Several years ago, I encountered the ideas of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas while I idly skimmed my high school religion textbook. I was intrigued by his philosophy of “the face-to-face.” Levinas argues that when we encounter another human being face-to-face, we become ethically responsible towards that human being. He declares that “The approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility” towards “the Other.” I felt intuitively that his philosophy was true, but like most of my high school learning, his ideas fell into some cluttered filing cabinet at the back of my brain.
Levinas’ theory of the face-to-face came back to me in a surprising way two weeks ago, when I participated in CCBR’s Genocide Awareness Project. Under the guidance of CCBR’s incredible staff, I and my fellow participants visited two university campuses in Florida to speak with students about the injustice of abortion. We handed out thousands of pamphlets, had conversation after conversation, and wrote down testimony after testimony of moved hearts and changed minds. But our words were not the primary tool that engendered those effects on the campuses. Behind us, on large signs, were images of pre-born children who had been subjected to the violence of abortion. This abortion-victim photography showed the graphic and disturbing truth of what happens 3000 times a day in the US. When I asked students what they thought about abortion, those who said they were “pro-choice” often had a note of hesitation or embarrassment in their voice. The reason is simple enough: when we are faced with what choice we are talking about, the pro-choice label rings a bit hollow.
I remember one woman in particular who stopped by our display at FIU. The woman politely declined to speak with me, saying that she was “just there to look at the pictures.” I heard the horror in her voice when she said, “you can see their faces!” For many people like her, an encounter with the face of a murdered pre-born child stripped away every flimsy argument in support of abortion. However, not every student who saw our signs immediately voiced pro-life convictions. Some became angry, even belligerent. Though the students reacted in a variety of ways, I think that every kind of reaction can be explained through the lens of Levinas’ philosophy. In the book Ethics and Infinity, he states:
The first word of the face is ‘Thou shalt not kill’. It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me. However, at the same time, the face of the Other is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all. And me, whoever I may be, but as a “first person,” I am he who finds the resources to respond to the call.
If an encounter with the face causes a recognition of responsibility towards the Other, then an encounter with the face of the murdered pre-born child forces a realization: we have radically failed in that responsibility. We have failed that child. The primary “order” of the face, “Do not kill me!”, has been disregarded. The total vulnerability of the pre-born child, the one to whom we “owe all”, has been violently exploited. It is therefore very natural that people reacted with negative emotions: sorrow, horror, shock. Fury. Some desperately clung to their state of denial. But so many people that we talked to did accept the difficult truth. They agreed that abortion was a human rights violation, and agreed that we bear responsibility towards the pre-born. In my conversation with a student named Jack, he went from moderately pro-choice to completely pro-life after seeing the images and hearing our arguments. When I asked him if he thought that the pre-born needed protection, he declared that they need “the most protection” and that “silence is violence” on this issue. He saw their faces, and he took responsibility.
The faces of the pre-born do not merely convict us of the injustice of abortion and our failure in responsibility; their faces also call us to greater action in the future. Their faces call us to “do all” to end abortion, to save those to whom we “owe all.” I cannot phrase it better than Levinas himself: “The word of God speaks through the glory of the face and calls for an ethical conversion, or reversal, of our nature. What we call lay morality, that is, humanistic concern for our fellow human beings, already speaks the voice of God.” This ethical conversion, a rejection of selfishness, is desperately needed in our culture of death. Through the faces of the pre-born, God calls us to this conversion. How will we respond?