Opposing sides at a rally outside Planned Parenthood in Missouri Credit: Don Shrubshell/AP Photos

Police, surgeons, schoolteachers, journalists, and, yes, I believe even the clergy are working stiffs who in the company of their own kind have been known to discuss their work with brutal callousness and gallows humor. Emotional shows are for novitiates.

Dr. Deborah Nucatola of Planned Parenthood nibbled on salad and sipped wine as she discussed harvesting fetal body parts with two antagonists she incorrectly believed were confederates, and for that she is damned—but not by anyone who wasn’t troubled by abortion in the first place. But then, that’s most of us, even abortion’s defenders who wished Nucatola had flashed a little torment. And so the Nucatola video and subsequent videos taken by the antiabortion Center for Medical Progress inflamed a running sore. And the Tribune’s Eric Zorn, who has tried harder than most of us to find ground for abortion’s enemy camps to share, posed an interesting distinction on Facebook.

Imagine yourself a foe of abortion whose young daughter is raped and impregnated, said Zorn. If you’d deny even this daughter an abortion you have a right to call yourself prolife, he said, and he both respects and admires your consistency and knows arguing with you is hopeless. But if you’d see to it your daughter got the abortion you’d deny other girls in the same predicament, in Zorn’s eyes you’re “just a moral crusader” who advocates pregnancy as the proper punishment for girls who have sex. I’d add that you’re a hypocrite—though Zorn didn’t use that word. But you know what? That’s OK. You’re someone he might be able to reach a compromise with. Again, this is my language not his, but if the absolutists are the prolife movement’s Thomas Mores the moral crusaders are its Thomas Cromwells. They do business.

As if to demonstrate the difference, Zorn has also posted a link to an extended conversation he engaged in years ago with an absolutist—Nora O’Callaghan, director of the Chicago archdiocese’s Respect Life Office. Zorn calls their conversation “one of the best, most civil debates on abortion you’re ever going to read”—and that it is. That’s why it’s so discouraging to read it. If their goal was a meeting of minds, Zorn and O’Callaghan came nowhere close.

Their written exchange of views began in February 2001 and ended 17 months later, with the last word given to James Finnegan, an antiabortion activist who stepped in when O’Callaghan became unavailable. His opposition, like hers, was anchored in Catholic faith, and he told Zorn this:

God’s greatest gift to us is our very lives. The fifth commandment is very clear. Thou shalt not kill. Murder is defined as “the unjust taking of an innocent life.” An accurate description of what is occurring in abortion. Scripture, such as Proverbs 24:11-12, is full of references to the sanctity of life, and God’s special love for His children. We as Christians, and decent Americans, have a responsibility to honor and protect the weak and defenseless among us. Do we always succeed? The answer unfortunately is no, but we must put forth the effort.

I wondered what the verses of Proverbs he cited have to say on his behalf, and I discovered they say this:

If you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death;
those who go staggering to the slaughter;
If you say, “Look, we did not know this”—
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it?
And will he not repay all according to their deeds?

In short, it is not enough to say no. It is necessary to intercede. But in the Tanakh, the Jewish ordering of the books of the Old Testament, Proverbs is immediately followed by Job. (In the Christian ordering Job comes earlier.) Here we find God making a sporting bet with Satan. To test his faithful “servant,” God puts Job in Satan’s hands and tells Satan to do his worst. Satan slays Job’s sons, daughters, and servants; and God, far from rescuing them or even registering a protest, merely points out to Satan that Job refuses to curse him. So Satan tries even harder. He covers Job with boils.

In the end, Jack Miles observes in his close reading of the book in God: A Biography, Job neither curses God nor meekly submits as a worm would who’s too low to question whatever God dishes out. Instead, he harangues God—as a parent would a child caught bullying. You’re better than this! Job lets God know. And God, caught out, doubles Job’s old fortune. Here’s what Miles has to say about that:

With Job’s assistance, [God’s] just, kind self has won out over his cruel, capricious self just as it did after the flood. But the victory has come at an enormous price. Job will father a new family, but the family he lost during the wager will not be brought back from the dead; neither will the servants whom the devil slew. And neither will God’s own innocence . . .

You can open the pages of the Bible where you want to open them and find the God you want to find. In this world God’s work must truly be our own, not least because if we don’t define God through our good works, others will define him through theirs—the jihadists and generals, pious masters of the universe and joyless fundamentalists, not to mention the relativists like Zorn, who told O’Callaghan, “Reasonable people can have different views on this matter,” and was told in return that even if they do, somebody’s right and somebody’s wrong: human life isn’t whatever you want to say it is. Her certainty reminded me of a 1960s bumper sticker:

“My God isn’t dead. Sorry about yours.”

I’ve enjoyed thinking of sin as religion’s most useful contribution, as a tool that should be appreciated even by people who aren’t particularly religious. Being categorical, it offered relativists a fixed yardstick for distinguishing lesser from greater evils, evils that are necessary from those that aren’t. The concept of sin opened up the field of righteousness the way the concept of zero opened up math. “Whatever your idea of God would be, sin is whatever makes that God weep,” I would say to anyone who asked. (Though who did?) “And certainly he would weep at abortion. But he weeps at war too, and some say of war that avoiding it can be the greater evil. Surely we can say that of abortion too. Besides, God forgives sins, does he not, especially when they are the lesser evils? So let us think about abortion as sin we can live with and take it from there.”

But where Zorn and O’Callaghan and Finnegan were able to take it was nowhere. And Job would ask us why in the world we would ever suppose God weeps.