In his 1943 work The Abolition of Man, scholar CS Lewis predicted the fruit of modern education.  An education drained of moral content, he wrote, would produce “men without chests.”  Lewis described these pseudo-intellectuals: “It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out.  Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary:  it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”

Moral wisdom at its richest has a religious source, “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 9:10).  But there is a lesser richness, available even to those without religion, which can flow from the generous emotion of compassion.  The compassionate man identifies with his neighbor.  That sympathy powers living by Jesus’ Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

This month, we have exhibits one and two of men without chests. 

The first example happened in a metro train car in Washington DC on the Fourth of July.  An 18-year-old, Jordan Spires, tried to take the cell phone of 24-year-old Kevin Sutherland.   Spires is described as 125 lbs, 5’5”.  There were about ten other people on the train just feet away.  They watched.  They watched Spires hit Sutherland until he fell to the ground.  They watched as he stabbed Sutherland over thirty times.  They listened to Sutherland moaning.  They huddled together just trying to avoid Spires’ notice.  A witness said, “I watched [the attacker] drop-kick him in the head several times, like he wanted to kick his head off.”  The witnesses told each other not to intervene.

After the event, one of the men who witnessed the attack wrote of his soul-searching.  “My wife and I have spent the last couple days going over and over what happened, trying to think about what we could have done differently…. What I don’t wish is that I had somehow tried to attack the assailant.  I am a little bit larger than he was, but I would not have won.  It’s scary, because if we had been sitting closer and had seen the attack start I probably would have tried to help, and would have been stabbed.”

I cannot say whether I would have the courage to intervene if I was in this situation.  As an able-bodied man, I hope I would have done my best to stop the murder, even at risk to my own safety.  If I had one of my kids with me, maybe I’d just be focused on protecting them.  But I am sure if I stood by for three minutes and watched the brutal attack, I would regret not intervening physically.  All it would have taken to save Kevin Sutherland on that train were two men with chests

We are not, however, a culture that trains self-sacrificial morality.  We are trained to watch safely from the couch, fed by a steady diet of commercials to arouse other appetites to spur our ongoing consumption.  In this world, our trained first responsibility is to keep consuming.  Our culture’s “heroes,” the ones who confront violence for us, are fashioned as spectacularly “other”—Asgardians, billionaires in batsuits, and Jedi.

So, what happens when, instead of having this violence thrust upon you in the close confines of a train car, it appears as an online video, an interview secretly filmed, describing institutionalized violence, happening in each major city of the country?  Exhibit two is the response to the video showing a Planned Parenthood executive talking about organ trafficking from abortions performed in their clinics.

Abortion is sold in this country by dehumanizing the unborn.  We sympathize with the mother, especially those confronted with the responsibilities of a child whose father refuses to help, but our sympathy does not extend to the child hidden within her.  Abortion advocates describe the fetus as just a “clump of cells.”  But when we hear about how an abortion provider can profit off of organ trafficking, we are forced to recognize the child.  As Robert George, Princeton professor of law, put it,

The heart, lungs and other organs carefully spared by Planned Parenthood abortionists are useful because they are organs of a human being.

— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) July 17, 2015 

But if children in the womb with lungs and kidneys and other “useful” organs are human beings, then what are we doing, not just in abortions that enable trafficked organs, but in every abortion?  The essential response of Planned Parenthood’s defenders is to do everything they can to avoid that moral question. 

For example, Cosmopolitan magazine did its part in urging, “Nothing to see; move along” in an article by Robin Marty, “That Planned Parenthood Video Isn’t the Scandal; Abortion Opponents Are Making It Out to Be.”  Marty begins with her bona fides, telling us she’s done her due diligence in looking at the supposedly incriminating documents, but “Frankly, I’m just going to yawn.”  And yet, she admits that her initial reaction was to shudder and be upset.  This, moving from shudder to yawn, is precisely the numbed rationalization required by any perpetrator of institutional violence.  What first provokes moral outrage must be calmed by the amoral pseudo-intellectualism:  “This is just how the world works.” Of course, Marty and similar propagandists (for example, see the piece by Amanda Marcotte in Slate which follows the same talking points) are right in their premise that what Planned Parenthood is doing can only be wrong if you think abortion is wrong.  If you’ve dehumanized the fetus, and you can kill it, then why not harvest its organs for scientific experiment?  It only evokes moral sympathy when it becomes him or her.

But mind yourself (if not your neighbor), for once you’ve numbed your conscience against one group of human beings, you may be more liable to do the same to another group.  Marty and Marcotte both turn their articles against the producers of the video.  Marty makes an astounding claim:  “In the end, it doesn’t matter to abortion opponents if their accusations can hold up to scrutiny or not.”  Really?  Why are they doing all this if not to create arguments that change people’s minds?  This lack of sympathy for her opponents leads to Marty littering the rest of her piece with strawmen and misrepresentations. 

Rather than go through those claims point by point, let me encourage you, when involved in a disagreement with such moral consequence as our ongoing debate about abortion, to put yourself in the shoes of the people involved.  Stop reading sources that dehumanize the people that disagree.  Recognize the biases of sources that claim objectivity.  Compare, for example, the response to this story from Abby Johnson, who used to work at Planned Parenthood herself.

Most importantly, realize that the culture we are in demands work at cultivating a conscience that is empowered.  We need to be in regular Bible study together.  We need to engage in serious moral conversation that answers disagreement respectfully.  Without a healthy “fear of the Lord” and a healthy sympathy for our neighbor, we will be left on the couch watching brutality, saying nothing more than “Frankly, I’m going to yawn.”

Rather, “ ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:14-16).