One of the doves who come to our window feeder seems to be missing the skin on the back of his head. I’m pretty sure we see his skull when he looks away from the house. It’s a dangerous world out there when you’re prey.
They’re pretty birds, our doves, but they don’t look intelligent. They don’t have that “Hello, lunch!” look like the hawks and eagles at the Aviary. Doves always seem to be day-dreaming. They have a kind of “Hi! I’m your dinner!” look to them.
So, doves, not the kind of bird you want to be. Yet one of the more famous instructions in Western history tells us to go through the world as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents. My first reaction to this instruction is: “But doves look dumb and get eaten and I don’t want to look dumb and get eaten. Why couldn’t Jesus have chosen one of the cool birds?”
It’s good advice no matter your opinion of the speaker. The dove’s innocence can be taken as trust in others and sympathy for their lives. The serpent’s wisdom as looking carefully at what others are actually saying. We want everyone to be open and kind but we don’t want anyone to get conned.
As Trusting as Doves
I bring up the poor dove in our window feeder because he tells us something about our work when we enter public debates, particularly debates over painful subjects like abortion. We have to learn to be both trusting and wary. We have to listen to others sympathetically while having enough distance and skepticism to tell when someone is telling the truth and when he’s not.
That can be hard to do. Few of us do it well. We can all think of people who will believe anything and others who will believe nothing. Among the most annoying people I’ve ever known were those who prided themselves on “seeing through” everything and never being fooled. They only saw through things the way smashing something to bits lets you see through it.
We have good reasons to be doves. Women want abortions for all sorts of reasons. Some face pressures the rest of us have never known. We must listen to them with sympathy and trust, the way we’d want others to listen to us were we in the same place.
As Wary as Serpents
We have good reasons to be serpents. In the debates over abortion, the pro-choice forces have some sleight-of-hand arguments that many of us won’t naturally spot. It’s like watching a magician put the ball in his left coat pocket and then at the end of the trick find it appearing on a table ten feet away. Or in your own left coat pocket. At some point in the trick, he fooled you into looking the wrong way.
One of these arguments involves switching the subject to the philosophical idea of “personhood” when the pro-lifer talks about “human life.” The fact that the unborn child has a human life undermines the pro-choice argument for abortion. It’s a hard fact to get around. But “personhood”? What’s “personhood” mean anyway? Isn’t that something people can legitimately disagree about?
What we have to keep saying, over and over again, is that from his conception by two human parents onward, the unborn creature has a unique human genetic code. We were all that creature once. If left alone, as we were, he will grow into someone everyone will recognize as a human being. His humanity is simply a fact.
Still, a few people will stubbornly disagree, like the child who steals the cookie and denies his guilt though his face and hands are covered with chocolate. Some will just ignore the fact of the unborn child’s humanity, like the child who holds his hands over his ears and says “La la la la la” really loudly so he can pretend he doesn’t hear his mother telling him to brush his teeth.
But once they see the argument, most will follow the obvious logic: He’s human, therefore protect his life. He has all the basic human rights, high among them the right not to be killed. This is a fact the pro-choice movement definitely doesn’t want anyone thinking about, because you can’t really get around it.
So what do they do? They used to talk about the unborn child as “a blob of tissue” or “the product of conception,” as if he were just a thing we can throw away. Amazingly, after all these decades of advance in the scientific knowledge of the unborn, some still do that. But the smarter ones don’t. When someone talks about human life, they like to switch the discussion from the fact of human life to the idea of “personhood.”
Be Serpents—and Doves
People can argue all day about what makes a human being a “person,” and do. The pro-choicers don’t have to win the argument. All they have to do is convince you that it’s the central question, and that both sides have equally good answers. They’ll then assert that since no one agrees about what makes up a person, and since the question is so very, very complicated and difficult—and probably unanswerable—abortion must be legal. I’ve seen this happen in TV debates and had people do it to me. They get you looking the wrong way. It’s a good trick.
So be a dove when listening to people talk about their experience of abortion, and why they felt they needed one, or needed to support someone in having one. But be a serpent when listening to pro-choice apologists, because they’re so often up to something . . . something tricky. They want to make the truth disappear.