Revolutionary Worker #997, March 7, 1999
"From whatever vantage point one looks, it is unmistakable that there is what could be called `a moral crisis in America.' There has been, to a significant degree, `a breakdown of traditional morality.' But the answer to this--at least the answer that is in the interests of the majority of people in the U.S. and the overwhelming majority of humanity--is not a more aggressive assertion of that `traditional morality' but winning people to a radically different morality, in the process of and as a key part of radically transforming society and the world as a whole. It is not the tightening but the shattering of tradition's chains that is called for."
In light of the power struggle around the impeachment of Clinton, the 1996 essays by Bob Avakian on the `crisis of morality' in U.S. society are both timely and insightful. These important essays include: "Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting An End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)." In the following excerpt from "Putting An End to `Sin'" he discusses the writings of Jim Wallis. Wallis is a religious activist and editor of Sojourner magazine. Wallis has joined with other Christian leaders in issuing "The Cry for Renewal: Let Other Voices Be Heard"--calling for a verbal "ceasefire" in the ideological wars of the Christian right and looking for "a politics whose values are more spiritual than ideological." In this selection from "Putting an End to Sin" Avakian discusses a book by Jim Wallis called The Soul of Politics. Other selections from Avakian's essays will follow in future issues and the entire series will soon be available on our website at www.ms.net/~rwor.
Perhaps the most concentrated expression of what is wrong with Wallis's vision comes through in his discussion of women, patriarchy, and the family. Here again, in a section entitled "Pattern of Inequality, Exploiting the Sisters," The Soul of Politics contains searing exposure of some of the more horrendous aspects of this exploitation, including the sexual plunder of women by U.S. soldiers in countries like the Philippines as well as the widespread rape and battering of women in the U.S. itself. And the inseparable connection between "Sexism and Advertising" in the economy and culture of U.S. society today is graphically illustrated. Yet, when Wallis seeks to examine "The Structure of Sexism" and to ground an understanding of this and opposition to it in Biblical terms and values, he is compelled to turn back on himself and to end up upholding or conciliating with much of this very structure of oppression.
Wallis states that "the real issue between men and women is not sex, but the inequality of power." He speaks of "the pattern that underlies and fuels" violence against women, and goes on to say that "The name of the pattern is patriarchy--the subordination of women to men...the control of women...has been the dominant characteristic of patriarchy from the earliest times.... Like slaves, women were made into property themselves--male property." (pp. 104-105, 106-107) But the problem is that the source to which Wallis wants to turn for guidance in opposing this patriarchal oppression, the Bible, is itself a major pillar of precisely that oppression. This is strikingly evident from the very first books of the Bible (the first five, so-called "Mosaic," books) through the remainder of the Old Testament and throughout the New Testament, including very blatantly in the Epistles of Paul, who is generally acknowledged to be the major influence on the New Testament and the Christian religion as it developed and spread in its early formative period.
The subordination of women to their husbands and to male domination in general is both advocated and assumed throughout the Bible, and in many places--including the very chapters and books where the Ten Commandments and Mosaic Law generally are presented--the acquiring of women as slaves, and as prizes of war and objects of sexual plunder, rather than being proscribed is prescribed and ordained (see, for example, Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 22, as well as Judges 21).
This profound contradiction--that Wallis wants to see an end to patriarchal oppression and inequality for women but at the same time he wants to uphold the morality and conventions associated with the Bible and the "Judeo-Christian tradition," which embody and reinforce this very patriarchal oppression and inequality--runs through the whole of Wallis's discussion of the pattern of sexual inequality and asserts itself very acutely in Wallis's treatment of the question of abortion--which he correctly identifies as one of the major "battlegrounds" in U.S. society (as well as many other societies) today.
Wallis writes that he and his colleagues at Sojourner magazine "have advocated for the rights and equality for women" and at the same time "we have upheld the sacred value of human life, drawing from our religious roots and our commitment to nonviolence." And he concludes: "These two values--the rights of women and the sanctity of life--have become the antagonistic poles of our public discourse." (p. 109)
Once again, and characteristically, Wallis wants to see an end to this antagonism through reconciliation--he wants to "tone down the rhetoric" of what he sees as two "extreme" positions--he insists that "we need answers that speak to the concerns of both sides." (See pp. 109, 110.) But what does it mean when someone who says he is opposed to patriarchal oppression describes unapologetic insistence on the right of women to abortion, and passionately militant opposition to the attempt to take away that right, as "extreme"?! It means that this person's opposition to patriarchal oppression is, at best, incomplete and inconsistent, as indeed is the case with Wallis.
As many of us who support the right of women to abortion "on demand and without apology" have pointed out, the right of women to determine when and if to have children--their right not to be forced to bear children against their will--is the same kind of fundamental question as the right of Black people not to be slaves. Calls for reconciliation over questions and rights as fundamental as this can only serve those who would enforce enslavement and deny such fundamental rights. This is precisely what Wallis serves in treating abortion as something that should not be legally forbidden under all circumstances, but something that is also not an inalienable right and (as he quotes "Feminist Shelley Douglass") "is `almost always a moral wrong.' " (p. 110)
In addition to the fundamental fact that what exists within a woman's body, from the time she becomes pregnant until that pregnancy ends, is not a full-blown "baby" or a "child" but a developing fetus, which is in effect an integral part of the woman's body and physical functioning--which has the potential to become a separate full-blown human being but is not yet that-- Wallis's attempt to find justification for his position on abortion by invoking "the sacred value of human life," and grounding this in Biblical tradition and injunction, cannot stand. Wallis refers, approvingly, to "Some women [who] favor a consistent ethic of life, which views threats posed by nuclear weapons, capital punishment, poverty, racism, patriarchy, and abortion as parts of a seamless garment of interconnected and interwoven concerns about life's sacred value." (pp. 109-110, emphasis in original) But, in fact, the Bible and "Judeo-Christian tradition" do not provide a basis for this "seamless garment" position.
As I pointed out in critiquing William Bennett's "Virtues," the Sixth Commandment, read in the context of the "Mosaic Law" of which it is a part, clearly means only that it is forbidden to kill someone unless "The Law" and "The Lord" say it is right and necessary to kill someone. The Bible not only does not prohibit but insists upon killing people for many reasons--and there are many cases where such killing would be considered by almost everyone today to be wanton and atrocious, however much it may be celebrated in the Bible (see, for example, Exodus 32:16-28, as well as Exodus 21:17 and Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
What this reflects is that in all human societies, including those which gave rise to the Bible, the taking of human life--as well as the aborting of fetuses, which are a form of life but not yet full-blown separate human beings--will always be evaluated by society according to the criterion of how it affects society in an overall sense. And where society is divided into different social groups--and most fundamentally different classes--then the view toward these questions that will predominate is that of the class in society which holds the dominant economic position and therefore dominates the political as well as the cultural and intellectual life of that society.
The societies that the Bible reflects and upholds are societies in which slavery and other forms of exploitation and oppression, including the patriarchal oppression of women, as well as rivalry and plunder between various nations and empires, are all integral and indispensable elements, and the way the Bible treats the taking of human life is a reflection of this.
Thus, while the Bible does not provide justification for the "seamless garment" position, it certainly does provide justification, or rationalization, for various forms, including the most extreme manifestations, of oppression and plunder, including of women.
So long as one insists on clinging to the Bible and its moral vision--to "core values, derived from our religious and cultural traditions," as Wallis expresses it (p. 42)--one will never be able to struggle, in a thoroughgoing way, to abolish all these forms of oppression, to uproot all exploitative and enslaving economic and social relations and their corresponding political institutions and ideological expressions. In the final analysis, only by rupturing with this vision--with these traditions and "traditional values"--is it possible to wage, and to win, such a thoroughgoing, truly revolutionary, struggle.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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