A long time ago, in the 1960’s, I found myself in a march protesting what I thought was some covert racism at Saint Louis University. As I carried my sign calling for more serious recruitment of African-American students, I saw someone in the picket line looping back toward me. His sign sported the indictment, Reinert is a racist. My stomach turned. Paul Reinert, S.J., the president of the university at that time, was likely the fairest and finest man I knew. I placed my own sign on the ground and walked away.
It was my first sour taste of alienating allegiances. There would be many more. A national representative of Pax Christi, as I recall, announced to my ethics class that he would kill Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird if that would end the war in Vietnam. I abandoned organized demonstrations that opposed the war and proposed free sex and easy drugs. I refused to enter marches that displayed only pictures of mutilated 20-week-old fetuses in front of abortion clinics where most abortions were performed in the early first trimester. (I was against all abortions, mind you, but pictures of those fetuses did not honestly represent the reality of most abortions.) At a liberation theology conference, I departed in disgust from a discussion with a priest sharing many of my economic, political and military views when he flippantly commented that sleeping around might be a good thing. I refused to join marches, from banning the bomb to banning capital punishment, that had groups promoting abortion or hatred for America.
No wonder I felt so alone at times. I described it once as feeling like a cabin in a wind-blown desert, my shutters banging. I longed for a coalition that would be against capital punishment, abortion, militarism, euthanasia and the exploitation of workers. It was nowhere to be found; and I wondered, am I supposed to march alone?
There were times I found myself giving the same talk to conservative and liberal Christian/Catholic groups. Jesus, in the great parable of the end times in Matthew 25, clearly identified himself (actually, four times) with the leastthose in prison, the homeless, the hungry, the disconsolate, the thirsty. Thus our treatment of the homeless and the alien, those in prison, in the womb or at the last stages of life, even our enemy, is an encounter with the least who bear the visage of Christ. If we believe his words, our treatment of the least human being is not a matter of liberalism or conservatism; it is a matter of sacrilege. In fact, if the world were made up only of our enemies, Jesus would still identify with them and die for them. Innocence has nothing to do with it.
The conservatives would say something like this: We agree with you on abortion. It is a terrible evil. But maybe you are influenced by your liberal training in the seminary on those issues of war and capital punishment. The liberals intone a contrary antiphon: You make sense on war and capital punishment, but maybe you are too rigid on abortion. After all, there are pressing reasons why people have to turn to abortion. Yes, indeed; there are always pressing reasons why people terminate another life. But how do you put this together with your faith in Jesus and his words? (Actually I think liberals and conservatives do not believe each other because both sides are so selective in their compassion. This may well be a problem with the Catholic Church. Many people think we are concerned only with reproduction and life within the womb and do not care much for anything else once a baby is born. Such is the cost of what seems like a selective commitment to life.)
Yet there are rare times when the connection is made. I remember a strongly pro-life woman saying to me that she was finally against the use of nuclear arms. If I am pro-life, there is no doubt that pregnant women and their unborn children would be killed in such an attack. If that is what it takes.
This reflection is triggered by the possibility that Amnesty International, which has long been noncommittal on the issue of abortion, is now considering whether to raise abortion rights to one of its causes. This is an incomprehensible stretch to please yet another coalition. Here we have a once courageous group that could stand up to both the U.S. government and the Soviet Union but cannot stand up to the abortion lobby.
Well, if they want such a coalition, let them have it. But I, for one, will not support them directly or indirectly again should they make such a move. I hope no Jesuit high school or university will encourage students to join. It is a sadness to separate one’s allegiance from a group that had historically defended the rights of prisoners.
That is the crunch of coalitions.
But I wonder. Am I too much of a purist? Is the upshot of a person’s life to be an army of one, a protest march of one marcher? I’m not sure.
Compromises and diverse alliances are not only the stuff of politics; they make up most of our lives.
I belong to a church that welcomes and embraces so many who hold ethical beliefs other than my own. I am a citizen of a nation that encompasses practices I find appalling. And, not least, I share a sinful humanity that Christ himself would die for.
It is the previous sentence, however, that suggests to me this fact: even if you cannot find an army of common allegiance, you are not marching alone.