The other day I emailed a letter to each of my senators. The occasion: the recent vacancy on our nation’s highest court. I wished to weigh in as a woman who does not identify with pressure groups claiming to speak for all women, and I wanted to do it before the Senate began pondering the person about to be proposed as the next Supreme Court justice.
I do not currently identify with either political party, but I hoped my senators (one red, one blue) would listen to all their constituents, so I took the time to write.
I wrote because the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade is still an unsettled matter in the American conscience. In the letter I named constitutional scholars supporting legal abortion who nevertheless see Roe as “bad constitutional law.”
This, I argued, along with evidence showing Americans still hold a range of opinions on Roe is grounds for openness to a highly qualified candidate who might consider a judicial review of the still-controversial ruling.
Within a few hours, each senator’s office had replied, thanking me for taking the time to write. One of them followed up later in the day. He takes his duty to appoint the next Supreme Court justice very seriously, he said, and he believes any candidate for the Court must have bipartisan support.
And then this: “the President should not nominate an extremist who could only be approved by a bare minimum vote.”
I stared at that sentence with sadness. My letter had been measured; my points were supported with evidence. I’d simply written as a constituent–a woman who doesn’t want her senators, when they review a candidate’s qualifications, to feel pressured by women’s groups who don’t speak for women like me.
My senator hadn’t said it in so many words, but he implied that my request made me (along with any candidate who might consider a Roe review) an extremist.
I’ll confess I was tempted to tweet a response, perhaps posting a screenshot with an arrow calling attention to his epithet.
But I’ve seen enough knee-jerk tweets these days, and I remembered a post I’d written last winter about the ugliness of social media anger.
So I decided I’d better practice what I preach and love my senator as myself.
And then I recalled a beautiful line from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, a stirring jewel of contrary thought I used to read with college students every year back when I was an adjunct English instructor.
King had been jailed for leading nonviolent demonstrations against segregation in 1963. He and those who joined him had been called extremists for doing so. (You must read this letter if you have not.)
With great erudition and and controlled anger King laid out for his readers a list of “extremists” including the prophet Amos and President Abraham Lincoln, whose contrary work and uncompromizing faith challenged the status quo and changed the tide of history. His conclusion is unforgettable:
The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.
Just yesterday this song and the conversation that explored its reference to the Lorraine Motel brought me to tears. I don’t wish to make a mockery of the nonviolent suffering of King and his followers by suggesting any parallel with myself.
But how should I respond to that line in my senator’s letter? I mean, I wasn’t suggesting the President should nominate an extremist to rule on cases in the country’s highest court.
Yet the mere suggestion that my senator not rule out a qualified candidate who might reconsider Roe allowed him to judge me as one. So what kind of extremist am I? Or better yet, what kind of extremists do we need right now, at this divisive juncture in our nation?
We do not need the extremism of righteous ranters. We don’t need the extremism of sanctimonious scolds or truth-to-power stunts aimed more at grabbing attention and approval than making a genuine defense of principle.
We don’t need harsh judgments against women whose pregnancy terrified them so much they sought to solve their problem in a clinic promising to end their troubles.
But we don’t need quiet compliance, either.
I’m not sure what kind of extremist my senator suspects a woman supporting a Roe review to be. But here’s the kind of extremist I think we need.
We need extremists who are consistently kind contrarians.
The spirit of this age tempts us at every turn to sound off, tweet out, shout back, belittle, begrudge and dehumanize people with whom we disagree. We judge others for being judgmental; we love tolerance until we find someone we can’t tolerate. Then we shun, shout, snipe and snicker.
We need extremists who can be kind to those who call us extremists, who can respond with reason, with hope and with charity.
And who don’t shy away from their principles in order to gain the opposition’s approval.
Many women who’ve had abortions are ready for a Roe review. They’ve written eloquently about their abortion experience and the pain that remained when the problem pregnancy was terminated. They are the kind of extremists we need.
And Dr. Alveda King, the daughter of MLK’s youngest brother, is the kind of extremist we need, having defended the unborn in a long and distinguished career of activism, politics and scholarship. Dr. King states her kind-but-contrary passion with an eloquence worthy of her uncle:
The unborn are as much a part of the Beloved Community as are newborns, infants, teenagers, adults, and the elderly. Too many of us speak of tolerance and inclusion, yet refuse to tolerate or include the weakest and most innocent among us in the human family….Let us let each other live.
That’s exactly the kind of extremist we need right now.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked a question that should still resound in the heart of every would-be extremist:
“Was not Jesus an extremist in love?”
My editorial, after 20 years of work with children affected by our policies concerning the US/Mexico border, in the Pueblo Chieftain: Children Pay Price Over Border Policy.
“To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it.” Wendell Berry also represents the kind of extremist we need.
Read about 9 other extremists in love (5 of whom have had abortions): 9 Pro-Life Warriors Who Used to be Pro-Abortion.
Non-negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Humane Culture contains one of the most succinct and well-reasoned defenses of the right to life as the basis of all human dignity I’ve ever read. It was an essential inspiration in the writing of this post.
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