second for the doctor to be able to choose. But inherent in both is a pronounced lack of freedom, which both sides condemn the other for. In the first scenario, the doctor is obliged to refer a woman. In the second, the woman is obliged to have the baby.

And so it strikes me that to condemn either position because it lacks the element of ‘freedom’ is perhaps to miss the point. None of us live in a society of ultimate freedom. Classic liberal theory taught us that: there are obligations, as well as rights. In the language of the Bible, we could say that none of us have freedom; the most we have is the ability to choose our own master.

So who will be our master? The one who compels doctors to make sure women have access to abortions? Or the master that compels women to carry children to full term? We may find ‘liberation’ or ‘deliverance’ in one of these answers, but we will not find ‘freedom’, in any ultimate sense. For the biblical writers, that wasn’t the quest they were on.