27 January 2011

Preach for Life

Delivered at the John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois
Sunday, January 23rd 2011

As many of you are aware, a number of us are tonight, having made the trip out to Washington to participate in the annual March for Life. It’s been several years since I myself made the march, and I have to admit, every anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, I’ve noticed a recurring heaviness of heart. This has led to a growing cynicism in myself over the efficacy of such demonstrations, and of the pro-life movement in general.

In my weaker moments, there’s an impulse to disgust over the futility of our work on behalf of the unborn, alongside all the political maneuvering from politicians, the electioneering, and most especially the slick and glossy rhetoric that’s used to distract us from one of the greatest human rights atrocities our country has ever known.

It’s true that there have been and continue to be advances, but we have very little reason to be complacent:

The steady decline in abortions since 1981 has leveled off in the last 5 years at just under 20 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age. That sounds like a pretty small number; but as you know, statistics don’t always capture the whole truth. For instance, the numbers are startling in more urban areas. Recently it was discovered that in NYC, 41% of all pregnancies except the ones that end in miscarriage end in abortion.  That statistic for the country as a whole stands around 22%.  That's right: 1 in 5 pregnancies in this country ends in abortion.  Take a guess at the most dangerous place to be in the United States right now. Not in an airplane, not in a speeding vehicle driven by an intoxicated college student, not on the South side of Chicago at 3 a.m.  No, the most dangerous place in our country is a mother's womb.

In more recent news, an abortionist in Philadelphia was arraigned and held without bail by a grand jury that charged him with eight counts of murder of babies born alive to unconscious mothers, as well as several women who died in his facility through gross medical incompetence. Even more shocking is the fact that the atrocities committed by this man against mostly poor, minority women and children were overlooked by the Pennsylvania Health Department for decades, who refused to inspect his facilities despite numerous well-substantiated complaints and the death of a patient under his care. The grand jury’s report found that the reason for such a horrendous situation was the Health Department’s refusal to inspect all Pennsylvania abortion clinics for, I quote, “political reasons” (p. 9).

It’s very easy to be disheartened by these stories of human depravity, this ability to commit unspeakable, heartless acts of cruelty for money and take a kind of sick delight in it all. It’s also very easy to be overwhelmed by the fact that in spite of a vibrant and popular pro-life movement, there are great numbers of people who think it a constitutional right to be able to kill children, to the order of 1.2 million abortions each year in the US.

And so there is great reason to grieve today. What rises out of today’s Gospel is a deep familiarity with Matthew’s reference to the people “dwelling in a land overshadowed by death.”

All this discouragement got me thinking about what it must have been like in the years leading up to the work of Dr Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. A few months ago, I was doing research for a paper on the history of nonviolent resistance and the lessons it might offer to the contemporary pro-life struggle, and I was just captivated by the history of the Montgomery bus boycott and the sit-ins in Birmingham. In the years leading up to those inspired and noble attacks on the evils of segregation and discrimination, King had been deeply frustrated by what he saw was the inertia of the civil rights movement. So many leaders (black as well as white) had attempted to challenge discrimination, vocally and publicly, but nothing ever had enough momentum to make real progress. No one had been able to figure out what needed to change, and why the whites had so successfully been able to convince the black community that desegregation and equality was an impossibility—or at least something that would take many, many years to accomplish.

It took him a long time to comprehend that the reason behind the continued stagnancy of civil rights lay in the black community itself. He concluded that most blacks accepted the conditions of their lives as given, and had no expectation that anything would ever change. He traced the roots of this mindset to basically a “slave mentality,” the spiritual legacy of physical bondage.

He saw that it was just this interior bondage that had to be rooted out before it could be reflected in societal change.

And so Dr King saw that the parameters of the whole struggle had to be recast—the enemy was not just the “white mystique of invincibility,” but the inner “psychology of servitude.” It came down to dignity: King recognized true freedom was impossible without “a process of liberation attained by 1) the recognition of individual dignity and 2) the imposition of the claim that dignity asserts on the actions and policies of others.”

And so I have to wonder if my own cynicism about the March for Life isn’t slipping into the same kind of interior bondage—not to the culture of slavery but the culture of Death. (Maybe in the end they’re not so different.) Isn’t the lesson from the life of Dr King that a victory over the culture of death begins with a victory over my own interior darkness and death, which is fundamentally a spiritual reality, and a recognition that the dignity of others has a claim on me, whether or not society as a whole recognizes that dignity?

This is why pro-lifers are right to condemn the use of violence in the name of the defense of unborn life. Apart from the obvious self-contradiction it involves, using force in this struggle is not compatible with a recognition of the dignity of those we oppose. I think this is why the pro-life cause is so profoundly misunderstood by our culture. Pro-lifers are often represented in the argumentative context of the media and pop culture, as self-righteous, but our struggle has nothing to do with absolving ourselves by condemning others.  That truth is brought out by Jesus’ call to repent on account of the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

We can never equate the line separating good from evil with the line between pro-life and pro-choice.  No: that line runs right through the human heart, yours and mine included.

That does NOT mean the utterly silly cliche repeated so often in our society today: "judge not, lest ye be judged."  There are few things more clear-cut than the taking of innocent life in the name of convenience.  What it does mean is that we are to present ourselves to the Lord, who calls out to us today in our darkness: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We are free to call others to repentance because we ourselves have tasted the bitterness of acknowledging our own sin. But we know that there is sweetness in it, too—sweetness, and light, and peace. There is healing for the repentant; Jesus still makes his way through this “Galilee of the Gentiles, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, curing every disease and illness among the people”. He does it through His Church, and the sacraments of penance and healing. She can’t stop calling the world to repentance without negating the whole reason for her existence.

And so I ask two things of you today: First, I ask your prayers that God send us another Dr King—someone to lead us to that day when the dignity of human life will be reverenced by our laws from conception to natural death. Second, these words of Jesus are addressed to each of us today. Take a look at where that line between good and evil that runs through your heart is sitting, and expose the hidden part that needs healing.

For my part, I’m pretty sure God wants to work on my cynical inclinations. We each have some need, some weakness, some unsurrendered or forgotten bundle of death that we keep stepping around like that pile of dirty laundry between the couch and the desk. As we approach the altar to receive the Lord in the Eucharist today, there is good reason to open ourselves to the light and freshness that banishes all darkness and disease, that our weakness and death might become grace for ourselves and light for the world.

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