The message doesn’t usually come from an unbeliever. It typically comes from a fellow believer, and this time was no exception. The individual went on to delineate every negative aspect of “pro-lifers” that he could recall. He simply could not understand how “pro-lifers” could focus so much time, energy, and attention on “potential human beings” rather than dedicate those resources to the poor and homeless among us.
Pope Francis has recently talked about the divisions within the Church. These divisions are obviously alive and well. The liturgical divisions create disunity in our worship and prayer; the variety of perceptions regarding cultural and life issues create disharmony in our outreach and service efforts. It is no wonder that we have struggled to be one flock under one shepherd when we can’t even have unity within our own denomination. It will be a difficult journey to reconcile theological differences with other denominations when we can’t even come to agreement on basic issues of the dignity of life within our own denomination.
Why is there such a divide between “social justice” proponents and “pro-lifers”? Are we not part of the same Church and espousing the same sacred dignity and value of human life? Why are the very terms themselves looked upon with disdain from advocates in the other group? Once, when I was visiting another parish and preaching at the weekend liturgies, the Scripture readings were focused on living a life of service. As I had discussions with the pastor prior to my arrival I mentioned some of my thoughts regarding the homily. He said, “You can use the words ‘social justice’ here in our parish. They aren’t considered dirty words.” He followed it up with suggesting that an “anti-abortion” homily might not be as well-received as a social justice one.
So--are you a “pro-life” fanatic or a “social justice” Christian? Okay, that’s not a biased question, is it? However, it is frequently the way the question is posed. Is it any wonder why anxiety increases when the two camps find themselves together in the same room? Apparently, when the question is framed in this manner it is assumed that you can’t be both. You are on one side or the other. Does that viewpoint really help us build up the Kingdom of God in a positive way?
Last year, at the end of a meeting preparing for the next 40 Days for Life campaign, a group of church leaders from a variety of denominations walked a block down the street to the local Planned Parenthood facility. We stood with our backs toward the street and faced the building in which Planned Parenthood is located. We did not hold signs; we did not make a scene; we simply prayed for fifteen minutes. There was no fanfare; there were no confrontations; it was just a brief moment in prayer. In that short period of time it was evident that we were seen as fanatics by a number of those driving by. We were yelled at and invited to “go to hell.” It was suggested by others that we do some things to ourselves that would be anatomically challenging to say the least. While there were a few “horn honks” in support of our presence, there was no mistaking that not everyone was happy to see us. Once again, all of this happened in just 15 minutes.
On the drive home I started pondering the question I had heard a few days prior to this. Am I a pro-life fanatic or a social justice Christian? Well, I have tried to be both. I have volunteered at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and supported the work of Habitat for Humanity. I financially support our parish efforts to supply sack lunches each day to the poor and homeless in our town. I have volunteered with many different kinds of organizations working to make our communities better. In all of these instances no one has ever yelled obscenities at me while I have been engaged in these activities. I have only been verbally assaulted during those times when I have simply stood and prayed quietly in front of an abortion clinic.
Upon further reflection, I decided that the difference must be that I am viewed as a “protester” when I am standing in front of an abortion clinic. However, I have stood in front of the state capitol building in Cheyenne for four of the last five years on the first day of winter to commemorate “Homeless Memorial Day.” While it is certainly not a protest, it is a very public event in which we pay tribute to the homeless who have died during the previous year. This takes place right in front of the capitol steps leading to the main entrance. No one has ever yelled obscenities at me for being present there raising the awareness of our legislators and citizens about the problem of homelessness in our community.
It is one thing for political correctness to play a role in the secular debates about the current values and morals, or lack thereof, shaping contemporary culture. It is another thing for members of the Body of Christ to enter into these unhealthy trappings. Furthermore, we can’t simply sit on the sidelines waiting until “the time is right” to get involved. If we wait for a perfect world to come about before we get involved, we will never move off of the sofa. It is time for us to be truly pro-life and committed to social justice. What will it take for us to understand that these ideas aren’t mutually exclusive from one another? How will we reach out in charity and advocate for justice to create a true culture of life?
My involvement in the pro-life movement for the last 20 plus years has been a growing experience. As a matter of fact, my work in the pro-life movement has shaped my social justice thinking. It has increased my awareness of the pain and struggles that many people are facing on a daily basis. Quite frankly, it has helped me understand more fully the role of the Church in reaching out to all who are hurting because of physical illness, addictions, unemployment, poverty, mental illness, and homelessness.
Obviously, there is a hierarchy of issues in regard to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Without life, any other rights we may possess are pointless. Thus, the priority of the sanctity and value of life has to be number one. That does not mean we stop providing charity, justice, and advocacy to and for people in regard to the other social issues confronting society. Furthermore, pro-life extends well beyond abortion. Physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia, capital punishment, withholding ordinary means of treatment from patients, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and many other advances in medical technology that we will see in coming years will all be a factor in determining pro-life values, morals, and ethics. With all of that being said, there still has to be an acknowledgment of the intrinsic evil of abortion. If we, as a supposedly civil society, are okay with having innocent human life snuffed out through abortion, we will be hard pressed to ever be a society which is socially just.
Through the years I have been involved in organizing a variety of pro-life events. This has included 40 Days for Life, Life Chain, the March for Life in Washington D.C., and local pro-life marches in a variety of venues including parades in county fairs. I have often invited people to participate in these events and the responses have been quite interesting. Some have distanced themselves from me for good; others mention that they will think about it and I never hear from them again; others genuinely ask questions for further clarification; a miniscule few jump in wholeheartedly. The reasons for not getting involved have been all across the board. Here are some of the typical responses.
1. I don’t want to be seen as a protester.
2. I can pray at home; I don’t need to be in front of an abortion clinic.
3. I am not a fanatic; I don’t want to be seen with “you guys.”
4. Is this all you have to do?
5. Why don’t you adopt these babies if you are so “gung ho” about this?
6. When the Church starts seeing poverty as a life issue, I will start getting involved.
I could go on, but you get the point. There are plenty of reasons (or excuses) to not get involved. This is a personal appeal to each reader today. Get involved. What are you passionate about in regard to building up the Kingdom of God? The life issues are many and varied, and yes, when we engage in defending life we are being a social justice Christian. It is time for the glory of God to shine through in all of the ways in which we build up the Body of Christ.