I’m upbeat coming out of the local Trader Joe’s. It’s springtime in southwestern Ohio, and the sun is brighter and more direct than it has been since September.
Another sign of the season: the primary election is coming up. Actually, only ballot issues are there this time around: two local levies put to the township residents to decide. Nevertheless, a young man is standing not far outside the door seeking signatures, it looks like, on some petition. He looks energetic, approaching shoppers to see if they will sign. I feel as expansive as the day, and I give in to my curiosity to hear what the man is promoting.
Ah, he is asking for me to affirm reproductive rights. My expansive feeling vanishes. The phrase itself is designed to turn attention away from the unborn child — as if it deserves no mention, let alone legal standing. This phrase envisions the issue as a zero-sum game in which to attach any human standing to the child would be to diminish the humanity of the mother.
But the man has that live look in his eyes that testifies to his sincerity. I have no doubt that he believes that he is standing up bravely for the rights of the less powerful against those who would dare dictate to them what they should do with their own bodies. He is on the side of the angels, and that gives him the confidence that he needs to meet and greet strangers and get them to sign up for his side.
I am not ready for a head-on argument. I have tried full-frontal attacks against machine guns. It works no better for me than it did for the generals in World War I. What’s the point? Angry exchanges play into the clichés running in his mind of who the evil opposition might be — obstinate, self-righteous, angry, trying to dominate.
I evade the confrontation, saying I must go, and walk away.
But the issue does not dissipate in my own soul. I do not feel ashamed of myself; it really is better to keep alive whatever ties we have with those with whom we disagree. Perhaps the greatest injury that the woke have inflicted on our culture is that the very tiniest disagreements must be met with total excommunication, leaving no ties whatsoever with those who disagree. If we play into that, we have ceded civilization itself.
No, I still believe in emphasizing whatever binds us together all the way up to (but not including) the point of personal danger.
What seems clearer and clearer to me was that I have a point to share that I could have shared easily with a fair expectation that it might be heard.
The point goes like this: I believe, too, that, the weak must be protected by law from the strong. And the reason that I won’t sign this petition is that it ignores the weakest ones — the ones who cannot even speak for themselves and who depend entirely on our protection, the ones whom your slogan of reproductive rights defines out of our concern and consciousness.
That is the core issue.
Most everyone grants that we bear responsibility toward those who need our help. We can’t create rights, for that is done by the Creator. But we are able to accept responsibility toward others, to see that their rights are not taken away by powerful and irresponsible actors. This is not a new idea; the great medieval Maimonides was representative of the great philosophical tradition when he taught that legitimate systems of law should remove inequities and exploitation so that society as a whole will benefit. People say the same or similar things across time and across cultures.
That young man pushing his petition saw himself as doing just that — stopping exploitation and ending inequity. There is no reason why we cannot see him and those like him in that light. Then, we can appeal to him and those like him on the basis of our shared commitment to see why that responsibility should lead him further to stand up for those even less able to defend themselves against an encroachment that is total and irrevocable — death.
It has seemed to me, driving away from the grocery, that there is no reason to shy away from engaging others on the common ground of our commitment to the civic responsibility that we all have to protect the ones least capable of protecting themselves.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — these bind the vast majority of Americans together, whatever their disagreements. The phrase still rings like a bell after all these years. And those three things were set in the precise order of their importance: without liberty, we cannot pursue happiness; without life, we have nothing at all. That is why saving a life has privileged legal status. That is why taking a life is the gravest of crimes.
Do not let a meeting of minds founder on the legal particulars. The broad principle at hand I believe commands broad assent. It is only cynical politicking that has consistently and deliberately obfuscated that consensus.
Every step that saves more lives, that makes the principle at work clearer and clearer, is a victory. The most powerful point is that the whole reason civilization consents to government is so that even those least able to defend themselves will have their lives and liberties held secure by the common commitment of all citizens.
Our enemies are not the people who right now hold a view we know to be morally incorrect. Our true enemy is only the noxious idea that our own freedoms are established at the expense of those weaker than we are.
When in friendly conversation, if we have the clarity in our own minds both of what that good is and also of the underlying goodness of our fellow citizen, then we cannot help but make things better. In the words of Proverbs of King Solomon, “Just as reflects back a face to the face, so is one person’s heart to another’s.”
Words spoken from the heart enter the heart. I’ll pick up the conversation with my fellow citizen the next time — please God, with success.