So let me tell you right at the beginning what I think of the ethics of video sting operations (like the #PPSellsBabyParts story from last week). After telling you what I think about it, I want to lay out a biblical case for it.
The story caught Planned Parenthood by surprise, along with a bunch of people in the moderate middle whose reaction was “wait . . . what?” That being the case, Planned Parenthood’s first responses have been pretty lame, and have actually made things worse for them. Apologizing for the “tone” of the comments, as the head of Planned Parenthood did, is like Dylann Roof apologizing for jaywalking on the way to the church in Charleston.
I hope they don’t have time to collect themselves, and I hear there may be more videos ready to drop that might keep them on their heels. And if they are kept busy, and if the current climate is sustained for any length of time at all, every Christian should be pressing for the defunding of Planned Parenthood. The ways you press for it, in order of importance, would be 1. prayers, 2. hashtag activism, and 3. letting your congressman know that you don’t want Planned Parenthood to get one more thin dime. In short, keep this issue before the throne of Heaven, keep it before the online public, and keep it before the bursar.
But if they do get a minute to collect themselves, one of the push-back techniques they will almost certainly try is to challenge the ethics of secret sting video, and, if they have their wits about them, they will press for laws forbidding such operations. To which we should say, you know, laws have to be interpreted . . .
Nevertheless that particular challenge might still resonate with a lot of Christians. Such Christians are delighted by the damage done to PP, but are unsure about going in there like a secret agent wired for picture and sound, pretending to be someone you are not. Moreover, you are doing this surveillance operation entirely on your own, representing no one in authority at all.
In the meantime, it must be admitted that some Christians apply the Golden Rule in ways that are quite demented. They think that to approve the making of such videos means that we are saying that the bad guys have the right to get all wired up in similar ways in order to infiltrate evangelical bakeries in order to nose out our discriminatory cupcakes. But “how would you feel if someone did that to you?” is not manufactured out of ethical two by fours. “How would you feel if you were a guard at Auschwitz and somebody came and took away all your prisoners? Hmmm?”
So what do I think of this operation? I think it is the best thing to happen to the pro-life cause since Roe introduced this bloody debacle into our national life. And I don’t just think this because God draws straight with crooked lines. In this case, He was drawing straight with straight lines. I believe that the next president should award the person who organized this operation with the Medal of Freedom. And prior to that, I believe pro-life activists should make a point of talking about this in superlatives. We should apply every accolade we can find.
So what about the deception involved then? I am glad you asked.
The Christian world has a long and checkered history when it comes to our debates about the ethics of deception. There are hardliners who want to say “no deception” ever. There are others who would regard lying to hide Jews from Nazis as a sin, but as a lesser sin than turning them over would be. So they lie in order to keep a clean conscience, and then confess the lie afterwards as a sin, in order to restore a clean conscience. Then there are others, like myself, who believe that Scripture fully allows (indeed requires) deception under certain conditions, while flatly forbidding it in others. If we want to tell the two situations apart, then we have to do some Bible study.
The view that Christians may never deceive in any situation whatever is exegetically and theologically indefensible, and rapidly devolves into silliness. Can a tank commander paint his tank to look like a bush when it is in fact not a bush? Is it all right, in a game of pick-up basketball, to fake left and drive right? When Jericho Homeland Security asked Rahab which way the spies went, no one thinks she should have said, “Thank you for this opportunity to come clean. They are up on the roof hiding under the flax.” And Rahab the harlot, brought up in a pietistic home, was justified by her scruples.
So back to the video sting. In my view, this situation is comparable to a combination of two different kinds of lawful biblical deception. The first has to do with the response of the Hebrew midwives to Pharaoh’s requirement of infanticide. In defense of innocent human life, they lied through their teeth, and God rewarded them by giving them families of their own.
“But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty” (Ex. 1:17–20).
This is similar to our situation, but is not quite identical. In both cases, babies are being saved but there are some points of difference also. There the Hebrew midwives were acting (on behalf of their people) in self-defense, while in this situation the pro-lifers are acting on behalf of children who have been rejected by their own people. It is as though the Hebrew midwives had figured out a way of lying that would save Egyptian babies. So appealing to the Hebrew midwives is helpful for at least part of this. If there is a difference, this video sting operation was even nobler. But at the very least we see that deception when the stakes are high — e.g. the lives of babies — is not necessarily wrong. In my mind, this is a sufficient defense of obtaining videos about Planned Parenthood this way, but fortunately, there is more.
Another scriptural category that I find helpful here is the category of deceiving someone in order to be able to confront them with the truth. The point is not to deceive, and then to sneak off to enjoy the fruit of the deception. The point is to deceive, and then to unveil the deception in such a dramatic way as to unmask unrighteousness that is being confronted. The point of such deception is to subsequently tell everyone what you had done. The point is to reveal, not to hide. The hiding is merely a preamble to a great unveiling of the truth — in this case, the truth that Planned Parenthood has far surpassed Mengele in cold-blooded, reptilian ghoulishness.
This method is what the prophet Nathan did when he confronted David about Bathsheba. He told him a made-up story about a poor man with one lamb, and a rich guy with flocks and to spare. When the story got to the rich guy confiscating the poor man’s lamb to use it for his hospitality dinner, David’s anger was kindled. So when he passed judgment on the man, Nathan then unveiled the fact that his words had been a prophetic sting operation. You are the man. That is the same kind of thing that has happened here.
This technique may even have been taught in the schools of the prophets.
“So the prophet departed, and waited for the king by the way, and disguised himself with ashes upon his face. And as the king passed by, he cried unto the king: and he said, Thy servant went out into the midst of the battle; and, behold, a man turned aside, and brought a man unto me, and said, Keep this man: if by any means he be missing, then shall thy life be for his life, or else thou shalt pay a talent of silver. And as thy servant was busy here and there, he was gone. And the king of Israel said unto him, So shall thy judgment be; thyself hast decided it. And he hasted, and took the ashes away from his face; and the king of Israel discerned him that he was of the prophets” (1 Kings 20:38–41).
One final objection. How can this be a confrontation of Planned Parenthood that reveals to them what they are doing? The video reveals that they know — in bone-chilling ways — exactly what they are doing. But here is the real value of the videos. This was not a sting just on Planned Parenthood. This was a sting operation being run on the American conscience. The revealing was done to America. America was being shown what America is doing. This is not mere tissue removal. Cysts don’t have livers, legs, hearts, and lungs. The nation was lied to, and the sellers of baby parts got away with it, because the nation wanted to be lied to. Treating babies as mere tissue was a sexual convenience for a lot of people, and a cold cash opportunity for others.
This video says to a shocked American public, as Nathan once said to David, “you are the man.” May God use it to bring us to the response of David. “We have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13). As we truly have.