Hostage to the Other: A Pro-Life Meditation on the Advent of Love

How do we serve as catalysts for pro-life conversion? For that gift of sight by which we have come to see and feel the absolute, world-filling agony of the child in the womb having life ripped away from him or her—in a place of warmth and infinite expectation? 

Do we go out and shame abortion advocates? Try to shock people with gruesome photos? Pursue legislative and electoral strategies that seem zealous but which are prudentially nonsensical?

I think of Pope Francis’s rejection of “proselytism.” There’s a right way and a wrong way to communicate the truths that must be communicated.

We feel the urgency of waking people up: how is this madness going on? But can we advance the cause of the most basic human right by overlooking the dignity of our opponents and of the indifferent?

As Advent ends, I want to think about what is required for a new birth of freedom in our nation, and I want to do so by drawing on two stunningly brilliant thinkers: Caryll Houselander, an English Catholic mystic, and Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish philosopher.

In her astonishing book The Reed of God (an essential work of spirituality), Houselander compares two very different ways of evangelizing, and I take this as analogously related to the question of how we pro-lifers are to relate to those we would convert.

On the one hand, “everyone knows how terrible it is to come into contact with those people who have an undisciplined missionary urge, who, having received some grace, are continually trying to force the same grace on others, to compel them not only to be converted but to be converted in the same way and with precisely the same results as themselves. Such people seem to wish to dictate to the Holy Ghost.” This would be proselytism, the invidious form of trying to stimulate conversion: another form of control, just another brick in the wall.

On the other hand, there is the way of Christ, the way of servant helplessness. This is the way to win hearts. It is the only way: “By His own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: He was absolutely helpless; He could go nowhere but where she chose to take Him; He could not speak; her breathing was His breath; His heart beat in the beating of her heart.”

If this is the way Love enters the world, then how else does the Kingdom of Love progress in this world? “Today Christ is dependent upon men. In the Host He is literally put into a man’s hands. A man must carry Him to the dying, must take Him into the prisons, workhouses, and hospitals, must carry Him in a tiny pyx over the heart on to the field of battle, must give Him to little children, and ‘lay Him by’ in His ‘leaflight’ house of gold.

“The modern world’s feverish struggle for unbridled, often unlicensed, freedom is answered by the bound, enclosed helplessness and dependence of Christ—Christ in the womb, Christ in the Host, Christ in the tomb.”

If love is to come into this dark world, it will not be by the violence of zealotry. It will be through the helplessness of a heart that has given itself up totally to reach the other heart: the cold, the blind, the hard.

“This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent we must carry Him in our hearts to wherever He wants to go, and there are many places to which He may never go unless we take Him to them.

“None of us knows when the loveliest hour of our life is striking. It may be when we take Christ for the first time to that grey office in the city where we work, to the wretched lodging of that poor man who is an outcast, to the nursery of that pampered child, to that battleship, airfield, or camp.”

By way of concluding with an entrée to further reflection on the kind of subjectivity required of us pro-lifers in order to change the world, I turn to Emmanuel Levinas, who teaches us that our “subjectivity,” our personal agency, depends on our being “subject” to the Other. My personality is always already determined by responsibility, a responding-to every person around me. I am called into existence by the need of the other person.

Levinas goes on to draw, from profoundest philosophical insight, radically Christian conclusions: “Constituting itself in the very movement wherein being responsible for the other devolves on it, subjectivity goes to the point of substitution for the Other. It assumes the condition—or the uncondition—of hostage. Subjectivity as such is initially hostage; it answer to the point of expiating others.”

Exactly so. We are hostage to the child in the womb. We are hostage to those who do not pass eugenic muster threatened by euthanasia and assisted suicide. And we are hostage to all those whose hearts we wish to reach with the joy of serving life and love.