In an era marked by political and cultural polarization, Karen Ellis, a speaker at the 2019 Evangelicals for Life conference, believes Christians should be united in their support of both human and civil rights.
ERLC photo by Karen McCutcheon
Karen Ellis addresses attendees at the 2019 Evangelicals for Life conference in a talk entitled, "Pro-Life and Civil Rights: Loving our Unborn Neighbors."
“They are inseparable,” said Ellis, who is director of the Center for the Study of the Bible & Ethnicity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Ga., and president of The Makazi Institute. “Both realities – civil and human rights – reflect different aspects of an affirmation of life.”
The event, which coincides with the annual March for Life, was co-sponsored by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and North American Mission Board. It was held Jan. 17-18 at McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Ellis began her talk by offering brief overviews of multiple leaders and activists from the past who embodied an undivided commitment to civil and human rights.
The list included Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and orator who opposed the American slave trade; Maria Fearing, a former slave and Presbyterian missionary to Congo; and Ralph Bunche, the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and contributor to the United Nations’ creation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
She also called Christians to understand pro-life issues in light of scripture, not solely as partisan talking points.
“Oh, how we love to demonize our political and cultural opponents as if they are the enemies of human souls,” she said. “For the Christian, there is only one enemy of life, the deceiver himself.”
Ellis urged attendees to find hope in Jesus Christ alone, whom she described as the ultimate “affirmation of life.”
She included insights from her own family history of civil rights advocacy and experience with abortion.
When Ellis was a child, her mother brought her along to the polling station each election day, even allowing her to help in the voting process. She said the “ritual” was her mother’s way of passing down “hope in the next generation – as it had been done for so many generations before us.”
Ellis said her own abortion “broke the line.”
“If my life had been a movie, in that moment all of my ancestors would have cried out from history with a collective ‘No!’”
Now, when she sees the voting booths on election day, “I don’t just miss my own child. I miss the hundreds of thousands who are not present throughout the generations of all races,” Ellis said. “I often wonder how our political and cultural landscape would look if the generations of voices lost to abortion were present to decide for themselves how they want to live.”
Comparing the societal effects of present-day abortion practices to the chattel slavery practices of America’s past, Ellis said, “I am reminded that the 20th century brought something that 400 years of mass human trafficking did not produce on a large scale. Somehow a loss of hope in the potential of the next generation, to carry on the hope of the ancestors, has been lost.
“… When we deny someone their agency to make a lifetime of decisions … we debase ourselves and find that, at our core, we are no different than the slave trader or the architects of Jim Crow.”
She concluded the talk by encouraging people to understand human and civil rights as being unified, universal and biblical.
“We learned during the civil rights movement that legislation is a powerful tool for saving lives, but we also learned that legislation cannot do what the gospel of Jesus Christ can. Legislation alone cannot change hearts,” she said.
“Life is neither a progressive issue, nor a conservative one. It belongs not to Republicans, nor Democrats. It is an issue of respect for all humanity. It is an issue of hope. It is an issue of wisdom. For the Christian, especially the right to life, it is a biblical issue.”
View the full talk below: