The thing itself cannot be praised,” Cicero said. “Only its potential.”
He was talking about young children. Such was the view in the empire where Jesus arrived as an infant. “The child,” said Plutarch, “is more like a plant” than a human, or even than an animal.
But Jesus and his followers had a different view of the moral status of children. To follow him, Jesus said, you had to become like a child. Even babies, Christians said, are fully human and fully bear the image of God. As the African bishop Cyprian wrote, “God himself does not make such distinction of person or of age, since he offers himself as a Father to all.” And if that’s God’s view, then “Every sex and age should be held in honor among you.”
The church even extended that honor and protection to the unborn. “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born,” says one of the earliest Christian documents, known as the Didache.
Rules like this one created not a precinct of prohibitions but a community of care. Pagans like the Greek physician Galen begrudgingly acknowledged that the Christians’ “contempt of death is patent to us every day. … And in their keen pursuit of justice, [they] have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.”
Throughout the Roe regime, contemporary Christians have similarly demonstrated their “contempt of death,” their pursuit of justice for the unborn, and their love of children and pregnant women. But as many women and couples can attest, even pro-life Christians can too quickly treat the unborn as merely “potential” human life when a child is lost to miscarriage.
Sometimes this view comes through well-intentioned but hurtful statements, like those starting with “Well, at least…” It comes through pressure to wait until the second trimester to announce a pregnancy. And it is most clear in expectations that miscarriage grief will be brief—and private.
Those inclinations are understandable. “Pregnancy itself, for a good portion, is a very unseen thing,” says Eric Schumacher, an Iowa pastor and the author of the new book Ours: Biblical Comfort for Men Grieving Miscarriage. “Miscarriage grief can be difficult for friends and family who haven’t experienced the child as the mother has.”
But we are made to mourn in community. “Let people rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep—and sometimes both with the same pregnancy,” Schumacher says. That response requires churches that speak openly and honestly about loss, where memorial services mourning miscarriages are as much of the cultural liturgy as baby showers.
“In the dark months after we lost our baby, the simple message of ‘Your baby is a real human being and you can take all the time you need to grieve’ was healing and powerful,” Tish Harrison Warren wrote in a 2018 CT article. “Not all women who miscarry have an intact body or even remains to care for. … But for those of us who do, the practice of burying our never-born children offers important psychological and emotional comfort to families. It also witnesses to the humanity of those we bury.”
Grieving parents should not be pressured to have such services, but they shouldn’t have to push for them or invent them, either.
The good news is that churches seem to be getting better at treating the death of the unborn as the death of a human life. An increase in Christian books on miscarriage is one indicator, as are books like Schumacher’s that address the death as not just a mother’s sorrow. Similarly, it’s now rare for a preacher not to acknowledge the barren and the grieving on Mother’s Day.
Biblical lament is not as strange as it once was in “happy-clappy” evangelical congregations. Social media has helped, too, says Schumacher: “The barrier of a screen that we complain about can be the right amount of distance for a mom or dad to say, ‘We were pregnant and we miscarried; pray for us.’ ” Openness has led to more openness.
The point is not to become better or more consistent opponents of abortion, any more than the goal of early Christians’ care of children was to refute the emperor or those “genuine philosophers.” But lamenting the death of the unborn innocent and caring for their parents is both a way to love the suffering and to speak truth to the world.
An estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. Many people have considered such staggering numbers of deaths as evidence that unborn lives matter less. But Christians do not see vulnerability and fragility as evidence against God’s care; they see it as a special call to show God’s care. A church that can lament miscarriage well is a church that has something to say about all death and how this last enemy will be defeated. A church that has trouble lamenting the death of the unborn innocent and being honest about the fragility of life will have trouble being known as a place that loves the unborn, their parents, life, and its author.
The church has more than mere potential to better bear witness to life. It is the house of the Life himself.
Ted Olsen is executive editor of Christianity Today.
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