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Creation or Corruption: The Ends of Desire in the Apocalypse and the Didache

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J. David Franks, Ph.D

Chairman of the Board for Massachusetts Citizens for Life

Bioethics in Law & Culture

Winter 2019     vol. 2  issue  1

To be present: to be there for the other, as well as to be a gift for the other. This is what grace means.


To be present depends on never forgetting the past in need of future redemption. It requires remembering the suffering that constitutes history by serving a future that would vindicate the victims.


Some recent instances of a strange phenomenon, Christian ministers defending abortion, can be found on A Catholic permanent deacon in Kentucky told YouTube viewers: “Now Jesus didn’t preach against abortion at all.” In opposing the Ohio heartbeat bill, which was recently vetoed by the governor, a United Church of Christ minister said, “I will not stand here idly and let them strip away the rights of women and others in our state to make the right decisions for them and their families.”


The deacon wants prooftexts. The UCC minister speaks of “families” without speaking of the reason for families: to provide a safe place for children.


Alpha and Omega under the Sign of the Cross

How did we get to a place in which Christians could think following the slaughtered Lamb compatible with slaughtering the most powerless children?


Because we have all tended to try to fit Christ into our kingdoms, rather than being stretched to fit into His. Because the temporality of the Kingdom preached by Jesus has been displaced in the bourgeois Christian soul. We are no longer present in the world as present to God’s infinitely gracious presence to us—thereby making us present to the world, gracious and visible presents with which God wishes to wake humanity and open the kindliness inscaped in everything He has created. We have lost the timeliness of Christian discipleship: drawing the past into a future of total reconciliation by our presence right here, right now.


But primal Christianity was otherwise than its current bourgeois mode. If we let the unconquerable advent expectation of early Christianity overtake us, in which everyone and everything appears afresh like Christmas dawn, the impossibility of elective abortion would become obvious, with or without explicit prooftexts. In this essay, we will turn to the Book of Revelation and the Didache as exemplars of early Christian experience, for which creation and redemption manifest invisible wisdom and love and show the necessity of resisting anything that would destroy or corrupt the graciousness of presence. The leitmotif we will trace are variants of the Greek word phtheirō, which means to destroy, ruin, corrupt, pollute, violate. To provide systematic-theological context for this Scriptural/patristic exploration, we will have recourse to the theology of Johann Baptist Metz, who incisively explicates the apocalyptic horizon operative in those late first-century works. But, first, let us round off our originary philosophical and theological meditation on divine presence and how it structures the human experience of time by bringing into consideration a common scholarly misconception about the earliest church.


Imminent Expectation of the Parousia

The coming of the Promised One, the Messiah Who was crucified and resurrected, restructured the experience of time for early Christians. Bible scholars have tended to miss the point of this restructuring in claiming that the first Christians (including Jesus!) mistakenly thought that the return of the Messiah-King would happen within a few years of the Resurrection.


The scholars have misunderstood, indeed Christians in general have tended to lose over the centuries, the urgency of Christian existence: to be alive to, and in, the presence of God. To live in the coming of the Christ, which has never ceased. To be present to the Present One, the One given to be light for us all in a world of dark powers and dominations.


Everything created is a gift. Nature, with its intelligible patterns and relations, is a mode of God’s gracious presence. To consummate the gift, which requires rescuing the gift from the corruption of selfishness, the Creator God gives us grace upon grace: the Creator sends a Redeemer to restore and augment the original gift, intimacy with God—and, within that divine-human communion, to enable among created persons intimacy with one another.


The revelation of God as Trinity means that before, behind, above all that is visible there is a pulsing cascade of wisdom and love so limitless as to be invisible. Creation begins to make that wisdom and love visible; Jesus makes the invisible fully visible. Jesus reveals the wisdom and love that constitutes every experience we have of authentic presence, those moments when we are spending time with a friend or child (in joy or pain) and love fills us, a love beyond all traceable cause or human proportion—or when we walk through the woods and the sunlight deepens and velvets the green of the moss and our hearts leap in worship, drawing strength to do the next hard thing to be a blessing to neighbor and world.


To be present: to God; to neighbor; to the gift of all things, inspiring gratitude and enabling us to be gifts in turn.


Christian existence has no other authentic mode than the Eucharistic. And the Eucharistic is essentially apocalyptic.


Apocalyptic Experience

“Apocalypse” means unveiling or revelation. The word tends to conjure images of fire and war (from Apocalypse Now to dispensationalist fantasies of the Rapture and Armageddon). Again, that misunderstanding follows upon a loss of the primal Christian experience: to expect, and yearn for, the Second Coming of the crucified and risen King because one lives in the presence of the Trinitarian mystery, the invisible infinity of wisdom and love. This way of living “imminent expectation of the end” is not delusional. The radical Christian, at every moment, has every moment as a function of the imminence and eminence of divine wisdom and love. Christians have been reoriented by a different set of constellations than those who live each moment as just another brick in the wall.


The great Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz, initiator of “political theology,” one of the liveliest fields of current theological work, seeks to retrieve the primal Christian experience of time.[1] He notes how Christians in the comfortable West experience time no differently from non-Christians: we exist in an evolutionistic continuum in which moment simply follows moment, and in which progress is inevitable. We leave the past behind, and we are not present. All that matters is the progressive course of our projects.


Above all, this timeless and history-less progressivist existence requires the suppression of dangerous memories. To be worldly, to serve Mammon, means, above all, to give pride of place to success. To be successful requires having sufficient worldly power, the power “to make things happen.” To have such power, we must at least accommodate the “powers that be.” And those powers get where they are by dominating the less powerful—and covering up the crime. To be successful in the world, we have to go along with that cover-up, that forgetting. In Judith Herman’s essential contribution to the analysis of self and society, Trauma and Recovery, she notes: “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, remembering.”[2] To explode the cover-up, to remember the trauma, is a mortal danger: it threatens the regnant dominance hierarchy, and it threatens the one bearing faithful witness to the truth with the prospect of total worldly failure.


Metz places the memory of suffering, the memory of the victims (we remember the victim in whom all victims are recapitulated), at the center of his work. We cannot be present in the world in an authentically Christian way unless we are in some real sense present to the suffering of each human victim. If we “pray for the dead,” this cannot be as a “pious” exercise about purgatory that forgets the concrete histories of suffering afoot in the world. We must pray for the dead, be present to them, in a way that changes the future in this world. The Messiah comes to perform the work of justification, and the first who must be vindicated are the victims. By remembering the dead, Metz recaptures the authentic apocalyptic sensibility of the earliest Christians:


Christianity does not introduce God into the struggle for the future after the fact, as a sort of ‘God of the gaps.’ Rather, it tries to make the memory of the crucified Lord, this particular memoria passionis, present as a dangerous memory within the social systems of technological civilization. …[Dangerous memories] are memories in which earlier experiences flare up and unleash new dangerous insights for the present. For brief moments they illuminate, harshly and piercingly, the problematic character of things we made our peace with a long time ago and the banality of what we take to be ‘realism.’ They break through the canon of the ruling plausibility structures and take on a virtually subversive character. Memories of this sort are like dangerous and incalculable visitations from the past. They are memories that one has to take into account, memories that have a future content, so to speak. It is no accident that the destruction of memory is a typical measure taken by totalitarian governments. People’s subjugation begins when their memories are taken away. Every colonization takes its principle here. And every resistance to oppression is nourished by the subversive power of remembered suffering.[3]


Metz wants to “struggle for lost time,” to reclaim the experience of time as a tensed now brimming with the past and a future that would vindicate the past. He notes how “timeless” our routines are. Without the history of suffering, there is no worthwhile future. Without hope for the redemption of those who have gone under (“hope as imminent expectation”), we proceed like zombies. Bourgeois desire, desire under the regime of radical consumerism and technocratic libido dominandi, forgets the victims in its march towards a thoroughly administered totality.


Metz observes:


People say these days that there is a cult of the possible: Anything is possible. True; but there is also a new cult of fate: anything can be surpassed. The ‘will to the possible’ is undermined by resignation. The two belong together like two sides of the same coin: the cult of human beings’ omnipotent management of their destiny on the one hand, and, on the other, the cult of apathy and of the apolitical life (brought to us one day by a perfected technocracy). The understanding of reality that guides the scientific-technological domination of nature, and from which the cult of the possible draws its reserves, is shaped by a particular image of time: an image of time as an empty continuum, expanding evolutionarily into infinitude, mercilessly encompassing everything. This empty continuum casts out every substantive expectation and so engenders that fatalism that is eating away at the souls of modern men and women. Thus they have already given up, even before society has trained them in this resignation under the slogan of ‘pragmatic rationality.’[4]


What is the point of our lives? Of our careers? What gives meaning to our choices?


That hope requires remembering histories of suffering is only an apparent paradox. If power, its agents, and its ideological mystifications[5] succeed in making their might look right, then nothing new is possible: only the sub-creations of narcissism, apparent novelty dressing up the numbing sameness of private fantasy-worlds.[6] Freedom and human possibility live from responsibility to reality, in all its incalculable joy and loss. For mothers and fathers to dispose of inconvenient children is an act of despair, capitulation to an overwhelming system of power, a “choice” that does not feel like a choice—a “choice” made when we are out of time.


Abortion and Bourgeois Hopelessness

How does a Christian come to misunderstand that the slaughtered Lamb preaches by His very sacrifice against the killing of the innocent and powerless? How could a Christian think that any kind of “life” can be built on a choice to kill? I suggest the answer is the ‘bourgeoisification’ of Christianity diagnosed by Metz: an experience of the world drained of messianic expectation, filled instead with going-along-to-get-along.[7] Without apocalyptic hope, the horizon of infinite wisdom and love is lost to us. Our vision is contracted to the scope of human success and the possibilities a consumerist, technocratic, and oligarchic regime proclaims to be sensible.


This contraction kills the human spirit, and has vitiated the great promise of modernity. T. S. Eliot describes our zombiness perfectly in The Waste Land:


Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.


Eliot presents an image of pedestrian commuter traffic in the financial district of London. How much of our daily round serves the empire of wealth and a desperate desire for a lifestyle of ease? Is the course of our lives to be tamed into a career of worldly routine bending always back upon itself? Birth, school, job, retirement, death; morning, work, empty evening, bed. These circuits can bear an infinite energy, if their dynamism is that of love. But, otherwise, what is the point?


Trapped in the worldly circuit, our spirits are killed. We lose sight of the potencies of the human soul. And in our increasing meanness, we are tempted to smother grandeur wherever it arises, to stomp on possibility whenever it appears, to control and dispose of what threatens to exceed our power to manage. Women and children are always struck first.


The first evangelists, in prophetic mode, held up Jesus as liberation from this contraction of human possibility. The plan of creation was always something of breathtaking sweep: “Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms, just as He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be for us holy and blameless before Him.”[8]


Following the Slaughtered Lamb

The Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse of John, makes no compromise with the systems of worldly power. The book that closes the Christian canon belongs to a genre, apocalyptic, that is heir to all the streams constituting the Scriptures, especially the Wisdom literature and prophecy.[9] Almost certainly composed in the 90s, when Christianity was still vying with nascent rabbinic Judaism for the mantle of true Israel in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, the Book of Revelation presents a marginal but growing religious community tempted to compromise with the imperial might of Rome due to the incessant pressure to go-along-to-get-along—at times due to local imperial persecution (sometimes sparked by delations by their erstwhile co-religionists) but more often because everyday life in the Roman Empire meant accepting the idolatries of power if one wanted to engage fully in the most basic rhythms of commerce. The pagan cult, including worship of the Emperor and the goddess Roma, intruded itself everywhere in the marketplace. Cultic sacrifice would have left little untouched in the agora (including speech and entertainment), surrounded as it was by pagan religious insignia and temples. The public square, and its rhythms, were literally determined by the ever-pressing demands to worship the powers and dominations of this world.


To conscientiously resist the processes of worldly success meant ipso facto to be marginalized, to fare less well, to be less successful, to have less comfortable lifestyles, to not be in control of one’s life. And, indeed, it sometimes meant direct persecution and death. To confirm the stance of faith in the world (to seek one’s “daily bread” from above, and not from worldly cleverness), John receives the visions that constitute the close of Scripture. Not a successful career in the world, but rather a life of following the slaughtered Lamb so as to prepare for the coming of a New City and Kingdom from the invisible court of heaven: this is what life in time meant for the earliest Christians.


The power games and power plays of the world are visible. The greater power of divine creative wisdom and love is invisible. The Apocalypse makes that hidden mystery visible so that the Christian might not lose heart, though being faithful means being a loser and an idiot in worldly terms.[10]


The Spirit whisks John into the heavenly throne room in chapter 4, where an awesome festival-liturgy of praise meets his eyes and ears. John sees the One sitting on the throne with a scroll sealed with seven seals. This is the scroll of world history, with all its ever-greater horror somehow always permeated by the ever-greater love of the Creator. Book within book, containing and being contained (like the wheels within wheels of Ezekiel’s vision), this scroll provides the contents of the Book of Revelation by being the very plan of loving goodness of God the Father somehow unfolding as time and bloody history. But who can possibly unseal the secrets of slaughter-bench history, with all its noise and darkness?


No one could be found to open the scroll: in heaven, on earth, under the earth. No one could reveal the meaning of history. And John weeps, “because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.” But one of the worshiping elders reassures John, “Do not weep. Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered, to open the scroll and its seven seals.”[11]


One of the pivotal moments of the Apocalypse occurs here, more important than the content of the scroll itself. We are ready to see a Lion. But who is the only one in heaven, on earth, or under the earth worthy to open the book of history?: “And I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living things and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.”[12] Not by overpowering like a lion, but by undergoing all things as a love-sacrifice: only in this way could history be made intelligible.


This is the Christian way. If there are difficulties in life, we must be prepared to suffer rather than be the inflictor of suffering.[13] We must not solve our problems by scapegoating someone who is even weaker than we are. Essential to human responsibility is making the preferential option for the more powerless. We must always keep faith with Metz’s memory of the victims, which can be seen in the breaking of the fifth seal: “And when He opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of the ones slain because of the Word of God and because of the witness they bore. And they cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Master, the Holy One and True, how long will it be before You judge and avenge our blood on those dwelling on the earth?’”[14]


These are the victims of injustice, and remembering them must help constitute our experience of time if we are to be faithful and true followers of the slaughtered Lamb. Those who bear faithful witness to the Victim will be killed by the world, as we see in the chapter 11, but by that witness, the world comes to see the gracious goodness of God, which shakes this world to its foundations and disrupts its power plays—but only for the sake of rescuing us all from economies of selfish control.


After the seventh trumpet is blown, “there were loud voices in heaven saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He will reign into the ages of the ages. Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing, ‘We give you thanks [eucharistoumen], Lord God, the Almighty, the One Who is and Who was, because You have taken Your great power and begun to reign. The nations were wrathful, but then came your wrath and the time [kairos] for judging the dead and giving reward to Your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear Your Name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers [diaphtheirontas] of the earth.”[15]


The wrath of God simply reacts to the wrath of the worldly powers. If God destroys, it is only to destroy the destroying of His creation, those quiet and vulnerable and expectant gifts that calculating power crushes on its way to the things it desires. There is no setting to rights except under the sign of the slaughtered Lamb.


We see the word phtheirō again in chapter 19. A powerful critique of Roman commerce and luxury occurs in chapter 18, including a climactic indictment of slavery in verse 13 at the end of a long inventory beginning verse 11: “And the merchants of the earth cry and grieve over [Babylon], because no one buys their cargo anymore: cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen,…wine, olive oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and the bodies and souls of humans.” To think that this is anything other than a fundamental critique of slavery is to replay the deacon’s mistake cited above. It is one thing to prooftext; far more important is it to understand the whole thrust of the matter.


“Babylon” means Rome in particular, but does not mean Rome exclusively. “Babylon” signifies the power center wherever there is a power center, wherever we seek to raise a tower to heaven on our own terms. Babylon is figured as a prostitute to caricature the goddess Roma: “In her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all [pantōn] who have been slain on the earth.”[16]


Chapter 19 begins with communal praise to God for having vindicated the victims: “Alleluia, the salvation and glory and power of our God, because true and just are His judgments, because He judged the great prostitute [pornēn] who was corrupting [ephtheiren] the earth with her prostitution [porneia]. And He vindicated against her the blood of His servants.”[17]


The great uncleanness for primal Christianity are not sexual foibles: the great uncleanness is to obscure the wisdom of creation and to destroy the loving trajectory of that creation. To play the power games of the world is to commit idolatry. Going-along-to-get-along is prostitution. The great and powerful men (and women) in society, and we who dally with them, are the prostitutes. When we follow power rather than wisdom and love, we prostitute ourselves and corrupt the present, the waiting and defenseless gifts which ceaselessly communicate the gracious goodness of God. And we dishonor the memory of the victims. Keeping faith with victims means pressing on the world system, resisting it in the direction of a Kingdom of total reconciliation.


The Two Ways: Life or Death

We can follow the Lamb, or we can follow the great dragon of power. Those are the two ways, and here again we see how apocalyptic is heir to all the streams of Scripture. At the core of the Wisdom literature, indeed at the head of the Psalms, is the two-ways tradition. The constellation of prophecy, wisdom, and apocalypse reappears, with some varied emphases, in a monument of early Christian literature probably redacted almost contemporaneously with the Book of Revelation: the Didache.[18] 


The atmosphere of imminent expectation for the Messiah’s reappearance still obtains. Desire for the return of the King fills the Eucharistic assembly; it fills the people so thoroughly that the rising of new prophets is a common occurrence. They live always under the electricity of heaven; thus illuminated, they are not as tempted to descend back to the hopeless circuits of worldly power games.


The Didache begins with moral instruction for those being prepared for baptism, framed in the two-ways tradition: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways.”


It goes on to unfold the way of life, at first as a gloss on the Sermon on the Mount:


First, you shall love God, who made you. Second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself; but whatever you do not wish to happen to you, do not do to another. The teaching of these words is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what credit is it if you love those who love you? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? But you must love those who hate you, and you will not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and bodily cravings. If someone gives you a blow on your right check, turn to him the other as well and you will be perfect.[19]


Love stands at the beginning of life. Indeed, it is the beginning and the end: the whole reason to live is to expand in love, even unto universal reconciliation. The Christian bears the electricity of heaven to short-circuit the status games and rivalries of worldly existence. (It is to be noted that “fleshly and bodily cravings” is a reference to sensibilities and desires shaped by mundane resentments and dominance hierarchies.)


A few lines later, we read, “Give to everyone who asks you, and do not demand it back, for the Father wants something from his own gifts to be given to everyone. Blessed is the one who gives according to the command, for such a person is innocent.”[20] Quite explicitly, the Christian must confront the economy of scarcity and quid pro quo with the saving economy of grace, the regime of God the Father’s abounding goodness, in which we must stand by faith.


All of that falls under the “first commandment of the way of life.” The “second commandment” makes some implications of the Decalogue clear:


The second commandment of the teaching is: You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not corrupt children [ou paidophthorēseis]; you shall not be sexually immoral [ou porneuseis]; you shall not steal; you shall not practice magic; you shall not engage in sorcery  [ou pharmakeuseis]; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide [ou phoneuseis teknon en phthora oude gennēthen apokteneis]. You shall not covet your neighbor’s possessions; you shall not speak evil; you shall not hold a grudge. You shall not be double-minded or double-tongued, for the double tongue is a deadly snare. Your word must not be false or meaningless, but confirmed by action. You shall not be greedy or avaricious, or a hypocrite or malicious or arrogant. You shall not hatch evil plots against your neighbor. You shall not hate any one; instead you shall reprove some, and pray for some, and some you shall love more than your own life. (Again, note that love continues to run through and structure the whole system of Christian ethics.)


Variants of phtheiro appear twice in this passage. The first is a form of paidophthoria, a neologism coined by Christians to grapple with a burning ethical concern: no child should ever be used sexually.[21] This also, as a logical entailment, commits Christians to the abolition of slavery, for slavery is inseparable from sex trafficking and the sexual abuse of women and children.[22]


The second variant of phtheirō is the word for abortion. The translation, more literally, is, “You shall not kill a child by abortion [phthora].[23]


The Didache reinforces the overall point of this essay in its description of the way of death: “It is the way of persecutors of good people, of those who hate truth, love a lie, do not know the reward of righteousness, do not adhere to what is good or to righteous judgment, who are vigilant not for what is good but for what is evil, from whom gentleness and patience are far removed, who love worthless things, pursue a reward, have no mercy for the poor, do not work on behalf  of the oppressed, do not know the one who made them, are murderers of children [phoneis teknōn], corrupters of God’s creation [phthoreis plasmatos theou], who turn away from someone in need, who oppress the afflicted, are advocates of the wealthy, lawless judges of the poor, utterly sinful. May you be delivered, children, from all these things!”[24]


The prohibition of abortion belongs to an organic vision of love, an apocalyptic sensibility that we are here to take care of our fellow-humans, guard the weak things, steward the wisdom of creation. We are to be prophetic witnesses against the way of the world and agents of limitless love.


There is another important place that “corruption” appears in the Didache—in the concluding apocalyptic section: “For in the last days the false prophets and corrupters [phthoreis] will abound, and the sheep will be turned into wolves, and love will be turned into hate.”[25] Again, there is the closed circuit of predation—or the open heaven of love.


Conclusion: May Grace Come

One does not need an explicit Scriptural condemnation of abortion to know where a Christian must stand on the matter[26]: the Christian stance is that of the slaughtered Lamb. The Christian is one who would rather sacrifice him or herself rather than destroy or corrupt the gifts of God. This is the stance of one who lives always in the presence of the Lord.


Christianity is how the invisible becomes consummately visible. True love is invisible (because it is limitless), but it wants to press into the flesh. Creation begins the process of mediating the invisible into visibility. Great art, pursuit of questions in wonder, selfless acts of love continue the process of unveiling. To serve the incarnating of divine wisdom and love, we must desire to become ever more faithful agents of its consummation. The Christian would be an icon of the invisible Kingdom of love.


The invisible brims with life. If you are privileged to catch a glimpse of a person acting for the sake of another, without regard for private utility, you see something transcending the processing-capacity of capital or the lust to dominate and control. What has become visible for you is something from incalculable depths, from a wisdom and a love that have taken a stand above the empire of the self. It’s Christmas, and grace has shown its face.


Of course, the Christian often fails to be an icon of love. Moralism/legalism/pharisaism itself corrupts the fiery substance of Christianity. It kills. But so does going-along-to-get-along. Accommodation to narcissistic power, within or without: this kills.


Hence the knife’s edge that the human who has been awakened, been enlightened, must walk: to augment life in every instance. To witness to the truth in love though it be inconvenient: whether against the world, or against religious professionals.


With abortion, that means speaking clearly, as we can (certainly through law), the truth that no child should ever be killed so that other lives (those of the child’s mother, father, grandparents) might proceed more easily. But as this is a sexed reality, as only the bearer of the XX chromosome undertakes the great burden and risk of gestation, we pro-lifers should never dare speak this truth without acknowledging how the libido dominandi in its deformed masculine mode continues to stack the deck against women.


And we pro-lifers should never dare kill the spirit of the post-abortive mother who does not know what to do with where society has abandoned her. We are there, in every instance, to augment life.


The apocalypse of love is our vocation at every moment, and it is the reality fueling our imminent expectation: we live the present by a mercy we know we have not earned. The miracle of grace never ceases. To be a ceaseless miracle to our neighbor and our enemy is our mandate: to be present to God and to be present to every other, until all that thwarts universal intimacy gives way.


What is there but to live out the experience of the Didache post-Eucharist thanksgiving prayer?: “May grace come, and may this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. If anyone is holy, let him come; if anyone is not, let him repent. Maranatha! Amen.”[27]


The true pro-lifer expects the advent of grace at every moment, lives graciously and urgently, aflame with a Christmas desire at once Eucharistic and apocalyptic.

J. David Franks received his Ph.D in systematic theology from Boston College, writing a dissertation on the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and political theology. He was a professor of sacred theology for almost a decade at St. John's Seminary in Boston, teaching across the range of  systematics and morals. There he co-founded the Theological Institute for the New Evangelization and its Catechetical Certificate program. An activist as well as an intellectual, David serves as Chairman of the Board for Massachusetts Citizens for Life and directs its Lincoln Forum for Human Dignity, which advances a liberal arts and high-cultured approach to reigniting civic conversation. David is also the doting father of six children.


[1] The term “political theology” had been employed by another German a few decades before, Carl Schmitt, who was the chief jurisprudential theorist for the Nazis. Needless to say, Metz puts the term to completely opposite use.

[2] Judith Herman, M.D., Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, with a new epilogue (New York: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 7-8. A future project to pursue would bring Herman’s crucial insights into conversation with Metz. The pro-lifer must meditate on trauma, must remember suffering: the trauma inflicted upon children and women, in particular, drives so much of the abortion dynamic. Then there is the trauma suffered by the mother who aborts. And then there is the ramification of such a traumatic mass throughout the body politic: abused children (cheated of the safety they were owed), battered women, dead babies. The pro-life movement must stand sentinel over all the voiceless pain: “To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins victim and witness in a common alliance. For the individual victim, this social context is created by relationships with friends, lovers, and family. For the larger society, the social context is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered” (Herman, p. 9).

[3] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. and ed. J. Matthew Ashley (New York: Herder & Herder, 2007), pp. 105-106.

[4] Metz, p. 157.

[5] This triad can be seen in the Book of Revelation as the dragon, the beast from the sea, and the beast from the earth in Rev 1.1-18: an anti-Trinity.

[6] Only a God can say, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21.5). Novelty/modernity must somehow draw from limitless wisdom and love to be real. If finite beings are the only creative source, then surprises must come to an end: a closed system is spiritually entropic. Possibility requires Otherness, something utterly transcendent, to which we can respond again and again, for freedom unfolds only within an infinite responsibility.

[7] See, for example, Metz, pp. 57-58: “Yet this universal claim in the Enlightenment’s concept of religion is deceptive. The so-called natural religion or religion of reason, which is allegedly valid for everyone, is as elitist as Enlightenment reason itself. In fact it only belongs to the new person of the Enlightenment, the bourgeois, as reason’s subject. This is why it is an extremely privatized religion, made to order for the domestic use of the propertied citizen. It is a religion of feeling and of interiority. It will never give rise to any danger, any resistance, or any protest when it comes to the ways that reality, meaning, and truth are defined in a bourgeois society of exchange and success. It hyperbolizes what is already valid anyway.” I think Metz generally too negative about the Enlightenment, but that the modern world is significantly the world of capital must be acknowledged.

[8]Eph 1.3-4. All the riches of the starry heights were to be secured for us by the sacrifice of the Son, somehow before the foundation of the universe. When Kant says that two things excite the mind with ever-increasing awe, the starry heavens above and the moral law within, he is replaying a basic pattern of primal Christianity.

[9] Much debate on the lineage of apocalyptic hinges on an either/or: does it derive from the Wisdom literature (the thesis of Gerhard von Rad, in particular) or the prophetic books. But one need only note how the most prominent example of apocalyptic in the Old Testament, found in the Book of Daniel, combines the two traditions. See Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 1982), p. 204. Rowland is indispensable on apocalyptic, though I think he somewhat downplays how key Daniel is in understanding the synthesis of Wisdom and prophecy constituting apocalyptic.

[10] This visibility in the Apocalypse is above all that of remarkable images. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar begins the fourth volume of his Theo-Drama with a treatment of the Book of Revelation, and, following Adrienne von Speyr, he emphasizes how it is a book of images: “what [John] sees is not a representation of successive historical events—or even of their archetypes—but a sequence of images that, though most closely related to reality, possesses its own intrinsic eidetic truth,” p. 15 of Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. IV, The Action, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994). If Balthasar is thereby too ahistorical in his reading, he nonetheless safeguards an important truth about grappling with the trauma of history: images are insuperable. Cf. Herman, p. 38: “Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative and context; rather, they are encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images.”

[11] Rev 5.4-5.

[12] Rev 5.6.

[13] Which is not to corrupt Christianity into codependence. It is no mercy to enable roaring lions in the world to continue their predations: no mercy to the predator, or to the prey. But the Christian must certainly never fall below the Platonic wisdom found in the Gorgias: “It is better to suffer injustice than to cause it.”

[14] Rev 6.10.

[15] Rev 11.15-18.

[16] That “all” is decisive to counter those who would want to contract the interpretation of the souls under the altar in heaven, revealed with the breaking of the fifth seal, as signifying only explicit Christians. The Apocalypse reveals the Victim in every victim.

[17] Rev 19.1-2.

[18] The Didache is a manual for Church instruction, the first catechism we have, classified in the most ancient group of patristic writings, the “Apostolic Fathers”—non-canonical writings presumed to overlap with the apostolic period. The Didache was regarded by some early Christians, including Clement of Alexandria, as inspired Scripture. Its rediscovery in 1873 was a significant breakthrough for the study of Christian origins.

[19] The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed., ed. and trans. Michael W. Holmes, after the earlier work of J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 345. As I will be using Holmes’s translation of the Didache, further references to the text will be to Holmes.

[20] Holmes, p. 347.

[21] See Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), p. 98: “A compound word, paidophthoria, ‘the violation of children,’ appears scattered throughout the earliest layers of Christian literature. It is utterly unattested before its appearance amid the literary debris of the primitive church. The word seems to be a deliberate transfiguration of pederasty, replacing eros, erotic love, with phthoria, violation, and thereby construing all sexual contact with the young as an act of corruption.” Earlier in this second chapter of his book, Harper provides the best discussion of porneia I have come across. His precision is important because a puritanical falsification of Christianity’s approach to physical intimacies corrupts the urgent moral vision of primal Christianity. Trying to decide where to draw the line, say, when teenagers or adults make out, as if that is anywhere envisaged in Scripture (not even close), we have lost sight of the crucial social-justice point of sexual ethics: the first rule has always to do with what is conducive to the welfare of children. Puritanical moralism saps credibility from the necessary witness Christians must bear to preserve children from any form of phthora: sexual abuse, compromising innocent imaginations (an absolute evil for pre-pubescent children), abortion, infanticide. It belongs to the core of Christianity to safeguard the vulnerable gift of children.

This is also what makes the episcopal phase of the Catholic abuse crisis such a screaming impossibility. It must all stop, though every clerical prerogative be erased. The hierarchical constitution of the Church must be preserved, but every power on earth must be checked and balanced.

[22] Peter Brown notes this in his The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 23.

[23] As noted by Michael J. Gorman in his Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Broadway, N.Y.: Paulist Press, 1982), p. 48, there may also be another reference to abortion in the passage: “Although the New Testament makes no specific reference to abortion, the association of the use of drugs (pharmakeia) with abortion in pagan and later Christian writings suggests that there may be an implicit reference to abortion in such texts as Galations 5:20 and Revelation 9:21, 18:23, 21:8, and 22:15, where words of the same group are used. …The word pharmakeia (and its cognates) can be a neutral, generic term for the use of drugs, but more often it has the negative connotation of drugs and potions supplied by a sorcerer or magician. It is also used to refer to poisons and mind-disturbing drugs. In Soranos’s Gynecology, it refers specifically to the use of one type of evil drug, the abortifacient.”

[24] Holmes, p. 353.

[25] Holmes, p. 369.

[26] The prophetic witness against idolatry always essentially included standing against child sacrifice: the logic of the Hebrew religion and of Christianity rejects any temptation to sacrifice children so that the community might flourish. Even in an age when the horrors of Carthage were receding, a world less enamored of child sacrifice, still in the Roman Empire the exposure of children was common enough. The circumstances and motives might shift, but resisting idolatrous dallying with power calculations always means standing athwart the inevitability of worldly process, yelling, “Stop! We cannot find our future on a way of graves.”

[27] Holmes, p. 361.

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