Membership in Grace: Reflecting on Dobbs and Gifts


Grove City, PA. On December 1, a rosy, freshly-risen sun winked through the marble of the Capitol building as our bus stopped to let out 40 female college students, gulping last sips of coffee and pulling on white hats printed with the words “Life Rider.” The sky deepened as we walked to the Supreme Court, where we crowded with advocates for both abortion and life.

Postcard of Washington, DC

The day of the Dobbs case bestowed a rarity on DC: under a cornflower-colored sky, amber foliage rustled in fifty degrees of sunshine, recalling to my mind that “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Here, crisp sunlight warmed both pro-abortion and pro-life activists. Both, regardless of their attitude towards life itself, gladdened at this small joy of life. Both are members in sunlight’s common grace.

“The way we are, we are members of each other,” Burley Coulter voices in one of Wendell Berry’s short stories. Membership involves all: “The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”

Grace includes just and unjust, viable and unviable, those who embrace the fact of membership and those who deny it.

Regarding the deniers, Berry’s Jayber Crow asks, “What would I do with somebody who reduced the world in order to live in it, somebody who reduced life by living it?” Crow, not knowing his proper personal response, can only be certain of both Hell’s existence and God’s wide compassion: “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son.” By God’s grace in his Son’s coming and crucifixion, love upholds the world.

My membership in the pro-life cause was itself a gift presented me before I could choose it myself. As Tom Cotton, junior senator for Arkansas, noted, many individuals in favor of life “have a story about how we got involved in the pro-life movement,” but many, like Cotton and myself, have been “pro-life for as long as I can remember.”

My grandmother, after financial and personal desolation by divorce, began a Catholic adoption agency with but a few hundred dollars a year before my birth. My mother, after her career as a Sidley Austin lawyer in DC, helped direct a Pregnancy Clinic while I grew up. Since my stroller days, I have walked and run races for crisis pregnancy centers and volunteered at fundraisers. The language of life’s goodness resounded through my childhood, and the kind influence of my circle of ecumenically, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse Christian families convinced me that this view of life—as a “very good” gift bestowed, before entrance into earthly politics, by heavenly hands and therein an image of grace—could only be shared.

Life is fundamentally a pre-political issue, as I have been shown since childhood. Circumstance and culture alone dictate that we call the pro-life cause an issue of human rights and politics. Modern society, no longer looking to churches and communities to detail what is and what ought to be, relies on the social contract to parcel out what is owed and not owed—we speak of “rights” more than truths and obligations. Language of a child’s “right to life” only fits insofar as life has become a political and legal concept.

Before modern states could question or protect it with legislation, life was. It existed, and it was good. Likewise, before parents can question or reject an unborn child—and whether or not surrounding circumstances pose hardship—that child’s life is a fact. Life exists, and it is good.

I assumed, growing up, that life’s pre-political worth must be common knowledge. We pronounce “Life is Good,” after all, on sweatshirts and computer stickers. We pronounce it with our delight when winter weather surprises us with warmth or when the scent of homemade bread wafts through a room. We pronounce it with singing and feasting at the holidays, regardless of religious conviction. We pronounce it through celebrations of birth each year and celebrations at life’s end, too.

We pronounce it with especial earnestness when individuals call their own life into question, as I learned when a close friend spent a portion of her fifteenth year in the hospital. She, glimpsing the world’s darkness and deeming her life worthless, had attempted to ask that dangerous question that haunts us, too, with Roe and Casey: does an “unviable” life have value?

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” posited Albert Camus. The question of life’s worth, albeit philosophical, presses us with a rare urgency, since it signifies our most basic issue. Camus says that “judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest… comes afterwards.” Life’s value is not an academic problem or legal issue but a singularly serious question. All the rest—all the other determinations, division, legislation—comes after the fact of our basic membership in life’s goodness.

As secular psychologists attempted to help my friend, I wondered: how could one logically uphold life’s goodness without acknowledging a Giver? Without a Giver weaving worth at the ends of time and the edges of the universe, without a Giver—indeed, a Father—bestowing life first on otherwise-unviable dust and again through a seemingly-unviable child and an unplanned pregnancy, contrived defenses of life crumble.

Camus himself, lacking a Giver, located meaning only in such contrivances. Assertions that my friend could, as Kennedy wrote in Casey, define her “own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” could hardly help a suicidal teen. Modernity promises that each of us can determine meaning for ourselves, but this cosmic contrivance only further wounds our frames of dust. The task of defining “the mystery of human life” surely bends a frame of dust under undue weight. Existential choice falters when substituted for divine givenness as a measure of the meaning of life.

The choices we make and meanings we ascribe cannot change the sun and rain streaming over just and unjust. Grace includes us all.

Until I attended my first college, a secular, public institution, I did not comprehend the naivete of my assumptions regarding the pro-life movement: though modern Americans often celebrate and act as if we accept life’s goodness, modern ideologies contradict these shared experiences.

My Christian roommate, who dutifully donned her Black Lives Matter shirt for each week’s rally, told me, “Well, we have to be careful” about the pro-life movement. When the school’s small pro-life group, unable to host speakers due to Covid-19 policies, rented a board on campus to write pro-life messages, the student body responded with bullying, harassment, and threats of physical violence to members of the group. Back in my dorm, I attempted to avoid my neighbors, who had smeared their hatred for the pro-life cause over social media. Covid-19 policies made such avoidance easy.

Still, I spat in the same sink each morning and evening as my openly gay next-door neighbors, who had cursed my pro-life group over Instagram. We made small talk when washing dishes. We commiserated over the bathroom’s grime after exiting the small stalls. I slept in the same closet-sized room as my Christian, could-have-been friend who sympathized with my neighbors and thought my beliefs nonsense. We took turns emptying the trash, wiping the windowsill. We shared mugs, a mirror, cartons of cheap grapes.

We could not help but share bathrooms and basic joys. Showers, spit, dirty dishes. After ideological kerfuffles, these shared simplicities—the materials of our life together—stuck. Such blunt materials implicated me with my ideological “enemies” —a fact which struck me strangely then, as it did in DC, a year later.

I stood listening Wednesday morning to a pro-life activist attempt to lead a louder chant than the line of abortion activists, repeating, “Hell no, we don’t want Roe!” The chant, after a period of loud assertion, crackled momentarily and flickered out, as such chants often do. Similarly, screams of a pro-life woman to pro-abortion activists that “you are just like your father the Devil” fizzled after momentarily flaming. Yet the circle of students folded on the concrete in shut-eyed silence did not sputter out. They sat unmoving while the rest of us roved, shouted, and listened restlessly to speakers and their slogans. The patient prayer of pro-lifers burned steadily for several hours while cheers and cries flared for mere minutes.

Prayer, perhaps, pictures the proper posture of those committed, in light of grace, to receive and protect the gift of life. Such stillness, lowliness, and silence hardly reflect “activism” as our culture knows the term. Jayber Crow likens prayer to lying awake at night, to “standing a long time on a cold day, knocking at a shut door [which sometimes opens].” Bending knees, closing eyes, whispering anguished words of submission and humble request to the Giver—such is the example of Christ, who asked, in his grimmest days, “yet not my will, but yours be done.” He begged, too, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

While those of us who advocate for a child’s “right” to life wait with hope for Dobbs’s ruling, we must remain vigilant in gentleness. If the pro-life movement takes up the tools of those who advocate for choice, we will betray the life we purport to defend. Aggression and politicization, even slogans and shouting—opponents of life use these mechanisms, which supporters of life must be wary of. We must, as Micah 6 instructs, “do justice” without neglecting to “love mercy” and to “walk humbly with your God.”

Reflecting on her own unplanned pregnancy and philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle’s ideas of gentleness, Gracy Olmstead praises what “Dufourmantelle called an ‘active passivity’: one in which gentleness becomes subversive and radical through its determined and resolute nature.” Olmstead counsels that, though risky, opening our palms to receive God’s startling blessings in our weakness prods us toward radical hospitality.

Perhaps activism needs such determined gentleness, illustrated in the pro-life students’ hours of prayer on December 1 and the work of adoption agencies like my grandmother’s. Activism must be framed by an understanding of common grace and shared depravity and our consequent implications with each other: our membership, which is “the way we are.”

After the rally, I walked with the pro-life group from my new college to Union Station, repeating what Jayber Crow calls “the terrible prayer,” a prayer of total release. Thy will be done. Five hours in front of the Court meant a rush to the bathrooms as hunger gnawed at our bellies. The same need plagued the pro-abortion activists who entered the stalls after we did and pulled chairs around a table next to us. A group of college-aged pro-abortion activists with mussed hair and disheveled scarves—rather like ourselves—set down their signs and unwrapped their subs with haste, sighing their weariness and laughing as they supped. Such blunt humanity in those who had cheered for the mutilation of children stopped me. I squirmed in my seat. When political rallies end, we return to the intimate fact of need.

Life and its goodness will always be a fundamental, pre-political reality. Yet life carries with it many other fundamental, pre-political realities: hunger, wonder, prayer, pain, to name a few. We are creatures who thirst and tire out. We are creatures who smile at little gifts like foliage and sandwiches. Depravity warps our perceptions of these fundamental issues, as abortion’s persistence piercingly testifies, but fundamental grace remains. Even those who “reduce the world in order to live in it” live in a loved world.

I sometimes wonder if God is a clumsy artist, raining on just and unjust, painting kindness in such broad strokes and allowing suffering to drip across the whole canvas, too. I think not. Only grace, of course, enables such a conviction: grace allows trust that such strokes—all the giving and the taking, the sun and the rain—are intentioned beyond my comprehension. Divine art depends “not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” As Berry sings in his poem “Gravity is Grace,” “blessed be the name of the giver and taker.”

Like the omnipresence of suffering, the wideness of grace is something we must reckon with. We have given much thought to the problem of pain. We know that evil stretches wide and all too often seems indiscriminate. We do not give sufficient thought to the similar inclusivity of grace and the implications of such a reality.

In calling for grace to irradiate political activism, I am not advocating compromise on core convictions. I am calling for the opposite. A grace-laden advocacy essentially contradicts the totalizing politics and individualistic ideals of liberalism. The recognition of our likeness, our implications with each other, works to unravel the fever dream of the liberal order, which seeks to enclose all under the political while enshrining the individual as the arbiter of meaning. Denial of self opposes deification of self; determined gentleness opposes self-determination. Radical hospitality, Christlike meekness, and the tight, heaven-turned communities these virtues create oppose radical individualism, loud self-assertion, and the consequent curdled, earth-bent identities of modernity.

Being grateful for the inclusive gift of life does not lead us to compromise truth. Rather, we grasp the gift best when we recognize truth—the truth of the generous Giver.

Advent’s onset just before Dobbs bears, perhaps, fingerprints of Providence, not mere marks of coincidence. As we hear of children destroyed by choice, disregarded for politics’ sake, we listen for him who chose destruction to welcome his children. While we wait to behold what gifts Dobbs may allow for our nation, we watch now for the gift of him who invites us into his heavenly nation. We fold our hands and bow our heads for life’s goodness to be recognized politically, even as we open our arms to receive him who made it good. We speak of viability and birth and dignity, and we prepare for the rather undignified birth of the Giver of all grace, of “every good and perfect gift.”

We speak, too, of distant communities destroyed by war and nearby ones destroyed by poverty—we who dwell “in a land of deep darkness” feel peace’s need beyond the pro-life movement. Nonetheless, in a child’s birth “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We wait for peace alongside fellow sinners and sufferers, who hunger and wonder as we do, yearning for the grace that only the barn-born baby can give.

Included so, we must learn to stutteringly advocate for this grace, which “is always more than a little strange here,” as Berry writes in Jayber Crow. Our gentleness ought to hint at grace’s heavenly shore. This grace eludes determination: it “is not explainable or even justifiable. It is itself the justifier. We do not make it. If it did not happen to us, we could not imagine it. It includes the world and time as a pregnant woman includes her child whose wrongs she will suffer and forgive. It is in the world but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.”


  1. This is a touching and wise essay, Sarah, which exhibits some of the same grace–the strange, unaccountable generosity of God, who loves and gives unconditionally and mysteriously, without any cognizance of “rights”–which is its subject. It would have been interesting, perhaps, to give some time to the faith of the “Christian, could-have-been friend” whom you roomed with and thought your beliefs “nonsense,” but I salute you for extending to this person the generosity of identifying her as a believer nonetheless, a generosity that, unfortunately, too many opposed to abortion rights do not exhibit. For all the ways that the moral stuntedness of most supporters of abortion rights appalls me, I haven’t considered myself an opponent of their admittedly blinkered stand towards the radicalness of life for many years–ever since our daughters grew old enough for me to recognize them as, for better or worse, persons implicated in the same world of choice which capitalism and modernity have made for us all, and thus persons whose freedoms, including sexual ones, warrant the same respect as those possessed by every other person, including those of us who happened to be born with XX chromosomes. The hardness of that respect is one reason why Olmstead’s essay, and her call for “gentleness,” and what she insightfully calls a respect for “the distance and freedom of the other,” rings out so strongly.

    Decades ago, as a graduate student at Catholic University of America in Washington DC, I would occasionally, when February rolled around, arrive on campus early, to wander among the busloads of students (perhaps like yourself) who gathered and organized in around the National Shrine, lining up like troops, practicing shouted slogans and being instructed and prayed over by priests, in preparation for the annual March for Life. I was more sympathetic to their cause back then. Regardless, however, of how much I saw then that worries me in retrospect today, I remember the calls to prayer and gentleness as well. Would that such perspective attends those who will almost certainly achieve their decades-old goal sometime next summer, hopefully leading them to express such hospitality and gentleness in the legal and culture environment certain to follow.

  2. Imagine an alternative history where the Democrat Party is dominated by Bobby Kennedy, with his 11 kids, as opposed to the completely vile and loathsome Teddy. One doubts abortion would have become so sacramental for that party, and perhaps the Supreme Court holds back and lets it remain in the legislative world, where it would have been pretty quickly settled and moved on from. Everything about the evangelical movement for the last 50 years ago would be so radically different as to be completely unrecognizable.
    As it is right now, in our current hysterical media environment, and with pro-life Democrats completely extinct, expect much wailing and gnashing of teeth that has absolutely nothing to do with legal, moral, or other rational considerations.

    • I am doubtful that abortion “would have been pretty quickly settled and moved on from” in that case, Brian; the various interlocking and unfolding logics of judicial supremacy, global capitalism, liberal individualism, Christian equality, and reproductive technologies probably would have forced parties representing feminist freedoms to clash with parties representing sexual traditionalism before the Supreme Court by the 1980s regardless of whatever else happened politically. But who knows? Maybe you’re right. A Democratic party where Sargent Shriver hadn’t been sidelined, but rather had taken command alongside Bobby would have been a site to behold.

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