For some time now, Americans have been hearing about something called the “culture of life.” The term originated with Pope John Paul II, who used it on a visit to the United States in 1993. He posed it in opposition to what he considered to be the marks of a culture of death: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and war.
Then in the presidential campaign of 2000, candidate George Bush picked up the term in one of his debates with Vice President Gore. In 2004 the phrase was incorporated in the platform of the Republican Party. It is now routinely used against stem-cell research.
But, it is crucial to note, it’s not a scriptural term. While life is affirmed in scripture, it is not the central value. That central value is love for God, for the neighbor and the self. Love in social relationships is expressed as justice; a far cry from love, but yet the best approximation to it to which we can aspire. The Bible focuses over and over on a culture of justice. And justice is enjoined most strongly for those to whom the world does not want to accord justice: the poor, women, children, and immigrants.
There is a biblical story that describes how hard it was, and still is, for women to find justice; the story of Tamar in Genesis 38. Tamar is a Canaanite woman who marries Er, the oldest son of Judah. He dies before she is able to have a child. According to the Levirate law of the Hebrews, she may now demand that Er’s brother give her a child (who will be considered a descendant of Er). Onan refuses to do this by practicing withdrawal (from which comes the euphemism for masturbation or withdrawal, onanism). Scripture says that for this behavior, “God put him to death.” (38:10)
While the Roman Catholic Church and even some Protestant traditions have long interpreted this death as God’s disapproval of birth control, this is not a story about a particular sexual practice, but about economic justice. When Onan refused to give Tamar a child, it meant that she would then be left without economic security. In that culture a woman could not inherit anything, only her son could. Without a son, she would be poor and an outcast, since barren women were considered to be punished by God.
Also if there is no son of Tamar to be considered, Onan’s share of his father’s estate would be larger. That, not birth control, is the real injustice. And that injustice is compounded when Judah refuses to give his third son to Tamar. Pleading that he is still too young, Judah promised to send him when he is of age. But he later refuses to do that.
To get justice, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, sleeps with Judah (who does not know who she is), and gets his seal, staff, and cord in payment. Three months later, when she is discovered to be pregnant, Judah is told about it and sentences her to be burned. As she is led out for execution, she sends the seal, staff, and cord to Judah with the message: “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant… Take note please whose they are.” (v. 25)
Judah acknowledges his responsibilities with the stunning words, “she is more righteous (more just) than I.” (26) She gives birth to twin sons and restores her economic security and self-respect.
Quite simply, the story says that justice is more important than sexism. In a world that is often an ocean of injustice for women, we can see how this story resonates with the lives of equally desperate women today.
The woman whose partner abandons her when she is pregnant is Tamar. The woman with no health insurance (and thus no contraceptive coverage) is Tamar. Tamar is the woman who loses her economic security when her husband abandons her for a younger woman.
Those who advance the value of life as a reason for denying justice to desperate women are a long way from the compassion of scripture. It is sentimental to minimize the difficulties of women dealing with unwanted pregnancies.
Of course life is an important human value, but the Bible’s witness is that life must have justice or it is not the destiny that God intends for human beings.