taking the words of Jesus seriously

SHANE CLAIBORNE: One of the most important issues of our day is the need for a consistent pro-life ethic. Catholics and evangelicals and all sorts of folks have begun to resonate with this idea—not just in the sense it is talked about in abortion debates.

Jesus talks about life a lot. Life to the fullest (John 10:10). The narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:14). He is the way, the truth, the life (John 14:6). His message and his life are an interruption of death. He constantly interrupts whatever is destroying the life and dignity of other people—and invites us to do the same. As a young Christian, I was confused about the inconsistency with which we address issues of life. No group or party seemed to be seamless. Some folks were against abortion and euthanasia, but were pro–death penalty and pro-military. I found myself at odds with some of the positions that had come to characterize traditional evangelicalism, but I sure didn’t fit into a progressive or liberal camp either.

As Red Letter Christians, we need to be pro-life from the womb to the tomb. Abortion and euthanasia, the death penalty and war, poverty and health care—all of these are issues of life and death. And they are issues Jesus cares about because they affect real people.

The death penalty has been a huge deal in the news this past year, with some high profile cases like Troy Davis in Atlanta. I think we are at a crossroads on this issue, and it is possible that we could see it come to an end in our lifetime. We are one of very few nations in the world that still kills its own people. What is even more wicked is how we make theatrics of death as we execute. Though lethal injection is the most common form, there are still states in the US that allow government sanctioned executions to happen by hanging, firing squad, gas chamber, and electrocution.

When former presidential candidate Rick Perry celebrated his 234 executions as Texas governor during the September 7, 2011 GOP presidential debate, the audience, who were mainly members of the Christian coalition, roared in applause. As a Christian, I found that deeply disturbing.

Jesus was confronted with this issue in John 8, when crowds were preparing to stone a woman for adultery. But when they questioned him about it, the first thing he did was peculiar—he bent down and wrote in the dirt. We asked the kids in our neighborhood what they thought he was writing, and one of them said, “If this doesn’t work, run, woman!”

We don’t know what he wrote, but we do know what happened next. He addressed all the men who were ready to kill: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” And of course, Jesus has already taught that if we call our neighbor a fool, we are murderers. If we look at someone with lust in our eyes, we are adulterers (Matthew 5:22, 28). I can hear the stones start to drop as the men walked away, and soon the only one who was left with any right to throw a stone was Jesus. And he has no inclination to do so. We can see that the closer we are to God, the less we want to throw stones at other people.

As our musician friend Derek Webb says, “Murdering to show that killing is wrong is like trying to teach holiness through fornication.”

TONY CAMPOLO: It’s not enough to only save the lives of “the born” as we try to do in our endeavors to abolish the death penalty. We must also do all we can to protect the unborn. We have to raise serious questions about abortion, which has become all too common in our society. When we talk about being pro-life, we have to be, as Ron Sider says in his book Completely Pro-Life, consistently pro-life. You said it well: we have to be pro-life from the womb to the tomb.

Related: Has Roe Been Good for Women? by Kristen Day of Democrats for Life

In a personal conversation I had with Barney Frank, a former Democratic congressman known for his liberal leanings, he made the challenging statement that the problem with evangelicals is that they think that life begins at conception and ends at birth. He was basically saying that we’re willing to protect life from the moment of conception until the moment of birth, but once that baby is born, we don’t want to do what is needed to take care of the baby. As evangelicals, with our pro-life politics, we seldom want to put the necessary money into health services, day care, and education.

The late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago talked about the seamless robe. If you are going to talk about being pro-life, he said, it has to be a seamless statement of life that reaches all the way from abortion to war to caring for the poor. When I served on the platform committee of the Democratic Party for the 2008 Presidential election, my evangelical friends asked how I could possibly do such a thing. I answered them by saying that I thought there needed to be a pro-life voice when the party platform was developed. While I wasn’t able to get a plank in the platform document that called for the abolition of abortion, I was able to support efforts that would cut the number of abortions performed each year.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 73 percent of all abortions performed in America are economically driven. Many women have abortions because they lack the economic means to take care of a baby. Consider a woman who works at Wal-Mart for minimum wage, has no hospital coverage, and is pregnant out of wedlock. She knows she can’t support a child. She’s having a hard time supporting herself, so she has an abortion. She’s one of those people whom we call “the working poor, ” and she lives in a society that tells her, “We’re not going to provide for you if you have your baby. We’re not going to cover your hospital bills, and we’re not going to cover the cost of daycare so you can work. We’re not going to provide any prenatal care for you, and we’re not going to raise the minimum salary so that you can earn enough to support yourself as well as your child.” Society is telling her that it absolves itself of all responsibility once her baby is born.

To be pro-life is not only to be committed to protecting the unborn but also to protecting the child after birth. Being pro-life goes much further than criminalizing abortions.

When I’m asked if the zygote becomes a human being at the moment of conception, I say, “I don’t know, and since I don’t know exactly when the unborn becomes human, I have chosen to be pro-life.” If I err, I’d rather err on the side of life, lest I support murdering an unborn child. The Roman Catholics have consistency. They say essentially, “We don’t know when the ‘ensoulment’ begins, so we’re not only against abortion, we’re also against contraception.”

SHANE CLAIBORNE: When I was speaking out in Michigan, one of the guys who came up to talk to me afterward said he had always been pro-life and he still was passionately pro-life. But he said, “I began to realize I was pro-life but I wasn’t proactive. I wasn’t really doing anything other than protesting.”

Then he went on to share with me that he had started a counseling service for young women and an open adoption agency to help find homes for new babies who need families.

TONY CAMPOLO: Both Jerry Falwell and Mother Teresa didn’t just say they were pro-life, but each took care of troubled pregnant women who didn’t want abortions. Mother Teresa would say to such women that if they were pregnant and thinking of getting rid of the child, they shouldn’t do it. She pleaded for them to give those babies to her, and she would see that they were cared for and nurtured.

Jerry Falwell, on the religious Right, did exactly the same thing. Not only did he preach against abortion but he provided women with problem pregnancies with housing, financial assistance including medical expenses, and loving support, even arranging adoptions for those who chose not to keep their babies. Dr. Falwell’s commitment to care gave integrity to his pro-life preaching.

Also by Tony and Shane: How Are We Political?

It’s easy to say you are pro-life, but if you are not doing anything to help take care of pregnant women in need, you are really saying, “You got pregnant. Having the baby is your responsibility.”

SHANE CLAIBORNE: When I was in India, there were two street kids I got really close to. They must have been about seven and ten years old, and totally on the streets, orphans. So I called my mom and said, “Do you think we could find anybody to take these kids in?” She did a little research and found one of her friends who said she would actually love to do it. So after going through the ranks in India, I ended up talking to the person right under Mother Teresa, and she said, “Actually, I will go and talk to Mother Teresa for you.” She came back and said, “It’s been our definitive position and continues to be Mother’s conviction that we shouldn’t have kids come from India to the US until you change your abortion laws because that’s a more urgent issue right now.”

When I was in India, I learned that folks there did not call Mother Teresa “Mother Teresa”; they just called her “Mother.” The reason was that she was a mother. Over and over I met kids she had raised. She earned that title, and her credibility as a champion for life, not because she went around picketing abortion clinics with signs saying “Abortion is Murder.” She was a champion for life because she accompanied women and kids in tough situations—integrity you can’t argue with.

Our ideologies come with responsibility. In my neighborhood, to be against abortion means we have to figure out what to do when a fourteen-year-old girl gets pregnant. If we are really pro-life, we had better have some foster kids and teen moms living with us to prove it. I don’t want to just be an anti-abortion or anti-death person. I want to be pro-life. For far too long, we Christians have been known more by what we are against than by what we are for. I am ready for a Christianity that is consistently committed to life and all about interrupting death everywhere it raises its ugly face. We are Resurrection people. When Jesus rose from the dead he declared essentially, “Death, thou art dead.” I am ready to see Christians make that same declaration. Death, thou art dead.

This article is excerpted from Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said (Thomas Nelson, Inc.).

Shane Claiborne is a prominent author, speaker, activist, and founding member of the Simple Way.  He is one of the compilers of Common Prayer, a new resource to unite people in prayer and action. Shane is also helping develop a network called Friends Without Borders which creates opportunities for folks to come together and work together for justice from around the world.

Tony Campolo is the Founder and President of EAPE and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University. Look for Tony in your area and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

About The Author


Shane Claiborne is a best-selling author, renowned activist,
 sought-after speaker, and self-proclaimed “recovering sinner.” Shane writes and speaks around the world about peacemaking, social justice, and Jesus, and is the author of several books, 
including "The Irresistible Revolution," "Jesus for President," "Executing Grace," "Beating Guns," and his newest book, "Rethinking Life (released in Feb 2023)." He is the visionary leader of The Simple Way in Philadelphia and co-director of Red Letter Christians. His work has been featured in Fox News, Esquire, SPIN, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and CNN.

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