Many years ago, I stood in a checkout line behind one of the most notorious abortionists in my city. I knew who he was, because for years I’d been protesting regularly outside a clinic where he performed abortions. From my spot outside the clinic, I’d glimpsed him only from a distance or with the darkened window of his black sedan between us as he drove past. Even so, I knew his face well. Now, unexpectedly, he was mere inches in front of me. Looking straight ahead, my eyes landed somewhere in the middle of his massive back. He had to be 200 pounds to my 100. Other than my racing heart, I was frozen as he moved toward the register and prepared to pay.
I knew what my role was when I was at the clinic protesting at the site where his hands did their dirty work. But I had no idea what I was supposed to do when I faced him in the clean, well-lighted convenience store, where citizens of all walks of life come together, bonded by our common need to buy gas, milk, bread, coffee, and water.
Suddenly, with no forethought or plan, with his back still toward me, I spoke gently toward his ear, “When are you going to stop killing babies?”
My tone was as if I’d asked if he thought we might get some rain soon. My volume such that the cashier made no indication he’d heard me speak.
But the abortion doctor heard.
He wheeled around so fast that my heart began beating impossibly faster than it had been before. His voice exploded into a torrent of angry words, aimed like bullets at my impassive face. I stood still and didn’t say another word. When the alarmed cashier—who had no idea what caused this outburst—tried to calm the man, the doctor turned on him, telling him he would never come into this store again. Finally, after what seemed like hours but was probably only a minute, he stormed out of the store.
I hadn’t thought of this incident for quite a long time. Then came the recent news about a Virginia restaurant owner’s request for Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave the premises. Before that, Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen was jeered by protestors while dining at a restaurant in Washington D.C.
But now California Congresswoman Maxine Waters has upped these antes by urging the public, “If you see anybody from that [Trump] Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
As my opening story shows, I understand this impulse.
But it frightens me terribly.
Hospitality or Rebuke?
During those years when I regularly protested at abortion clinics, some of my fellow protestors took their pickets to the abortionists’ homes and neighborhoods. I never did (and was sometimes criticized for not doing so). Something about violating the home and family life of the abortionists seemed to contradict the life- and family-affirming principles we claimed to stand for. And when one of the abortionists whose home was regularly picketed was murdered in his kitchen by a sniper hiding in the nearby woods, my worst fears came true.
In a free society, we are called both to live peaceably with one another and to hold one another accountable for violating principles that we believe undermine a free society. As citizens, sometimes we should offer hospitality to our enemies. Other times, we must rebuke them. It takes wisdom to know which situations call for which response.
Sometimes we should offer hospitality to our enemies. Other times, we must rebuke them. It takes wisdom to know which situations call for which response.
In a free and democratic society, we fortunately have many avenues of rebuke open to us: we can cast our votes for someone else, communicate with our governmental representatives, write letters to the editor and essays for publication, speak freely and openly to all who will listen. We can lawfully protest, and we can even challenge unjust laws through peaceful disobedience. Not only do these means not undermine the humanity of others, they uphold it.
But when we struggle to know whether rebuke or hospitality is called for, Christians ought to err on the side of hospitality.
I wonder what might have happened if one of the restaurant waiters who wanted Sanders kicked out had instead served her with food and kindness, the sort that leads to conversation and sometimes even the chance to offer a plea or a soft admonition?
What might have happened if Seth Rogen, instead of refusing to take a picture with Paul Ryan, had done so, shook his hand, and then given a firm but friendly exhortation?
We can find inspiration for even more radical acts of hospitality in the story of Daryl Davis, a black man who has spent the past 30 years befriending KKK members—resulting in hundreds of them renouncing their past ways.
Or in Matthew Stevenson, the Orthodox Jewish college student who hosted his white supremacist classmate, Derek Black, at weekly Shabbat dinners when most of the student body shunned, scorned, and harassed him. Eventually, because of Stevenson’s hospitality (which included lots of honest conversation around the dinner table), Black disavowed the nationalist ideology in which he’d been born and raised.
If these examples are not compelling enough, I hope Scripture is. Proverbs 25:15 tells us, “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” And Proverbs 15:1 instructs, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
To bless a person in her common humanity is not to bless—or endorse—sinful behavior. Indeed, to do so would not be a blessing but a curse. But to deny to an enemy what we would offer a friend is to be, as Jesus admonished, like the pagans (Matt 5:43–48).
To deny to an enemy what we would offer a friend is to be, as Jesus admonished, like the pagans (Matt 5:43–48).
Natural Bent to Bless
If I could go back to that scene in the convenience store today, would I do the same thing? Yes, I think so. I was unexpectedly given the opportunity to offer piercing words, spoken in love, in hopes of pricking a man’s conscience.
But what I would do more often—and did, in fact, do—is dine with the executive director of the local Planned Parenthood, speak at conferences with abortion providers, co-author a paper with an abortion clinic director, and even befriend one of the clinic escorts who assaulted a fellow pro-lifer.
For everything there is a season, a time to rebuke and a time to bless. But the Christian’s natural bent should be toward blessing, for no better reason than that Jesus told us to “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28).
A blessing might be truthful words spoken in love. But it’s even more likely to be hospitality in the form of a good meal.