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To Rescue or Not to Rescue: Is That the Only Question?

A week ago this was a somewhat different article, nearly ready to offer for publication. Then, some friends interposed for the preborn in Louisville, Kentucky last weekend, eleven arrested for criminal trespass while blocking the entrance to the state’s last remaining abortion mill.

Copy-All, Delete. The former article that came from dozens of notes always in progress would have seemed disparaging to my brothers and sisters who rescued last weekend, and to the contrary, I commend them. If I had been in Louisville, i would have joined them, and Jim Soderna wouldn’t have been the only one to have gone limp to resist arrest.

There should be absolutely no objection among Christians to non-violent direct action in opposition to injustice. Where and when Christians act to defy unjust laws and oppose injustice is morally good and an example of loving our neighbors. The various criticism I have read and heard are familiar to me. The opposition to the mission of the Rescue movement to interpose on behalf of the preborn was opposed by most Christians and pro-life leaders. Very often, those who voiced criticism to me had no response when I asked what they intended to do that was better or more Biblical, although a few would say that we should simply pray.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail in August, 1963, written to clergy to respond to criticisms of his methods, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

It’s much easier to criticize the actions of others than to stand in the line of fire and be scrutinized by acting ourselves. Whatever fault anyone may find in the civil disobedience practiced this past weekend, there is no doubt that eleven Christians acted in defiance of injustice.

The following conversation allegedly occurred between evangelist D.L. Moody and a woman who criticized his preaching:

“Mr. Moody, I don’t like the way you do evangelism!”

“Well, ma’am, let me ask you, how do you do it?” Moody asked.

She replied, “I don’t!”

Moody responded, “Well, I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it!”

Now, to return to an abbreviated version of my notes on the subject, I want to address some misconceptions about the Rescue Movement and offer my humble perspective. Since the last time I was arrested while blocking an entrance to an abortion mill around 25 years ago I’ve had numerous conversations about the movement. I’ve been asked whether we should reignite the movement and block entrances again. Some have asked what went wrong with the movement and why it failed. Others have asked about the glory days and how exciting it must have been.

Misconceptions arise when we look back at the past with a revisionist understanding or through the lens of commentaries. My experience and perspective certainly don’t represent all others who participated in the movement. Because I was not in the spotlight during that time I don’t have celebrity credentials to give my perspective weight. I offer my perspective as one among many who risked arrest, served time in jail, and contemplated the transition from blocking entrances to other forms of direct action.

The first misconception I will address is that the Rescue movement was a failure. Only from a pragmatic view could it succeeded or failed. I remember a sermon on Galatians 6:8-10 by Matt Trewhella on the eve of a rescue around 1990:

“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (ESV)

That is one of a handful of sermons in my life that has stuck with me. Trewhella explained that we weren’t called to be successful, but obedient. When our efforts are based in the flesh, we will grow weary and not reap righteousness. From that day on I could be content that to simply do what is right according to Scripture is fruit of repentance, regardless of the outcome.

Shawn Viland, author of this editorial, pictured on the right. Firemen are using Jaws of Life to remove the bike lock Shawn used to chain himself to an abortion mill door.

Those were not “glory days.” Prior to the 2008 March for Life, Judie Brown, co-founder and President of American Life League, received applause after announcing that they would be participating in the 34th March. She immediately commented, “That’s nothing to clap about. Honestly, it really isn’t. For 34 years in this country we’ve had laws on the books that have made it possible to kill children for any reason whatsoever throughout all nine months of pregnancy.”

While it is glorious to share fellowship with brothers and sister in Christ while serving, and especially while suffering even a small amount, we have nothing to celebrate. If we have acted in obedience, we can praise our savior for the repentance he has granted us so that we can continue to obey. In regard to the injustice of mass murder of the preborn, the culture is practically unchanged since 1973, and probably worse as even The Church is more at peace with child sacrifice that it ever has been.

So, with the rise of a new movement of abolitionists, is this a time to begin blocking entrances again? Such a question should not be answered hastily. My simple answer is, “no.” But I do not mean that it would be wrong to interpose by blocking entrances or that I would not participate. I do mean that we should be deliberate in our strategy and count the cost, and commit to direct action that can be sustained more than single events that may or may not be effective.

Dr. King, in the aforementioned letter to clergy, also said, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.” He commented on what he meant by “self-purification”: “As in so many experiences of the past, we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us. So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community. We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So we decided to go through a process of self-purification. We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ and ’Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?’

At this time we are unprepared for a sustainable campaign that includes blocking abortion mill entrances. Few have considered whether he could endure jail or fines, or to respond to physical brutality with gentleness and the love of Christ. In fact, there are yet just a few of us who are responding at all to the injustice. That is not to say that as a few we should not act, but that our actions must be in obedience rather than in what seems to be effective or alleviate our consciences.

Abolitionist Thomas Clarkson wrote, “It cannot be otherwise than useful to us to be impressively reminded of the simple axiom which the perusal of this history will particularly suggest to us, that ‘the greatest works must have a beginning;’ because the fostering of such an idea in our minds cannot but encourage us to undertake the removal of evils, however vast they may appear in their size, or however difficult to overcome. It cannot, again, be otherwise than useful to us to be assured, (and this history will assure us of it,) that in any work, which is a work of righteousness, however small the beginning may be, or however small the progress may be that we may make in it, we ought never to despair; for that, whatever checks and discouragements we may meet with, ‘no virtuous effort is ever ultimately lost.'”

Rather than whether it is virtuous or not to block entrances, I contend that we consider what is the best use of our efforts today. What part of self-purification is necessary to effect the abolition of abortion? We must consider that we may lose freedoms or property, that we may be despised or slandered. Some of us have already experienced these things. If our King is Christ and he is truly above all for us, and we are responding to the abortion holocaust as an injustice he hates and intends to contend with through The Church, we have begun self-purification.

The Rescue Movement began as a message of repentance. I no longer have a copy of a pamphlet by Randall Terry I distributed by the hundreds, but it was aptly titled, “Humility, Repentance, and Obedience.” It was a brief but bold clarion to The Church to repent of apathy and tolerance of child sacrifice. However, The Church, at least the visible Church, is more worldly and apathetic today than it was 25 years ago.

Thousands of Christians of all ages and vocations were involved in my first Rescue and I was among hundreds arrested as several mills were closed that day. Rescues involving hundreds continued, but gradually numbers decreased and by 1992 most of the Rescues involved no more than a dozen at a time, and we began locking ourselves together or to fixed objects to delay our removal. By the time President Bill Clinton signed into law the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE), making it a felony to block abortion clinics, most clergy and churches had already packed it up and returned home.

For some the cost of losing assets or church buildings was too much, and for others it was too much to ask that they endure scorn or ridicule, especially from family or church members. A handful of incidents of violence were falsely associated with the Rescue movement by many clergy, and notable Christian leaders condemned the movement accordingly.

Tactically, we have many other tasks before us whether we risk arrest or not. The greatest work to correct the injustice against the preborn is not at the mills (where we must be as advocates for the victims) but in the streets and communities, and most importantly, in the churches calling for repentance. The pro-life movement offers Christians a means of appeasing their consciences without repentance or obedience.

The recent End Abortion Now campaign embraces some aspects of abolitionism, but bypasses the essential call to repentance, and ignores the legislative efforts already in progress, promising to train clergy to engage in such things someday in the future. This movement involves some people who exemplify excellent skills of apologetics and evangelism and it is not ecumenical in a sense that locks arms with other religions. It is based in Reformed Theology and attracts those Christians who like the bold methods of AHA, but object to certain aspects of the ideology or the actions of certain individuals in the movement. As much as I would like to be encouraged to see a less compromised form of the pro-life movement, something I worked for prior to becoming an abolitionist, avoiding the idolatry and apathy of The Church and calling for repentance will only delay the abolition of abortion.

“Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: ‘I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.’” (2 Chronicles 7:12–15 ESV)

Nearly every church we have approached about abolition has rejected the message of abolitionism and repentance, and many have called the police to have abolitionists removed. A church in Naperville, Illinois, filed a charge of trespass against abolitionist Troy Bucinni. Another church in Geneva, Illinois, not only called the police but slandered abolitionists in a public blog article.

The core of the original mission of Operation Rescue was repentance. Random rescues will accomplish little or nothing, but if those who are called by the name of the Most High King, Yahweh, humble themselves and pray, and follow Christ as obedience disciples, they will have to arrest us anywhere they find us to keep us from transforming the culture. At this point, I would rather get arrested for trespassing on church property calling my brothers to repent than at abortion mills where, once we are removed, the killing will recommence.

During a Project Nineveh recently in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Trewhella commented that while the ideology of abolitionism does not consist of anything new that hasn’t been done before, it is in a form that is “crystal clear.” It is also comprehensive. While the original vision of Operation Rescue is consistent with abolitionism, it was not nearly as well developed or complete. Any thought of returning to that movement instead of moving forward with abolitionism would be short-sighted. What the Rescue Movement needed to accomplish is encompassed in the objectives of abolitionism.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13–16 NASB)