Those who have a dream
“To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it” – MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
Sitting in a prison cell in the southern state of Alabama where he was incarcerated for civil disobedience, the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. penned his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
Addressed to the local clergy association who deemed his activities “unwise and untimely” Luther wrote, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
Luther King had a vision for the socially repressed black Americans, a dream that would not allow him to sink into apathy and indifference, but one that stabbed at his conscience every waking moment. Such visionaries and activists in history are few and far between, they see the pathway of civil disobedience as the only avenue by which they can stand up against the dastardly evil of social injustice and gain freedom and dignity for those who are being victimized by the state. They share this in common, they have a dream – one they relentlessly pursue!
In Hitler’s Germany it was the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoffeur who opposed the Fuhrer’s genocidal purge of the Jews, in white supremacist South Africa it was Nelson Mandela the anti-apartheid activist, in Burma it was the political dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, who gave herself to fighting for democratic reform. The inevitability, of course, of civil disobedience is imprisonment – or worse. For Mandela, who became a militant activist, it would be 27 years locked up in a jail, for Aung San Suu Kyi it would be 15 years of confinement through house arrest, for Bonhoffeur execution by hanging.
Dreams often demand the ultimate sacrifice of those who dare to dream of a better world and justice for all. That brings me today to speak about a couple of Canadian women who have been in and out of jail for their beliefs and their acts of civil disobedience.
In a secular society their names are hardly “household names” and side by side with renowned activists like Luther King, Suu Kyi and Mandela they may appear as “lesser lights,” but this past week Linda Gibbons and Mary Wagner each received Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee medals for their pro-life advocacy for the unborn.
The commemorative medal was created to mark the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the Throne and was designed to honour 60,000 Canadians who have made significant contributions to this society. Each member of Parliament was given the role of nominating 30 worthy individuals as recipients of these awards, and Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott chose Gibbons and Wagner.
Needless to say their nomination has caused quite a stir in some quarters. A “stir” did I say? More like a tempest! For 38-year-old Mary Wagner is at present incarcerated in a Toronto jail and 63-year-old grandmother Linda Gibbons has been in and out of jail as a repeat offender. Their crimes have been that they have crossed over the line outside abortion clinics that separates the protest-free bubble zone from the area where you can legitimately protest.
Both Gibbons and Wagner cross these lines of demarcation and try to counsel women seeking abortions, for in many instances these women never receive the full facts about abortion, and here in Canada to this nation’s shame, the child in the womb has no legitimate claim to personhood, and under the law the woman is legally entitled to have an abortion up to and including the final day of the third trimester of her pregnancy.
Tragically this silent holocaust of the unborn has been perpetuated in Canada for more than 40 years now. When Maurice Vellacott went public with his Diamond Jubilee medal nominations there was a cacophony of cries that shouted in unison “You can’t award medals to convicted felons!”
From his prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, a convicted U.S. felon, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his letter to the clergy, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
There is an unjust law here in Canada that since the late ’60s has indiscriminately wiped out the lives of over three million babies. It is wrong. It is morally unjust. It defies the laws of God.
Were Martin Luther King Jr. a Canadian and incarcerated in a Toronto jail we would no doubt rejoice at him being granted such a Diamond Jubilee medal. Likewise the imprisoned Bonhoffeur, or Aung San Suu Kyi or Mandela.
Many will no doubt assert that Gibbons and Wagner have nowhere near the global stature of men and women like these, that their advocacy for social justice pales in significance to the contributions of the Mandela’s and the Luther King’s. Maybe so. But their Diamond Jubilee medals still ought to be worn with pride. Well done, Grandma Gibbons and Ms. Linda Wagner. Keep on dreaming.
May your unswerving commitment to the unborn stab the sleeping conscience of the Church and awaken it out of its comatose state to challenge injustice in every form.
Some day, when you leave this planet and see Jesus Christ face to face, a chorus of millions who never made it out of the womb will stand to cheer you through the Pearly Gates!
Rev. Eric Strachan is pastor of New Life Community Church in Petawawa.