I have a friend, a fellow cleric with whom I went to seminary, who is a generally good and well meaning guy. He’s young, and I’ll make fun of his Justin Bieber haircut, but he’s most likely a great asset to the Church. But a few weeks ago he wrote on Facebook that he hasn’t been on social media a lot lately, because (I swear he wrote this) “because we are very private about our pregnancy.” I wanted to comment on his status, ask him if his ankles were swollen or if his morning sickness had finally subsided. I contend that men should not be allowed to glom on to pregnancy and all its glories without also suffering the pains found within, the kind of pain so brutal that even the Apostle Paul uses labor pains to describe our separation from God.
Few people yearn for deliverance like a mother in labor, and so Paul was wise to seize upon that kind of imagery, especially for his Roman audience. The Romans were not kind to mothers or their children, “especially considering the accepted practice in Roman society of exposure, as the choice to raise a child lay not in the hands of the mother, but in the hands of the father who would examine the newborn and choose whether to raise it or leave it to die, often on the street. The Romans thought it was strange that some nations subsumed by their empire would raise all healthy children, that Egyptians, Germans, and Jews (the ancient Jews did) exposed none of their children but raised them all.”1 The practice of exposure was used get rid of those with birth defects, evidence of what we now call Down syndrome, and girls.
Now, 300 years after Paul wrote somewhat lovingly about childbirth, “around the time Christianity was taking hold, attitudes towards this method of destroying unwanted life were changing. The poor had to get rid of their unwanted children because they couldn’t afford them, but they had not been allowed to sell them formally, so instead, they were leaving them to die or to be used to economic advantage by other families. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, in A.D. 313, authorized the sale of the infants While selling one’s children seems horrible to us, the alternative had been death or slavery: in the one case, worse, and in the other, the same, so sale of infants offered some hope, especially since in Roman society some slaves could hope to buy their freedom. Even with legal permission to sell one’s offspring, exposure didn’t end overnight, but by about 374, it had been legally forbidden.”2
It might sound incredible that we had to actually pass laws against leaving your baby outside to die, but even in our supposedly sophisticated modernity, our society and societies around the world still struggle with what it means when we say that “all life is sacred.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently made a plea to the House of Lords to allow for assisted suicide for those who feel that disease has stripped them of their will to live. Abortion as birth control is essentially Roman exposure a few months early. Human trafficking, especially the trafficking of young women and girls for the sex trade, is as dehumanizing as it gets. Let’s not even get into the way we treat animals and the rest of the natural world. This is what separation from God looks like, a world in which human life, indeed all life, is subject to violence, hopelessness, the kind of pain that makes one groan as if in labor.
But we don’t need an apostle, certainly not the big-time Apostle Paul, to tell us any of that. His job is to tell us not what we already know, but to tell us that God knows how we feel. He doesn’t like our separation from Him any more than we do, and so He came to us in Christ, who bought us and all creation with His precious Blood, so that we might know, as Paul writes, that even creation itself “will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
“For we were saved in this hope,” Paul writes, the hope that we place in Christ, who “we eagerly wait for with perseverance,” the hope that one day the sufferings of the present time will end, and the full glory of the Lord will be revealed.