An ancient Chinese proverb states: “Whoever defines the terms wins the argument.” I used to quote this proverb when I was teaching logic courses as a member of the philosophy department at a college in Chicago. The proverb is true. If you let me define the terms of discussion about any hot-button social issue, then I most likely will win the debate.
So it goes with debates concerning beginning-of-life and end-of-life ethics, not to mention so-called “environmental issues.” Whoever defines the terms usually wins the debate. For example, are you a supporter of “environmental ethics” or “the stewardship of nature” or “creation care” or “earthkeeping”? These terms usually do not have the same denotation and certainly do not have the same connotation. That is, they name different things and suggest or assume different things.
As Wendell Berry incisively notes, we do not live in “an environment”—a sterile term that assumes we humans are somehow outside of the non-human world in which we are embedded and without which we cannot live. The commonly used term “stewardship “ seems innocent enough, but has often been co-opted to mean dominion as domination—a misreading of Genesis 1:26-28. Creation care seems promising, but it cannot literally mean the care of all of creation, since we humans exist on a tiny speck of a planet in the vast creation, most of which we know nothing about. Earthkeeping, I would argue, gets much closer to the heart of the biblical meaning and the best of the Christian tradition: our human vocation is to serve and protect the earth (Gen. 2:15). My point here is simply that terms carry with them much semantic freight, and are often chosen carefully to tilt the rhetorical weight in a discussion in a certain direction.
To take another example: what does it mean when you call yourself “pro-life”? This term seems to refer to a position with which everyone would agree. Who would not be “for life”? Who in their right mind could possibly be con-life or anti-life or against life? But in our often polarized (and polarizing) debates these days in the United States and Canada, the term “pro-life” really means “anti-abortion.” “Pro-life” is code for a particular ethical position with respect to early-stage human life.
But a “pro-life” stance should, if its advocates took the meaning of life seriously in some comprehensive way, not only be against abortion, but also be against the taking of life in any form. So a consistent pro-life stance should also be against the death penalty, against laws that legalize euthanasia, against financial cutbacks to programs that feed the homeless in the community or hungry children at school. Expanding beyond the realm of human life, a thorough-going “pro-life” stance should also favor responsible care of all living things—everything with life—such as endangered species and imperiled ecosystems, plants and animals, and their often diminishing habitats.
In short, a consistent or comprehensive pro-life ethic should support any and all efforts to foster the flourishing of living things (human and non-human) and discourage anything that would diminish life here on earth.
But this gets sticky. All of life? Should we protect and preserve every living thing? Invasive plants? Exotic animals? Viruses and bacteria? As you can see, it gets complicated. So maybe we should tamp down the volume, explore the assumptions and implications of our own views, and start to really listen to each other. Then we might be in a better (more humble) position to truly understand our own tightly held views and those of others with whom we may not agree.
As Pope Francis states in his recent encyclical, we should all recognize that caring for an aching earth is one of the best ways to care for hurting people. Justice for humans and care for our home planet are really two sides of the very same coin. In that sense, we Christians all ought to be “pro-life,” acting in ways that give special help to those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” We are, after all, all interconnected. Indeed, we are interdependent. We sink or swim together. So let’s follow Jesus’ example and Francis’ advice.
[Image: Flickr user Kenneth Lu]