By Dr. David Franks
The angels and the vulnerable: the beginning of Respect Life Month coincides with a time of meditation by the Church on the angels in the merciful plan of the Father. The liturgy reminds us that the might of angels is arrayed on behalf of suffering flesh.
“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’/hierarchies? And even if one of them pressed me/suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed/in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing/but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,/and we are so awed because it serenely disdains/to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.” Rilke begins his Duino Elegies with this recognition of the fascinating power of heavenly glory. But what is missing is the child’s faith that this power does not threaten, but promises.
Pro-lifers should take heart. We are not the only allies the powerless have: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of My Father Who is in heaven.” (Mt 18:10)
The “little ones.” Who are they? Children, babies. Of course. But all weak humans. All, and yet especially the weakest, those exposed to the will of the stronger. We pro-lifers see the most vulnerable victims, the ones ground down by abortion and euthanasia.
Pope Francis recently deepened the critique of the culture of death by noting the “hidden euthanasia” of the elderly in consumerist society. “A people who don’t take care of their grandparents and don’t treat them well is a people with no future. Why no future? Because they lose the memory (of the past) and they sever their own roots.” True tradition is in the flesh. Memory is the personal, vital presence of the past. True progress depends on tradition, for it is cumulative. A society that is falsely progressive rides right over the heads of those who can’t keep up. With the dead forgotten, the future is hopeless.
The great theologian Johann Baptist Metz insists we do theology, and live Christian life, under the urgent criterion of “the memory of the victims.” If you make that standard your own, and recognize that the human flesh with the first claim on us (precisely because it is the weakest) is that of unborn life, I promise you the ideological contest of our time will become perspicuous.
Metz the Catholic gathers so much from the brilliant literary theorist, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a Jew associated with the Frankfurt School who committed suicide as he tried to flee the Nazis. In thesis 9 of his “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin gives an incomparably powerful meditation on history:
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
In the great human rights struggle of our time, when the false notion of progress carries all before it, when the elite seek to discipline the social body by lopping off the inefficient margins, we plead with the angels to move from the burden of witness to the work of vindication.
But we can invoke them only if we are purified. The simple truth is, so few of us pro-lifers are converted enough. We indeed see the most powerless victims, and without that vision, there can be no social justice. But there are many of us who do not see the city of the poor in flames. And in our daily lives, how do we treat those who look with upturned faces at us, seeking only a little mercy?
Like the Athenian commanders to the doomed inhabitants of Melos, in a thousand everyday ways, we demonstrate to each other our philosophy of life: “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” In home, workplace, politics, through gossip, rash judgment, hardheartedness.
Offhand is our cruelty, but most deliberate is the Father’s mercy. He sends His hosts to vindicate the victims. In the eyes of the world, the one who is shamed, who is sick, who is poor, who is killed, is evolutionary detritus, a loser, “a dead man, forgotten, a thing thrown away.” (Ps 31:12)
But there is a higher witness that would expose the satanic lie. In the book of Revelation, when the slaughtered Lamb breaks open the fifth seal, John sees the victims of history under the altar in heaven. No one above has forgotten about them. The whole trajectory arcing towards the Last Judgment is for their sake.
If we are to stand with the victims against selfish, secular power, we must embrace suffering, as Pope Benedict reminds us in Spe salvi, 38:
The capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth, and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme. Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie. In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I,” in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded.
Love is terrifying. But the angels in squadrons of light beat against the air all round our halting existence, drawing us into the battle for the justification of the dead, conjuring the golden city of the future.