The pro-life cause is a movement that requires us to win hearts and minds without much support from law or authority. In this we can learn from the missionary discipline exemplified by the early Christians.
From the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew to the Last Supper Discourse in John, the Gospels are saturated with Jesus’ vivid and gut-wrenching instructions:
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, “Raqa,” will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, “You fool,” will be liable to fiery Gehenna. [Matthew 5:21-22]
Love one another as I have loved you. [John 13:34]
Yet occasionally a Gospel account can veer from the sublime to the near-ridiculous:
He instructed them [The Twelve] to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave from there.” [Mark 6:8-10]
The ironic specificity—sandals, but not a second tunic!—amuses me. Of all the words of Jesus that St. Mark might have recorded, he chooses to consume papyrus on the apostles’ packing list for a missionary excursion?
But as you might expect, Mark had compelling reasons for carefully listing goods the missionaries-in-training are not allowed to take along. He wants Christians to know that as missionaries, they must not secure their own necessities—neither food nor money nor even a change of clothes. Those material goods are not sinful in themselves; however they impede the proclamation of the Gospel. If the early apostles took what they needed with them, who would have believed their call to trust in God in order to share in the resurrection of Jesus?
Pope Francis reminds all who are baptized that we are “missionary disciples,” something which is a challenge for many of us. The world asks us first to provide for ourselves, and then, from our leftovers, we can share with others and win the world’s praise. But if instead we put our service to the Gospel ahead of attending to ourselves, then even when we are scorned, our actions still bear witness to our message.
Mark deepens the challenge. He notes Jesus’ instruction, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave.” Apparently, some early Christian missionaries were not content just to win a few souls and then go on to the next town but rather tried to game the conversions: They stayed at the home of a faithful convert until they had won a wealthier one, at which point they promptly moved into the more comfortable home. Moving up allowed the missionaries to eat and sleep better, strengthened them for their work, and gave them a bigger, more prestigious platform from which to preach.
But Jesus forbids it: “Stay.” It might seem like a win-win for the missionaries and their host, but therein lies the problem: Their preaching of the Gospel loses credibility whenever it works to the advantage of the preachers. And the advantage might not be merely material. It’s perhaps an even greater scandal if those who advance the Gospel also advance in social status or public influence. Between the popular televangelist who broadcasts “God made me the great man I have become” and the humble man at Alcoholics Anonymous who attests “God saved me,” which is more likely to evoke genuine faith in the saving power of God?
We could use that missionary discipline in the pro-life movement. The world readily exposes our self-serving elements: Leaders too eager to be ushered into the offices of U.S. senators, protesters too eager to hold the megaphone, click-bait-driven websites too eager to interpret the latest news as the worst possible outrage. When the pro-life movement is thus exposed, we all lose credibility.
If we want to win hearts and minds, we must be savvy about whom we allow to win our attention. The people we praise, the stories we post on social media, the news we give attention to—these are decisions we make each day. We can make choices, not for our own security or aggrandizement, nor for the benefit of our pro-life “tribe,” but for the good of the persons with whom we relate: family, friends, neighbors, pro-choice as well as pro-life.
We may not command the world’s heights, but neither did those early missionaries who, for two centuries, spread the Gospel to every city and won the souls of slaves, widows, and the urban poor—until the Emperor and other acknowledged “leaders” of the world followed the poor to salvation.