on population, reproductive health & ethics

Send this page to a friend! (click here)


by Daniel C. Maguire

(This is the draft of the first chapter of a book to be published by Fortress
Press, entitled A MORAL CREED FOR ALL CHRISTIANS, due out next spring or

  e cannot shy from the possibility that
humanity is a failed and short-lived species in the
perspective of cosmic history. It may be that we are
strapped with a fatal flaw that has already, at the
peaking of our technical skills, begun our unraveling.
Even in the smaller scale of earth time, we look unlikely
to match the longevity of the dinosaurs who survived
some 200 million years. It is possible — and has been
argued — that the two greatest disasters to hit this
generous planet have been (1) the asteroidal pummeling of 65 million years
ago banishing the dinosaurs and (2) the arrival of the destructive species
that calls itself "sapiens."

Maybe the apocalyptic voices are the realists. Georg Henrik von Wright
says with chilling calmness: "One perspective, which I don't find
unrealistic, is of humanity as approaching its extinction as a zoological
species. The idea has often disturbed people....For my part I cannot find
it especially disturbing. Humanity as a species will at some time with
certainty cease to exist; whether it happens after hundreds of thousands
of years or after a few centuries is trifling in the cosmic perspective.
When one considers how many species humans have made an end of, then such
a natural nemesis can perhaps seem justified." In other words, perhaps
of all the species that have died out in the history of the earth, no
other species may have been more deserving of extinction. Vaclav Havel
warns that if we endanger the earth she will dispense with us in the
interests of a higher value—that is, life itself. Lynn Margulis joins
the grim chorus saying that the rest of earth's life did very well
without us in the past and it will do very well without us in the future.
Not all religious scholars rush in with gospels of consolation. Gerd
Theissen says that we have wasted much time looking for the "missing
link" between apes and true humanity. Call off that search, he says, and
admit we are that missing link. True humanity could not indulge so
facilely and effectively in genocide and ecocide nor would it be so rabid
with militarism or so comfortable with the co-existence of glut and
hunger. In this view we are morally pre-natal, and yet armed to the
teeth, with the end of the world stored and ready in our nuclear silos
and species dropping around us like canaries in a doomed mine.
Can hope, however bloodied and bruised, be salvaged and can it be vibrant
enough to bring the radical and necessary metamorphosis? Possibly. And
that is the challenge addressed by this book. The first task is

Empire as Original Sin

The Christian teaching on Original Sin arose from a sense that something
is wrong with us. Though the theological dons played with it to the point
of silliness—Augustine thought it was caused by sexual pleasure—the basic
insight was correct. Something is wrong.

What's wrong? While speaking recently to a group of Ford Foundation
program officers in Greece, I made reference to "the common good." As we
stopped for a break, they asked me to return to "the common good" and to
tell them what it is. For my break I took a walk down a dirt path toward
the lovely Aegean Sea. Ahead of me I saw what looked like a black ribbon
stretched across the dirt path. A I got closer I saw that is was not a
ribbon, but two columns of ants moving back and forth in single file.
Those in one row were carrying something; the others were going back for
a new load. A real estate change was in process. Every ant was committed
to the project. There were no shirkers or apostates from the common effort
There were no special interest groups. All these insect citizens were
bonded to the common good of that community.

How convenient for the insects! The needs of the common good are
inscribed on their genes. Human genes have no such inscription. We, like
the ants, have need of common good considerations, since the common good
is the matrix of minimal livability within which individual good can be
pursued. Pace Augustine, biblical wisdom would point to that problem
rather than sexual joy as our potential undoing. Indeed, all the moral
traditions of the world religions in their distinct fashions point to
this soft center in our makeup. All of them address our tilt toward moral
autism. Our genetic impulse seems more directed to egoistic good in
opposition to the common good, and since the common good includes the
good of all of nature, this fatal flaw in our composition portends
planetary ruin.

With us humans, this need for which our genes do not provide is met by
ethics and by religion. Ethics is the expression of our natural need to
discern the good and diagnose what is evil, and religion arises from the
discovery that at the core of the good is a preciousness that we call
holy. A chastening look at our history shows that ethics and religion
are no match for the efficacy of genetic inscription when it comes to the
protection of our species and of our biological and terrestrial
neighbors. Which brings us to


Normally we limit the word empire to the military and economic domination
of weaker nations by stronger ones. However, I submit that the exploitive
imperial instinct is pandemically present in all the configurations of
human society. A passion for control is the engine of empire in all of
its micro— and macro— configurations. Controlling others for our
perceived advantage—the empire urge—is not limited to international
affairs. It powers all the vicious "isms," that make life on a good earth
horrible: sexism, speciesism, racism, heterosexism, nationalism,
militarism. The imperial temptation to control-as-the- path-to-well-being
also drives patriarchy and hierarchy and the myriad forms of royalty that
appear in families, corporations, professions, churches, mosques,
synagogues, and governments.

The pharaohs had it right. Imperial power is aptly symbolized by the
pyramid, with the privileged at the narrow top and a massive base
supporting the imperially privileged few. So insidious is the empire lure
that it can corrupt (and has corrupted) even the gentlest (and most
anti-imperial) impulse to emerge from the Jesus movement. Let me explain.

Jesus, Assassinated by Empire

Jesus was crucified by an empire. With all deference to Mel Gibson, he
was not killed so that his suffering would expiate for our sins, a very
bad piece of theology that would turn God into a sadistic monster who
would feel he had to torture his son to death in order to make up for
sins of other people. No, Jesus was crucified as a rebel against empire.
He was part of the rebellious communities of Judea and Galilee where
crucifixion was the regular Roman penalty for rebellion. Around the time
of Jesus' birth, the Roman General Varus scoured the hills of Judea and
Galilee searching for rebels and had 2000 of them crucified. There was
a lot to rebel against. Empires, and imperial occupiers then as now are
brutal. "Tribute to Caesar" meant your grain was taken from your barn,
your animals were seized by Caesar so that the people in the empire could
live gloriously and well. We in the United States are really now the New
Rome, the Empire, living gloriously and well. We are not in Jesus
territory, Judea and Galilee, colonies raped by Imperial Rome. Rome in
Jesus' time had become the last remaining superpower in that part of the
world Jesus fought the likes of us, and when you do that, the lesson is,
the likes of us will crucify you.

The Roman empire had to kill Jesus, not for any discoverable crime that
he committed; he did worse. He rejected the assumptions of the Roman
Empire that was crushing him and his people. He was a subversive, a
prophetic subversive, and for empires that is worse than mere capital
crimes. As Walter Wink says: "It is impossible to discover in the Gospels
an 'adequate' cause for Jesus' execution. Every such attempt has
presupposed that he must have done something punishable by death. But he
did not. That is the whole point. He was innocent and yet executed. But
the [imperial] Powers did not err. He had rejected their spirituality; he
had shaken the invisible foundations by a series of provocative acts. He
was therefore a living terror to the order of things. He had to be

The tenth chapter of Mark's Gospel shows Jesus at his most subversive.
The whole passage reeks of empire-abuse, the disintegration of community,
the persecution of women, of children, and the poor. Scripture cannot be
read by just staring at the words. Text gets meaning in context and the
context of Jesus' discourse here is the crushing weight of Roman imperial
tyranny. Political empires are never just boots on the ground. They are
counter-cultural intrusions into the hearts and spirits and social
constructions of the subject people. As Richard Horsley puts it, "Jesus
opposed the Roma imperial order and its effects on subject peoples...."
His whole mission was to "communities disintegrating under the impact of
imperial order."

Jesus' solution was a return to the Mosaic covenant with its strong
emphasis on economic justice. His conviction was that the Power that
moved the stars was returning to remake society, that the reign of Caesar
was going to yield to the Reign of God. This was the hope he purveyed,
and there is nothing more subversive—or threatening to empire—than
hope. (Modern feminism was excoriated by the patriarchy precisely because
it gave hope to the hopeless and opened doors that patriarchal
controllers thought they had copper-fastened. So too for other liberation

Back to the wild, upending words of Jesus in Mark 10.7 Jesus seems to
have been out to subvert everything that he saw the Roman Empire
corrupting. He recognized that empire poisons seep even into the most
intimate relationships of life. He started with, of all things, divorce
and marriage. Divorce, never pleasant in any time, was brutal in Jesus'
time. It devastated wives who could be "put away" with a mere
"certificate of dismissal," and divorce and remarriage was used freely by
the wealthy in their schemes to monopolize the land. Like all prophets,
Jesus was alert to the scent of exploitation in economics and in
politics. (Religion, politics, economics were only distinguished and
separated as concepts in modern times. In Jesus' time they were of a
piece and he was in the thick of it. Economics and politics were his
religious business.)

Jesus turned next to children, not in the sentimentalized sense of modern
affluent "childhood." In Jesus' Palestine, "as in most traditional
societies, children were, in effect, the persons with the lowest status
in the village community." They were the ultimate symbol of the weak and
the vulnerable. Saying the Kingdom of God "belonged" to such as them was
a radical status-challenge, elevating the rejects and downsizing the high
and the mighty.

Jesus then went on to tackle greed—the natural enemy of justice—saying
with peasant's irony that wealth and its securities harden the heart,
making it easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to get
those basking in unearned or purloined privilege to unite to the
justice-passions of Jesus' God. Empire builders cannot indulge in
compassion, much less justice. They cannot ever confess to this, and so
imperial intentions always wear a greed-covering mask.

The Masks of Empire

Empire speak: "Wives, be subject to your husbands" as if they were
divine, says Paul the Apostle. He spells it out: "So must women be
[subject] to their husbands in everything." Everything! That is hard
news. Better put a mask on it. Empire Mask: "Husbands, love your wives,"
small consolation for wives who have just been defined as slaves.
(Ephesians 5:22-25)

Nations building empires for their own economic and political advantage
must always wear a mask, always put a noble face on their rapacity,
whether it be: "to exercise une mission civilatrice," to assume in
Kipling's phrase "the white man's burden," "to make the world safe for
democracy," " to promote freedom," "to promote the revolution of the
proletariat," "manifest destiny." Never the raw truth of exploitation:
always the mask.

Back to Jesus: this radical rabbi next honed in on domination and
hierarchy, the heart and soul of empire. Some of his followers (showing
the seductive power of empire) thought he was going to set up a
hierarchical kingdom patterned on Rome and they were politicking for
better postings. They were slapped down in a hurry. Scripture scholars
see sarcasm and a terrible lack of reverence—even scorn—for Roman
authority in Jesus' reference to the "seeming or so-called rulers" of
Rome, the hoi docountes archein. These people lord it over their
subjects, he said, and "their great men make them feel the weight of
authority." Those in authority should not pattern themselves on the Roman
model of exploitative and over-privileged overlords, but on servants and
slaves. But, to empire-ists, this is heresy! Empire lives on enslavement.
The pinnacle of the pyramid cannot survive without the slave base. Jesus,
however, was pioneering a stunning reversal: the substitution of service for
dominance, of community for exploitation, of a social order without a
slave underpinning-an ideal no nation has even to this day fully

Small wonder hearers of this message about a slaveless world thought the
speakers drunk. (As an Irishman I may be permitted to note that Peter
offered a surprisingly weak defense: "These men are not drunk, as you
imagine; for it is only nine in the morning." (Acts 2:15) He didn't
pretend that they were total abstainers.) But the shocking message from
Jesus was, as Peter pointed out, an old and neglected one, going back to
the very origins of Israel. The powerful poets of Genesis wrote not of a
Paradise that once was—not of a Golden Age past—they sang of a Golden age
possible, not a back then, but a could be. Life on this earth could be a
Paradise, marked by harmony and by just, poverty-destroying modes of
sharing. The Bible's opening vision of what life in this privileged
corner of the universe could be has haunted the ages. We could be in
Paradise, but we're not. We're in exile with Adam. We could be clothed in
the wonder of peace, but we're not. We're naked, like Adam, and exiled
from our true possibilities, and yet the scent of Paradise still teases
our noses.

Professor Laurie Zoloth says that "Adamic exile" is a symbol of the
condition of all of humankind. With poetic strength, she puts it this
way: "Adamic exile is a nakedness beyond naming, a stripping of all but
the scent of Paradise, carried on the animal skins of Adam and Eve, later
in the skins of Esau that Jacob steals, later on the coat of Joseph, a
scent that will reemerge again and a hint of the infinite
possibilities of a world healed." Knowing that we could be more, having
been eloquently called to be more in our scriptures, we are stubbornly
mired in less. Yet we are uneasy exiles. We have sniffed the
possibilities, and so we stumble on, "bearers of the scent of Paradise
and lovers of the pleasure of the desert, easily seduced by idols, losing
track of the dangerous column of Fire in the night." Zoloth suggests
that the purpose of the 40 year trek of the Israelites in the scorching
desert was "to burn out the slave in the bone."

The servility syndrome—sadly—is not yet burned out of the human bone.
Slaves, not yet morally mature enough to be angry are easily seduced into
voting against their own interests or into not voting at all. The
American Catholic bishops called the United States military budget
spending ten thousand dollars a second on kill power "a war against the
poor,"and no indignation rises from the victims of this crime.

Servility, the Underwriter of Empire

Mark's chapter 10 ends with a man who "recovered his sight," but,
actually, the whole chapter is concerned with curing blindness, the
blindness that keeps victims compliantly and passively in place, whether
they be soldiers led to their death by official lies, or whether they be
citizens, women, poor nations, sexual minorities, religious clergy and
laity, or any others subjected to the many and tangled forms of empire.
Physical and active resistance to superior power is usually futile, but
attitudinal change in the victims that slowly pries loose the iron grip
of control is the first stratagem of successful subversion. Empires
require unquestioning servility. Slaves comply. The slave mentality
leeches down into our innards. Attitudinal change is crucially needed and
was actually the first keynoting mandate out of Jesus' mouth as he began
his mission. Metanoiete, (Mark 1:15), often lamely translated "repent,"
calls for a total flipping of the mind-set that is in us. "Every ravine"
in our minds " must be filled in and "every mountain and hill leveled."
And the purpose of this restructuring, so that "all mankind shall see..."
(Luke 3:5) Sight and insight cure enslaved minds, cleaning out their
cataracts, and filling them with the clarifying elixir of possibility.
This is the only thing that will "prepare a way for the Lord, clear a
straight path for him." (Luke 3:4)

Just by looking at Jesus' discourse in Mark it is clear why he did not
die in his bed at a ripe old age. This was dangerous stuff he was
talking, a revamping of the "world's" view of rule and order and control.
Empires crucify those who would lift the scales from the eyes of victims
and stir them to action. And so they did.

The biblical prophets were impatient with our stupid refusal to see.
"This people's wits are dulled, their ears are deafened and their eyes
blinded, so that they cannot see with their eyes nor listen with their
ears, nor understand with their wits, so that they may turn and be
healed." (Isa. 6:10) Peace through justice, the biblical formula, is not
nuclear physics. (Isa. 32:17) Any fool should be able to see it. Peace is
quite simply "the outcome of a just social order." No wonder Jesus
wept. He looked at that city, symbol of us all, and said, "If only you
knew the things that make for your peace, but you don't." And he broke
down sobbing. (Luke 19:41-42)

Let us update that text. The newly forming United States tellingly
fancied itself "the new Rome." Let us have Jesus say to the Roman
Empire of today, "the last remaining superpower:" "America, America, if
only you knew the things that make for your peace, if only you could see
that the answer is not in your weaponry or your economic muscle. If only
I could, like a mother hen, wrap my wings around you, wings of justice
and peace and compassion, if you could use your great talent and wealth
to work to end world hunger, world thirst, world illiteracy, no one would
hate you, you would know Shalom." That's the promise of Isaiah 32:17.
Then you could burn almost all your chariots in a holy fire and you would
be secure. But no. And Jesus weeps.

The Art of Servility Maintenance

Empire counts on servility and has divers ways of nurturing it. The Roman
Empire at its expansive peak, could not maintain law and order only by
violence and the threat of violence. Rome at its peak occupied everything
from the Middle East to England. They did not have enough soldiers to
occupy all that land and they didn't need to. Rome deployed no troops at
all in the "civilized" areas of Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor. Their
formula for control was simple. It involved three things: cult, bread,
and circus. The bread and circus keep the people passive, but it is cult
that locks the chains.

In Rome, it was the cult of the emperor. As Richard Horseley writes:
"Statues of the emperor were erected beside those of the traditional gods
in many of their temples. Shrines to the emperor were placed at
intermediate points between the temples in city centers, and temples were
erected to Augustus at the most prominent points in those city centers.
...The presence of the emperor thus came to pervade public space in the
cities of the empire."

Add to that the importation of massive amounts of grain suctioned out of
the less fortunate parts of the empire and given to the peoples in Italy
and the major urban centers. Add some games and festivals for distraction
and voila!, a people pacified and exploitable. Thus do empires win their
temporary success...and their success is always temporary. The worm

How is this formula playing out in the American empire? Arnold Toynbee
that it might well be that "nationalism is 90 percent of the religion of
90 percent of the people of the Western World and of the rest of the
World as well." He traces out how the human race moved from nature
worship to state worship as communities became more organized and more
impressive 5000 years ago. Nature gods suddenly became state gods as we
began to worship the power that came with collectivizing as simple
Neolithic villages gave way to such as the towering Sumerian city-state.
Nature worship was humanity's first religion. There were wind and water
and sun gods and olive godesses as well. But as we formed the first
city-states, these became moreimpressive than nature itself and we
transferred our worship there. Suddenly Enlil the iwndo-god becomes the
deifcation of Nippur; Nannna the moon-god is the deification of Ur;
Athena the olive-goddess is now the deity which is athens just as the
water-god Poseidon becomes the deification of the state ofCorinth. In
Toynbee's words: "The local communities have become divinities, and these
divinities that stand for collective human power have become paramount
over the divinities that stand for natural forces. The injection of this
amount of religious devotion into nationalism has turned nationalism into
a religion, and this a fanatical one."

Back to the United States which saw itself from the start as both "the
new Zion" and "the new Rome" religious cultic nationalism,
nation-worshiping patriotism is fully ablaze. Here the flag is as sacred
as the shrines to Augustus. Burning that flag would be a "desecration"
comparable to trashing a statue of Augustus or an effigies of Caesar, or
the burning of the Qu'ran or the Catholic Eucharist. This symbolic
sacralization of power befogs the optic nerve of citizens and stifles the
obligation of citizens to be the attentive consciences of their nation.
This gives undue immunities to the powerful few that we call government.
"The worst of madmen is saint gone mad,' said the poet Alexander Pope.
And the worst of "saints" is a nation that feels itself divinely
appointed to remake the world in its image.

Empire is a religious feat. Gott Mit Uns on the buckles of Hitler's
soldiers, Manifest Destiny as the writ for genocide and imperial plunder.
As Walter Wink says: "Evil never feels safe unless it wears the mask of
divinity." At the end of the 19th century, Senator Albert Beveridge
claimed without fear of contradiction that God had "marked" the American
people to lead in "the redemption of the world." President Woodrow Wilson
said that upon America "there rests nothing by the pure light of the
justice of God," a light he said which first dawned with "the Christian
Era."18 (Christianity bears no slight guilt in the idolatries that infuse
American patriotism.) George W. Bush joins the pious chorus even while
waging undeclared war: "Our nation is the greatest force for good in
history."(Crawford, Texas, August 31, 2002)

So the American Empire does not lack for the binding power of cult, the
first of the cult-bread-circus trio. Given the wealth that accumulates at
the imperial homeland, bread and circus arrive in quantity. . (The modern
American equivalents would be pizza, consumerism and football.) Thus is
achieved the passive base and detachment from politics that empire

But this induced passivity is sick. It's an illness, one that could be
called ICS: Imperial Comfort Syndrome. When you are resting on a bed of
unearned privileges as the affluent elite in the United States are, we
become very comfortable. But it is not a comfort born of health. Imperial
Comfort Syndrome does not result in fever or in cold chills. It's
symptoms are tepidity and a dull, crippling kind of depression. This
shows up in elections where 6O% of eligible American voters didn't even
show up. It shows up in an electorate that is contentedly ignorant of
what political and corporate power-holders re doing tl them and to the
world. All this is ICS at work.

Interestingly, Scripture saw the syndrome, in chapter 3 of Revelations, a
book that was obsessed with the evils of empire. The author puts these
biting words into the mouth of God. "I know all your ways. You are
neither hot nor cold. How I wish you were either hot or cold. But because
you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my
mouth... Hear, you who have ears to hear, what the Spirit says to the

The same ingredients-especially the divine mandate to subject-are found
in other forms of empire. The divine right of men to rule women, the
subjection of people of color to whites, the dominance of rich over poor,
of heterosexuals over homosexuals, and more.

This book is not written as a wail of despair. It is written in the
conviction that in those flawed but powerful classics that we call "the
world religions," there are renewable moral energies that can heal a
dangerously sick humanity, a humanity that might have been better called
homo insipiens. Sapientia is the cure for that. The focus will be on the
wise bursts of light that came out of the Jewish and Christian moral
traditions, though frequent reference will be made to helpful moral
breakthroughs achieved in other religious traditions.

There is no one true religions but all those that classify as classics
have practical visions of what life on this planet could be. Some say the
biblical religion hasn't really failed; it just hasn't really been tried.
That is a bit too much. It has been tried and has helped history turn
some salubrious corners. It has had victories, some enduring, many lost.
To discover or recover the energies of the biblical tradition and apply
them to a world in grim condition is the work of the following pages of
this book.

Send this page to a friend! (click here)