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A Christian Like Obed

Rev. Robin Lunn

I've been wondering a lot these days about what Obed Dickinson would have done in the face of the injustices we are witnessing and experiencing today? If you don't know who Obed Dickinson is, he is the founding pastor of the First Congregational Church of Salem, Oregon. I've been thinking about him because we celebrate the 170th anniversary of the founding of this church July 3rd. While it is interesting to think about what he would have done in his day since the norms at the mid-19th century were not the same as today. It is more intriguing to think about what would a man of his character do today.

After 50 years of legal bodily autonomy, the conservative Catholic justices of the Supreme Court have revoked a woman's freedom to choose when and with whom to have children. This ruling states that "due process" (the 14th Amendment) "has long been controversial." In determining that a woman's reproductive freedom does not fall under the 14th amendment, and in siting the "wave of statutory restrictions in the [late] 1800s [that] expanded criminal liability for abortions", the Court disregarded the fact that criminalization happened concurrently with the end of slavery and the fear that the "mongrel hordes" would overtake the purity of the White Race. (Read this article about the racist history of criminalizing abortion here.)

Those who think the "church" has always been against abortion are unaware of the complex history we share. There has never been one religious belief on abortion, miscarriage or reproduction in general. The "common" idea that life begins at conception is an early 20th century creation that was used to control White women, particularly those who had entered the workforce in the 1930's and 1940's. Until the 20th century, much of the "church" held that life began when a fetus was able to live, on its own, outside of the mother's womb. Life was at first breath, not at the gender reveal party. The rise in medical interventions to save premature babies in the mid 20th century allowed for (White Middle Class) "life" to began earlier and earlier.

Much of the so-called abortion "debate" has been framed by men who seek power and status in one way or another. In various times abortion was seen as desirable and necessary. Did you know that, until Roe, the US Military had a law that REQUIRED enlisted women to either leave the service or have an abortion if they wanted to stay in the military? Did you know that the American Eugenics movement created pogroms that forced abortions and sterilization on thousands of women deemed unfit in the late 19th and well into the 20th century? And did you know that a disproportionate number of these forced abortions and sterilizations were done on women of color, Indigenous women and poor women in rural America? These government pogroms, with mostly liberal religious backing, inspired Hitler's Final Solution. Whether forced sterilizations at detention centers on the borders, or forced births in half of the country, reproductive and bodily autonomy for women is a fiction in the US. Ask any Woman of Color. What has always been true is that "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" has only been available for White Cis Gender Heterosexual Protestant Men. This is Privilege. Some have used it to lift up their neighbors. Some have not.

I think Obed Dickinson understood his privilege, which is why he defied the society of his day and welcomed as members and then officiated the wedding of America Waldo and Richard Boggle, the first Black couple married in Oregon. I believe it is why this congregation voted to allow women to be full members in 1864. I believe it is why this congregation became Open and Affirming 30 years ago. The DNA of this congregation is one of moving with the Spirit toward justice and equity for all peoples and all of creation.

That being said, we are in an inflection point as a country, and as a congregation, too. We are living in dangerous times. We do not know when the New Jerusalem, John's vision of a state of equity, peace and wholeness will come, but we know that it cannot come if we are not willing to do our part to bring the prayer of Jesus into reality - "Your Kin*dom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." As we remember our founding, let us listen deeply for the mission we are being called to join for such a time as this. Let us sing and pray and make good trouble that the future will say of us, "They were just like Obed Dickinson! They risked it all to follow Jesus."

With Peace and Passion,

Pastor Robin

Read more about religion and reproductive freedom

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