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Scott P. Richert

Special Feature: Alive for Christ

By September 18, 2009

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On Tuesday, I published a post entitled "Where Is the Outrage Over the Killing of a Pro-Life Activist?" The point of the post was not really to discuss the activities of James Pouillon, but to examine the difference in reaction by pro-life and pro-abortion groups to both his murder and that of late-term abortionist George Tiller. Still, in my Catholicism Newsletter that day and in the initial version of my Novena of the Week post for this week, I made reference to Pouillon's "sacrifice" and compared his murder to a "martyrdom."

But Pouillon's life and actions were more complex than they have been portrayed in the national media. Learning more about his activities led me to examine different questions raised by his murder. The fruit of those thoughts is a column, "Alive for Christ," which will appear in the September 24, 2009, issue of the national Catholic weekly The Wanderer. (You can find more information on The Wanderer at the end of this post.)

With the permission of The Wanderer and my editor here at About.com, I am reprinting that column in this post.

Alive for Christ

by Scott P. Richert
Reprinted with permission from The Wanderer (September 24, 2009)

In the wake of the shooting of pro-life activist James Pouillon outside the public high school in Owosso, Michigan, on September 11, much of the coverage of his death on pro-life websites has focused on the lack of response by pro-abortion organizations. When late-term abortionist George Tiller was murdered on May 31, pro-life organizations and leaders were quick to condemn the killing and to call for justice. Yet when the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) finally issued a statement about Pouillon's murder, they tried both to separate it from the question of abortion and to tie it to the shooting of Tiller. Other abortion-advocacy groups simply didn't bother to say anything.

I too wrote a piece for the About.com GuideSite to Catholicism pointing out the double standard. Yet I have to admit that such pieces really do nothing more than score rhetorical points. The truth is that pro-life Christians shouldn't simply be held to a higher standard; we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. We should condemn the murder of an abortionist not because we want those who favor abortion to condemn the murder of a pro-life activist, but because it is the right thing to do. We cannot do evil that good may come of it, and it is never more important to repeat this fundamental teaching of Christianity than at those times when such evil has been committed supposedly in the name of good.

All of which brings us to a very uncomfortable aspect of the murder of James Pouillon. Prosecutors in Shiawassee County, Michigan, and the Shiawassee County Sheriff's Department say that Harlan Drake, the man who has admitted to murdering both Pouillon and real-estate agent Mike Fouss (and targeting a third man, James Howe), disagreed with Pouillon on abortion, but he was apparently even more upset over the tactics that Pouillon has used in his protests over the past decade.

Pouillon was setting up across the street from the public high school on that fateful morning, as he had on many mornings before, to display a graphic image of an aborted child. I have written before about why I believe the use of such images is counterproductive at best. As parents, we have an obligation to protect our children from the violence of abortion. But confronting them with such images does exactly the opposite: It draws them into the reality of abortion in a way that can do great damage to developing minds and souls.

Those who defend the use of such images often say that their intention is not to expose young children to them, but to awaken the consciences of adults who support abortion. But that is an excuse, at best. In practice, little attempt is made to shield young eyes from the sight; and sometimes, as in this case, those young eyes are intentionally made the very target of the signs.

Many residents of Owosso who knew James Pouillon well—including pro-lifers—say that he used the signs because he desired confrontation, and they cite as evidence many stories of such confrontation (including bitter attacks on Catholics after he left the Church) that go well beyond simply displaying those signs. Whether that is why he began to use the signs is almost irrelevant. What is undoubtedly true is that such signs create confrontation, often where none needs to exist. And over time, even the best of us, fallen creatures that we are, may come to crave that confrontation, because it appeals to our pride. We, not the children who are being killed by the thousands every day in this country, become the center of attention.

To cite just two examples: I first met Alan Keyes 20 years ago, and I have watched his career closely ever since. I have paid similar attention to Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue. While dozens of American bishops were speaking out about the scandal caused by the decision of the University of Notre Dame to confer an honorary degree upon the most pro-abortion president in the history of the United States, Keyes and Terry were engaged in street theater on the Notre Dame campus, pushing baby strollers filled with bloodied dolls, and announcing their intention (quickly fulfilled) to get arrested, over and over again.

Who accomplished more? Those bishops who stood up for authentic Catholic teaching, or the two men who have made their living over the past two decades by making themselves the focus of the struggle against abortion? In 1996, though he had no chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination, Alan Keyes jumped into the race and siphoned off sufficient pro-life votes to deprive Pat Buchanan, who had won the New Hampshire primary and the Louisiana caucuses, of further victories. Was the fight against abortion really advanced by Keyes' unrelenting, self-serving attacks on Buchanan and the nomination of Bob Dole?

Keyes and Terry have now taken their show on the road, with Terry dressing up like a doctor and stabbing baby dolls outside of town-hall meetings called to discuss healthcare reform. His actions guarantee that his face will show up on local and national news, and that footage of his antics will be plastered all over YouTube. But do they do anything at all to address the serious question of whether the Obama administration's proposals will lead to widespread public funding of abortion?

Like James Pouillon, Keyes and Terry have repeatedly cast themselves as potential martyrs to the cause of life. In Pouillon's case, his stated willingness to die, oft-repeated to family, friends, and fellow pro-lifers, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. But will his senseless murder save the life of a single child? Indeed, will it do anything other than to tear apart the community of Owosso, which like so many other small towns in mid-Michigan, is already suffering from the effects of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression? Might it even do damage to the efforts of local pro-lifers who disagreed with Pouillon's confrontational tactics?

Early Christians debated whether it was right to seek martyrdom, rather than simply to accept it if it came along. The question was never fully settled, though the majority of Church Fathers were inclined to believe that it was not right. Still, in our own time, the Catholic Church has canonized St. Maximilian Kolbe, who, from a young age, prayed that he might become a martyr, and whose prayer was answered at Auschwitz.

But men such as Alan Keyes and Randall Terry are no Maximilian Kolbe. The essence of martyrdom is not witnessing to the glory of oneself but to the selfless sacrifice of Christ. As Christians, we are called to spread the Gospel through our words and actions, to bring the message of salvation to those who have not heard it or who have resisted it in the past. Confronting others in ways that make ourself, rather than Christ, the center of attention can do untold damage to the mission of the Church to save souls—not to mention the effort to save lives.

Many pro-lifers, myself included, read the initial reports of James Pouillon's murder and thought that we knew the entire story. But Pouillon's life, like all lives, cannot be easily encapsulated in a few paragraphs in a wire-service report. In mourning his death, we need to ask ourselves what, if anything, it actually accomplished.

And perhaps even more importantly, we need to confront the hard question: If we reduce Pouillon's story to one of good versus evil, the Culture of Life versus the Culture of Death, do we risk encouraging others to call senseless violence down upon themselves and their communities? Is that truly what it means to be pro-life?

A national Catholic weekly founded in 1867, The Wanderer is published in St. Paul, Minnesota. This column is reprinted with permission from the September 24, 2009, issue. Information on subscribing to both the print and electronic editions of The Wanderer is available online.

September 18, 2009 at 2:00 pm
(1) Tom Peterson says:

You are judging Terry and Keyes’ intent; known to God alone.

Personally knowing Terry, his 100 rosaries outside the White House, his love for the Catholic Church’s theology of suffering, which Protestant’s “don’t get,” and having spoken with him, with several other activists similarly analyzing and current culture of death, I’ll attest to his sincerity, heart for the souls lost every day in the death that is peddled in nearly every aspect of our culture, and years of work on the frontlines of the abortion war.

You should give him a call and ask for an interview. It may not change your mind; reasonable, well-formed catholics often disagree on the dictates of prudence. It would be interesting to read such a Q and A.

September 18, 2009 at 2:35 pm
(2) Marshall Gonzaga says:

I find it very sad that you are so dismissivie of the Pro-Life work of James Pouillon. This man gave years of his life standing up for the the weakest in society. His tactics may not be the ones you approve of but to say that he made no difference is troubling. If one child was saved by his efforts it was worth it. What have you done for the pro-life movement other that critize those who are on the front lines fighting to save children every day?
Randall Terry does one thing effectively. He has forced the issue of abortion to be mentioned on the evening news. The arrest of Father Weslin at Notre Dame was seen around the world. Give credit where credit is due.
Alan Keys is truly a passionate voice for the un-born. We are fortunate to have him speaking out against the horror of abortion.
The pro-life movement is made up of many, many unique individuals that each have a burning desire to end the slaughter of innocent children. Many have sacrificed personal freedom, life savings and rebuke from society at large, including “authentic” Catholics like you.
Scott if you do not want to be part of the solution you should not exacerbate the problem by attacking those who are attempting to stop the killing.

September 18, 2009 at 3:14 pm
(3) Scott P. Richert says:

Marshall, I have to wonder whether you actually read the entire piece, or anything else I’ve written, for that matter.

I didn’t say that James Pouillon “made no difference”; I asked whether his death will save the life of a single child. You didn’t answer that question.

I don’t spend my time criticizing “those who are on the front lines fighting to save children every day.” I’ve long supported the pro-life with actions, prayers, and money, as well as in print here on the Catholicism GuideSite, in The Wanderer, in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and in other venues.

Are you seriously suggesting that no tactic used by anyone who calls himself pro-life should be subject to criticism? Are you saying that no one who calls himself pro-life might be in this for mixed reasons, including pride?

Are you saying that we should be encouraging pro-lifers to engage in confrontational tactics that may lead to more deaths of pro-lifers? Is there nothing that can be done in the name of life that is ever wrong?

September 18, 2009 at 4:28 pm
(4) Marshall Gonzaga says:

You are correct. You did not say James Pouillon did not make a difference. What you said was his efforts were “counterproductive at best” and “he used signs because he desired confrontation”. His daughter does not agree with your characterization of her father.
The use of pictures of aborted babies is effective much the same way as the pictures of the Nazi Holocaust expressed the plight of the Jews that no amount of words could ever express.
This battle against abortion will not be won without shocking the complacent into action. You really need to come out from behind your computer and attend a Truth Tour and see how affective showing the truth about abortion changes minds.
Do Pro-lifer risk their lives? Yes. Do they “seek martyrdom”? No. Anyone that stands against abortion runs that risk.
Scott don’t be so quick to judge the efforts of people fighting the pro-life cause no matter how certain you may think you are of their motivations.

September 18, 2009 at 4:46 pm
(5) Scott P. Richert says:

Marshall, you continue to misread my words. I did not say that Pouillon’s efforts were “counterproductive at best”; I said that “I have written before about why I believe the use of such images is counterproductive at best.”

Nor did I say that ďhe used signs because he desired confrontationĒ; I said that others claimed that, but that “Whether that is why he began to use the signs is almost irrelevant.”

You write, “This battle against abortion will not be won without shocking the complacent into action.” And yet the Roman empire was converted, and abortion and exposure of infants ended, without the use of such measures. Instead, Christians preached the Gospel and converted the pagan.

You write, “Do they ‘seek martyrdom’? No.” Have you read the statements of Pouillon’s daughter and others about what he said to them? Or her statements about how happy he must be to have received martyrdom? How do you interpret that as not seeking martyrdom?

September 18, 2009 at 6:30 pm
(6) Tom Qualey says:

I found the remarks both harsh and uncalled for. Evaluating motives is something that none of us are any good at – but, having an international sounding board makes retractions all the more difficult.

Graphic representations of abortions is one approach, but as I understand it, the murdered man was holding the picture of an apparently happy and healthy baby. The murdered man is the victim of a shameless crime. I just find it difficult to believe that paragraph after paragraph were used to blame the victim for the violence he suffered.

Prayers for both men and their families are in order.

September 18, 2009 at 6:36 pm
(7) Scott P. Richert says:

Mr. Qualey, I did not blame the victim, and I stated that we should mourn his death. He is in my prayers.

But we need to consider, as I noted in the piece, what was served by Mr. Pouillon’s death. To call graphic representations of abortion “one approach” is to ignore the fact that James Pouillon died because someone decided to kill him for taking that “approach.”

What was accomplished by his death that would not have been better accomplished by his remaining alive?

September 18, 2009 at 7:34 pm
(8) Kirt Higdon says:

This issue of the use of pictures to dissuade seems to be coming up in at least one other forum in a slightly different context; namely, the use of pictures of wounded or dead US soldiers to dissuade people from support of current wars. I agree that bloody visuals are confrontational, but confrontation is needed in situations like these. People must confront the gruesome reality of what they are doing or supporting. I have often used bloody pictures of abortions in front of abortion mills and handed out literature with such pictures. On one occasion, I was unsuccessfully sued for this by a group of abortionists who are now (thank God) out of business. Counterproductive?
I don’t think so.

Also, on one occasion, I was part of a group which displayed such pictures in front of a high school. The children who are being intentionally exposed to the images are in fact youths, many of whom are making practical decisions, with or without their parents’ knowledge or consent, to have or not have abortions or to participate in the abortions of girl friends. Indeed, they should be confronted with the reality of abortion.

As far as seeking out martyrdom is concerned, the odds of losing one’s life in either anti-abortion or anti-war demonstrations is pretty slim, although I’ve been threated with death while participating in both. If avoiding confrontation and violence is one’s main objective, however, then definitely stay away from the town hall meetings on health care.

In conclusion, my own diocese is about to begin another of its semi-annual 40 days for life campaigns when parishes colaborate to demonstrate 40 straight days (Sundays excepted) in front of the local abortion mill. The diocesan paper carried instructions for demonstrators in its current issue and these did NOT include any prohibition on carrying bloody signs.

September 18, 2009 at 8:16 pm
(9) Marshall Gonzaga says:

The Romans fed the Christians to the Lions. Jesus was nailed to the cross. These actions moved peoples hearts. To this day the Catholic Church displays the suffering of Jesus in the Stations of the Cross and the Crucifix. These display are in plain view for all to see so we never forget that Jesus suffered and died for our sins.
The graphic displays of aborted babies are necessary to move hearts to dispell the lies of the pro-choice crowd that “it’s just a blob of tissue”.
As you can tell by the other comments you have received those that have used these displays have proved their effectiveness. This is not something that is easy to do but we know it is necessary.
Part of the problem with preaching and converting the pagans is that many “Christians” condone abortion. Most Catholic Politicians are pro-choice and there is little action from the Church. Given the grand send off for Teddy Kennedy by the Catholic Church, pagans and many Catholics would conclude that it is ok to support abortion.

September 18, 2009 at 9:15 pm
(10) FSM_Ed says:

In the words of James M. Pouillon’s eldest son:

It will be impossible for some to believe, but my dad really didnít care about aborton.

He did this to stalk, harass, terrorize, scream at, threaten, frighten, and verbally abuse women. He had a pathologic hatred of women: his mom, my mom, everyone.

After my mom finally left him and he lost his favorite punching bag the violence and abuse that was always contained within our 4 walls was unleased on the people of Owosso.

My dad used the pro-life movement and 1st Amendments foundations to defend him, support him, and enable him. He fooled them all.

He was at the high shool because my niece was there, and female family members were always his favorite targets.

Again, my dad didnít care about abortion. He wanted to hurt people, upset people. He enjoyed making people suffer.

His goal was to be shot on a sidewalk. His goal was to make someone so angry, to make them feel so terrorized, to make them feel the only way they could make him stop was to kill him.

His pro-life stance was the most perfect crime I personally know of. He hid behind the 1st Amendment and was allowed to stalk, terrorise, harass, be obsene, ect. These things are crimes. Offending people isnít a crime, and having different political views isnít a crime, but he committed several crimes over the last 20 years and got away with it.

Yes I really am his oldest son. Owosso is now rid of a mad man.

September 19, 2009 at 10:54 am
(11) Missy Smith says:

To answer your question, I know that Alan Keyes and
Randall Terry have done more to keep the issue of child slaughtering in front of the public eye then the few sorry bishops who spoke up against the treachory of having the greatest promoter of child killing in the world honored at
Our Blessed Mother’s school. Those few weak voices did
nothing to stop the treachory. We on the other hand dominated Fox News with our non violent civil disobedience at Notre Dame. Our images were seen night after night
being arrested and handcuffed. The New York Times,
The LA Times ran stories and pictures. The internet
was abuzz. For the first time in years the issue of
child killing was front and center in the media. The
Gallup Poll should for the first time in years the majority
of Americans thought abortion was wrong ! Furthermore
if we had not come to Notre Dame and walked on campus with rosaries, praying, given witness to life, and been willing to get get arrested, the rest of the world would have assumed it was alright with the Catholic Church. Like Jesus
Christ, Susan B. Anthony, Mother Mary, and Martin Luther
King, who had the courage to stand up for what they believed give bold rhetoric, show images, make sacrafices and finally see the fruit of their work, we Notre Dame 88 were and are part of a social revolution called Insurrecta Nex which is latan for the Revolution against the Slaughtering of Innocents. I disagree with you on so many levels it
is astounding. We have had legalized murder in our
country for 36 years with 50 million died, almost 4,000 children drawn and quartered a day and you are going to
attack our brothers who have the courage to be “unseemly”.
The harm done to live children is not by seeing these
gruesome aborted babies images but by covering them
up and robbing these children of knowing what is happening
right in front of their eyes so they can be armed and ready
with the truth. The devil wants to keep all of this evil covered
up and in the dark and not allow us to see these
dead bodies like the ones shown at the Holocaust Museum,
the ones one the front pages of newspapers from the Viet
Nam War, the violence shown on TV during the civil rights
movement. I have stood outside of the Holocaust Museum
for years with the “Face theTruth Tour” signs and watched
day after day children being taken into see these graphic
images. And what is worse, children that worked
under terrible conditions in coal mines, women who couldn’t
vote, slavery, no rights for the blacks, or the slaughtering
of the most innocent, voiceless, defenseless of all human
beings– babies in the womb ? This is the greatest crime
since the begining of time against man. There is no question
that the blood of these children cries out from the land fills,
the sewers, the dumpsters, the garbage disposals, and the laboratories. We will pay as a country. And all your foolish
sarcasm will not stop this movement that has started by a
small, tireless group of people bent on keeping the issue
out in the light of day so people can see what is going on.
We will not pretend that it is not happening. We will standup
up in public at every opportunity and shout down pro abortion polliticans and scream “We will not pay for murder!”.
You and others don’t have the stomach or back bone so you must find fault. Not I ! I am proud to have gone
to jail with the true living saints of today like Alan Keyes,
Randall Terry, Joan Andrews Bell, Father Norman Weslin and
many others. We will continue to interupt talks where lies
are being told about the health care bill not including
child killing, we will continue to shout at meetings where we
are being feed lie after lie. We will do street theature where
we will portray white slaves being forced by Obama to pay
for abortion thru our own taxes, we will continue to lobby
our congressmen and senators to vote against this death
bill and we will street preach. You, I pray will push your
self away from your comfortable chair in front of your
computer and come out where the real war is going on.
As John Paul II the great called for all of us to take to
the streets. Let your voices be heard. Have courage–
fear not ! And stop with your silly pontificating about
us that are really in the war not just on the sidelines
finding fault. There is no virtue in that.

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