Reflections On Anti-Abortion Protest Held In Front of Arch Street
At Arch Street UMC, located in the heart of Center City Philadelphia, there’s no such thing as a “typical” Sunday. Even so, from time to time there are days that stand out. This past Sunday, July 19th, was one such occasion. From 9:30am to 11:30am, Arch Street was the target of an anti-abortion protest by a group of about a dozen or so people from the Abolitionist Society of Philadelphia (not to be confused with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society). Stated intentions and horrifying photoshopped posters notwithstanding, the true nature of the group seemed to be one of generalized Christian extremism. During the days leading up to the protest, many of us had wondered why they chose to bestow this perverse honor on us, but in the end it appears that there was little reason. One woman I spoke with didn’t know anything at all about Arch Street’s history or recent activism. They were just targeting the United Methodist Church generally and we happened to be the most convenient local congregation.
It’s difficult to make much sense of what happened here. For one thing, Arch Street doesn’t give any sort of reproductive rights litmus test to its members, so I can’t authoritatively say where the congregation “stands.” However, it does seem to be the case that many of us acknowledge both the grim solemnity of abortion and its absolutely critical role in safeguarding health and justice. But the protesters didn’t know or care about any of this. We were just a pretty backdrop for their Instagram photos. So what other takeaways could there be? I have a few personal thoughts:
- Threats, intimidation, violence, and fearmongering don’t have a place in God’s kin-dom. Does this really need elaboration? Let’s be honest—each one of us has a God-given talent at smelling plain-old hate from a mile a way. It doesn’t matter if somebody’s foaming at the mouth about Jesus or the return policy at Macy’s, we can all tell what’s going on. If you need or want people to feel scared or disgusted, then you’re the one in the wrong.
- What you do find in God’s kin-dom is community and diversity. It was really inspiring to see the many ways that Arch Streeters and our guests approached the situation. Members of the San Carlos Apache tribe were our guests for the morning, on their way to a rally in Washington, DC to defend their sacred lands from copper mining. They shared some interesting observations about the protestor’s offensive tactics, their ignorance of history—rejecting the protestor’s comparison of abortion to genocide as disrespectful to the 100 million native people in the Americas killed by European violence and disease—and the intersectionality of race and power structures. We also had members and friends draw parallels with our church’s exclusion of LGBTQ people. Others were moved to share thoughts about our society’s relationship with healthcare and science. It was inspiring to see our community doing what it does best: being a diverse and thriving body caring for each other.
- Righteous anger can be toxic when ingested in large quantities. Just like life-saving medicines, it’s crucial to get the dosage right. When we see injustice in our society and in our own church, it is appropriate to feel and express righteous anger. We are called to put the last first and to lift up the downtrodden, and anger is an important tool in that process. But righteous anger can also clearly be misguided. It must always be accompanied by humility and self-examination, and it must not be taken on for longer than necessary. These protesters were so consumed by anger, presumably for so long, that they came to a point of rationalizing indiscriminate harassment. Any attempts at conversation with them were quickly met with bizarre, unwarranted personal attacks. We who call ourselves progressive Christians must learn from their mistakes and always guard ourselves against the pressures to generalize and dehumanize, to be rigid and inflexible.
In the end, I think my wife, Jennifer, put it best when she said we should just think of the day’s events in much the same way that we think of natural disasters: sometimes unfortunate things like this just happen. This group was so small and extreme that there’s little that can be done about it. My hope is merely that on this and all other occasions, joyful or sad, we may come to see ourselves more clearly through others and move a little further in the right direction.
By Philip Gressman