Earlier this year I preached on Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in my mother’s womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet of the nations. Anti-abortion protesters, including Christians, have long offered this verse as part of their “pro-life” arguments: they Tweeter use it as proof text and use it to sell mugs and t-shirts.
During my sermon, I told my congregation that nine years earlier, on a cold January morning, I walked into a family planning clinic.
Before you read on, let’s stop: what story do you think I’m going to tell? What assumptions about me or my situation have you made? Do you see me as someone with less moral authority than when you started reading? Take a moment to reflect.
I will tell you why I was in this clinic, and no, it was not to have an abortion.
Let’s stop again: how do you feel now? Has your blood pressure just dropped? If yes, why?
I was at Planned Parenthood because the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) screwed up. I was supposed to start a ministry role in El Salvador on January 1, 2013, but they entered my start date into their system as February 1, leaving me newly ordained, about to move to a foreign country, between jobs, and functionally without insurance. health. God bless America. Lord knows we need it.
So I entered Planned Parenthood to get the health care I needed. As a woman moving to a country where violence against women is common – and where many reproductive health services are inaccessible or illegal – I wanted to see a doctor and get the medications I needed before I left the States. United. Just in case something happens.
And that should be the end of the story, but of course it isn’t. As a woman, the most intimate things, the most beautiful things, the most terrifying and traumatic things that could happen to my body are either politicized or completely absent from public conversation – shared in whispers over wine, but we don’t talk about it in church.
The reason has a lot to do with how some Christians understand Jeremiah 1:5.
According to many preachers, this verse clearly declares, once and for all, that life – and character – begins at conception. Therefore, any reproductive decision that terminates a pregnancy is murder.
But to claim that Jeremiah 1:5 clearly condemns abortion misses the point a bit. On the one hand, our Jewish brothers and sisters have interpreted this passage differently for centuries. The widely read medieval commentator known as Rashi focuses his commentary on Jeremiah’s prophetic mission and how the young Jeremiah is to offer retaliation for Israel’s behavior; for Rashi, the phrase “before you were born I consecrated you” emphasizes Jeremiah’s inevitable call and destiny to be a prophet, not when fetal life or personality begins. In fact, Jewish law states that a prenatal — a term Christian ethicist Rebecca Todd Peters uses to honor the liminal and potential life in a pregnant person’s body — is not considered separate from the body of a pregnant person. a pregnant person until birth, or at least until the head emerges. of the parent’s body.
Stating that Jeremiah 1:5 clearly condemns abortion also overlooks the fact that until the 1970s many Protestant Christians also supported reproductive rights, with a Southern Baptist news service writing in 1973 that the decision in Roe v. Wade “advanced the cause of religion”. freedom, human equality and justice. These Christians are unlikely to read Jeremiah 1:5 as condemning their decision.
So when I see Jeremiah 1:5 written in bubbles on protest signs, I see a Bible verse that has been stripped of its original meaning, exploited for political talking points and melted down into weapons to be used against women and men. pregnant women, ashamed for the decisions they made or the options they considered. I see these verses as plowshares turned into swords.
This verse is basically talking about a very young prophet called to say some very controversial things in a very scary, uncertain and unstable time. Jeremiah was a prophet in the days before Israel’s exile to Babylon and through the destruction of Solomon’s temple in the sixth century BCE As Walter Brueggemann writes in From Judgment to Hope, Jeremiah is primarily concerned with how the powerful rulers of Jerusalem continually violated the Ten Commandments and disobeyed the Torah – behavior that led to a “bankrupt society”. Jeremiah’s main complaints about these elites center on their idolatrous worship of other gods. However, like most prophets, Jeremiah also warns elites that neglecting the vulnerable and marginalized will lead to destruction:
Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they became rich and powerful
and became fat and smooth.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not ask for justice.
They do not promote the case of orphans of father;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
Shouldn’t I punish them for that?
declares the Lord.
“Shouldn’t I take revenge
on a nation like this? (5:27-29)
As is the case with many prophets, Jeremiah felt unable to speak in the name of God and was at first reluctant to accept this divine call: “Ah, Lord God, truly I cannot speak, for I am not than a boy” (1:6). God responds by comforting Jeremiah, emphasizing once again that his age doesn’t matter: “Don’t say, ‘I’m just a boy’; for you shall go to all whom I send you to, and you shall speak whatever I command you” (1:7). Again, verse 5 does not refer to fetal life or personality; read in context, it simply underlines Jeremiah’s young age.
And that’s why it’s ironic that people use Jeremiah 1:5 to condemn those who seek reproductive health care: the verse actually encourages us to denounce authority even when we don’t want to, because if we don’t don’t talk, people will be hurt. This verse is for all who are terrified of what they are called to do but do it anyway because they believe in a God of liberation and love. This passage should also be a word of courage for all of us in these times of political uncertainty and breakdown – times when it is necessary for us, like Jeremiah, to speak out against evil and injustice, and to listen to the voices of young people warning their elders of our inability to deal with climate change and other future disasters. Misinterpreting this passage as a theological statement about when life begins—instead of a poetic injunction to do what is right, even when the historical moment makes it difficult—obfuscates the real stories of women and others facing complicated or unwanted pregnancies and other reproductive decisions. It also robs the passage of its true meaning. What a loss – for everyone.
If a clergyman or other moral figure has used this verse to make you feel that God loves you less for any reproductive decision you made, whether in a moment of empowerment or desperation, then I want you to know they were wrong. For neither angels, nor height, nor depth, nor clinic doors, nor FDA-approved drugs, nor anything else in all of creation can separate you from the love of God. Nothing.
I would also like the name and telephone number of this person from the clergy. Please.
If someone has judged you for your holy decision to have children before you or if others thought you were ready, then know that neither God nor I are judging you. If someone has judged you for the holy decision not to have children until you are ready to become a parent, know that neither God nor I are judging you either.
If you’ve ever felt like there was no place in church to talk about pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, or the sacred work of parenthood, I’m sorry. The church has let you down. We have failed to report the full stories of your lives for fear of the complexity and controversy they might contain.
And if you ever need to enter a health care facility and are afraid of who or what you might encounter outside, know that God is with you. Know that God will be with you no matter what decisions you make. It is a promise.
I believe it because I know that the Jesus who left Mary to learn at her feet, who first appeared on Easter morning to women, who met that Samaritan woman at the well, who so often made women and ‘other outcasts the midwives of his movement, would not use this text – or any other text – as a weapon against you. Jesus hated when people used the scriptures to bind people instead of freeing them from bondage.
So let’s go back to this verse, insisting on the fact that Scripture, despite all its poetic complexity, deserves more than a clear reading. And let’s get back to our stories. Let’s emphasize that women’s bodies, pregnant women’s bodies, all bodies have stories to tell in times like this. Because we believe that all people – and all of our complicated stories – matter to God.