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Quiet heroism

Changing the culture begins at home, and it requires a lot more than grandiose speeches

TWO WEEKS AGO I BEGAN A SERIES ON THE nature of Christian cultural and political heroism in the 21st century, and emphasized the importance of determined perseverance over the spectacular moment of defiance. This week, with attention paid to abortion upon the 31st anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, some examples are right in front of us.

My historical heroines are women like Helen Mercy Woods, who ran for decades the 19th-century Refuge for Erring Women (no euphemisms then) who were pregnant and unmarried. No grandiose speeches, but a grand defense against abortion through the provision of compassionate alternatives. Among my heroines today are the week-in, week-out volunteer counselors at crisis pregnancy centers who patiently show women that their lives are not over if they refuse to snuff out small lives.

This also connects to the current debate about the need for a constitutional amendment in defense of marriage. Yes, we need one, but it's even more important to fight quiet battles within our churches: When we have rampant adultery and divorce in many, and we accept that with only a shake of the head, aren't we wide open to charges of hypocrisy?

Church leaders are like parents in some respects: When sons who need discipline say, "Leave me alone," dads need to respond, "No, I won't leave you alone." Church leaders also need to tell prospective members: If you get involved in adultery, if you want an unbiblical divorce, we won't leave you alone. Our calling is to help you return to trusting in God and enjoying the rightful pleasures He gives us.

Saying such things requires some quiet heroism on the part of church leaders who are likely to be accused of meddling. It's easier to give speeches than to engage in tough counseling, but if we're not willing to push hard for sexual fidelity among people in their 30s and 40s and 50s, we shouldn't be pushing for it among teens and 20-somethings with raging hormones.

"Charity begins in the home," we say. So does heroism. Just as theologians speak of an ordo salutis, an order of salvation involving justification, sanctification, and so forth, so there is an order of reversing the flow of cultural decay, and it ends rather than starts with politics. The order starts with understanding who God is, then building institutions that reflect a proper understanding of God's truth and are able to communicate it with both firmness and kindness.

"You don't start at the top." The mistake conservative Christians have made repeatedly during a quarter-century of well-intentioned political efforts is that we have over-emphasized politics without reforming our churches-and sometimes our own lives. Some of us have engaged in spam rhetoric, alienating 100 people with over-the-top screaming so as to gain one follower filled with grievances. We've gravitated to symbols and cymbals rather than quiet heroism.

One of the best essays I've ever read, Robert Coles's "The Inexplicable Prayers of Ruby Bridges," describes a little girl who desegregated a New Orleans elementary school in 1960, walking in and out every day between federal marshals. As Mr. Coles writes about the daily greeting party of 50 or 75 adults at that school, "They called her this and they called her that. They brandished their fists. They told her she was going to die and they were going to kill her." Ruby Bridges was a tiny heroine for going to school each day.

But she was more than that, Mr. Coles found out. Told that Ruby seemed to talk to the people who screamed at her, he asked what she was saying, and Ruby replied, "I wasn't talking to them. I was just saying a prayer for them." He asked, "Ruby, you pray for the people there?" "Oh yes." "Really?" "Yes." "Why do you do that?" "Because they need praying for."

How many of us do what this little girl did, walking in and out, surrounded by hostility not just once, but day after day? And how many of us pray for, rather than holler at, those who hate us? It's fine to orate and to attend rallies with people who think like us, but if more of us were like Ruby Bridges-or like the pro-life volunteers who wrestle with the consciences of unmarried pregnant women, praying throughout the night that they will receive a blessing at dawn -Christianity and America would both be stronger.