The bit of difference: what it means to “leaven the loaf”

I was disappointed – sock-in-the-gut discouraged, really – when a death penalty repeal bill failed in the New Hampshire Senate on a 12-12 vote last week. A friend and fellow activist who had worked hard on the bill said to me afterward about all the pro-repeal work, “None of it made a damn bit of difference.”

I understood how she felt. I had been thinking the same thing, right up until she uttered the words. Hearing her say them brought me up short. She forced me out of my funk.

Her work did matter. She was and is the kind of “leaven for the loaf” that I want to become.

I get questions about this blog’s name all the time. The person who created the logo lives in another country and needed clarification; he thought “leaven” translated to “leaf.” (I kept his leafy logo idea, though.) I’ve heard it pronounced LEE-ven instead of LEV-en. I’ve learned that the biblical metaphor of Christians leavening a community the way yeast leavens a loaf of bread is unfamiliar to some readers. Maybe I’ll change the blog’s name to something snappier and clearer someday. For now, though, the original name stays. It expresses the idea of one person being able to make the community stronger, simply by choosing life when it would be easier not to.

My discouraged friend is a longtime classic pro-lifer. One of the first things I heard from her when we met was that she wasn’t aiming to make abortion illegal, she was aiming to make it unthinkable. (We hit it off right away.) She and her husband make a formidable team. Over the years, by means of their philanthropy and a staggering amount of volunteer work, they have done a great deal to make New Hampshire a better place.

As a result, they have influence. They have earned respect from people who think most pro-lifers are far-right whackos. When this year’s death penalty repeal bill came up, my friend put that influence and respect to work. She started talking with people, one-on-one, quietly, behind the scenes. She had a tough audience: life-issue allies who support the death penalty for one reason or another.

Some of the most dedicated pro-life representatives I know fought hard against death-penalty repeal. A paradox, since these are people of good will. During the debate on the bill, they spoke of murdered Manchester police officer Michael Briggs, and how it would be an insult to his memory not to execute the man who killed him. (Briggs’s killer, Michael Addison, is New Hampshire’s only death row inmate.) They spoke of people for whom a life sentence isn’t enough; as one of the reps put it, “there are monsters among us.” Someone actually said that the death penalty had to be available for use as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations.

None of those representatives was about to give ear to a repeal argument from someone who has voted against abortion regulation. You’ll kill the babies but not the convicted criminals, they think. They were nonetheless willing to listen to my friend and others like her who are stalwart pro-lifers.

People of consistent across-the-board prolife belief trying to bridge a divide with neighbors who are usually allies: how can that possibly be a waste of time? Not to mention that it’s hardly a waste of time to show abortion advocates what a consistent ethic of life looks like.

It’s funny that this loss on the repeal bill hurt me so much. As a prolife activist, I’m used to dealing with legislation that goes down by lopsided margins. No big deal; we just keep trying. But this one, a failure on a tie vote, stung badly. I saw an acquaintance shortly after the vote, and she asked “how’re you doing?” I found myself unable to speak. I couldn’t manage to say the usual fine-thanks-how-are-you. I was discouraged and fed up, and I was afraid if I opened my mouth, it would all come pouring out on the poor unsuspecting acquaintance who was just being polite.

The death penalty repeal fails; the New Hampshire legislature is halfway to nullifying the First Amendment within 25 feet of abortion facilities; fetal homicide legislation, while not dead, is in trouble. And you ask me how I’m doing …

It took my friend’s despairing remark – “none of it made a damn bit of difference” – to shake me out of my pity party. Dragging her out of discouragement is what I need to be doing.

Death penalty repeal efforts have come up before. A tie vote in the Senate, after getting the bill through the House? That’s fantastic progress. The Senate went on to table the bill, so there is a tiny chance it may yet be revived this session. A coalition with some bemused abortion advocates who can’t quite believe we’re agreeing on something? More progress.

Then there are those prolife representatives who defend the death penalty. They heard an argument in favor of repeal from someone they respect who has been with them in other legislative battles for a long time.

My friend could have been silent. No one would have thought less of her for staying out of this death-penalty debate. Instead, she went to work with the peaceful persistence and determination that has characterized every decision she’s made since I’ve known her. Her beliefs, and the way she lives them out, are touching people in ways that will last long after this vote’s been forgotten.

What a friend. What an inspiration. That’s what leaven looks like.

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