Tomorrow We March: Showing Compassion for the Unseen

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tomorrow We March: Showing Compassion for the Unseen

January 21, 2010

Tomorrow we march.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, which brought wholesale abortion to the United States, on January 22, 1973. Every year since 1974 on that anniversary we gather in Washington, D.C., to march from the National Mall to the Supreme Court. Come rain, sleet, snow, wind or calm, we march.

Every year the crowd gets bigger and every year the crowd gets younger, hopeful signs that perhaps the days of abortion in America are numbered, hopeful signs that the culture of death may not have the last word.

The March for Life is an amazing phenomenon and all the more so in light of a Washington Post Magazine article published this past Sunday.

Shankar Vedantam's article, "Beyond Comprehension," begins with the story of Hokget, a dog belonging to the captain of the ill-fated ship, Insiko. When the Insiko caught fire at sea, the crew was rescued, but Hokget was left behind on the still-floating wreck. When the story got out, money poured in to pay for what became an extremely expensive rescue. "Something about a dog lost on an abandoned ship in the Pacific gripped people's imagination," writes Vedantam.

He then goes on to ask a very disturbing question: Why does one dog stir such compassion while millions of needy people don't?

"Eight years before the Hokgat saga began," he notes, "the same world that showed extraordinary compassion for a dog sat on its hands as hundreds of thousands of human beings were killed in the Rwandan genocide." He then cites studies indicating that we are wired for deep and active compassion for one of our fellow creatures in need, but are overwhelmed by dozens, let alone thousands or millions.

"I want to offer a disturbing idea," he writes:

The reason human beings seem to care so little about mass suffering and death is precisely because the suffering is happening on a mass scale.... Hokget did not draw our sympathies because we care more about dogs than people; she drew our sympathies because she was a single dog lost on the biggest ocean in the world. Our hidden brain—my term for a host of unconscious mental processes that subtly biases our judgment, perceptions and actions—shapes our compassion into a telescope. 

Earlier last week, I experienced this viscerally. As I tried to take in the torrent of images from Haiti, they all blurred into an inchoate mass of vague, unhappy feelings. Whatever compassion I felt was remote, diffused and unfocused.

Then I received an email from a friend with the subject line: "Stuart was at the epicenter of Haiti earthquake." I drew a quick, sharp breath and my stomach sank. His son, Stuart, who like my own son is in his mid-twenties, was in Haiti leading a missions team. The hillside they had hiked on minutes earlier collapsed; the house where they were staying fell to a mini tsunami caused by the earthquake. The Haitian earthquake suddenly had a face.

Of course that face was a white, American face that has already been evacuated to home and safety. But it nonetheless brought the devastation close and made it real rather than allowing it to stay far away and abstract.

As a Haitian proverb says, "What the eye does not see, the heart cannot feel." When you and I see crowds, compassion is difficult; we need a face. Yet we read that when Jesus saw the crowds he had compassion on them as sheep with no shepherd, lost and aimless (Matthew 9:36). This is a kind of compassion—deep emotions for all—belongs to God.

Which is why the March for Life is so astounding: there is no individual face.

What is more distant and abstract than millions of unborn children? They are a vast hidden crowd with faces known only to God. How is it possible for us to have compassion them? How can the heart feel what the eye cannot possibly see?

The answer, I believe, twofold.

First, there seems to be a special grace that allows people to exercise a godly compassion on this unseen crowd. By grace, we who cannot see the faces of the millions killed in the womb can nonetheless have compassion on them and their mothers.

This is not only grace to individuals, but to our country. Papal biographer George Weigel writes that Pope John Paul II argued in his encyclical The Gospel of Life, "that democracies risked self-destruction if moral wrongs were legally defended as rights."

As the Manhattan Declaration released last November notes:

A culture of death inevitably cheapens life in all its stages and conditions by promoting the belief that lives that are imperfect, immature, or inconvenient are discardable. As predicted by many prescient persons, the cheapening of life that began with abortion has now metastasized. 

The declaration cites several examples of this metastasization. Research that destroys living human embryos is now endorsed by the Obama administration and paid for with federal dollars. There is a continued drive toward euthanasia—active euthanasia and euthanasia through withholding medical care. With that invariably comes the defining of some human lives as lebensunwertes Leben—"life unworthy of life."

In addition, President Obama, by far the most pro-abortion president in history, has pledged to roll back the legal restrictions placed on unlimited abortion. These include the laws requiring waiting periods and parental notification as well as the laws prohibiting government funding of abortions and the grisly procedure known as partial-birth abortion.

History is clear: cultures that devalue human life fall apart. It is God's judgment in the form of natural consequences. Compassion for the faceless crowd of the unborn is compassion for the nation.

Second, the Haitian proverb is only partly true. The heart can feel what the eye cannot see if it receives regular reminders. The annual March for Life serves as a reminder both for those who march and for those who see the coverage in the news media.

While the media coverage is typically biased against the pro-life side, pictures, videos and descriptions of the March appear on TV, in newspapers and on the Internet. The issue that has poisoned American politics, family life and culture for the past 36 years will be in focus again for at least one news cycle. And this year it may be in focus for two news cycles since this year there will be a first-ever march to the White House.

The Washington, D.C., weather report for tomorrow is gruesome: "Wintry mix of precipitation. Highs in the upper 30s and lows in the upper 20s." 

At noon I plan to rendezvous with a friend and her students from the Trivium School in Lancaster, Massachusetts. We'll dress warmly, huddle together under umbrellas, and by the grace of God we'll see the crowds of the unborn, remember the sad fate of far too many, and renew our prayers and our resolve for a better, kinder, more compassionate world where abortion on demand is nothing more than a sad, embarrassing memory.

Tomorrow we march.

The March for Life in Washington, D.C., begins at noon on the National Mall at 7th Street.

More of Jim Tonkowich's writing can be found at

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