There’s a very out-in-the-open debate happening right now about whether an unborn child at the “heartbeat” stage should be considered a child. At a recent unprecedented pro-life event in New York City’s Times Square, a baby’s heartbeat was heard, with 4D sonogram imaging displayed on screens. The Crossroads of the World got about as quiet as it ever gets to watch and listen.
Only a few days later, the interwebs were abuzz about a Pennsylvania state representative who posted video of himself harassing a woman quietly praying outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia. The former speaker of the New York City Council, meanwhile, was on CNN explaining how an unborn baby is not a person -- she’s an extension of the woman’s body, the argument goes. The heartbeat Times Square listened in on seems to pretty clearly expose that delusion.
But let’s set differences on abortion aside for a moment. Let’s just talk respect: the kind that can lead us to look at one another differently.
Jean Vanier was the founder, in France, of the L’Arche community, a community for people living with disabilities. Vanier died at 90 this month and had many wise things to say over the course of his life. Perhaps nothing was as powerful as the way he humbly lived his life alongside the men and women he served.
In a book titled “Becoming Human,” he offered some keys to reconciliation. “In healthy belonging,” he wrote, “we have respect for one another. We work together, cooperate in a healthy way, listen to each other. We learn how to resolve the conflicts that arise when one person seeks to dominate another. In a true state of belonging, those who have less conventional knowledge, who are seemingly powerless, who have different capacities, are respected and listened to.”
This may be as countercultural as it gets right now. It’s the opposite of our insta-comment, insta-slam social media. It’s the opposite of our insta-categorization and ostracization.
Or, as Vanier put it: “This type of cooperation is not easy. It takes time to grow to a maturity of the heart. Belonging calls forth what is most beautiful in our capacity to love and accept others, but it also can awaken anger, jealousy, violence, and the refusal to cooperate ... Little by little, as we live and work with others, especially if we are well-guided, we learn to break out of the shell of selfishness and self-centeredness where we seek to be brilliant and to prove our goodness, wisdom and power. We receive and give the knocks of life. It is like the polishing of diamonds as they rub together.”
Imagine if we looked at one another as diamonds in the rough. Even the person we most disagree with on Facebook. Even the politician who most infuriates us.
Vanier reflected: “We all have to discover that there are others like us who have gifts and needs; no one of us is the center of the world. We are a small but important part in our universe. We all have a part to play. We need one another.”
In a healthy politics, we want some division. We want robust debate. We want to be challenged and stretched. We want that in every family and community dynamic. I’m writing from Kentucky, at a Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) gathering of over 2,000 people from 44 different countries. They are leaders of families, churches, communities -- all of the above, in many cases. There are 195 CAFO member organizations here. One man, Johnston Moore, a foster and adoptive braveheart, described it as a gathering of St. Peters -- people who get out of the boat and try to follow the Gospel, with all its uncertainty and seeming impossibility. They are people who tend to look upon the vulnerable with something like the heart of the God who made them, because they know how weak they are on their own.
“It is because we belong with others and see them as brothers and sisters in humanity that we learn not only to accept them as they are, with different gifts and capacities, but to see each one as a person with a vulnerable heart,” is how Vanier put it. He emphasizes forgiveness: “We learn to forgive those who hurt us or reject us; we ask forgiveness of those we have hurt. We learn to accept humbly those who point out our errors and mistakes and who challenge us to grow in truth and love. We support and encourage each other on the journey to inner freedom.”
That’s a kind of Independence Day we don’t always talk about, but one every bit as important as anything in our national declaration. If we stopped looking to Washington to be better, we might just make the world better -- one decision of the heart at a time.