On Saturday mornings, I often spend an hour or so in front of our local abortion clinic, praying and acting as a “sidewalk counselor.” That impressive-sounding title means that when clients walk from their parking spaces to the clinic door about fifteen feet from my sidewalk limits, I holler out some variant of “Would you like to take these phone numbers of places that can help you or your baby?,” waving a list of local pregnancy centers.
At least nine out of ten people ducking through the doors with averted gaze do not make any response. Occasionally, someone grabs a leaflet from my outstretched hand as she heads into our local death chamber. Once in a great while, I have something like an actual conversation.
This seeming lack of success is common to those who come to the clinic regularly. At our location, any kind of positive response, let alone a saved life, is rare. So it can seem at times that all that prayer goes to waste. Of course, people driving by the busy commercial street may be alerted to what goes on inside this seedy-looking building. And some who enter for an abortion may not return a second time.
And then, once in a while a clinic worker leaves, and we can hope we had something to do with it. Still, sometimes as I imagine the torrents of grace raining down on this place from many people over the years, I am frustrated. Where’s the Pentecostal rushing wind, where’s the fire from heaven? If Jesus were to materialize here on Greenbelt Road one Saturday morning, how different the outcome would be!
Well, yes and no. Of course, Jesus exercised enormous power during his years on earth: healing the sick, raising the dead, calming storms, exorcising demons, multiplying loaves and fishes. And even on the personal level he could draw Matthew from the tax collector’s table and penetrate the Samaritan woman’s prejudices.
He did not, however, have the power – because God has not given Himself the power – to move hearts and souls against their will. For example, we know from the Gospels that Jesus did not win over the Rich Young Man, keep Judas from betraying him, or convince the majority of the Chosen People of his messianic claims.
He could not move anyone against his or her will, because God has given to every man and woman free will. If Christ were stationed outside my local abortion clinic on Saturday mornings, I imagine that he would be much more effective than we are. Still, many would doubtless ignore or reject what he had to say. God – even God! – likely could not convince most of those working in and seeking out the services of the local abortion mill to choose life.
I’ve been trying lately to relate all this to affairs in the Middle East, dwelling especially on ISIS’s largely successful elimination of Christians from homelands their ancestors had inhabited since soon after Christ’s Ascension. I wish I could reach some sort of certainty about what our government, other governments, and other organizations should do to cause the least harm and achieve the most good. I weigh the arguments for the various military, semi-military, economic and humanitarian options. Among all these I also include the individual believer’s contribution of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Right now I remain hesitant about the best course of action the United States should follow, particularly if and when our forces and those of coalition members achieve the first stage of neutralizing ISIS’s ability to control territories and terrorize their inhabitants. In fact, one reason for my uncertainty about what would “work” in Iraq and its surroundings is the lack of clarity about what “working” means in this context.
Do we aim for relative peace and order while some kind of military controls things and helps prop up indefinitely a relatively rights-respecting government? Does our definition of “what works” acknowledge the legitimacy of the means used, the extent to which coalition allies might at some point decide to handle things their own way, the likelihood that any Christians who survive in the Middle East will be even more demonized than before by their association with hated Westerners? Or is the last concern ceded as already irremediable fallout from post-September 11 decisions?
What would Jesus do? I am not sure how relevant that is, if it means only what he would do and not the array of choices he might condone. Throughout history even saints have differed vigorously on how to address the social and political crises of their time, in part because there is usually more than one morally licit way we can attempt to follow God’s will and further his purposes.
Some of these options may eventually lead to what we consider success and some to what we consider failure. And how God intends to use any particular outcome is impossible to know with certainty, though we are told that “all things work together for the good to those who love God.” (Rom. 8:28) Whatever else that may mean, it must at least mean that the sole determinative criterion for any choice can’t be what looks like success to the chooser (nor, for lost-cause enthusiasts, can it be what looks like failure).
As for what Jesus might do in this particular case, my guess is that whatever he did would lead pretty swiftly to a second crucifixion.