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.