Twisted Thinking, Twisted Rights

It's become a non-partisan social phenomenon: violent public protest. Animal rights activists destroy research labs. Radical environmentalists booby-trap trees, hoping to harm loggers. And now and then misguided pro-life protesters -- supposedly Christians -- murder abortion doctors. And the list goes on and on. Given that we live in a democracy, where we're free to change the laws, one has to wonder: What drives people to adopt such tactics? Well, pull back the curtain of history for a moment and you may just find some clues, from the life of the abolitionist John Brown. In his new historical novel, The Stamp of Glory, Christianity Today senior writer Tim Stafford describes the enormous frustration abolitionists were feeling in 1859. After 30 years of struggle, they had made no real progress in ending slavery. Anti-slavery groups insisted on non-violent protest; they believed two wrongs could never make a right. But by the 1850s, the Fugitive Slave Act had been passed. Even worse was the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, which ruled that slaves had absolutely no legal rights. Abolitionists began to wonder whether slavery could ever end without violence. Enter John Brown, who never really believed that violence was wrong. Brown often quoted the Bible verse, "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin." What that means, of course, is that Jesus would give His life as a sacrifice, and that through His blood we could be forgiven. But Brown misinterpreted this verse to mean that he should do the blood-shedding. Brown's great hope was to start a slave rebellion in the South. In 1859, he gathered 21 men and under cover of darkness invaded the town of Harper's Ferry, in what is now West Virginia. The ill-planned invasion didn't inspire any local slaves to rebel. But it did bring out a hornet's nest of angry citizens. They surrounded Brown in the federal arsenal, and held him there, under fire, until federal troops captured him. Seventeen people were killed. What leads to such protests? In Brown's case, it was the mistaken idea that humans can act as God's angel of death instead of leaving justice in God's hands. But such thinking is inflamed when citizens believe that justice can never be accomplished by peaceful means. When peaceful protest is stifled, the temptation to condone violence grows stronger. It happened 140 years ago, when the Supreme Court tried to shut down the slavery debate. Today, we see the same thing in the abortion debates. For example, the courts have declared so-called "buffer zones," forbidding free speech on public property around abortion clinics -- but only if the speech is pro-life. We've seen the Supreme Court treat pro-lifers like mobsters, allowing them to be hauled into court on racketeering charges. The Freedom of Access to Clinics Entrances law punishes pro-life civil disobedience far more harshly than the law punishes people who protest anything other than abortion. So we can see why a tiny handful of pro-lifers are pushed over the edge into violence. But the lesson is clear: while we may understand what drives people to do it, Christians can never condone violence. Tim Stafford's novel illustrates why it never is the right thing to do, a message for animal-rights activists and frustrated pro-lifers alike.


Chuck Colson



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