Pro-Life is practical
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Billy McMahon’s Jan. 14 viewpoint “Practically pro-life” raises several concerns regarding the image of the pro-life movement in American society today. At first glance, being “pro-life” is rigidly synonymous with being against abortion; the word “pro-life” evokes images of fetuses rather than those of pregnant mothers, the hungry and the dispossessed. Although I agree with Mr. McMahon that we ought to put the marginalized first as Jesus did, I think he may be surprised to find that pro-life people can — and, I believe, must — oppose abortion if they believe in the Christian preferential option for the poor.
The preferential option for the poor is the principle that loving God and neighbor entails making the well-being of those deemed insignificant by the world our top priority. Though the phrase “preferential option for the poor” has been in use for less than a century, the underlying idea has been present in the Judeo-Christian tradition from as far back as we can historically trace. Since Mr. McMahon implies the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth support his position, I think it is appropriate to look at the immediate Jewish basis for those teachings: the commandment to give alms.
For first-century Jews, giving alms was tantamount to fulfilling every God-given directive. Notre Dame professor Gary Anderson provides a digestible overview of this idea in his book “Charity.” Anderson argues that for Jews of the Second Temple Period (which includes the life of Jesus), almsgiving was conceived of as a loan to God through the poor — a loan that God promised to repay with blessings and deliverance from future troubles. The idea that one would receive any sort of repayment for such a loan seemed just as absurd then as it does today. It’s unreasonable enough to expect a beggar to settle a debt of spare change or several dollars, and someone who gives alms with the expectation of repayment is clearly committing an act of faith. However, the idea seems even more radical when we consider the implications of the loan metaphor for almsgiving. When we start viewing this act of charity as a financial transaction, we begin to see the poor as actual people rather than worn-out statues holding coffee cups you toss coins into.
My belief that almsgiving is a loan to God has been reinforced by my experiences with beggars while I was working in Dublin, Ireland, this past summer. Inspired by an Irish priest’s homily on homelessness in the city, I decided to put the ideas laid out in “Charity” into practice. Whenever I came across a beggar, I would walk over to them, give them a warm greeting, give them spare change that I would have ready in my hand and then wish them well. In having the change in my hand, I was prepared to give without hesitation, but I also managed to thwart one man’s attempt to mug me at a bus stop. Poised to take my wallet if I pulled it out, the man was dumbfounded when I opened my palm to reveal the gift I had ready for him. Up until that point, I was very afraid of this apparently ill-willed man — it was thanks to my faith that I could see him as a good man despite all evidence to the contrary.
As the summer progressed, my encounters with beggars proved to be more fruitful than I could have ever imagined. After buying a meal for one homeless woman during my lunch break, I had a great conversation with her about our favorite foods. Several others thanked me and God for the money I gave them, and I was amazed at how some of the people I met conveyed a sense of faith and meaning in life that was more profound yet simpler in tone than what you might hear in a sermon or theology lecture. In the beginning, I would always close a conversation with those I gave to by saying, “Have a good day,” like I would to any friend. By the end of the summer, I learned a more meaningful farewell from the people I met on street: “God bless you.”
The loans I made to my needy brothers and sisters in Dublin have been repaid beyond the face value of the coins I placed in their hands. At the same time, I am saddened by the fact that these loans are far less than what my brothers and sisters need. One man who regularly begged outside the church I attended would always request a large sum of money in order to stay at a hostel. Simply granting his request would not have been sufficed to ensure his well being; I felt in my conscience that I would have to go out of my way to be present at the hostel and pay in person in order to see to it that he was safe. In other words, this man above all needed people to care for him, to look after him — this man, our brother, needed a loving and supportive family.
From reason, we know that our brother at one point had family members in the descriptive, biological sense — there was a man and a woman who made his existence possible. Somewhere down the line, our brother fell into poverty, and it wouldn’t surprise us if he inherited this situation from his mother or father. It is for this reason that sexual ethics enter the picture: If we truly want to reduce poverty, then we must love responsibly.
For Christians, responsible love is not simply sexual innuendo; it is a way of life, inside and outside the walls of our churches and bedrooms. Jesus taught us to “love one another as [He] has loved us.” Following Jesus, we ought to love each other as brother and sister — we ought to treat all human beings as actual people rather than insignificant objects. In carrying out this challenging call to love, we must care for all who are deemed insignificant, especially the poor and the unborn.