The failure of personhood (in Mississippi & elsewhere)

I was honestly surprised on Tuesday when Mississippi rejected the referendum that would have legally defined “personhood” as beginning at conception. I figured the personhood movement targeted Mississippi because it was the safest red state they could have possibly picked. I’m not going to speculate on why things happened the way they did. But as someone who opposes both abortion and the manipulative use of abortion as a partisan political tool, I really hope that some of those who were involved in this initiative will reprioritize and change their tactics. To me, the personhood movement itself is a witness of the failure of personhood in modern Western thought, because thinking the state can decree “personhood” is to negate the meaning of personhood. Rights do not make a human being into a person; only relationships can do that.

In Paul Tournier’s The Meaning of Persons, he talks about two ways of experiencing reality: the world of things and the world of persons. To perceive reality as a world of things is to see a forest of categories rather than individual trees. We see poor and rich, Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, intellectuals and rednecks, hip and square, nerdy and cool (or whatever the kids’ slang is these days). We relate to other humans not as persons but as categories: Sam is my gay black friend who proves that I’m not racist or homophobic; Andrea is my wild, adventurous friend who I go clubbing with; Paul is my intellectual friend who I go to the coffeehouse with; etc. In the world of things, we define ourselves in solidarity with a tribal category (plain, honest folks; free spirits; union members; fellow Marines; etc) and in opposition to a different tribal category (elitist latte drinkers; back-woods inbred fundamentalists; greedy bankers; morally filthy Hollywood stars; etc).

To live in the world of persons is to appreciate the way God’s image is reflected in the irreducible idiosyncrasies of every individual in our lives. We live in that world when we do not need our imagined invisible audience to notice what a brilliant conversation we are having with our artistically successful hipster friend and when we’re not embarrassed to sit with old friends and have nothing remarkable to say. But as long as we are actors in the sitcom about our lives whose identity is an amalgamation of consumer products whether they be fashion, image, or figures of speech, then we are not living in the world of persons.

Tournier writes that “to become a person, to discover the world of persons, to acquire the sense of the person, to be more interested in people as persons than in their ideas, their party labels… means a complete revolution, changing the climate of our lives” (183). I agree with what Tournier affirms here; we do not start out as persons; we  have to become persons (lest you get huffy, becoming a person in this sense is not equivalent to being alive). How do we become persons? By discovering who we are in relationship to other people. I guess it probably wouldn’t surprise you that a Christian pastor like me would say that you become a true person when you find where you belong in the body of Christ, which is the group of people who have been gathered out of automated existence into a community of true being.

I really don’t think there’s any other social entity that produces authentic personhood in the same way as the body of Christ (though I realize I can’t be unbiased). Other groupings of people coalesce around ideologies and market-manufactured identities. To define yourself ideologically depersonalizes you even if it’s good ideology. If all I see myself as is anti-racist/anti-sexist/anti-homophobic or hard-working/USA-loving/troop-supporting, then when I relate to other people, I will relate to them according to those categories. I might befriend somebody from outside my ideological tribe but as long as my identity is ideologically-driven,then my relationship with that person will be inherently tokenistic (my friend from the “other side” who “proves” that I “transcend” categories by being black, in the military, a libertarian, etc).

Now someone who is truly interested in embracing other people as persons cannot live in the world of ideological absolutes. This is where the anti-abortion movement often reveals itself to be radically anti-personhood. If you are ideologically committed to the concept that life always begins at conception and you think that’s the conceptual firewall that must be defended at all costs, then what do you do when a 9-year old girl gets pregnant because she was raped? This is what happened in Nicaragua in 2003. Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo threatened to excommunicate the girls’ parents, the girl, and the doctor when the girl got an abortion (though public outcry forced him to back off his threat). The pro-life website LifesiteNews mobilized its readers to send a letter to Nicaraguan health officials expressing support for “the lives of both the young mother and her unborn child,” claiming that this case was “being exploited by feminist organizations to press for abortion legalization.”

The “feminist” organization they cited, the Nicaraguan Network of Women Against Domestic Violence, is actually a group I interacted with a decade ago while working at an NGO in Washington, DC. The signature initiative of this group would be scandalous to ideologically rigid feminists. Their goal in the work they do with domestic violence is to create reconciliation between domestic abusers and their abused spouses largely through the mentorship of repentant abusers who formed the Network of Men Against Domestic Violence. In other words, they take the controversial approach of viewing abusers as persons rather than monsters who are irredeemably damned. This is the opposite of being ideological and the opposite of the perspective of entities like LifesiteNews in which legislative precedents are more important than the particularities of individual lives (i.e. because I’m “pro-life,” I don’t care about your life).

So how do unwanted fetuses in Mississippi become persons? A good place to start would be to treat their mommies like persons. I’ll close with the words of fellow Duke seminarian Katie Sorey, who’s from Jackson, MS:

It breaks my heart to hear stories of unwed mothers who decide to have their babies, but are judged by their churches.  How would Jesus respond to them?  Not by calling them whores and their children bastards.  If we are to call ourselves Christians, shouldn’t we follow Christ’s example?  Matthew 10:14-16 tells us this: “He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” As Christians, we can do no less than this.

I earnestly pray that the Christians in Mississippi will follow Christ’s example and love every child of God.  Honestly, I am tired of church people who claim to be Pro-Life, but they idly sit by as generations of children are lost to the poverty stricken “cradle to prison pipeline.”  May we be the generation of believers that finally show what it means to totally love one another as Christ loves us.

3 thoughts on “The failure of personhood (in Mississippi & elsewhere)

  1. Neat. I’m really glad someone else out there has realized how much these so-called personhood proponents disregard the personhood of women everywhere-especially those who have been raped or abused. Also right on about the twisted paradox of opposing abortion and then ostracizing and denigrating single mothers. I think “married” and “single” is another risky categorical yardstick, especially for women, that some people wield to great pain in the community.

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