This is an excerpt from a book published in 2000. It is the second part, of three; I include also the introduction to the book. Part Two is based largely on a talk I gave in 1986, at a conference organized by John Ryan. I have referred to it often in the past weeks, so I am making it available here.
The whole book is available from Amazon or Kindle.
The whole book is available from Amazon or Kindle.
God's Act, Our Response
Copyright © 2000 by John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe.
Chapter 1: No Cheap Solutions ...................................15
Chapter 2: The Search for a Strategy............................59
Chapter 3: The Violent Option Fails ............................75
Chapter 4: The Power of Nonviolence..........................95
Chapter 5: A Century of Insight ................................120
Chapter 6: Transforming Grace .................................129
EPILOGUE: Emmanuel, the Promise of Peace ................152
Appendix 1: Nonviolence and the Image of Blood......159
Appendix 2: Does a Mother Forget? ...........................176
Appendix 3: The Right to Compassion.......................185
Accounts of Filipino nonviolence are from God With Us: The 1986 Philippine Revolution, by Alfeo G. Nudas, SJ (Manila: Loyola School of Theology, 1986), pp. 58-59. Used with permission.
“Rescue those who are being dragged off to execution, and do not stand back.” Why is that a controversial idea? It may be hard to do, but it should not be hard to explain or to justify. Emmanuel, Solidarity is about pro-life nonviolent action, the “rescue” movement. Why should we do it? How should we do it? Will it hurt more than it helps? Is it just another project that will come and go? What is it all about? Will it lead to violence? This book explores the basis of the rescue movement, and makes three claims.
(1) Rescue: It’s common sense. We know where and when a child’s life will be in grave danger; we should be there to help, if we can. We know where and when a pregnant woman will be in grave trouble; we should be there, if we can. But abortion distorts our thinking severely. When abortion enters the picture, things that were obvious become subjects of prolonged debate. Prolonged debate is entertaining for many, but it is deadly for preborn brothers and sisters and harmful for parents in crisis. There is urgency about this debate. Are preborn children members of the human community? Do they deserve equal protection? Are their rights derived from the State or from God? If the State refuses to protect them, who should? How? These questions are important and urgent, and should be debated openly—and answered. Then we should act.
(2) Rescue: It’s the clear lesson of history. Evils like slavery and abortion are ended by warfare or by campaigns of nonviolence, not by changing the law. For decades, most of the pro-life movement has been trying to protect children by changing the law, pursuing a strategy that has no precedent in human history. Why? At what point will pro-lifers let go of a bankrupt strategy and look at something else? For many years, the proponents of the strategy of law-alone have refused even to debate their strategy. They have had enough clout to push other views aside and enforce a “consensus.” But we need an open debate on the issue, because the strategy of protecting children and mothers by changing the law is not just slow. If history is a reliable guide, it will never work. Only a campaign of nonviolence will succeed.
(3) Rescue: It’s the teaching of the Catholic Church. The route to freedom from social evil is solidarity with the victims. Solidarity can take many forms, but the most obvious form is presence with the victims at the time of their greatest danger. The only teaching of the Church about abortion that reaches the public ear, generally, is that abortion is a sin. The Church does teach that, but also teaches the way to freedom: solidarity. Perhaps we should listen. Common sense, history and the Catholic Church all say the same thing: Rescue those who are being taken off to execution, and do not stand back.
Part One discusses the appropriate response to the plight of the individual child and the individual mother scheduled for an abortion. Clearly, when a homicide is being planned and a preventable death is imminent, the appropriate response is action to stop the killing. There are many criticisms of the rescue movement, but none are serious enough to stop action that will save a child’s life.
Part Two is about the search for appropriate response to the millions of abortions each year. When we look at the unimaginable number of abortions in our world today, it is clear that we should try to find a way to respond to the whole problem, beginning with the crises faced by individuals but moving on to the global crisis as well.
We have to choose between war and a campaign of nonviolence; history does not provide us with a third option. The law can follow after us at some time, but we must begin by establishing “facts on the ground.” When we have made it clear that a community will respond whenever a child and a pregnant woman are in danger, then the society as a whole is forced to choose whether to jail those who kill or those who rescue, whether to restrain abortionists or bishops. The myth of neutrality—which is really an oxymoron: neutrality always favors the oppressor, never the oppressed—is no longer an option.
Part Two also explores the history of nonviolence, and its demonstrated power to change societies, showing that the power of sacrificial love is measurably as great as the power of the bullet.
Part Three explores the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on nonviolence. The Catholic Church draws insight from her own rich tradition as well as from modern leaders of nonviolence like Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King. She speaks of “solidarity.” The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is not only a personal sin, but is also a social evil, and that the route to freedom from a social evil is solidarity with the victims of the evil.
The three parts of the book make overlapping arguments, but I chose to make each part complete in itself, able to stand on its own. For this reason, there is a little repetition; if you notice it, please understand.
The book draws heavily on ideas taken from pamphlets and booklets published by the Pro-life Nonviolent Action Project, of which I was a co-founder in 1977 and later coordinator. Part One, “No Cheap Solutions,” is a revision of a booklet published by the Prolife Nonviolent Action Project in 1984. Some of the ideas in the book have appeared in ALL About Issues, Life and Family News, HLI Reports, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
I am indebted to the other founders and coordinators of the Prolife Nonviolent Action Project: Jeanne Miller, Dave Gaetano, Lucy O’Keefe, Burke Balch, Leszek Syski, John Leary and Harry Hand.
Kathie O’Keefe, my sister, has allowed me to add a dimension to the book with her story “Does a Mother Forget?” and her article “A Right to Compassion.”
Some books about rescues have skipped carelessly over the roles played by women in the movement; the record should be kept straight. The first rescuers, in 1975, were eight women, led by Chris Mooney. The first rescuer to go to jail was a woman, Jo McGowan, in 1977 in Massachusetts. When a group of men made a big deal of establishing a policy of refusing to pay fines, the first person who paid a high price for that policy, suffering alone in jail, was a woman (or girl), Jeanne Miller, who went to jail in Connecticut on her 18th birthday. The person whose sacrifice and courage put the rescue movement before the nation was a woman: Joan Andrews. When I found bodies in Maryland, I did what I could as long as I could; but when I couldn’t stand any more, I called for effective and strong help from a woman: ChristyAnne Collins. The first national rescues, with events across the country, were organized by two women, Lucy O’Keefe and Jeanne Miller. The first series of consecutive rescues, in city after city, was organized by a woman, Juli Loesch. Some men helped to start rescues overseas, but the key work in European and Latin American rescues was done by two women, Joan Andrews and Kathie O’Keefe.
Chapter 2: The Search for a Strategy
Chapter 3: The Violent Option Fails
Chapter 4: The Power of Nonviolence
Part One presented a complete argument about the responsibility of an individual facing abortion. Part Two is about the search for appropriate response to the millions of abortions each year.
At a convention of the National Right to Life Committee one year, rescuers confronted one of the eminent leaders of the movement who had criticized rescues and asked him what he said about the children who had been saved by their actions. “One little baby!” he said. “We need to save millions, and this illegal stuff makes that harder.”
Rescues are indeed a response to one little baby, and one little mother. But we don’t have to choose between one today and a million tomorrow. The rescue movement offers a long-term strategy that is better than the old pass-an-amendment strategy. That long-term strategy is the subject of Part Two.
There are three key arguments here. First, we do indeed need a strategy, but a strategy that focuses primarily on changing the law is nonsense. Only warfare or a campaign of nonviolence can end abortion, making it possible to change the law. Second, the violent option should be debated openly; it is a temptation only when it is whispered in the dark. Third, a strategy of nonviolence can succeed.
THE SEARCH FOR A STRATEGY
We need a strategy
Until the late 1980s, most pro-lifers had a strategy in mind for ending abortion. The strategies changed from time to time, and may not have been realistic, but they existed. Today, many people no longer have any strategy, good or bad. They are just drifting along, trying this and trying that. We need an articulate and comprehensive vision of what we are setting out to do.
Some people are content with a pragmatic cafeteria approach, or smorgasbord. But this approach has several serious pitfalls. First, it tends to be reactive rather than pro-active. Without an articulate strategy, it is hard for pro-lifers to see what steps they should take on our own, and they tend to allow the abortionists to seize the initiative. Smorgasbord may win some battles, but not the war.
A second problem with smorgasbord is that it is often consequentialist, evaluating actions solely by their results, their fruits. But consequentialism is an inadequate moral theory, and an inadequate tool for discerning God’s will for us.
The pro-life movement will never get anywhere as long as we evaluate all our actions in terms of their measurable results. Pro-lifers must try to obey the Lord, and let him determine the consequences. As long as pro-lifers undertake only those actions whose short-term consequences they can foretell, they will be utterly crippled. Pro-lifers have a chance of victory only when they stop looking for it.
The paradox here is not just a clever trick. Jesus said, “He who to seeks to save his life will lose it, while he who is ready to relinquish his life for the sake of the kingdom will live forever.” That is a ringing denunciation of consequentialism. The followers of Jesus are required, commanded, to take the focus off results, and fix their eyes on the Lord, who will show the way. To get results, pro-lifers must place their trust in the Lord, put their plans in his hands, and seek his will.
Third, the smorgasbord approach offers little or no reason to avoid violence. If pro-lifers are experimenting, trying all methods, why not try violence and see what happens? The smorgasbord approach cannot answer questions like that.
There are other dangers that arise when you drifting without a plan. Pro-lifers without their own plan can easily be coopted by other people. For example, many pro-lifers have been sucked into conservative coalitions. Many people believe that abortion is one manifestation of the moral rot of America, which a conservative revival will end.
But abortion is not a partisan issue. Pro-lifers work toward the day when all people of good will, of all parties and nearly ideologies, will once again protect the helpless. Liberals as well as conservatives can and should defend the preborn.
After the election of Bill Clinton, many pro-life leaders said that the nation had elected the “most liberal” president ever. Liberal in what sense? Liberals are proud of their work to expand the boundaries of the human community, breaking down the barriers of race and creed and sex. But excluding the preborn from the family shrinks the community; that’s not liberal. Similarly, promoting “abortion rights” isn’t liberal any more than promoting states’ rights was liberal, unless you accept the assumption that preborn children are nonentities. Pro-lifers reject that assumption. We consider preborn children to be members of the human family. So we do not see abortion as a right, new or old; we see it as a gross violation of human rights. What’s liberal about human rights violations? It is a sloppy error to call abortion “liberal.”
The conservative coalition benefits conservatives. But it does not automatically help pro-lifers, let alone babies.
On the other hand, pro-lifers must also be cautious about left-wing coalitions. I am a lefty-for-life myself—a pacifist, feminist, pro-welfare Democrat with a broad streak of anti-authoritarianism. But protecting children from slaughter must always take precedence over partisan squabbles and strategies.
When there is no coherent strategy, people can simply lose track of the goal, drifting farther and farther away from a determined effort to protect their brothers and sisters. I have met generous individuals who have worked hard to provide support for individual women or couples, but have completely abandoned the idea that we must protect children. At a meeting of the Scottish branch of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, I met a man who opposed rescues “because you must allow the woman freedom of conscience.” I asked him what the difference was between a rescue and the actions of the police if the laws that SPUC promotes are ever passed. He couldn’t explain the difference, but stuck to the idea that pro-lifers should only offer help, and must not actually intervene.
Fortunately, this phenomenon of having virtual pro-choicers consider themselves to be pro-life simply because they prefer life to death is not yet widespread in the United States, but this mind set is a danger. Pro-lifers who look only at the daily challenges and do not try to see ahead can drift into a quiet conviction that what we must do in the long run is to accept the hard task of offering alternatives to abortion. That task, overwhelming though it might be, is not enough.
I experienced this temptation acutely when I was working to set up a pregnancy aid center in the same building as an abortion facility. The work of volunteers in the center was to catch women on their way to the abortionist and help them choose life. But the work involved sitting quietly, day in and day out, about 80 yards away from executions. There was an overwhelming temptation to adopt an attitude of friendly competition, a “live and let live” attitude, not towards the children but toward the abortion clinic.
Many pro-lifers today are doing whatever they can to protect babies and pregnant women, trying whatever works. Such a pragmatic, experimental approach is admirable, but it is limited. Pro-lifers need an articulate and comprehensive vision of the task ahead, a strategy. A long-term strategy must be more than a collection of tactics.
Relying on the law is a dead end
The dominant strategy of the pro-life movement has been a legal strategy, an effort to reverse Roe v. Wade by amendment or through the courts. The National Right to Life Committee has championed this great effort, and has resisted other strategies, including rescues. Rescues might save babies and mothers one by one, but they disrupted the long-range goal of protecting all children and all families. They argued that in the long run abortion would be stopped only by the law. They felt that when pro-lifers were arrested, that gave the pro-life movement a bad reputation, and also eroded respect for the law, which was very important to them, since they intended to end abortion by law, and wanted the laws to work.
There are many problems with the NRLC approach. For one, it confuses the goal of the pro-life movement with a tool. The goal is protection; the law is one powerful tool.
Consider the comparative situations of Poland and Mexico. Although the statistics from both countries are problematic and subject to dispute, it appears that abortion is more common in Mexico where it is illegal, than in Poland where it was considered legal by the government (prior to 1993). Children are protected better by the moral commitment of the people of Poland than by the machinery of law in Mexico. That doesn’t mean that the law has no role at all in protecting children; but it does indicate that the law must be understood as a part of a larger picture.
In fact, there are strong anti-abortion laws all over Latin America. That’s great, as far as it goes. But many pro-lifers there are mesmerized by these laws, and somehow believe that a strong law means that babies are protected. Like magic, you wave the law and peace is restored. So in Rio de Janeiro in 1991, there were 40 to 50 abortion clinics advertising in the Yellow Pages, but pro-lifers have found it very hard to get organized to do much about it, because they had a good law. It is very hard to get people to look at reality when they are determined to look only at theory.
Some racists are inclined to dismiss the difficulty of enforcing laws protecting babies in Latin America. They insist that in the developed nations, a strong law means something, means real protection. But look at Britain, that extremely law-abiding nation with the friendly Bobbies who don’t even have to carry guns. In law-abiding Britain, almost all abortion is illegal, but no one knows it because the law is a joke. No one tries to enforce it. Abortion on demand is not legal in Britain; the law says that you need to have a couple of physicians sign off that the abortion is medically necessary. But everyone knows that that loophole is big enough to cover anything, so everyone ignores the law. In Britain, where you think it means something when you say that the law is law, the abortion law is a transparent farce.
All pro-life activists are familiar with Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. She had a friend, something of a mentor, named Havelock Ellis. Ellis was a member of the Eugenics Society (“more from the fit, less from the unfit”), and he convinced her and many other people that the only way to make eugenic theory work, to drag it out of the realm of airy theory and make it a part of life, was to give birth control drugs or devices to everyone, and persuade them to use them. The rich already used birth control, but the poor were multiplying and they needed access to potent drugs. Ellis was an extremely influential person in the eugenics movement, and helped to lay the foundation for global abortion. But Havelock Ellis opposed the legalization of abortion, because he saw clearly that the law could be warped without a great change, that abortion could become widespread without changing the law, by exploiting loopholes or encouraging lax enforcement or simple non-enforcement. But changing the law, he predicted, would stir up the opposition. His strategy was simple fraud, with nothing complicated in it: just pretend to give people what they want, and then do what you want.
Why, 80 or 90 years later, are we still so anxious to be fooled by Havelock Ellis? Pro-lifers need to decide whether they want a law that sounds great or real protection for babies. If you choose real protection, you may eventually get a good law too. But if you choose to have a good law, maybe you will get it and maybe you won’t; but if you get it, it is likely to be an empty shell, a scam.
Enforcing laws requires that determined and alert adults care for babies. Babies are protected by the determined action of vigilant adults who take action when babies are in danger, not by a piece of paper.
The strategy of relying on the law had further flaws. It was necessarily reductive, since it relied on a search for consensus. The reductive search for consensus must always wander farther and farther away from the restrictions of principle, moving from the Hatch amendment to rape/incest exceptions, ending in squabbles over funding restrictions. Politics is the art of the possible, and relies on compromise. But pro-lifers are not authorized to compromise away the life of a single child! Even if a deal were offered bluntly, “Let us kill one, and a million will be protected,” that is not acceptable. If that one child were to sacrifice himself freely, that would be a different matter, but nobody other than the child can make that decision. A compromise like that was proposed centuries ago by Caiaphas, the high priest in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified: “It is better that one should die than that the nation should perish” (John 18:14). Caiaphas was wrong then, and his proposal, however tempting, is still wrong today.
Sometimes there is confusion about who has the right to life. The point must be made clearly: rights reside in the individual, not in a class of people. It is the individual child who has the sacred and infinitely precious right to life, not the generic “preborn.” If rights did reside in a class of people, it might be sufficient to work to change the future through political or legislative action, or through education. But rights reside in individual human beings, made in the image of God. Consequently, we have a sacred responsibility to work seriously to protect individuals who are threatened today.
“If you save one person, it is like saving the world.”
Further, the energy that was poured into politics has not borne much fruit. There were some successes: Federal funding of abortion was stopped for years, for example. But as the years passed after 1973, more and more pro-lifers shifted their focus from abortion to euthanasia and infanticide. The realities, apart from the rhetoric, grew worse. Globally, the much-exalted “right to choose” was being eroded, but not by any counterbalancing right to life, but by coercive population policies. Often, these ant-life and anti-choice policies were designed and supported by Americans. During the Reagan administration, American funding of incentives— the threshold of coercion—increased dramatically.
Pro-lifers generally felt they had won a great victory when American funding for International Planned Parenthood Federation was cut off as a result of the Mexico City policy. A quarter of IPPF’s $52 million budget was from the U.S. The cutoff was good, but Planned Parenthood used the cut-off to paint themselves as persecuted pioneers, and quickly raised money to replace the American cuts. And the American funds for Planned Parenthood were channeled to other depopulation agencies, including Planned Parenthood/Western Hemisphere, an affiliate that promotes but does not provide abortion. In fact, American funding for depopulation work climbed steadily under the “pro-life” administrations of Reagan and Bush.
In practice, the legal strategy seeks to protect children by authorizing the police to restrain abortionists, in the name of the community. But if no one in the community feels that we have a duty to restrain the abortionist, regardless of the currently non-protective laws, why should we authorize others to act in our names? If I don’t have a duty to do something, how can I place the burden on someone else?
The problem here is ancient. Do rights and duties come from the State, or from God? John Kennedy, in his inaugural address, spoke of a torch passed to a new generation. The torch, as he described it, was not merely a symbol of life and leadership passing from one generation to another; it was far more specific than that. He said:
Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come from the hand of God, and not from the generosity of the State.
We dare not forget that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . .
The torch that was passed was a “revolutionary belief,” the belief that “the rights of man come from the hand of God, and not from the generosity of the State.” According to Kennedy, that belief was and still is revolutionary, was and still is under attack, was and still is in danger of being forgotten by Americans.
Kennedy said we dare not forget we are the heirs of that belief. But the Supreme Court dared to forget, and demolished legal protection of the preborn. Kennedy also stated that his generation was “proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.” He was simply wrong about that; his generation was willing to witness and to permit the fairly rapid disintegration of protection for basic human rights. Kennedy’s words meant nothing whatsoever to Justice Blackmun and Justice Brennan.
But the tragedy is deeper. Even pro-lifers talk of “restoring the right to life.” How can you “restore” what is still there? This is not merely sloppy language. Many pro-lifers—general public aside— believe that the right to life was abolished by the Court. That is nonsense! You could more easily abolish the sea and the sky! If the right to life is an inalienable gift of the Creator, our loving Father, then no one else can bestow the right, or remove it, or restore it. The right stands firm forever. Abortionists ignore it and kill children, but the right is a solid, objective fact, unaltered and unalterable by any action of the State.
With the right to life comes the duty to protect that right. That duty too is from God, not from the State, and the State cannot absolve anybody of that duty. A key function of the State is to ensure that this duty is discharged in an orderly and effective manner, but the State didn’t invent the duty any more than the State invented humanity. The State does not have the power to alter the solid, objective fact that you and I and every member of the human community have the duty to act as our “brother’s keeper.” The law should help to carry out that duty, but cannot simply abolish it.
The clear lessons of history refute the arguments proposed by National Right to Life Committee and others. Rescuing children by direct action is not only the most obvious response to the plight of individuals, but is also the best long-term strategy for responding to this social evil.
In the history of the human race, massive and deeply entrenched social evils like slavery or colonialism or abortion have been ended by only two means: warfare and campaigns of nonviolence. For 20 years, the American pro-life movement focused on a dream, trying to end abortion by changing the law. This effort was noble, but history offered no reason to believe this was possible.
Wars have altered social conditions effectively. Americans won independence by war. Slavery was ended by war. Some people nitpick at that, arguing that slavery was ended by Constitutional amendment. But the legislation ending slavery officially was impossible before the war and inevitable after the war. Similarly, the Nazi holocaust was ended by war. World War II was not fought to end the slaughter; the end of the slaughter was an accidental by-product of the war.
Nonviolence has also changed social conditions effectively. In India, Gandhi led a campaign of nonviolence that ended British rule there. In the American South, Rev. Martin Luther King led a campaign of nonviolence that ended segregation there. The civil rights movement also worked to pass legislation, but the power of the movement was in the visible willingness of King’s followers to suffer for justice; the changes in the law were a fruit of that courage.
Besides the two familiar examples of successful campaigns of nonviolence—Gandhi and King—there have been two more recent and far larger campaigns of nonviolence. In Poland, the Solidarity movement broke the power of the Communist dictatorship, setting in motion a series of events that led eventually to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and then the Soviet Union. Polish nonviolence was not the only force at play—for seven decades faithful believers prayed for Russia, and the arms race destroyed the weak economy of the Soviets, Communism doesn’t work anywhere, and the speed of modern communications made cooperative action easier for the resistance—but Polish nonviolence started the momentous transformation. Similarly, in the Philippines, a nonviolent revolution toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
There have been some suggestions of alternatives to war or a campaign of nonviolence as effective means to end deeply entrenched social evils. Michael Bell, a great pro-life leader from Bournemouth and an early supporter of rescues in England, suggested the end of slavery in the British Empire as a counter-example, a social evil ended by some means other than war or a campaign of nonviolence. It is true that slavery in the British Empire was ended peacefully by a change in the law, but this is not a good counter-example, because the decision to end slavery in the empire was made by the British, not by the people who were affected by the decision. The ability to make a decision in London ending slavery overseas was a consequence of prior conquest. Slavery was not a deeply entrenched and pervasive social evil in Britain, where the decision was made to end it. In those places in the empire where slavery was a problem, the power of the decision was a delayed consequence of warfare.
The Exodus ended the evil of slavery for the Israelite people, and they did not take up arms against the Egyptians nor endure a period of creative martyrdom. That may be a real counter-example to my argument. I offer two points in response. First, the Psalms describe the Exodus as a war that God fought. Second, even if this is in fact a legitimate counter-example, it is hard to use it in planning a response to abortion. Can we turn to God and ask for his intervention today, just as he intervened against the Egyptians 3,000 years ago but not since? The Exodus, if it is a counterexample, may be the exception that proves the rule.
Christians believe that God’s action against the Egyptians foreshadowed the victory that Jesus Christ won against sin and death. But Jesus’ action, I would argue, fits the pattern of martyrdom or nonviolence. In fact, Jesus established the pattern.
At a day-long discussion of pro-life nonviolence sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Institute in Washington in 1991, George Weigel suggested the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 as a counter-example. But according Alexander II, the person who ended serfdom, this change was the result of a war. Alexander II said that when Russia suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Crimean War, it became clear that the nation needed to adapt to the new world, and so he ended serfdom.
It is not uncommon to hear people suggest that abortion and infanticide in the Roman Empire were ended by the spread of Christianity, and to suggest that evangelization is the way to end abortion today. I support evangelization, but the idea that it ended abortion in Rome is not the whole truth. There were abortion and infanticide in the Roman Empire, and these evils were opposed by the Christians. At a later time, these evils were not tolerated in Christian Europe. But there were some intervening events: the Roman Empire was swept away by warfare. Hundreds of years later, when civilization re-emerged from the rubble, it was a Christian civilization in which abortion and infanticide were considered criminal. People who suggest that we end abortion today the same way the early Christians did, by prayer and by quiet protection of exposed infants, are ignoring hundreds of years of pervasive violence and chaos. The brutality of the Roman Empire was not ended in a tidy transformation of society.
Some people have suggested that we remember social evils when they are ended dramatically, but that there may be some evils which ended quietly. If an evil ended without a war or campaign of nonviolent resistance, we might not remember it for long, because our history focuses on drama and violence. It is hard to answer that argument; how do you remember those events that historians have forgotten?
The only example I have heard proposed of a pervasive social evil that ended quietly was anti-Catholicism. But it is not clear that anti-Catholicism ended quietly; it not clear it has ended at all. Four Catholic bishops were arrested in the late 1980s and early 1990, and almost no one knew about it. They were not arrested for drunk driving or anything like that; they were arrested for actions that they undertook prayerfully—rescuing babies from death. Many states and Congress considered legislation raising the penalties for the actions these bishops undertook. When the actions of several bishops are called “terrorism” or “fanaticism,” and when they are labeled as felons, we are in the middle of a Church-State confrontation that is deeper than anything in American history. It seems to me that if an unprecedented confrontation is easy to overlook, that is evidence of persistent anti-Catholicism.
Some people look at changing demographics and express hope for a peaceful return to pronatalist laws. The next generation is always made up exclusively of children of those parents who had children. People who promote abortion may vote themselves, but they rarely produce a large family of new voters. Anti-natalism is an idea that cannot be passed from one generation to the next for very long; it dies out naturally. This sunny proposition may account for changing attitudes toward abortion on campuses in the 1990s; student views began swinging back toward protection of the preborn. That is a good trend, but it seems to me that a trend is not the same thing as a reversal; a return to protection will not happen until there is a massive upheaval of some kind.
I know of no counter-examples to the proposition that massive deeply entrenched evils like slavery and abortion are ended by war or by campaigns of nonviolence. The long, expensive, difficult struggle to end abortion in this country by changing the law was never more than a dream. It bore some fruit by focusing attention on the issue, and the Hyde Amendment certainly saved many lives. But the idea that we would end this pervasive evil by changing the law had no basis in human history.
The real goal is protection of children and women. A Human Life Amendment would be a good tool, but is not an end in itself. It is surprisingly common to see intelligent pro-life leaders confuse the means with the end.
Globally, over 1.5 billion babies have been killed by surgical abortion in one generation. Billions more have been killed by nonsurgical methods, by abortifacient drugs and devices. Despite that colossal rate, some people still dream of stopping this slaughter— unprecedented in the history of the globe, with a body count that is greater than the total of all other forms of interpersonal violence put together since Cain killed Abel—with the same methods we use to adjust our taxes. This is total lunacy.
Legislation is a necessary part of the whole. But in a crisis like this, good legislation is a product, not a tool. Legislation is more like an announcement of victory than a way to get there. It is a fruit, not a tree.
If Roe v. Wade falls, that will be a great step forward. However, it is the rescue movement that matters. Massive and pervasive social evils like slavery and colonialism and imperialism—and now abortion—have never in human history been extirpated by legislation.
CHAPTER 3: THE VIOLENT OPTION FAILS
If there are only two realistic options for ending abortion, both should be discussed openly. Why not respond to violence with violence?
In an earlier chapter, I argued that on an individual level, it is shortsighted to try to protect a preborn child without considering the child’s unique relationship with his or her mother. But on a social level, it is even more obvious that violence is shortsighted. No advocate of violence has a reasonable plan, or even a hazy sketch, for ending abortion by violence. The most ambitious and far-seeing of them may gesture in the direction of guerrilla war, but none spell out their plans.
This narrowness is not excusable. The scope of abortion is unimaginable. Abortion is not a national problem; it is global. Pro-lifers in the United States often make the rhetorical point that “every 23 seconds, a baby dies.” The horrendous statistic does not convey an accurate picture; it blurs time, ignoring concrete reality. Few children are aborted at midnight, or on Sunday. Saturday morning, all hell breaks loose all over the country. 23 seconds is an average that hides the bloody reality of Saturday morning, when perhaps 10,000 babies are killed in five hours across the nation. But also, the figure is narrow-minded nationalism. Globally, babies are dying every second. The children of God who are killed by abortion do not carry the flags of their nations like tiny Olympic runners to the throne of God their Father. God doesn’t care whether his children are American or Chinese or Nigerian. The killing is global, and the response must also be global. Guerrilla warfare is not an intelligent response to global problems. Are we ready for a world war over abortion?
To be fair to the advocates of violence, they are not alone in the illusion that the task is ending abortion in America; most American pro-lifers cling this myth. But the idea that abortion can be stopped in America alone ignores recent history. One of the powerful arguments for ending legal protection of babies in the United States was that abortion was available to the rich who could travel overseas, but not available to those who could not afford to travel. In the 1960s, one of the most popular hosts of a daily television show for children, Sherri Finkbine, used a prescription drug called thalidomide. She was pregnant when it was discovered that thalidomide was the cause of an epidemic of babies born with deformed limbs. She decided to abort her child, and her trip to Sweden for an abortion was discussed around the world, and provided an emotionally powerful argument for changing protective state laws. Since that time, international travel has become much easier. Clearly, ending abortion in one country is a good step, but it is not enough.
This problem is obvious in Ireland, although Irish pro-lifers are extremely reluctant to face it squarely. There is no surgical abortion in the Republic of Ireland, and little in Ulster except in Queen Victoria Hospital in Belfast. But still, the British government releases statistics annually on the number of preborn babies killed, and the statistics include the homelands of the dead. According to the British, about 4,000 Irish mothers travel across the sea to Liverpool or Manchester every year for abortions. It is good that there is no killing in Ireland, but Irish babies are still killed. The Irish who keep abortion out of Ireland are protecting their consciences, not their preborn brothers and sisters.
Under the Irish Constitution, children are citizens from conception. From the Irish perspective, the British are listing the killing of 4,000 Irish citizens each year. But they don’t raise the issue in international court, and very few travel across to England to protect their helpless countrymen from death at the hands of the British.
Irish babies are not safe from killing until abortion stops in Britain. In fact, they aren’t safe as long as there is killing anywhere in Europe. And neither are American babies, or any babies. Protecting children in one nation is a good step, but no more than that. Children must be protected everywhere they go.
Abortion has become a global problem. It is first and foremost a personal evil, but it is also global. The staggering abortion statistics within the United States are only a fraction of what is happening around the world. Accurate global statistics are not available; estimates of surgical abortion range from 20 million annually to 100 million annually. But even using the low estimate, surgical abortion takes far more lives than famine, malnutrition and warfare together.
Abortion is a global phenomenon, deeply entrenched and fiercely defended; it won’t be stopped by a few home-made bombs or a few snipers. Abortion is promoted by the governments of all industrialized nations. It is promoted by all United Nations bodies and by the World Bank. Every government that has nuclear bombs promotes abortion; none of the pro-life nations are nuclear powers. Those who promote a violent response to abortion have rarely if ever thought their campaign through to a plausible conclusion.
How, then, can anyone plan a violent response? It is sobering to note that a nuclear war destroying the nation of the North would be a proportionate (not discriminate, logical, intelligent, or recommended—just proportionate) response to abortion. The scope of the problem cannot be overestimated easily. If we try to establish justice by warfare, killing an adult for every child killed, then we can take out all of the USA, and all of Europe, and all Japan, and Australia, and we have made a good start but have not matched the body count from abortion. And that is just surgical abortion. If you try to estimate the number of deaths from chemical abortion, the total may increase two-fold, three-fold or even four-fold. To avenge the deaths of all the children killed by chemical as well as surgical abortion, we would have to destroy the whole human race.
In any case, it is difficult to construct a plausible scenario for ending abortion by war. Perhaps it could happen, but when you describe a realistic scenario, no one wants to do end abortion that way.
For example, Muslims who are faithful to the Koran, a growing power globally, hate abortion and hate the West for pushing it. American foreign policy defines population growth in Africa as a threat to our national security, and we have been engaged in covert psychological warfare all over Africa and the developing world for two decades. The developing world, led by Muslims, may one day get around to responding justly, obliterating Washington, New York, and London. In a war pitting Islam against the decadent West, a war which could end abortion, which side would you bet on? And more importantly, whose side would you be on?
We should maintain a commitment to nonviolence because in the long run that is the only realistic way to protect children without warfare. Small decisions we make now, in the embryonic or fetal stage of the pro-life movement, can set the stage for war or peace.
Clearly, killing one child in three demands a massive response, but the road pro-lifers travel must be traveled for miles. If you harass the abortionist, what do you do next? And after that? Why not bomb, why not kill? Why not get on with it, and declare war? On the other hand, if pro-lifers are not going to declare war, then they should stay off the road to violence. A person who is not planning to go to war but who chooses violent tactics has already made a decision to abort the work, to begin but not finish.
There is a right way and a wrong way to explain why we should maintain a commitment to nonviolence. The wrong way is to urge everybody to calm down because things are not really all that bad yet. That is the message of many columnists across the nation, inside and outside the pro-life movement. The ignorance of that message will not be hidden forever, and it will be rejected. Those who rely on that message to avert a violent response to the holocaust have lost track of reality.
Further, the message contains an implicit challenge. If you teach that violence is to be saved for the most serious occasions, and this is not one of them, how does someone who sees the holocaust more clearly get it through your head that killing even one child, let alone millions, is serious? Clearly, he blows something up, responding to your challenge.
Response to anti-abortion violence
The arguments for nonviolence have not persuaded everyone, and there is a small group of anti-abortion activists who promote or at least defend strategies of violence, including bombing abortion facilities and killing abortionists. The most articulate spokesmen for the violence faction are Michael Bray, author of A Time to Kill, and Paul Hill, who killed an abortionist in Florida. So an argument for nonviolence should include a direct response to their ideas.
In A Time to Kill, Bray offers the justification for bombing and killing. But the shape of the argument is frankly bizarre. Almost all of the book is a labored proof that there are Biblical and historical precedents for violence in response to unjust violence. Granted. So what? The question that matters is whether violence is appropriate in this situation, and Bray just barely addresses that.
Bray offers four pages about women and abortion. Reviewing scripture and early Church history, he finds that “the woman is not viewed as a victim, but as a bearer of true guilt.” He charges that “Christians have shied away from proclaiming this truth in reaction to the frequent charge that pro-lifers hate women. The imputation of victim status to women was a concession which ostensibly served polemical and political purposes,” but “the truth remained compromised.”
Bray is wrong about the reason that most pro-lifers have been quick to understand why women have chosen abortion. There are very few adults in America today who do not have friends who have had an abortion. We learned from friends why women choose abortion. Obviously we do not justify abortion, but we have seen over and over how and why women choose it. It is the facts of our friends’ lives, not politics or polemics, that persuaded us that women are frequently deceived and exploited by the abortion industry.
One obvious change between abortion a century ago and abortion today is that it is far easier today for men to walk away from a sexual encounter and deny any responsibility for a subsequent pregnancy. For several decades, there has been no social penalty whatsoever for the irresponsible father—no stigma, little recourse without a messy lawsuit, no angry relatives with shotguns. Women who have abortions are being just exactly as irresponsible as millions of men today—no more and no less. There are differences: when the mother walks away from their child, she has to take action, and the child dies. But she is imitating millions of men. It is incredible that Bray comes down so hard on women without criticizing the men whom they are imitating.
A second very obvious change between abortion today and abortion a century ago (or in Scripture and in the first centuries of the Church) is that there is a huge propaganda apparatus promoting abortion. It is foolish for women to let Planned Parenthood shape their values. But it is far more foolish for Bray to overlook the impact of the sophisticated, thoroughly tested, unceasing barrage of pro-abortion advertising, through every available educational outlet including many churches.
Bray devotes a single paragraph to the historical examples that rescue leaders cited when they argued for nonviolence:
In our land, anti-abortion activists have adopted a sit-in strategy of intervention which was inherited not from the Scriptures, but from the Civil Rights movement. The sit-in tactic served well the purposes of exposing racial prejudices in India (under the rule of the British) and the United States. Such peaceful opposition won success in countries with a collective Christian conscience. The same level of success may not be forthcoming in a pagan land where the people have had their consciences seared by two decades of legalized childslaughter. And it is arguable that the force option has been thwarted by the credal status given the principle of nonviolence.
It is very hard to imagine how anyone would set the civil rights movement and Scripture at odds! In the aftermath of the movement, frauds like Jesse Jackson and Marion Barry have claimed the mantle of the civil rights movement even as they abused Scripture beyond recognition. But during the civil rights movement, it was unmistakable, it was undeniable, that the work was based on Scripture! It was led by Baptists, meeting in Baptist churches, singing Baptist hymns and Negro spirituals, urging their followers to study Scripture and imitate Jesus. Rev. Martin Luther King’s sermons on the eve of demonstrations were fiery explorations of Scripture. Setting the two at odds, as Bray does, is nonsense.
With regard to Gandhi’s campaign in India, it would perhaps come as a surprise to the Hindus and Muslims who built the campaign that they succeeded because their oppressors were Christians. The Indian heroes who marched on the salt works, deliberately risking severe beatings and possibly death, believed that the human capacity to endure suffering exceeded the human capacity to inflict suffering. They tested that idea in a crucible, and it held up. They did not convert to Christianity the next day.
It is amazing that Bray would hold up the British as an example of a Christian nation with a “collective Christian conscience” that could be touched (in contrast, perhaps, to Lutheran Germany?). The English were pioneers in genocide: they cleared the Highlands brutally, and then developed Malthusian doctrines to hound the survivors who had fled from the land into cities throughout Britain. Under Cromwell, they tried to exterminate the Irish. Just a few generations before the confrontation in India, the British imported food from Ireland during the Great Famine, caring for their animals while their neighbors died wretched deaths. The British have done great things; I am proud to speak the language of Shakespeare, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis and innumerable others. But Britain is capable of cold brutality. A statue of Cromwell the butcher still stands proudly and defiantly in front of Westminster Hall.
Bray argues that it was possible to appeal to the Christian conscience of the United States in the 1960s, but not the Christian conscience of the United States in the 1980s. That is an interesting idea, and there were great changes during that period. But it is sloppy to make such an important point, which is central to his argument against nonviolence, without any support or discussion.
The real puzzle about Bray’s book is why he believed that he was saying something significant when he belabored the obvious, listing violent events in the Bible and in history. The answer is ugly. There haven’t been a great many pacifists in the rescue movement, but Bray knew the few who led the movement in the 1980s. Most of his book is an assault on the ideas taught by Harry Hand, Samuel Lee and myself. Further, although he knew us, he didn’t bother to get our ideas right when he attacked them. He kept his views secret, but we did not keep our secret; in fact, we trumpeted them. So it is fair for us to expect him to present them accurately, not caricature them.
I have known Mike since 1984. We worked together planning rescues, and were arrested together. We went to jail together for a short time, in Montgomery County, Maryland. He played a role in building a nonviolent campaign in 1984, which opened with a rescue in Gaithersburg in May, with 140 people risking arrest, followed by a series of smaller rescues throughout the summer and into the fall.
On November 17, 1984, there was a rescue in Wheaton, Maryland, at which 47 people were arrested. The organizers— Harry Hand, Tom Herlihy and myself—were extremely pleased about that rescue because those risking arrest to protect children and women included 17 clergy. It seemed that the long hesitation about nonviolent action among church leaders was ending.
On November 19, the same abortion clinic was destroyed by fire. Of the 17 clergy arrested two days before, only one—Mike Bray, who was co-pastor of the tiny Reformation Lutheran Church in Bowie, Maryland—stayed with the rescue movement.
During a trial in Montgomery County, Mike approached me and asked what I really thought about the bombing. Sure, he said, we oppose them when we talk to the press, but privately, what did I think? I denounced them, and said that I thought they were probably being done by pro-abortionists. I said that I didn’t know whether the bombs really hurt the abortion clinics, because insurance might pay the for all the damage that had been done. But in the mean time, I was picking shrapnel from the bombs out of my reputation, and there was no insurance policy for that.
Mike looked uncomfortable. So later that day, when we were convicted and jailed, we picked up the conversation again. We didn’t talk long enough to get to root disagreements, and talked past each other a little bit. Mike talked about how bombing could close the abortion clinics and drive up their insurance rates. I talked about the Catholic Church urging nonviolence in El Salvador and Nicaragua. But in part of the discussion, we found a clear and sharp distinction between our views, on confrontations with the Soviets. I argued in favor of the nonviolent strategy in Poland; Mike supported the armed resistance in Afghanistan.
The November bombing ended clergy involvement for some years, but also wrought havoc on our plans for 1985. We had begun planning to close all the abortion clinics in Washington on January 22, during the annual March for Life. The plan was ambitious, but not unrealistic; we succeeded in 1986 and 1987. Distracted by the violence, we abandoned plans to organize rescues all over the city, and decided to organize civil disobedience at the Supreme Court, with people kneeling on the steps praying. It was not a rescue, since no one was about to be killed there, and the event could cause confusion for people who still didn’t understand that a rescue is not just a demonstration. But it would be a way to challenge the tens of thousands of pro-lifers there for the March for Life, and we expected to recruit new activists. We planned to have Bray, the only pastor still actively involved with us, lead the prayer.
That didn’t work out as planned, because he was arrested for bombing. We went ahead with the demonstration on the steps of the court, and both the positive and negative predictions came true: we caused confusion, and found the best recruiter the rescue movement ever had. A curly-haired man came out of the crowd and exhorted others to join in the prayer on the steps. We were arrested and didn’t see the man again for some time. But on his way home on the bus that evening, Randy Terry started dreaming. In the mean time, though, Mike Bray was in jail.
From the outset, Bray said he was innocent. Harry Hand, who was then coordinator of the Prolife Nonviolent Action Project, spoke with the Bray family several times. One of the questions Harry pressed was straightforward: “He says he is innocent. But did he do it?” Harry received repeated assurances that Mike Bray had not bombed any abortion clinics. The charge, we were assured over and over, was false, not factual. So PNAP told people across the nation that Bray had not done it, that the charges were bogus, that he was being framed. In A Time to Kill, Bray writes that many people stood by him “on the assumption that I had not performed the deeds charged to me.” That is not a completely candid description of what happened; there was no “assumption.” Mike Bray and his family deceived us repeatedly; we believed them, and put our reputations on the line defending Mike.
I was questioned many times by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). At one point, I agreed to take a lie detector test. Halfway through the test, I understood that the BATF agents were not interested in learning whether I was involved in the bombing; their question was more specific. They wanted to see whether I really believed Bray’s denials. I did, and passed the test.
Even after it became clear that Bray was involved in bombing, I still thought that he had once been involved but had since turned away from violence and adopted nonviolence. I asked Mike if he could put that in writing, and after some discussion he gave me a short statement for publication, saying:
A theology of “community responsibility” is provided for us in the Old Testament. And this responsibility to “neighbor” is in no way diminished by the Lord Jesus. Indeed, an entire parable—the Good Samaritan—emphatically underscores responsibility to neighbor.
“Sit-ins” are “a more excellent way” than bombings for the very reason that they exact from the community its responsibility to its neighbor; while bombings circumvent the call to community, and in fact relieve the community of its obligation—giving it a “cheap solution.”
I understood that to be a strong endorsement of nonviolence, and a criticism of bombing. So I was shocked when Mike published essays he had written in jail, promoting bombing.
When Life Advocate was preparing to publish A Time to Kill, they sent me a draft for comment. I offered many criticisms, including the fact that Mike expressed contempt for rescues, but never explained why he was involved in them. Did he hold strong pro-violence views when he worked with us, took our money, traded on our credibility? Or did he change his views later? It would be an interesting story, and I thought he should tell it, since it involves questions about his honesty. The publisher and author decided not to answer this question.
Lying is not a peripheral issue in the debate between violence and nonviolence. Secrecy and deception were key to Mike’s tactics; they are completely incompatible with our strategy. Bray has sometimes urged that the different camps just go their different ways, disagreeing with each other respectfully. He and others are fond of calling this a “pro-choice” position, and saying cutely that they may be personally opposed to some tactic, but don’t want to force their morality on others. But as this incident shows clearly, it isn’t that simple; you have to choose one or the other. Our commitment to open-ness is a threat to secret guerrillas; their commitment to secrecy is a threat to our efforts to win the trust of the public and of our opponents.
It is perturbing that the book is focused so narrowly on attacking pacifism. What’s the point? You can demolish theories of pacifism and still find violence to be a stupid response to a domestic dispute in the short run, as well as counter-productive in the fight against socially accepted abortion in the long run. But more, I was the most visible pacifist in the rescue movement, and it seemed to me that Bray was distorting my views very badly. It was not just that the views he attacked weren’t mine; I had never heard of most of the people he quoted as experts on pacifism.
Bray worked with people who were committed to nonviolence. But he never quotes us, although we were the ones who made nonviolence an issue. Nor does he quote the people who shaped our thought. He demolishes straw men. I find that sloppy and rude. If he’s going to attack pacifism because I am a pacifist and I led rescues, then he should attack my ideas, not 16th century Anabaptists.
To answer me, he has to deal more fully with Gandhi and King. He has to answer Thomas Merton. And especially after the jailhouse debate, he has to respond to events in Poland. In his book, there is nothing about the Solidarity movement in Poland. Poland today has problems, but the Soviets are gone and there is peace. In Afghanistan, the Soviets are gone and the killing continues.
Women are strangely absent from his book, except as guilty parties (Joan of Arc and Lorena Bobbitt are exceptions). He quotes Mother Teresa, because Harry Hand quoted her so often: but he does not name her, perhaps because he attacks her words. He does oppose executing mothers, although he holds them guilty; the distinction he makes is that killing an abortionist will prevent an abortion, while executing the mother is a punishment after the fact. But is he “pro-choice” about that, too? Would anti-mother vigilantism have a deterrent effect, which is the first good effect he describes resulting from violence? He never mentions Mary, the mother of God, whose example at the foot of the cross inspires many nonviolent activists.
A major argument of the book is that many Christians are uncomfortable with God as he revealed himself in the Old Testament. Bray says that God is not queasy about violence in pursuit of justice and truth. In particular, he argues that several passages in the New Testament have been taken out of context to paint a picture of Jesus that is not compatible with the “Lord of Hosts” revealed in the Old Testament. When Christians recall how violent Jesus really was, he says, they will have fewer qualms about shooting abortionists.
The question here is whether Jesus has called us to imitate him or not. Bray notes that Jesus was the Suffering Servant, the Lamb of God, but describes this as a particular and temporary role that he accepted and completed, before returning to his more customary role as Lord of all. But the Church spent centuries arguing against this kind of parceling out of different parts of Jesus, ascribing different characteristics to his humanity and his divinity. Jesus did not deny the need for justice, but he took the place of the guilty. That was the meaning of the crucifixion. And when Jesus asked us to take up our crosses and follow him, he was not referring to lumber from Joseph’s workshop; he was referring to the work he did on Calvary.
The book ends by distinguishing between killing abortionists and challenging the authority of the government. “The thorny issue of overthrowing an apostate government is another subject.” That sounds like an ad for a sequel. But in the mean time, Bray has left a huge issue dangling. The problem is, when you kill adults, the government takes notice, and may respond with overwhelming force. If you define the issue militarily, as you do when you pick up a gun, the U.S. government is very likely to win, decisively. Then what do you do? Bray expresses contempt for Mother Teresa’s words on fidelity without concern for results, so he must address predictable results.
The first person who killed an abortionist was Michael Griffin. On March 10, 1993, he shot and killed David Gunn. Griffin has since said that what he did was wrong, but his action got Paul Hill thinking. After the shooting, Paul Hill published a paper entitled “Should We Defend Born and Unborn Children with Force?” He argued that it was justifiable, and later he acted on his ideas, killing two people and wounding a third.
In his paper, Hill makes a series of arguments that resemble Bray’s in many ways. Like Bray, he draws on sources from the Reformation; he is a Presbyterian. He says nothing whatsoever about women, or about the particular relationship between preborn children and their mothers. He states explicitly that “Christ had a direct command from God that he should offer his life as an atoning sacrifice. His case was unique. We have no such command. We have the God-given responsibility to take defensive action to protect life.” Unlike Bray, he makes a point of praising nonviolent activists; like Bray, he invites them to “consider the justice of taking all action necessary to protect innocent life.” Like Bray, Hill calls for a war, but offers no predictions about its course or outcome, except to note that he and his friends are a little short on weapons right now.
Violence that failed
Proponents of a violent strategy do not look very far down the road that they propose. With a few facile references to John Brown, they proceed to advocate taking up arms against abortionists, ignoring the fact that the abortionists can demand and receive the backing of the police, and if need be of the armed forces of every developed nation except Poland and Ireland.
Advocates of violence in response to abortion are dishonest when they focus exclusively on resistance figures who succeeded. Some failed, with dreadful consequences.
Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) led a group that (allegedly) tried to blow up King James I and the Parliament on November 5, 1605. He was responding to a very real problem: the persecution of Catholics. But he failed to end the persecution, or even to wreak vengeance. He was caught and executed, and his death was not the end of the incident. His violence was used as an excuse for further repression. To this day, many of the English remain prejudiced against Catholics, and they celebrate Guy Fawkes Day each year, recalling how dangerous the Catholics have been, and perhaps can be once again. Fawkes failed: he accomplished no good, but rather brought on more violence and more discrimination—for centuries.
Fawkes is not responsible for the fratricidal warfare in Ulster today. But a long history of religious strife in Britain and Ireland explains most of the bitterness. Fawkes shares some responsibility for that, almost four centuries after his escapade. Paul Hill’s violence could have a similar impact.
Nat Turner (1800-1831) led the most famous slave revolt in the American South. In 1831, Turner and 60-70 followers killed about 60 white slave-owners in Virginia, including Joseph Travis, who “owned” Turner. The Virginia militia responded, and hanged Turner and 20 of his followers. Other whites killed another 100 slaves.
For the next 30 years, many Southerners used the incident to justify their refusal to debate the issue of slavery. Whatever his intentions and however good his cause, the impact of Turner’s rebellion can be assessed in retrospect: he failed to win freedom for anyone, and his actions served to harden the hearts of millions of people. The story had the same kind of powerful impact in the South that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had in the North.
John Brown, of course, is the most commonly cited historical model justifying anti-abortion violence. John Brown took over the arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to spark a general uprising of the slaves in the Shenandoah Valley. He failed, was caught and executed. But within a couple of years, the tension he had helped to exacerbate led to a war in which the North fought against the South and won, and ended slavery. Brown’s plan was flawed in detail, but was more or less reasonable in the larger picture, in the sense that it was attached to reality. To this day, some people consider him a terrorist and others consider him a great hero. It is possible to consider his efforts as completely successful in the end, vindicated by history.
However you evaluate John Brown, it is not reasonable to compare anti-abortion violence to his attack on Harpers Ferry. Abortion vigilantes who refer to Brown do not have a plan. They adopt Brown’s flaws – that is, his violence – but not his strength – that is, a plan. A war over abortion today would be a losing cause. The only connection between Brown and today’s vigilantes is the violence. Imitating Brown’s violence is a bad idea from anyone’s perspective if you don’t have any reasonable hope that the violence will lead to a general uprising.
In explaining how bad abortion is, some proponents of violence will compare abortion to the Nazi holocaust, and show that the bloodshed today is worse. I agree, but I am baffled when the same people turn around and recommend that we respond with a few snipers. Either the problem is bigger than the Nazi threat, or it’s not. If it is bigger, then our response to abortion must be bigger than Eisenhower’s response to Germany. Advocates of violence who do not have a very large plan are irresponsible.
A violent response that fails can leave a legacy of bitterness for years, a legacy that will make it far harder to protect children and end abortion. The advocates of violence, whatever their intentions, can do immense damage that will be measured in the blood of babies.
Accidental drift into violence
No one is seriously planning to end abortion by nuclear warfare, but some pro-lifers are drifting into violence. The people who are careless about violence are ignoring the unimaginable size of the problem. If you start down the road to war, how far will you go?
Most responses to abortion today are trivial compared to the scope of the problem; the evil of abortion is as great as anything ever seen in the recorded history of the human race.
Mother Teresa has said that the fruit of abortion is nuclear war. Her serious words—a modern version of the message of Fatima—make sense. Abortion involves the decisions of millions upon millions of people to abandon hope in the future. In the decision to abort a child, parents act upon the view, articulate or not, that the future is not worth a struggle, for this generation or the next.
In the 1970s, there was a pro-abortion slogan: “If men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” In a sense, abortion is a sacrament: it brings about what it symbolizes. It is a potent symbol of despair, and it is a potent cause of despair. After hundreds of millions of people dip deeply into despair, we are ready for nuclear war. The construction of weaponry is almost a detail; the real preparation for nuclear war is in the human heart, which needs to be hardened, needs to learn the taste of despair. Abortion is the most important aspect of global preparation for thermonuclear destruction; the factories that build the weapons are necessary for war, but they are mere details compared to the habit of smashing children.
For those who are tempted to start down the road of violence, it is worth pondering the fact that the only disproportionate response to abortion is all-out nuclear war. If we measure our concern about babies by the size of the weapons we use to defend them, then we have to be ready to use all modern weapons, up to and including strategic nuclear missiles.
The toughest part of the rescue movement, undoubtedly, is watching friends get hurt. How do you control yourself when you see pro-abortionists or police attacking a beloved friend? Maybe you can take it when you are hit yourself; can you take it when a friend is attacked? When you have faced that challenge and thought it over and wrestled with it, it is a little easier to understand why so many Catholics sing with respect and affection and curiosity about Mary at the foot of the cross.
The principle model of nonviolence is Mary. The Filipino nuns under the treads of the tanks were praying the rosary. Lech Walesa was given the Nobel Peace Prize for the work of Solidarnosc, and he put the prize at the Shrine to Mary at Czestochowa.
It is instructive to contrast Mary’s actions in Scripture with those of St. Peter. When Jesus was threatened, Peter turned immediately to violence, chopping off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus told him to back off. When Peter understood that he was not supposed to be violent, he didn’t know what to do, was confused, and slipped into cowardice, denying that he knew Jesus. He knew how to fight, and he knew how to run; he did not know how to hold his ground peacefully. Mary knew how to stand still peacefully. She had saved her son from death when he was a child. But on Calvary, she stayed with him and watched him die.
Her peaceful presence did not save him from death, and we hope that our peaceful presence will save our brothers and sisters. But her peaceful presence is still the best model for our work. When our brothers and sisters are threatened, we stand in solidarity with them, sharing their vulnerability.
It is not possible to maintain a respect for motherhood if you are contemptuous of, or even careless about, the person who was the mother of Jesus. Imagine talking to God the Father about Jesus, saying, “Look what our son did.”
A Christian who will not give respectful thought to Mary, but says he is respectful of motherhood, is a liar. If you do not see Mary’s role as the mother of Jesus as important, then your attitude toward motherhood is as bad as the pro-abort feminists say: you see her as a breeder, a womb.
Mary was with the Lord in jeopardy twice. The first time was when he was a target of Herod’s death squads who were supposed to kill the new pretender to the throne. She and Joseph took Jesus and fled to Egypt. That was a successful rescue, by any standard. The second time, Mary was with Jesus at the foot of the cross. That too was a “successful” rescue, although understanding that requires a completely new definition of success. Jesus turned rescue upside down; his death was our salvation.
God works through women when He wants to get serious. The New Covenant was sealed with blood of Jesus, but it was an agreement made between God and Mary. God spoke to a long series of men about the Covenant: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, the prophets. But when the time came for the new and eternal covenant, a marriage between us, so that the Son of God is a son of Adam, that covenant was made between God and Mary. God spoke to her, not to her father Joachim. The Covenant was sealed with the blood of Jesus, and he alone is our hope and our salvation. But the Covenant was made between God and Mary.
The real strategy
The strategy we need must have four characteristics. Our response to attacks on our brothers and sisters must be personal and penitential, massive but peaceful.
It must be personal because abortion is an attack on my neighbor. I am the older brother of the child in danger of violent death, and of the woman who needs compassionate help. The problem is mine.
It must be penitential because the incredible violence of abortion did not spring out of a void; it has a history. It is in some ways a manifestation of deeper problems. No one among us is completely innocent of the evils that led and lead to abortion. We need to repent.
The response must be massive, because the problem is massive. And it must be peaceful because the alternative is unimaginably bad.
These are the requirements. Can we find a model or develop a strategy to fit these requirements? I believe we can, that we can build a successful nonviolent campaign. But first, we need a clear grasp of the power of nonviolence.
CHAPTER 4: THE POWER OF NONVIOLENCE
“O words are lightly spoken!”
Said Pearse to Connolly,
“Maybe a breath of politic words
Has withered our Rose Tree;
Or maybe but a wind that blows
Across the bitter sea.”
“It needs to be but watered,”
James Connolly replied,
“To make the green come out again
And spread on every side,
To shake the blossom from the bud
To be the garden’s pride.”
“But where can we draw water,”
Said Pearse to Connolly,
“When all the wells are parched away?
O plain as plain can be,
There’s nothing but our own red blood
Can make a right rose tree.”
“The Rose Tree,” by W.B. Yeats
Padraic Pearse was a pivotal figure in the development of nonviolence in this century. Despite that, he is familiar to all those who drink stout, but may not be well known to the rest of the world. Pearse led the Easter rebellion in Ireland in 1916. It was his intention to lead an uprising that had no hope of immediate success, expecting the British to over-react and execute him and his companions with brutal haste, and expecting further that the British over-reaction would light a fire, start a new rebellion that would have a real chance of success. Pearse was not disappointed. He and his companions were executed quickly; the Irish people rose in anger; the wide rebellion did in fact win independence for Ireland.
When Gandhi was planning the campaign for independence in India, he examined the work of Pearse. Pearse was a soldier (though not necessarily a very good one); he armed his followers and they shot at British soldiers. But he understood clearly that his death could have far more impact than any killing he might do with his rifle. He showed practically that martyrs have tremendous power, a power that can be exercised deliberately.
Gandhi picked up on that insight, dispensed with the distraction of rifles, and led a campaign of people who were ready to suffer to gain freedom. His campaign won the independence of India. He showed the world that a campaign of nonviolence can achieve whatever the force of arms can achieve.
There is an urgent need to strengthen the understanding of nonviolence within the pro-life movement. The protection of our preborn brothers and sisters requires that we act directly and immediately, that we take substantial risks ourselves, that we undertake a struggle that will grow to dimensions greater than the Civil War. This long struggle can be nonviolent and still be successful, but we need to understand what we are doing.
As pro-life nonviolence grows, the violence that has been unleashed against babies and pregnant women is diverted, ever so slightly at first, to adults and men. When men are sufficiently involved in the protection of babies that they are at some risk, that is an important step, but it is a small step. The time is coming when protecting the preborn will require risking our lives. Those who rely on their own strength will find other jobs to do. But those who follow the crucified and risen Lord will make themselves available to Him, will follow Him, wherever He goes—and He was crucified.
What Is Nonviolence?
George Patton, the flamboyant World War II general, told his men, “Your job is not to die for your country. Your job is to make that other son of a bitch die for his country.” That’s a clear view, but there are other ways to get things done. The task of nonviolence is to confront violence and to end it by absorbing the violence.
In this century, two new methods of altering society have been tried, tested. They are not utterly new; they are new only in their magnitude. One new method is nuclear weaponry, which has changed the nature of warfare, nearly abolishing the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The other was pioneered by Gandhi and King: the campaign of nonviolence.
During the civil rights struggle, there was tension between violence and nonviolence. One group that called itself nonviolent (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) applauded when cities burned down in Maryland and elsewhere. Is nonviolence a fraud? Is it just a step toward warfare, as in the case of the great Irish pioneer, Padraic Pearse?
The choice of nonviolence has consequences. There are a variety of tactics that may seem to be acceptable in the face of millions of killings, but which turn out to be compatible only with a long-term strategy of violence, or war. Specifically, a commitment to a strategy of nonviolence means an end to all forms of petty harassment and minor violence. Those who would carelessly give the pro-life movement a violent shape now, in its embryonic stage, may think that their activity does not matter, because the enemy is a holocaust. But the movement will grow. Minor violence, if it is the way we choose to go, will develop into major violence.
Rescues are often criticized as forms of harassment or violence. Rescues are not designed to harass abortionists, although the abortionist may feel harassed. The nonviolent activist is committed to the conversion of the abortionist. The dynamic of nonviolence is a healing, reconciling dynamic. It is not weak or hesitant to confront, but it seeks to heal, not to conquer of humiliate. It is a manifestation of love, focusing on children, on women, on families, clinging to the possibility of hope even in the shadow of death.
Nonviolence begins with prayer. In the late 1970s, before rescues at the Sigma abortion clinic in Kensington, there were all-night vigils, praying and fasting in preparation for action. At dawn after these vigils, the activists prayed together, and committed themselves to life and nonviolence. Each person would affirm publicly: “In the face of death, I choose life. Amidst violence and bloodshed, I choose nonviolence.” Then they would pray for each other, asking God for a Spirit of love and courage.
The word nonviolence gets abused almost as much as the word “love.” But the key notion is simple. At the heart of nonviolence is the idea that violence begets violence in a cycle that continues until someone decides to forgive the attacker and refuses to retaliate. The decision to absorb violence and end the cycle is called nonviolence.
Forgiveness is meaningless when it comes from insulated bystanders. The uninvolved bystander who watches an assault and then “forgives” the attacker is not a peacemaker; he is an accomplice. Nonviolence cannot be passive; it requires an act of solidarity.
Frequently, nonviolence is misunderstood completely. There are social studies textbooks in American classrooms that tell the hapless student that social tension is expressed in a variety of ways, ranging along a continuum from arguments to leafleting to picketing to civil disobedience to property destruction to assassination to warfare. In that view, the animating spirit of nonviolence is simply irrelevant.
But there is another view, holding that black is black, white is white, day is day, night is night, peace is peace, and war is something else instead. According to people who hold this simple idea, dying is different from killing, and Jesus can be distinguished from the Pharisees who condemned him and the Romans who killed him.
It has been fascinating to watch the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and the National Organization for Women (NOW) work systematically for years to blur the differences between violence and nonviolence. The key word in their campaign of disinformation was “harassment.” This word was the verbal link between rescues and bombing, and made it possible for them to lump all activism together. The campaign to discredit rescues this way was already formulated in the late 1970s, when pro-abortion strategists met in New York and, according to participants from the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA), agreed that rescues were nonviolent, but decided to link them with arson anyway. Later, when Congress and various state legislatures were considering bills to raise the penalties for rescuing, the key to promoting such bills was smudging the differences between violence and nonviolence.
The truth is, nonviolence is utterly different from violence. Nonviolence is not a step on the way to war. Rather, the final test of nonviolence, if lesser means do not succeed, is martyrdom. Pro-abortion hecklers in Los Angeles in the late 1980s understand that, and chanted at the rescuers, “Where are the lions when you need ‘em? Bring on the lions! We want to feed ‘em!”
One key reason for choosing nonviolence is that we are guilty ourselves. If we were the good people, fighting the bad people, we could just get on with our war, and kill them. But in fact, we are sinners also. In fact, we share responsibility for the abortion holocaust specifically. It is a mistake for us to insist too much on strict justice; if that wish is granted, we will all lose our heads. So we act with the tools of the sinner: repentance, solidarity with victims, love, reconciliation.
Abortionists deserve to die. But before we rush to carry out the sentence, we need to recall that other people also deserve the same fate. Laissez-faire bishops deserve to die. So do no-trespassing, keep-off-the-lawn law ‘n’ order judges and legislators, and pro-choice-to-kill teachers and counselors, and cops who arrest rescuers.
What about people who throw their trash on babies’ graves? Most of us live in communities where babies have been thrown out in the trash, and their bodies are now in our landfills. When we throw out our trash, we are desecrating their graves. What about people who pay for the slaughter with their tax dollars? What about the self-important and even the lazy, who walk past the sites of death without doing anything about it?
If we kill everyone who deserves to die, who can escape?
Justice? Pure justice is the midst of savage society-wide slaughter is indistinguishable from madness. If everyone who deserves to die is killed, no one survives. We need mercy, not justice!
At Mass, Catholics pray: “In love you created man, in justice you condemned him, but in mercy you redeemed him.” We need that mercy. We need reconciliation with the Lord. We need the redeeming love of the Father, revealed in Jesus, poured out in our lives, the Spirit of courage and love that animates the Church. We can assert with absolute and eternal certainty that the mercy revealed by the Lord is a better idea than gunning down everyone who deserves to die.
The central prayer for Roman Catholics is the Mass, an entry into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Lord. The Mass begins in a curious way. The priest says, “To prepare ourselves for this celebration, let us call to mind our sins.” That is a bizarre beginning. If you were to go to a party, and the host greeted you as you hung up your coat with a cheerful invitation to remember your sins, you would expect an orgy. It would be prudent to retrieve your coat immediately and leave.
Some priests dispense with the bizarre invitation, because it appears to be such bad psychology, and improvise their own greeting. But I think the apparently bizarre greeting is wise. Standing before God, I recognize my sins, but dare to trust the Lord. I do not approach the Lord in my own strength, displaying medals and awards, waving my curriculum vitae. Instead, I come as an adopted son, grateful that I have been rescued over and over from sin and desperation.
The Mass begins with a clear and explicit recognition of the fact that we are not worthy to have the Lord enter our lives. We state that fact and move on. I am not worthy, I am a sinner, I am a mess—but the Lord has invited me. I am here because I was invited, and I will keep my eyes fixed on the one who invited me.
It is far easier to walk on water than to stand proudly in the presence of the Lord. But we need not be angels to stand in the presence of God, because he has invited us.
My strength is not my own. Left to myself, I am in trouble. But over time, I have come to know and trust the Lord. He has saved me from selfishness, from fear, from sin and its effects, over and over. His act of salvation was accomplished once and for all in history, but I experience His saving power over and over. This is the power that makes nonviolence possible.
Similarly, when we approach an abortuary, we should approach with prayer, with a clear awareness that the Lord, who draws near to the poor, is there with the children whom we will try to save. In fact, He identifies with them. It is appropriate for us to approach the site of these unjust executions with the same reverence that we approach the Mass.
When we approach an abortion clinic, we step far beyond the bounds of civilization and sanity. We stand in the shadow of death. There, we will be inoculated against compassion, like the rest of society, or we will learn the Lord’s love.
Are we good enough to do the job? The answer to that question is no, and we should be ready to admit it quickly. We are sinners, responding to the invitation of the saving Lord.
We cannot say that we are good and they are evil. We are all sinners. Some of us know the saving power of the risen Lord; others may learn of it tomorrow; others may refuse His grace. But who is who? In the presence of the Lord, I keep my eyes fixed on Him, and that makes it hard to judge that I am good and that man over there is bad. I may suspect that someone over there is a sinner, but I know that I am a sinner.
Further, the root of most of the violence in the world today is not greed or pride or hatred, but lust. Abortion, the result of irresponsible sex, kills far more people globally than starvation and warfare put together. In American culture today, when “lusty” is almost a synonym for “healthy,” who can claim to be free of any taint of that deadly sin?
Sometimes pro-lifers are tempted to think of themselves as the forces of light and abortionists as the forces of darkness. But consider two hypothetical individuals.
One individual is sure that life begins at birth. He says that Adam became an individual when God breathed his spirit into clay, and so we become human when we draw a breath right after birth. Suppose this hypothetical individual is a doctor, and he is faced with a woman distressed about an unplanned pregnancy, in college, abandoned by her boyfriend, etc. She wants help. Why shouldn’t he do an abortion?
Is that man deliberately turning his back on the Lord if he commits abortion? Is it possible that a doctor can commit abortion blindly, in ignorance of what he is doing?
Put next to this hypothetical abortionist a pro-lifer, who knows full well what the truth is, who is not confused by gnostic blather about ensoulment. The pro-lifer knows full well that the child is a brother or sister. Proud of holding the truth, the pro-lifer is contemptuous of the abortionist. But the pro-lifer, with full knowledge of what abortion is, refrains from protecting the child because he equates the law of man with the law of God.
Is it clear that the abortionist is the evil one, and the pro-lifer is the good one? Is it possible that this hypothetical abortionist is open to the truth, and will learn in time? Is it possible that the abortionist, in fact, is secretly waiting to be convinced by the pro-lifer, but is nauseated by the self-righteousness of the prig? Is it possible that the clear knowledge possessed by the pro-lifer conveys grave responsibilities? Is it possible that the pro-lifer is required, because of his knowledge, to act in some way to protect children? Is it possible that the failure to act is a serious sin? Is it possible, in short, that some abortionists and tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God while some pro-lifers sit outside wailing and gnashing their teeth?
There is no new message here: We hate the sin, but we love the sinner.
When we go into a situation of confrontation and conflict, where lives are at stake and action is urgent and people will get hurt, we must remember that we are sinners, that we share the guilt of abortion, that even the abortionist is a brother. We must act to protect our helpless preborn brothers and sisters, but we must never cease to love our opponents. If we were the good people and they were the bad people, we could perhaps just go to war and try to wipe them out. But it is not that simple. We are implicated. And it is our brothers and sisters that are on the other side. Our response, then, must be healing and reconciliation.
The force we need must be a force that heals, that reconciles, that builds bridges, that confronts but does not humiliate. That force is called nonviolence.
Social evils of the magnitude of abortion have been ended, in human history, by only two means: warfare and nonviolence. History does not provide us with a third option. Clearly, we are heading inevitably towards massive social disruption, including violence towards adults. If pro-lifers engage in violence, however justifiable, then the violence will continue without end. But if we absorb it, and forgive the attackers, then the violence can be ended.
At first, violence will fall on us as well as on children and their mothers. But in time, it will fall on us instead of babies and pregnant women. Then we will be making some headway.
We must be ready to make large sacrifices for the good of the community. The violence that has been unleashed in our world must be absorbed by us, and ended with our decisions to forgive. That is called nonviolence.
When we adopt that basic dynamic, we have not automatically made all the tactical decisions that will came before us. But nonviolence sets the tone for all our decisions. We are not resistant to jail, for example; if we are acquitted, that is wonderful, but if we go to jail, that too is wonderful. We place ourselves trustingly in the hands of the Lord, and while we struggle for life, the results of our work are in His hands.
(The emphasis on fidelity can be abused. Mother Teresa’s words about fidelity are used by many unfaithful people to cloak their ineffectiveness. She will answer to the Lord for her fidelity—but she was very effective.)
How Effective Is Nonviolence?
One model of nonviolence is the nonviolent campaign waged by Gandhi to free India from the British. George Washington led us in war to free us from the British; Gandhi led the Indians in a campaign of nonviolence to do the same. The war that Americans recall with greatest pride was a war to achieve national independence. The same goal has been achieved by nonviolence.
There are some people who say that the Indians could not have succeeded against a more brutal empire, like the Germans. This is racism, pure and simple. The British are not morally superior to the Germans. Both nations, like all nations and like all individuals, have a history of glory and of shame. The British tried to clear Irish Catholics off three quarters of their land and give the farms and pastures to their own people. The British raised cash crops in Ireland while millions of Irish people starved to death. The Germans built universities, wrote literature admired around the world, were models of efficiency. To assert that the Indians succeeded against the British because the British were so generous, unlike other nations, is blind prejudice and racism. Gandhi’s accomplishment was truly comparable to Washington’s, and should not be dismissed.
Gandhi persuaded his people that their power to endure suffering was greater than the power of the British to inflict it. When Gandhi’s followers were beaten at the salt works, and marched with discipline up to the soldiers who beat them bloody, they convinced the world that they had a strength and a spirit that matched the strength and spirit of the British.
Gandhi believed and taught that love is stronger than death. For him, that was not poetry; that was a solid truth that could be tested in the real world. He tested it and found it to be true.
Martin Luther King provided the second familiar model of nonviolence. Again, it is instructive to compare his achievement with achievements of others in our history. President Lincoln ended slavery in this nation by war; King broke the back of segregation with a campaign of nonviolence.
In American history, we revere Washington and Lincoln. But their achievements in war were matched by comparable achievements in nonviolence. Nonviolence has the power to change society as effectively and definitively as war.
Too often, pro-lifers who talk about King recall only two aspects of his teaching, that he used nonviolence to challenge bad law, and that he was frustrated by apathetic and lukewarm support more than by outright opposition. Both points are interesting and worth pondering, but not central. What was central to his life and teaching and success was his God-given conviction that when we love our enemies and forgive them, we draw on a power greater than the law. He saw clearly that blacks suffered from the evil of segregation, but the same evil did far deeper damage to whites. Segregation was destructive of life on earth for blacks, but destroyed the eternal life of unrepentant whites. He saw how to serve blacks and whites, overcoming polarization. He saw that love, forgiving and self-sacrificial love, is a force that can make a difference in the real world, in the political arena, in the life of a nation. He spoke and wrote eloquently about the “strength to love,” which he learned by praying about the Sermon on the Mount and the Cross of Jesus Christ.
He taught his followers to pray, to fast, to repent of their own sins and their complicity in the sins of the nation, and then to act out of love. That love, we saw, had power.
By God’s grace and by the power of a risen people committed to peace, India achieved independence, the South desegregated— and we will protect our preborn brothers and sisters.
The perception of nonviolence is often very distant from the reality. I got a vivid reminder of the animosity stirred by the word nonviolence at a workshop with Mubarak Awad, the first Palestinian to call openly for a strategy of nonviolence. Shortly after the intifada started, he was arrested, thrown in a cell for 41 days, then exiled. At this workshop, a woman described a project she had undertaken, sculpting the heads of a collection of peacemakers. She said that when she told people about her new project, a common reaction was, “Oo-ooh! Why do you want to do those horrible people? They are so arrogant! So angry!”
A part of the explanation for this perception is that nonviolent methods are sometimes employed when it is not appropriate, when negotiations or dialogue or legislation or debate might be more appropriate. A sit-in to protest budget cuts at a college that has cut the scuba-diving classes is silly and alienating; it is not nonviolence. Nonviolence is not an alternative to negotiations; it is an alternative to violence.
Perhaps the greatest distortion of nonviolence is the popular myth of secular nonviolence, based—curiously—on stories about Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King. Gandhi and King inspired secularized Americans, but the facts remain: Gandhi’s life was dedicated to God, not to lofty principles, and King was minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no basis in history for the belief that a commitment to peace can be sustained by a secular society.
It is difficult to imagine how to sustain nonviolence without relying on God. Where else does peace come from? Ask Gandhi or King or the nuns in the Philippines who stopped tanks with their rosaries or Lech Walesa with his picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa pinned to his lapel. None of them talks about the power of positive thinking or warm fuzzies.
St. Francis of Assisi was an advocate of nonviolent means of transforming society centuries ago. His example was powerful, and he also wrote about how to bring peace into an area wracked by warfare. He was probably the first person to write systematically (if briefly) about Christian-Islamic relations. For 13 centuries, Christians and Muslims have been killing each other. After 13 centuries of stumbling around in a dark alley, now we are stumbling around armed to the teeth, distributing weapons to anyone capable of holding yet another gun. It may be worthwhile looking carefully at what St. Francis said. His program was nonviolent, with three parts: presence, preaching and martyrdom.
Presence: You cannot love people whom you do not know. If we are serious about peace between Christians and Muslims, we have to start there. Dialogue, service and social justice all begin with “presence.”
Preaching: The Church’s commission to preach the Gospel is not fulfilled unless some people are speaking explicitly about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Son of God, savior of mankind, Prince of Peace.
Curiously, when the question of preaching the Gospel in Muslim countries comes up, many people, including missionaries, say, “You can’t preach the Gospel there, because it is illegal.” That is a non sequitur. The list of saints who broke the law to preach the Gospel is extensive and familiar.
That brings us to Francis’ third admonition: be ready to die for the faith.
Twenty years after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, revisionist historians claimed that what he really did was simply to harness the power of the press. This cynical and reductive view is not complete or honest; he led nonviolence. Although the press and the law certainly helped, the campaign of nonviolence had a power of its own. The people who followed him said they were living the Gospel, and they lived it in private as well as in public. And yet, it the core of this revision was shared implicitly by many liberals, who were contemptuous of pro-life nonviolence and asserted that all the pro-lifers were trying to do was get media coverage. To understand the attacks on our work, it is very useful to study other nonviolent campaigns, who were subjected to the same criticisms.
Pro-lifers can learn from King, but there are major differences between his work and the rescue movement. One major difference is that rescuers strive for immediate and measurable results. Rescuers really want exactly what they ask for; they intend to stop the killing there that day. Sometimes their peaceful presence with children and women is enough to protect them. Rescuers may or may not be interested in what happens with the law; the law is a different topic. King, by contrast, did not want a sandwich when he went into segregated restaurants; he wanted to change the law. The measurable, pragmatic results that rescuers want set rescues apart from “civil disobedience.”
On the other hand, because rescues are effective and can be justified by an appeal to utilitarianism, many critics try to evaluate rescues solely in terms of measured results. Rescues save many lives; such scrutiny is not unwelcome. But utilitarians cannot ever grasp fully the heart of actions that are primarily acts of fidelity. For example, some rescuers refuse to walk away from the door of an abortion clinic long after their counseling work has been terminated by police interference. The decision to stay near doomed children at that time, in imitation of Mary and John at the foot of the cross, is based on fidelity, and cannot be explained adequately in utilitarian terms.
The rescue movement began in the 1970s with small actions. It grew in the 1980s, as hundreds of people got involved. With the jailing of Joan Andrews and the recruiting work done by Randy Terry, the movement grew into the thousands. By 1991, the rescue movement was the largest nonviolent movement in American history. But it was still minuscule compared to the problem it confronted. Children will continue to die until there is a massive campaign of nonviolence larger than Gandhi’s. That will not happen quickly, but it must happen eventually.
After tens of thousands of arrests, some pro-lifers began to feel that the rescue movement was achieving some power. But it was still small compared to the problem. During the American Revolution, George Washington was sometimes a little annoyed about the limitations of the help that the French offered. They did not want their army to get shot at. What kind of an ally is that, marching all over the place and eating your food, but not risking any casualties? Pro-lifers are in a similar situation: like the French army 200 years ago, we have come to help the embattled, who are getting slaughtered. Consider: 1.5 billion babies dead, 1.5 billion women wounded, 60,000 allies imprisoned briefly. If the allies— pro-lifers—had been one percent of the total casualties, that would be 15 million killed and 15 million wounded. But pro-lifers are not a tenth of a percent of the casualties, not a hundredth of a percent. They represent 4 thousandths of a percent, and get to that fraction only by counting prisoners who are taken and released immediately. The rescue movement is tiny, and rescue leaders would do well to be humble about it.
Even after people adopt rescues as a central part of their work, the potential for getting sidetracked is considerable. Lawyers frequently see rescue cases as vehicles for legal challenges. That is fine; rescues are a part of a whole picture which includes litigation. However, when lawyers or organizers ask that you delay rescuing children because such action will endanger court action, they are no longer focusing on loving action to protect our preborn brothers and sisters, and they are betraying the nonviolent movement. Children come first, and the law must follow after as well as it can.
Gandhi and King are not the only models available to us. It cannot be said too often: we need not bog down in our thinking about nonviolence, referring only to those two. Remember that Solidarnosc, a committed nonviolent group, transformed the western edge of the Soviet empire, nonviolently. Remember that the Philippine Revolution, ousting a dictator and putting in Cory Aquino, was nonviolent.
Also, the Irish example did not begin or end with Padraic Pearse, however great he was. The Irish have an ancient tradition of practicing one part of a long-term campaign of nonviolence. I have a good friend who is always asking when we will get on with the “Irish solution” to abortion. By that he means the terrorist bombings carried out by Communists in the Provisional IRA. But in fact, the Irish solution is not bombs. The Irish maintained their national identity and pride during hundreds of years of foreign oppression and domination by nonviolent means. There were armed rebellions in one generation after another. But what was far more important was that the Irish were faithful to the Lord, faithful to the Church, faithful to their spouses—and they had babies. That is the Irish solution: babies, babies, babies.
Whatever happens in this generation, the struggle will go on for a long time—and the next generation will be made up exclusively of the children of parents who had children.
A model of nonviolence: the Philippine Revolution
In 1986, the Filipinos elected a new president, Corazon Aquino. Abortion was not a major issue in the election, but it is interesting to note that Aquino was pro-life, and the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was pro-abortion. When he saw he had lost, Marcos refused to honor the results of the election, and held to power. The Filipino bishops declared solemnly that the power of the government had no moral basis, and said that if the government refused to correct the evil, then the people had a serious moral obligation to do so. The bishops said carefully but clearly that the people must act, and must steer a difficult course between apathy on one side and violence on the other. Their statement was clear and courageous.
A crisis was precipitated by the courageous decision of some military leaders to switch their allegiance from the dictator to the duly elected president. Marcos ordered his army to take control and to put down the “rebellion”—and the nation was on the brink of civil war.
When Marcos soldiers began driving toward camps controlled by forces loyal to Aquino, about a million people poured into the streets of Manila, blocking the way of the tanks. Nonviolent people, armed only with love, stood between the two armed forces. In retrospect, the victory may look cheap, because it was quick. For the people who risked their lives, it may not have seemed so cheap.
It is worthwhile reading the accounts of people in the streets carefully. The following is the account of Sister Pingping Oscariz, DSP, one of the nuns under the wheels of a tank.
“Sisters, please stay with us!”
I look around and I see only one Sister with me. That’s Terry. Terry and I are supposed to be just passing through at Ortigas, on our way home to Pasay. We have just come from another part of EDSA (We, the Daughters of St Paul, come here in shifts. As soon as we heard the cardinal calling for help, we posted sheets where the Sisters could sign up for the shift they wanted.) Terry and I, with a few others, signed up for Sunday morning. It’s now afternoon—it’s our turn to go home, rest a little, then come back a little stronger.
But the people plead: “Sisters, please stay with us. Don’t go away, please!”
Terry and I stay with them. Now what are we supposed to do? The people tell us what to do: “Sisters, please stay in front.” They are assigning us a place right almost under the wheels of the big tank! My God, if that tank moves . . . What can we possibly do against this big war tank?
Terry and I start praying to Our Lady in her rosary.The people join us. We announce, “The first sorrowful mystery is the agony of Our Lord in the Garden.” As we pray, negotiations are going on between General Tadiar and some laymen. Tadiar is adamant. He wants to move the tanks to Crame. We now go to the second mystery. We announce: “The second sorrowful mystery is the scourging of Our Lord at the pillar.”
Some people have a bright idea. They want us to climb to the top of the tank and lead the rosary from there. I look to the top of the monstrous tank. It’s far too high for us and how shall two nuns clamber up the metal side of this tank? We decide to stay below, here with the people, in front of the wheels. The photographers are jostling one another to take a good picture of the tanks, the marines, and us (the people). When I open my mouth to plead with them to calm down a little, that they pray with us instead at this time of danger, someone aims his camera at us. (Result: the picture of two nuns, one of them her mouth wide open, a picture flashed on the screens across the world and printed in local and international publications.)
General Tadiar shouts to the people: “Will you please clear the road so we can pass!” No one moves. We announce: “The fourth sorrowful mystery: Jesus receives his cross and carries it.”
My eyes are on the treaded wheels. Lord, what a way to die. I prefer being riddled with bullets to being flattened out and crushed under these wheels. My Sisters will still recognize me if I die riddled with bullets, but not if I am crushed, bones and all, beyond recognition. Have mercy on us, O Lord.
Suddenly the huge war tank in front of me roars to life and the earth shudders under us. The tank roars louder. And it begins to move against us! The people give out a cry—and they begin crying. My impulse is to stand and flee. But I hold myself in place and make my offering: “Lord, I offer you my life. I am glad to die as a Daughter of St Paul!”
Some hours afterwards, I find myself kneeling in front of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, in our chapel here in Pasay, recalling the horror of that moment. Recalling also the grace of that moment: I held my ground when the tank moved against me. The rest is history.
This short account is loaded with lessons for the rescue movement. The first thing to notice is her memory of the moment: she remembered it as a grace, a gift from God. She does not remember or rejoice in her own strength, but in God’s gift to his people.
Notice her clear recognition at the beginning of her poverty and helplessness and vulnerability: What can we do against these war tanks? The clear answer is nothing; stopping the tanks is impossible. They took on an impossible task, out of obedience to the Lord, with whom all things are possible.
Note what they did under the wheels of the tank. They prayed; and, more specifically, they prayed the Rosary, meditating with Mary on the passion of the Lord. No one in our time need be ashamed of the rosary.
Their understanding of their work was that they were to stay with the people, solidarity with the vulnerable.
Pro-life leaders who have struggled to maintain control during a rescue will recognize the response when people were getting out of control at one point. The sisters took control, shouting for people to pray.
They thought that they were through with their work when their real work began. The Lord calls us beyond our expectations.
They were praying a sequential and orderly prayer, with specific ideas in a line, and that by God’s providence they were meditating specifically on the Lord’s crucifixion at the time of their greatest danger. Sometimes pro-lifers look specifically for rescue texts, but that is not necessary. From the perspective of the Lord and the perspective of the Church, our daily prayers, those quite humble prayers, are precisely what we need at the moments of greatest drama and danger. Changing a diaper or washing the dishes or stopping a tank or being beaten by the Los Angeles police: it is all part of the same reality of love and service to the Lord and his people.
Note that when it was over, they thanked God.
Another moving account from the Filipino Revolution was written by Sr. Pilar Verzosa, a pro-life activist. Like many rescuers, she was tempted to see her work as a failure.
Sister Pilar, like Sister Pingping, was part of human barricade keeping soldiers loyal to the dictator from attacking soldiers who had defected to the elected president. She too saw the power of communal prayer, and specifically of singing. On many occasions, the Filipino leaders restored or maintained order by singing, a tool of immense power.
The situation is explosive, made more so by the people taunting the Marines. Two sisters are leading the rosary. I join them. Not all the people are praying with us . . .
They used prayer to restore and maintain order. When they started praying, they were not thinking about God, they were thinking about disorder and how to control it. God, who is Lord of the universe and who lives in unapproachable splendor and majesty, is humble. He takes us where we are and accepts the gifts we offer, like the scribblings of a three-year-old child with a new box of crayons. If all we offer is our mouths, because we want to restore order, He will help us restore order and then take over our hearts.
[Several of us] decide to walk into the forbidden enclosure where the tanks and marines are waiting for their next orders. . . . Our hearts are pounding against their rib cage.
After some hesitation, I put my foot forward crossing the forbidden line. And immediately the other sisters dare to cross over.
Note the power of example, the power unleashed by the first act of courage. For us, things have taken years, not a moment; but we see the same thing. One person acting in obedience to God— like John Ryan or Joan Andrews—opens the eyes and hearts of many others.
Again, though, when they cross over the line, they are empty and helpless and totally at a loss.
But what should we do here? Can somebody please tell us what we should do next?
Juli Loesch Wiley says: God gives us all the courage we need when we need it—but no extra, and not until we really need it.
I try talking to a marine. He doesn’t answer me. I try talking to the others—they just stare at me. I talk in Tagalog, in English, and I feel so dumb talking alone. I try my Ilocano. It works! I establish a little contact. I tell one marine, “I suppose you are doing this because you were told to.” The marine answers back, “Oh, no, Sister. We have our own minds. We don’t just follow orders.” There is some hostility in the voice, but I am happy someone is talking to me.
Although this conversation was in the Philippines, in a different culture, a different language, a different issue, different circumstances, it sounds completely familiar to rescue leaders in the United States.
The next day, Sister Pilar was part of a barricade that broke.
The lieutenant listens. He sees that we come in peace, unarmed. We are here to prevent fratricidal war . . . He withdraws his men.
The people give out a victory cheer! Suddenly the lieutenant and his men, already a few meters away, turn their truck around and start coming back at us. Perhaps our victory cheer sounded like a celebration of their defeat—they feel humiliated. They are coming at us to demolish us. We are stunned. We meant no harm. . . . “Don’t shoot, we are your brothers and sisters.” But they are no longer listening. Suddenly the lieutenant barks out the command: “Fix bayonets!” My God! They start advancing at us, the steel points ready for the thrust into our bodies. We all close ranks . . . in tight “kapit-bisig.” Fr. Kreutz, just before the blow, orders the barricades to break up and let the soldiers through.
Fear seizes all of us and people begin to cry—believing it was all a useless effort, believing a bloody civil war is just a few seconds away. . . .
[Later that night,] I hear the announcement that killings have already started . . . All our instructions to the young, all our seminars on peace, all a lifetime’s efforts to promote active nonviolence, all our prayers—all have meant nothing after all . . .
Pilar was part of the only barricade that broke that week. She thought they had failed, and that civil war had started. But in fact, unbeknownst to them at the time, the units that went through their lines defected to Aquino. What they experienced as a failure was, by God’s grace, one of the greatest victories of an amazing week.