(While this article was written for The Word, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian magazine that I edit for Bishop JOHN Abdallah, and will appear in the June issue, readers from other church backgrounds may find it helpful.)
It is a commonplace among military historians that the Allied armies of the First and Second World Wars prepared in each case to fight the last war. The steady advance of troops towards the enemy made sense, before the First World War and the Maxim machine gun put an end to that. Trench warfare made sense, before the mechanized blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” of the Second World War made lines of trenches useless.
If you want to depict a really wicked enemy, you make him a Nazi
The same is true when we think of great evils, of moral conflicts in which many, many lives are lost. If you want to depict a really wicked enemy in some piece of fiction, someone whom everyone knows they should hate, you make him a Nazi, a relic of the past. In the Twentieth Century, Nazism and Communism both offered alternative views of human beings and societies, and justified atrocious crimes against humanity on grounds of an over-arching theory (a master race in the first instance, or a “new man” created by dialectical materialism in the second). These were the only serious social-political contenders against the European Christian view of man and society. Nazism killed about six million Jews, as well as others, and the Communist system under Stalin killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people, while the Chinese Communist government killed about 65 million of its own people in the last century, and continues, for example, to run concentration camps, and to murder prisoners of conscience for organ transplants today.
These great evils have been nationalist ideologies. What of today, however? Are there Nazis anymore? Is there a comparable, great moral evil, at least in scale?
The rejection of God has opened the door to a “cafeteria” paganism and individualist subjectivism
To look for popular, dehumanizing, nationalist ideologies today, however, is to try to fight the last war. Over the last fifty years, the contender for the minds and hearts of the developed world has not been a replacement political ideology, but secularism (an attempt to “disinfect” society of religion). Not surprisingly, the rejection of God and of a Christian view of humankind in public expression has opened the door to a “cafeteria” paganism and individualist subjectivism. So Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, wrote infamously that, “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” Here is subjectivism in a nutshell.
More individual human beings have been killed in abortion
In casting off the “shackles of religion,” secularism leads not merely to nonsense, but to dehumanization. Where are the victims, comparable to those of Nazism and Communism? It may be a surprise to learn that more individual human beings have been killed in abortion than in any other way, in all of history, and most of that killing has taken place in the last 50 years. (The bulk of that killing has taken place in China and India. Together they are responsible for 24 to 25 million abortions a year.)
Abortion, like genocide and other crimes, has been around a long time. The modern novelty has been technology. Mass killing by the Nazis was made possible by the railroad and road transport, and followed the example of the earlier Armenian genocide. The atom bomb dropped on Japanese cities was a technological marvel. Suction machines were first used to destroy unborn children in utero in Communist Russia in 1922, and spread to the West. Currently in the U.S. there are about a million abortions a year. Entrepreneurial abortionists have been able for decades to perform a series of such suction abortions in rapid succession. Now chemical abortion promises to make the self-induced abortion common, and more difficult to trace.
Note that our “enemy” in the new moral “war” is not a particular religion or ideology. As Orthodox Christians, we celebrate the unique conception of Jesus Christ, “incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” at the Feast of the Annunciation, on March 25. We also celebrate the conception of the Most Holy Theotokos on December 9, and that of St. John the Baptist on September 23. We are predisposed by our faith to see things properly. We could make secular arguments, of course. We could argue that every individual human being began his or her existence in this world at his or her conception. Conception is the only neat point at which life can be said to begin. (Here we have not a potential life, but a new life with potential.) If our imaginations have a hard time recognizing the very early individual life, at the blastocyst stage, say, as a new member of the human family, that is a problem of our imagination, not in reality. (The human being is never just a depersonalized “clump of cells.”) We could mention that the human heart starts beating about sixteen days after conception, about the time when mom is beginning to suspect she’s pregnant. We could say all these things, and we would be right: here is another one of us.
"And who is my neighbor?"
Still, being right is usually not enough to overcome the secularist mindset, in which the defenseless victim is an embarrassment or an inconvenience. “And who is my neighbor?” our interlocutor asks. “I don’t want to think about this silent, little thing in ontological no-man’s-land. I see what I want to see, and my will rules.” This is less a problem of the head than of the heart. It is not surprising that since 1997 the General Social Survey has found that public support for abortion on demand has hovered at around 40 percent. If education about pregnancy and abortion were enough to convince people, that number would have dropped.
We cannot fight the last war – Nazism and Communism as ideologies are dead. We can, however, look at how courageous men (and women) have stood up to evil, and be encouraged to emulate them. During the Nazi occupation of Greece, the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, His Beatitude Damaskinos, signed a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, who was collaborating with the Nazis. The letter was a courageous defense of the Greek Jews who were being rounded up and deported to Poland to be exterminated. When the Germans continued with the deportations, His Beatitude called the Police Chief of Athens, Angelos Evert, to his office and told him, “I have taken up my cross. I spoke to the Lord, and made up my mind to save as many Jewish souls as possible.”
"Our prelates are hung, not shot. Please respect our traditions!"
When S.S. General Jürgen Stroop, police official for Greece, found out about the letter, he threatened to shoot His Beatitude. The Archbishop (with historical oppression by the Turks in mind) told the German officer that “according to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hung and not shot. Please respect our traditions!” His Beatitude would not be stopped. Chief Evert issued false identification cards and Archbishop Damaskinos ordered the churches to issue false baptismal certificates to those threatened with deportation. In Athens and the port city of Piraeus, Christians hid Jews in their homes. The result of their work was the rescue of 66 percent of the Jews of Athens.
The courage of the past often looks simple to us: he saw what was right, and did it. That, however, is what happens when we look back from the present: we air-brush away the complications, the uncertainties, the betrayals, even the doubts. Did no one ask the Archbishop, “What will happen if they don’t shoot you, but take some priests off to Poland to die? What will you do then?” Did others say, “Why are we getting involved in politics? We should just keep our heads down and submit, as Christ did, to the authorities.” “His Kingdom is not of this world. This will all pass.” “Your business is our eternal souls, and the churches and the monasteries, not this trouble.” “Who cares about the Jews? In any case, they can take care of themselves.”
If we had been there, we would have known what to do,
We are tempted to think that it was easy for the heroes of the past to know what was right, and to do it. If we had been there, we would have known what to do, and have done it, just like them. The Lord Jesus implied just this dynamic when He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’” In Jesus’ time, the dreadful irony was that those who admired their prophetic predecessors would have been among those who killed them, if they had lived in that day. Our challenge is to see things clearly in our day, to do what we can in the moral war of our day, as the people we admire would have, if they were here now.
“I . . . made up my mind to save as many . . . souls as possible.” We can do the same, in our day. With abortion, we are not only saving the lives of the babies: we are preventing a soul-destroying act by the woman. We are already seeing success in America. Pregnancy help centers are the chief reason that abortion numbers have been declining since 1984. At those centers that have ultrasound machines, they can show the pregnant woman the child in her womb. The sonographer shows the woman the flicker of her baby’s beating heart, or the outline of his or her head, or his or her thumb-sucking. There can be tears. This is often enough, with care and support, for women to change their minds – about 85 percent do so. Truth and love have power, and hearts are opened to life.
Zoe for Life! is one Orthodox organization that is saving as many souls as possible, in Parma, Ohio (near Cleveland), and in Ann Arbor, Michigan. New chapters are starting in Binghamton, New York, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Go to https://www.zoeforlife.org for more information on Zoe.) Zoe for Life! is endorsed by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States, and that is good.
We need to translate our good intentions into actions
But it is not enough. Like Archbishop Damaskinos, we need to translate our good intentions into action – time, energy, and money, devoted to saving the vulnerable. If there is no Orthodox organization in your area that is doing this, start one. If none is likely to start, work with other Christians to reach women in your community. Look up your local pregnancy medical centers. Meet their executive directors. Donate to the centers. Volunteer with them. Advertise them. (Vision for Life - Pittsburgh, of which I am the Executive Director, has seen a 26 percent drop in ratios of abortions to live births after we started advertising two local pregnancy medical center organizations. Thousands of babies have been born who would not have been, if we had not run our ads.)
Our hierarchs, too, could lead as did Archbishop Damaskinos, in practical, pro-life pregnancy help, at the very least with funding, and with the very public blessing of the centers. Our parish priests could put the names and phone numbers of the centers in their weekly bulletins, for, as the founders of Zoe were told, unmarried Orthodox women will seek an abortion rather than face embarrassment in their local parishes. A member of the Board of Zoe for Life! - Pittsburgh tells me that a priest’s daughter in another state became pregnant as a teen and was pressured by members of the parish to have an abortion, but she and her family were pro-life and decided to keep the baby. That baby is now grown up, married, and has a successful career.
Clergy and youth workers in every parish need to have the same open heart, the same courage and forthrightness, as had Archbishop Damaskinos when pressured by the Nazis. In terms of sheer numbers, we live in the Age of Abortion. As Orthodox Christians, clergy and lay, we can rise to the challenge and fight the right war. We can do something to “save as many souls as possible.”
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
 Some claim that the new, genetically unique individual human being is not a person before implantation in the uterus, because he or she is not a yet “person in relation” to his or her mother. (Persons, we are told, must be in relation, as are the Persons of the Trinity.) This claim is specious. By this standard, would we say that St. Mary of Egypt ceased to be a person after years in the desert? Is the seriously mentally and physically handicapped person, incapable of communication, still a person? If it is true that “not one [sparrow] is forgotten before God,” every conceived human being, at whatever stage of life, is known to Him (Luke 12:6). What purpose could this pernicious depersonalization serve? Could it be used to justify the use of abortifacients like the IUD, which prevent implantation, or potential abortifacients, like the morning-after pill, which may stop ovulation, but can prevent implantation of the newly conceived person?
Chris Humphrey has been involved in pro-life activity of one kind or another since the late 1970s, when he first looked at the subject of abortion in seminary in Canada. He has an undergraduate degree in English (University of Toronto), and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in religious studies (McGill). He has had a varied career as a pastor, chaplain in a psychiatric hospital, editor of academic and instructional publications, semi-professional photographer, and home renovator. He is a husband of over 40 years to Edith (a Professor of New Testament), father to three girls, and grandfather to seventeen grandchildren. He lives and works in the Stanton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh.