Inescapable Incrementalism

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Introduction

Recent years have seen the rise of a pro-life abolitionism, and there are aspects of this that have been quite good. We could all use a little more impatience with some of our pro-life politicos, too many of whom have been like the constables in Penzance. “We go, we go, we go!” “Yes, but you don’t go.”

At the same time, the demand for the immediate abolition of all human abortion has sometimes taken a form that has confused a situation that was already confused enough. There are two things we require—the first is that we keep the mission clear, and second, that we keep the demands simultaneously realistic and inexorable. More about what that means shortly.

The Mission

So what is the goal? What is it that we must keep clear? In all that follows, keep in mind what the long game has to be. For anyone with consistent, biblically-based pro-life convictions, the only satisfactory outcome is the abolition of all human abortion—first, in the law, and second, with regard to the actual practice of it, as much as can be restrained by enforcement in a fallen and imperfect world. That is the mission.

So what do I mean by realistic and inexorable?

Conquering Canaan

Let us take Israel’s conquest of Canaan as a historical event that illustrates the nature of the challenge and difficulty.

In the first place, the assignment given to Israel was clear. The iniquity of the Amorites was now full (Gen. 15:16), and so God ordered total war against the seven nations of Canaan. Israel was not to stop her warfare until these nations had been eradicated and removed from the land.

“When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou” (Deut. 7:1).

At the same time, even while Joshua was at their head, and Israel was still fighting faithfully (as opposed to fighting in fits and starts), the conquest was not to be instantaneous. God’s declared intention was for them to displace the Canaanites “little by little.”

“And the Lord thy God will put out those nations before thee by little and little: thou mayest not consume them at once, lest the beasts of the field increase upon thee” (Deut. 7:22).

So what problems might arise from this “little by little” business? Obviously the problem with such gradualism is always the threat of mission drift and compromise. This temptation will be present even when the gradualism is assigned and required by God. In other words, because God had said that it was to be done “little by little” lest the wild beasts grow too numerous, it therefore became possible for Israelite men to claim they were going slowly “because of the wild beasts” when they were actually going slowly because they had not grasped the lessons of Baal-Peor.

“Your eyes have seen what the Lord did because of Baal-peor: for all the men that followed Baal-peor, the Lord thy God hath destroyed them from among you” (Deut. 4:3).

In other words, when God’s Word tells us to go slowly and deliberately, this provides us with a built-in excuse for slow-walking the whole thing in the wrong way. When others see what we are doing, and see through the excuses, this creates the temptation for them to say that all gradualism is simply a lame excuse for compromise.   

Triage and Finitude

We are living in a world filled with sin, and not just the sin of abortion. We are finite, and our resources are limited. It is as though there has been an enormous spiritual battle, and we are manning the field hospital—and with limited supplies, limited knowledge, and limited staff. If we start treating patients on the south end of the field hospital, then patients on the north end are going to die before we get there. And we can’t fix this problem by starting on the north end.

“You cannot do simply good to simply Man; you must do this or that good to this or that man. And if you do this good, you can’t at the same time do that; and if you do it to these men, you can’t also do it to those” (C.S. Lewis, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist, The Weight of Glory, p. 75).

In addition, as we labor for the gospel in a world where we “can’t do everything,” we have to reckon with the fact—as Dr. Dimble did in That Hideous Strength—that we might have a “whole Belbury” tucked away inside us, waiting for the right moment to betray us. One of the ways this happens is that we become impatient with the apparently ineffectual efforts of previous pro-lifers, and we move from considering the possibility that some of it is the result of compromised thinking, which is true enough, to the assertion that all of it has to be compromised, which is as false as it gets. 

Inescapable Incrementalism

Because of our finitude, this means that whatever we do, however we approach the problem of abortion, we will have to be incrementalists one way or the other. Here are some of the different configurations that such incrementalism can take. If we consider these carefully, we will see that all of us are incrementalists. This is an inescapable concepts. It is not whether we are incrementalists, but rather which kind of incrementalists we will be.

Incrementalism has compromised, fatally, if it ever says (or thinks), “And if you grant us this restriction, then after that, it is all right with us if you kill the baby.” It is not really incrementalism, but rather surrender of the principle.

So here are some different forms of incrementalism. And depending on the situation and circumstance, I am in favor of them all.

Pre-requisite incrementalism: In order for any law to be respected enough to be enforceable, the morality that undergirds the law must be held in honor by the people generally. This is why the Christian faith, inimical to the gladiatorial games from the start, did not result in the final cessation of the games until 404 A.D. And this also explains why the apostle Paul was not “compromising” when he wrote a letter to the Roman church without a single reference to those games being held in their city. What he was doing—preaching the gospel, planting churches, etc.—was eventually going to end the games. But to get up a petition to end the games without doing this first would have been tilting at windmills. His strategy for eliminating slavery was similar, and a bit more obvious.

Now in our circumstance, one reply to this might be that American has tens of thousands of churches, and millions of professing, evangelical Christians. What are we waiting for? What is the missing pre-requisite here? The answer is that what is missing from our churches is theological instruction that instructs a spiritual church how to have an earthly impact without becoming carnal. In short, what is missing is the theology of the magisterial Reformers.

Strategic incrementalism: let us say that Dwight Eisenhower delayed D-Day by a few days because of weather concerns. It would be inappropriate to accuse him of going “soft on the Nazis” because of this. His reply would be that he wanted to inflict as much damage as he could on the Nazis, and he thought the weather a few days out would help him in that effort.

In a similar way, suppose a state-level pro-life group delayed the introduction of a pro-life bill until after the gubernatorial election, because they believed that the challenger would be more likely to sign it if it passed, and that his opponent would be able to effectively use the prospect of such a bill as a means of preventing a pro-life governor from being elected at all. Such a delay would be an example of strategic incrementalism. While you delay the introduction of your bill, babies are dying. And that is true—they are.

Please note that it is not necessary for this calculation to be accurate in order answer a charge of complicity in the abortion carnage. Eisenhower might have been wrong about the weather, but he really was fighting Nazis nonetheless.   

Local political incrementalism: When pro-life activists introduce a bill in this state legislature (as opposed to that one), they are not saying that it is all right to kill babies in the state where they did not introduce a bill. This goes back to our finitude. We cannot do everything, and we cannot be everywhere at once.

Now if abolitionists introduce a “pure” bill in a state legislature, one that outlaws absolutely all human abortion within that state’s boundaries, with penalties to match, and that measure fails, and they come back again in the next legislative session with an identical bill, how are they being incrementalists? Are they not simply “immediatists” who lost?

So long as there is an ongoing political union between states that protect life and states that do not, this strategy is necessarily a form of incrementalism. If you have followed my argument, there is nothing wrong with that, but it is a form of incrementalism. The only geographical approach that would not be incremental would be if a local political entity protected all human life the way it ought to, and was in a state of perpetual war against all political entities that did not.  

Stage-of-life incrementalism: An example of this would be the heartbeat bill that was just signed in Georgia, for which measure we should praise the Lord. No pro-lifer with brains in his head believes that it is acceptable to kill babies prior to a heart-beat, and no pro-abortionist with brains in his head believes that we are going to stop once we get our heartbeat bills. Of course not.

So Then

My argument here is not that faithful Christian abolitionists should become incrementalists. My argument is that they already are. All of us are. There need be no quarrel between us on that point, and to the extent that we spend time and resources quarreling, this just slows down the inexorable advance of the pro-life cause.

Going back to Eisenhower and the weather, there may be real and weighty differences of strategic opinion. This is not to minimize any of that, and it is not to argue for a weird sort of egalitarianism with regard to any and all pro-life strategies. Some are shrewd, some are foolish, and some are ineffective.

That’s as may be, but all are wearing the same uniform.