The Power of the Powerless

In my last post, I outlined the need for resistance against unjust laws that threaten the freedoms of religious and pro-life people.  In this post, I’m going to present a “menu of resistance” — essentially a list of things that people can do to give actual life to their conscientious objections to injustices like the contraception and abortion mandates, attempts to force the recognition of same-sex “marriages”, restrictions on free speech, and the like.

Before presenting these suggestions, I would like to stress several important points.

First, this is not an official statement or position of the Archdiocese of New York — it is my opinion, and mine alone. Take these ideas for what they’re worth, but they are not attributable to the Archdiocese in any way.

Second, I don’t want anyone to be under any illusion here — some of these suggestions may lead people into legal difficulties with the authorities.  Governments generally are very intolerant of dissent and civil disobedience.  So people should assess their level of risk, and prepare themselves to accept the consequences of their actions.

Third, and most important, the watchword of resistance to injustice is always that we speak the truth with love.  That is non-negotiable.  Our aim is the conversion of hearts, not the exertion of power.

With that having been said, here are some suggestions about how people can

  • Learn about your rights.  Most states have laws that grant protection to religious belief.  For example, here in New York, our Human Rights Law contains fairly broad protection against discrimination on the basis of religious belief, and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for believers.  Courts in New York have already held that opposition to abortion is protected under these laws.
  • Take advantage of the law.  Many unjust laws provide for exemptions and appeals.  For instance, private employers can file for an exemptions from the HHS abortion/contraception mandate.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if HHS received a letter from every parish, every school, every hospital, every nursing home, every Catholic employer in the United States — thousands of requests for exemptions that they would have to process?  Do you think that might let them understand how significant an intrusion their mandate is?
  • Use the government’s own legal process.  Appeal any denial of a request for an exemption.  File complaints with civil rights offices of government agencies when they try to force you to cooperate with unjust laws.  Explain to them that complying with the law would violate your Constitutional rights.  For example, you can file a complaint with the Civil Rights Office of HHS here.  All states (like New York) and most localities also have human rights commissions — file complaints with them as well.
  • Be persistent.  Protest letters to government agencies are likely to be ignored at first, or summarily denied without any reason.  If that happens, appeal to higher authorities at the agency, and go up the ladder, all the way to the person in charge.
  • Ask your elected officials for help.  Send copies of your complaints and appeals to your representatives in Congress or the State Legislature.  Ask them to intervene with the agency on your behalf.  Insist that they send you a response.  Go to their district office and ask for help in person.
  • Always tell the truth. Never tell a lie to a government official — if it’s a federal official, that’s a crime.  So, for example, if you are called upon to fill out a form, and it asks for an answer that you cannot honestly give, leave it blank and write a cover letter explaining your objection.
  • Don’t pay for injustice.  Refuse to pay fees for insurance coverage for abortion and contraception.  Write to your health insurance company and ask for a rebate for any funds spent on abortion.  When they ignore you, write to the board of directors and the president of the company.  If they insist that you pay, send them the fee in pennies, write a polite protest letter.
  • Write to your elected officials.  Make clear to them that you want them to pass just laws, and repeal unjust laws.  Do it over, and over, and over.  Join email networks like the New York State Catholic Conference Advocacy Network and the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment and send easy emails to your representatives.
  • Write to candidates.  Explain to them that you will never vote for them unless they oppose unjust laws.  If you can’t think of anything else to say, tell them that you agree with Cardinal Egan:  “Anyone who dares to defend that [an unborn child] may be legitimately killed because another human being ‘chooses’ to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name”.
  • Don’t vote for them.  Speaking for myself, I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. If you don’t respect human life, don’t see the need to preserve marriage as one man and one woman, and won’t defend religious liberty, I won’t vote for you.  I refuse to choose “the lesser of two evils” — because then, all I’ll ever get is evil.
  • Participate in public witness.  It is vitally important that we be seen by the general public as sane, reasonable, committed people.  Participate in prayerful and peaceful vigils like those run by the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.  Join positive, well-informed rallies like the ones sponsored by “Stand Up for Religious Freedom”.  Always obey the law.  Remember — numbers don’t matter — witness does.
  • Support lawsuits against unjust laws.  There are many great organizations that are fighting in court to defend religious liberty, like the Alliance Defense Fund and the Becket Fund.  If you have some extra, send them some cash.  Join their lawsuits — wouldn’t it be great if a million Catholics joined a gigantic class action suit against the contraceptive and abortion mandates?
  • Refuse to speak the lie. Always tell the truth — abortion is not health care, contraception is bad for women, men and society, marriage is only a union of one man and one woman, and religious belief is not hatred or bigotry.  Remember, your silence may be taken as agreement or surrender, so make sure that you speak out.
  • Don’t cooperate in the lie.  Don’t do anything that will recognize the lie.  For example, don’t give your employees information about contraception or abortion coverage, erase it from your company’s plan books, refuse to recognize any same-sex marriages.  Remember that human rights laws protect religious liberty.  If you think your rights are in danger, use the magic words — “I’m going to consult with a lawyer”.  Then call a group that defends liberty, like the Alliance Defense Fund.
  • Stick together. One of the things that people find demoralizing is the sense that they’re all alone, and that nobody agrees with them.  But we are not alone — we’re a gigantic movement.  So, write letters to the editor of your newspaper, post comments on friendly blogs (and ignore the flames that come back in response), put the truth up on your Facebook page (even if people will “unfriend” you), pass around supportive emails, join a pro-life organization like the Knights of Columbus or your local pro-life committee.
  • Pray, pray, pray.  For everyone involved — those being oppressed as well as their oppressors.  This is not going to be easy.  But remember what St. Paul said:  “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)
  • Resistance reminds people of a sense of their power, even when they appear to the whole world to be powerless.  The truth, expressed with love, is an enormously influential force.  Worlds and lives can change, when people have the courage to testify to the truth.  We can lift each other up by our steadfastness.

    Even if we have no idea how our actions will play out, each individual moral act will have a ripple effect, the ends of which we cannot foresee.  Even if we never see the end result, we can always be satisfied that we have been faithful to our beliefs.

    And we can never underestimate the power of the powerless.  Especially when God is with us.

     

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