“Don’t make a decision about the ‘Spring of Life’ until you attend this rally,” admonished the pink letter on my desk. It told that Operation Rescue was coming to Buffalo, New York, in April. This appeal had the desired result. In order to be fair, I thought, I really needed to go to the rally.

Not that I was unfamiliar with Operation Rescue or the antiabortion movement. I have opposed abortion since entering the ministry in the early seventies. I have counseled pregnant women against abortion; I have helped many women who have had abortions to receive forgiveness and healing; and I have participated in several “rescues.” Moreover, our church has supported a Crisis Pregnancy Center since 1985 at the cost of about $9,500 a year. Yet, despite my stand on this issue, over the last few years I have begun to have some reservations about Operation Rescue.

I also wanted to go to the rally because one of my pastoral friends had been asked to speak. I knew he had been arrested at a “pastors’ rescue” in 1988. Since then, he, too, had had some reservations about what he did, and I was curious about what he would speak on.

Shock And Guilt

The rally was what I had come to know as the norm. The speakers simultaneously stirred up shock and guilt as they tried to recruit the audience to “save babies” by blocking clinics. My friend gave an excellent message exhorting people to use the weapon of prayer to change things. (If the church has been guilty of anything, in my estimation, it has been the absence of consistent, fervent prayer on this matter.)

The keynote message at the rally was given by one of the chief pastors in Operation Rescue’s Wichita operation last year. He related how God had “spoken” to him as he had his face in the asphalt in front of a clinic, telling him he personally was guilty of the death of millions of babies. At the end of the message he asked that anyone “who was willing to do anything Jesus asked to stop abortion” to stand. Did I stand up? Of course I did. So did everyone else in the house. What sincere Christian wouldn’t?

The speaker then instructed us to follow him in a prayer. I knew intuitively not to participate, but most followed along: “Lord, I’m sorry for my disobedience. If I had listened to you, millions of babies wouldn’t have died, and the blood of millions of babies is on my hands.”

I was glad I didn’t pray with the rest. I don’t believe I bear this guilt. Neither did most of the people in that building, I suspect. Yet praying in this manner, I think, affixes guilt to a person’s conscience, whether the person is responsible for the offense or not. Besides, anyone who has been confronted with the specter of buckets of babies at abortion clinics, and the intimation that you bear responsibility for this state of affairs, is going to have difficulty clearly hearing his or her own conscience.

The situation carried other ambiguities. Were we standing up because we believed abortion was wrong or were we standing up to rescue?

Afterward I asked my friend who had given a speech what he thought about the prayer the people were led in. “I didn’t feel I should pray that way, but I did,” he replied. “What could I do? Everyone on the platform around me was praying that way. It would have been embarrassing not to.”

Several weeks later he told me of another rally he attended. He had listened to a fervent message against abortion. At the end, the audience was exhorted to stand up if they wanted to do something about abortion. Something? But what? The appeal was once again ambiguous, and my friend was determined not to respond. He said he sat there in the front row while everyone else stood up. “The pressure to do what everyone else was doing was incredible,” he said, “but I was determined not to give in to it.”

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Later he spoke with a missionary who attended the rally with him but sat in another place. “Did you stand up?” he questioned his friend. “Yes,” the man responded, “until I realized I was volunteering to block a clinic and be arrested, then I sat down.”

Many Christians, however, do not realize what is happening. They stand up but later don’t show up to be arrested. This only compounds their guilt.

Truth Stumbles In The Streets

The long-awaited day arrived. The Spring of Life campaign hit the streets. It was difficult to ferret out the truth amidst sound-bite claims and counterclaims. Both sides busied themselves trumpeting their victories, berating the other side, and denigrating the police and press.

I heard on the local Christian radio station that a prolife pastor had been arrested by police. Although he was being attacked on public property by the prochoice people, he was arrested and charged with trespassing, they said. The prochoice people were not charged at all.

I heard another side to the story from one of the elders of our church, who is a police officer and was an eyewitness. He related that the pastor in question was told by the police not to enter an area that was cordoned off for prochoice people. He disobeyed this request and walked directly into their midst. As he did this, the prochoice people harassed and surrounded him to keep him from breaking their ranks and entering the clinic’s property. At this point, the pastor voluntarily dropped to his knees. The police immediately intervened and told the pastor that he should go back to the area where the prolife people were demonstrating. He refused. He was again asked to leave and told that if he did not he would be arrested. Again he refused. He was then arrested, not for trespassing, but for disorderly conduct.

The radio version of the story caused no little stir among Christians in the city. It bound them together in their crusade against an unjust system. It was just the shot the campaign needed, but I was reminded of Isaiah’s lament: “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter” (Isa. 59:14, NIV).

As we entered the second week, it was apparent that the operation was losing momentum. The prochoice faction labeled it “Operation Fizzle.” The prolife side countered by saying, “They’re calling it the Fizzle, but we’re calling it ‘Operation Sizzle.’ ” The simple truth was that the thousands who were supposed to show up to be arrested never came, that the clinics remained open, and that no doctors laid down their grizzly trade.

At this point I received a call to come to an “emergency” meeting of the Clergy Council on Abortion. I knew many of these pastors, and, like myself, they were adamantly prolife. At the meeting the rescue leaders presented a mixture of jubilation and solemnity. The jubilation was on account of the “success” of the operation. The solemnity was over the issue of abortion.

The most impassioned presentation of the horrors of abortion I ever heard was given at this meeting. Accompanied by tears and groans, buckets were paraded before the group of 40 or so pastors. We were to imagine these buckets filled with aborted babies. (We had already seen more explicit depictions in movies we had watched together a month before.) This culminated with one of the speakers imploring, “I don’t have an aborted fetus with me, but I ask you, what are you going to do about this baby?” (He had earlier presented a literal fetus to the state council of his denomination with these same words.) Now he laid the imaginary fetus before us. After a time of prayer, an invitation was made: Who would volunteer for a pastors’ rescue on Friday?

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During the meeting, Keith Tucci, the national leader of Operation Rescue, opened a question-and-answer period by proclaiming their success in the past week. “We know a pathologist in the area who said he saw only seven aborted babies this past week,” he said. “You know there are—” he paused and asked a local leader about the average number of abortions performed in a given week. “There are 230 babies aborted in the Buffalo area every week. So we saved 223 babies last week.”

“Are you suggesting,” I blurted out, “that this pathologist sees every aborted fetus in the Buffalo area?”

“Yes, that’s right. We saved 223 babies this past week,” he replied.

Lingering Questions

The Spring of Life has packed up and gone. The citizens of Buffalo breathed a sigh of relief. We enjoyed our summer, albeit without as much police protection in the parks. In this financially strapped area, the overtime expended by the police must be made up some way. Both sides left trumpeting triumph. Who won?

I saw in the paper that the spokesperson for Operation Rescue said that 12 babies were saved.

Some questions linger, however. How many babies would have been saved if that much time, energy, and money had been expended in other ways? What would have happened if there had been concerted prayer and fasting during that period? Could the Holy Spirit influence the minds of any who were considering abortion during that period if there were that many people devoting that much time in prayer? What if all that energy was used to educate people?

We have seen the effectiveness of Life Chains where people stand together for life in a nonconfrontational way (one here in Buffalo drew 8,000 people, including the mayor, to testify to the evil of abortion), of taking prolife movies like Eclipse of Reason to schools and universities, and of nonthreatening sidewalk counseling. There is also the avenue of local Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which admittedly involves long, hard, and unglamorous work but whose results can be truly life changing. Obviously there are other ways to stop abortion than “rescuing.”

Abortion is a national malignity of the first order, and no doubt Christians have been apathetic in response to this abomination. But this does not justify the use of guilt and manipulation to motivate God’s people. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that blocking doors to clinics is either saving many babies or putting an end to abortion.

Operation Rescue has undoubtedly been used in stirring the church up on the issue of abortion. But they do not speak for the whole prolife movement. I know that its leadership would endorse all the other methods that I mentioned, but it is hard not to get the impression through their words and actions that they believe “rescuing” is the pre-eminent way.

Yet the results of rescuing, at least in Buffalo, are ambiguous at best. The intensity of the rhetoric, the disruption of order in the community, and the skewing of the truth only seemed to polarize people further on the issue. One hopes that the consciousness-raising work they accomplished with Christians will not dissipate but will find productive redirection.

After the “emergency” meeting of the Clergy Council, I talked in the parking lot to my friend who a month before had given the message on prayer. I could see he was disconcerted. Besides the overwhelming emotional appeal of the meeting, the speakers had torn to shreds the effectiveness of prayer—” When our people need to eat, we don’t tell them to stay home and pray, we tell them to get out and get a job.”

He knew in his heart that he was committed to end abortion, and he further knew that God did not want him to be arrested as he was before. Yet he was unsettled. “I don’t want to go against the movement,” he said.

“What movement?” I asked.

“Well, the prolife movement,” he replied.

I offered that perhaps the prolife movement and Operation Rescue were not necessarily synonymous. All of a sudden a light went on, and I could see a sense of relief come over him.

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