The reading at Mass today is – or should be – sobering for pro-life activists. Who’s obnoxious?
The reading is from a book that Catholics consider part of the Bible, but Protestants don’t. It’s from Wisdom, chapter 2.
“The wicked said among themselves, thinking not aright: ‘Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the LORD. To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, because his life is not like that of others, and different are his ways. He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He calls blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father. Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.’ These were their thoughts, but they erred; for their wickedness blinded them, and they knew not the hidden counsels of God; neither did they count on a recompense of holiness nor discern the innocent souls' reward.”
Oftentimes, the work of a local rescue squad is boring. Boring, boring. It can be like war: months of boredom, punctuated by periods of intense excitement.
It requires preparation. The job itself is pretty simple: park your butt in the way, and don’t move. Other people take over after a while, and they do the heavy lifting. And then you go to trial and jail and all that. But the actual physical task: park your butt. That’s pretty limited. So if you focus on that, you’re a jackass. Preparation: that’s where most of the time and energy goes.
A rescue – whether it’s the fire department or a team of pro-life nonviolent activists – has level after level of engagement. The physical action is exciting, briefly; and it is indispensable. But it is not the whole story.
The heart of the pro-life nonviolence is described in today’s reading. When you park your butt blocking access to an abortion clinic, many people find you obnoxious. This should not be a surprise; they have a point, and they may be right. Whatever you mean to say, they see you and hear you objecting to something they consider necessary and good, and in any case as their business, not yours. So after some thought, they come after you. And you get tested. This is predictable, necessary, and actually a very good thing – because what you want to communicate isn’t clear until you have been pounded for a while.
What we want to say is, this pregnancy thing is about a child. That child is my brother, or sister. I’m not condemning you, or even criticizing. I’m just staying with the child. I know full well that not everyone agrees that there’s a child there. But I think there is, and I have to stay with that child as well as I can. Maybe you will do what you planned to do, and at the end of the day the child will be dead, and the body will be trashed or burned or sent to a lab. But I’m staying here. So before you deport the child, you have to do something about me.
It’s legitimate to test that assertion. What happens if we arrest the fruitcake, and send him or her to jail? Will he shut up and go away? That’s a completely legitimate test. And in fact, it’s a good question, and we should answer it. But the answer, like the original act, should be physical, not verbal – or physical as well as verbal. Get arrested, and go to jail. Then it’s clear, at a minimum, that you might have meant what you said: this is my brother or sister. Or in any case, it’s clear that you meant something serious.
I am intensely grateful to the martyrs of the early Church. The idea that some obscure rabbi rose from the dead is not believable, unless we can test the proposition pretty carefully. But how to test it? No cameras, no forensic teams, no reporters and investigators. It was 2,000 years ago, 6,000 miles away, in a different culture that might use words in ways I don’t understand. What do we have? We have a number of accounts from various eye-witnesses; but I can’t cross-examine them. We also have the reactions of thousands of eye-witnesses, and their followers for several generations, who attested to the truth of their assertions even when their claims cost them their lives. To me, those deaths are convincing, offering more credibility than reporters and cameras would offer. (There’s more: the Gospels with the martyrs find an echo in my heart, or even a “voice,” that I would not interpret aright without the Gospels and martyrs, but which – with Gospels and martyrs – I find compelling.) The claim that Christians make was tested, should be tested, is tested.
And the same is true with our claim about children. It should be tested.
Nonviolence is a claim: we attest to a truth, and ask others to consider it.
With great pain, I have to say: I think that pro-lifers were tested in the 1980s and 1990s, and failed the test. Will we go to jail to clarify an incredible claim (or an unpopular claim, anyway)? Yes, for a while. But then we move on.
Why did we move on? It’s fair for outsiders to look at what we did, and draw conclusions: they didn’t think that unborn children were worth the fuss, and they tested us to see if we really meant it; and having tested us, they conclude that we didn’t mean it either.
Their conclusion is fair. But I think it’s wrong. The rescue movement did not stop because we didn’t mean it. The problem was, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were confused about the differences between a violent struggle, or even a political debate – and a campaign of nonviolence. We reverted to the familiar, and left nonviolence behind.