The encounter. This is what brought us together. On a rainy spring day, Saturday, March 29, in Philadelphia on the campus of Villanova University, I had the honor of learning from, and strategizing with, an impressive group of devoted and unique advocates for peace and life. This gathering, I humbly propose, should—and I earnestly hope will—be a guiding light for the future of the pro-life movement. And it all starts with: the encounter.
Life/Peace/Justice: A Conference on Life Issues brought together grassroots activists—from seasoned 40-year veterans to young college students—to share stories of solidarity with “the least of these.”
We heard a military veteran about the depersonalizing and destructive nature of drone warfare; a former death-row inmate and his story of innocence and exoneration by DNA evidence; post-abortive men and women and their cause for hope; the brother of a young woman with disabilities and the story of her court-ordered death by starvation and dehydration; a former abortion clinic worker and the life-affirming choice to reclaim her true self; and an advocate of nonviolence and service to the poor who worked alongside Mother Teresa tending to the dying in the streets of Calcutta.
What made this gathering unique and is the reason for my hope that the larger movement for life adopts the participants’ approach is that although these advocates reflect a wide array of philosophical, religious, and political diversity, they do not reduce themselves or their work to labels or categories. On the contrary, they are unified not by their love for a party but for the person.
Love for the political party has contributed to the dangerous minimization of “life issues” to mere bullet points in a platform, thus degrading the human person by reducing the issues to talking points and crafty sound bites in the pursuit of votes. How many times has this Republican promised to defend the unborn or that Democrat pledged to end unjust interventionist wars—only to leave their devoted grassroots supporters disappointed and wondering why they yet again placed their faith in a party?
We must not abandon politics. It is imperative that we work within the political system to defend the human person—but we must not rely ultimately on governmental solutions. We cannot abandon effecting change through public policy—but first we must not abandon our neighbor in the name of political expediency, simply to get someone with an “R” or a “D” after his or her name elected.
As I reflect upon this outstanding gathering of advocates for Life/Peace/Justice, I’m convinced even further that the very nature of politics is an exercise in depersonalizing conflict, of “us versus them.” There is a false “right/left” paradigm, where “conservatives” are concerned with abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research and “liberals” focus on war, torture, and the death penalty. These issues all need to be claimed as human rights issues, and not relegated to “ownership” by one party or the other.
This “black-and-white” fallacy is dangerous and must be rejected. It minimizes these various forms of aggressive violence against human persons to simple ideological points on one side or another of the political spectrum. And in pigeonholing these acts of violence as belonging to a party platform, the human persons who suffer these indignities are thus branded as useful only as a means to gain election to a political office.
This false “right/left” dilemma not only hurts those who the political parties purport to protect, but it also harms those who desire to advocate for peace and life. It inhibits conversation and alienates those of good will, who would otherwise be allies for the human person, from one another. How many times have we been told how unwise and imprudent it is to work with someone from the “other” party? I submit that the makeup of the political climate prevents conversation and dehumanizes the “other” as an enemy and not a potential friend. We must learn to use the political process in pursuit of the ultimate end of our work—the protection of the human person, and their inherent dignity—and not allow ourselves to be used in the process.
The consistent life ethic espoused by those gathered for Life/Peace/Justice, I propose, should be the via media, the “middle way” forward for the pro-life movement. On one end of the spectrum, the single-issue focus may tend to be myopic, overlooking structures of violence and the interrelated nature of all attacks on life and human dignity. For our single-issue friends, I would encourage openness to considering all attacks on life, while continuing your devoted focus on your particular area of passion. We do need advocates such as you, who tirelessly pour themselves into an issue, be it abortion or war, as they play an integral role in the consistent life family. On the other end of the spectrum, the approach that can tend to conflate all attacks on the human person as equal can lend itself to not differentiating between more and less unjust offenses against life. For those who look at the multiplicity of issues and all the attacks on life, I would humbly propose an ordering of injustices, some of which are more egregious than others. But as with those whose focus is single-issue, these friends in the battle for a wider approach to life issues play a key role in the consistent life battle for the human person, reminding us of the interconnectedness of all life issues.
The consistent ethic of life, as the via media, also should be a point of evangelization, as a conversation starter and point upon which to build bridges and form alliances. In short, we need to confound others with our unchanging approach to the human person. How many times have our friends who support abortion been astonished that we, who oppose it, are also interested in the dignity of those unfairly sentenced to death or in an unjust war being waged? Aren’t anti-abortion advocates supposed to be in favor of the death penalty and interventionist war? And how many times have our friends who are pro-life on abortion yet hawkish on war been amazed by our consideration to look at foreign policy differently through a consistent life lens?
We need to encourage our one-issue friends to not hang their hat on one politician or party just because they’re right on one issue. Let us encourage our friends who are pro-life on abortion to humanize the innocents who die in war, and let us invite our anti-death penalty friends to consider the issue of capital punishment for the unborn. In the name of charity, let us affirm those one-issue voters where they get it right. And in the process, let us heal the false “right/ left” divide and bewilder our friends with our consistency. Then, the conversation in favor of life and peace can really begin.
Once this conversation begins, we can then enter more deeply into communion with the other to share the joys and sufferings of our brothers and sisters, bearing each other’s burdens and healing each other’s wounds. That is why we’re here, after all: to serve and to love. We are a people endlessly fascinated by what is real, what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful in this life. And where do we find this? It is in the human person, full of dignity and worthy of respect, where we find reality, truth, goodness, and beauty.
In this conversation about the defense of the dignity of our neighbor, we must recall that it is not primarily an issue of politics, it is foremost an issue of encounter: encountering the preborn child; the abused woman; the man addicted to drugs; the prisoner on death-row; the suicidal teen; the woman trapped in sex trafficking; the developmentally disabled child; the immigrant; the poor; the homeless; the widow; the orphan; the war veteran with PTSD; the persecuted Middle Eastern minority; the man and woman suffering from abortion.
And for those we encounter, we are called to solidarity with them. Not a vague sentimentality from a safe distance or a superficial distress at another’s condition, but a firm commitment to love. And to love is to desire what is good for the other, with a willingness to act to effect change to bring about that good.
The source of much of the inconsistency between the support of human rights in theory and their denial in reality lies in a disordered notion of liberty. When unfettered individualism wins the day, there is no space for openness to, communion with, and charity toward another. We are all our brother’s keeper. We have been given to one another. Radical independence needs to be replaced by revolutionary interdependence. We are called to encounter, acknowledge the transcendent dignity of, have empathy for, love, and join in solidarity with “the other”—our neighbor. Then will our efforts to promote a culture of peace and life bear fruit. We are called to compassion, a movement of the heart in response to another: “feeling” (passion) “with” (com) the other. Let us mercifully gaze upon and welcome the stranger among us as “another self,” as our brother and sister, from in utero to the grave. Let us encounter one another.