New York City’s iconic former Mayor Ed Koch died early this morning from congestive heart failure. Many things came to mind as I thought about the ebullient Jewish politician, who described himself as a “liberal with sanity.” But one anecdote sticks out, and even though I haven’t read the account since I was a high school senior. That story, recalled from Koch’s memory, is the tale of the pro-life activist who sent the pro-choice politician flowers.
Koch discussed his abortion position in a fascinating co-written book on faith and public life with John Cardinal O’Connor. As a man who likes a good title, this one works for me: “His Eminence and Hizzoner: A Candid Exchange.” In the book, Koch described his commitment to legal abortion, using all the standard arguments. He commented on the “shrill” tactics of some pro-lifers in marches and demonstrations.
But he took a very different tone when he described one prominent right-to-life activist: a nurse named Jean Head.
What impressed him most of all whenever the nurse came to persuade him, back when he was a United States Congressman, to support efforts to protect the unborn, she brought him roses.
Koch said he was amazed by the way Head would listen to his position and then calmly lay out her arguments for why he should change his mind, and his vote. Koch said he told her that the roses mystified him because he knew that if he ever changed his position on abortion, the abortion-rights lobby would be “crazed with anger.” They wouldn’t bring him roses, he said, but instead might send him cactuses.
Koch never, so far as I know, switched his position on abortion. But I can’t help but see in this pro-life activist’s example something noble and Christlike. There are always those who capitulate and call this “civility.” And there are always those who see listening to one’s opponents as itself a capitulation.
This woman, though, didn’t back down in her efforts to persuade. And that’s just the point. The roses weren’t a sign of weakness but of mission. She didn’t just want to make a point but to change a mind and a heart.
Her kindness was a signal of her confidence in the rightness of her position. It was also a sign of her consistency. She believed unborn children and their mothers were made in the image of God, and thus deserving of love and protection, regardless of stage of development, disability, or “wantedness.” Every person bore the full dignity of humanity, and was worthy of respect and honor.
She showed this by lobbying for the rights of the unborn, and she showed it by treating her opponent as a person, not as a cartoon villain to be vaporized.
That example won’t often get on cable news: sound and fury will do that. But persistence, and persistently kind witness, will stick in the memory and in the imagination.
Who knows whether some wavering congressman in the next office over, or some staffer accepting the delivery, were moved to rethink an issue because of the steely, courageous kindness of this activist?