The cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller on Sunday morning presents the pro-life movement in America with a crucial moral test — will we condemn this murder in unqualified terms?
For many years, Dr. George Tiller has represented the horrific reality of the abortion industry in this nation. Infamously known to the pro-life movement in America, Tiller was known as “Tiller the Killer” because of his well-known willingness to perform late-term abortions almost no other doctor in the nation would perform. Because of Dr. George Tiller, Wichita became the destination of choice for women seeking abortions in the late third trimester.
In 1993 Tiller was shot in both arms by an assailant. His clinic was regularly protested and was once bombed. Tiller had many brushes with the law, and just weeks ago he was acquitted of charges that he had colluded with another physician to illegally justify late-term abortions.
George Tiller was shot to death Sunday morning as he was serving as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita. Witnesses said that a lone assailant entered the church, shot Dr. Tiller with a single shot, threatened two others, and then fled the scene. A suspect was arrested hours later. Wichita police said that the unnamed suspect would likely face multiple charges as early as Monday.
Violence in response to the horror of abortion is rare, but not new. According to some news reports, Dr. Tiller was the fifth physician to be murdered by abortion opponents. In other cases, abortion clinics have been bombed and workers have been hurt or killed.
Proponents of abortion rights often charge that the rhetoric of the pro-life movement leads to violence. After all, we describe abortion as murder and point to the business of abortion as the murder of the unborn. We make clear that abortion is the taking of innocent human life and that what goes on in abortion clinics is the business of death.
We make these arguments because we know they are true. Abortion is murder. What goes on in those clinics is institutionalized homicide, often for financial profit. Abortion is a moral scandal and a national tragedy and a blight upon the American conscience.
But violence in the name of protesting abortion is immoral, unjustified, and horribly harmful to the pro-life cause. Now, the premeditated murder of Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of his church is the headline scandal — not the abortions he performed and the cause he represented.
We have no right to take the law into our own hands in an act of criminal violence. We are not given the right to take this power into our own hands, for God has granted this power to governing authorities. The horror of abortion cannot be rightly confronted, much less corrected, by means of violence and acts outside the law and lawful means of remedy. This is not merely a legal technicality — it is a vital test of the morality of the pro-life movement.
The Christian church has been forced by historical necessity to think through these issues again and again. The church has reached a basic moral consensus on issues of violence and governmental obedience, and this consensus requires that Christian citizens work within legal, judicial, and political means to persuade governing authorities concerning what is good, right, just, and honoring to God. Those who operate outside of this consensus and perform acts of violence are rightly understood to arrogate authority to themselves in a way that violates not only the laws of men but the law of God. Civil disobedience may be justified so long as the Christian is willing to suffer at the hands of the governing authorities, but is not justified if the citizen employs violence against the state or against other citizens.
In the case of Dr. George Tiller, the governing authorities failed again and again to fulfill their responsibility to protect all citizens, including those yet unborn. The law is dishonoring to God in its disrespect for human life. The law failed to bring George Tiller to account for what should have been seen as crimes against humanity. But this failure does not authorize others to act in the place of the government, much less in the place of God. The government must now act to prosecute and punish the murderer of Dr. George Tiller.
In October of 1859, John Brown led a violent attack upon the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. A radical abolitionist, Brown had already proved himself capable of violence for his cause. In 1856 he had led a gang that brutally killed several pro-slavery figures in Kansas. The raid on Harpers Ferry led to more deaths before Brown and his surviving rebels were arrested, charged with treason, and executed.
When John Brown was arrested, Henry David Thoreau defended the man and his violence, asking: “Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made? Or declared by any number of men to be good, if they are not good?”
Those are the very questions some are tempted to ask now, but these weighty questions cannot justify violence in the name of an honorable cause. Thoreau was right about the fact that the laws allowing slavery in the United States were immoral and unjustifiable. John Brown was right when he claimed that slavery was a blight upon the nation’s conscience — a wrong that had to be ended. Brown’s logic led him to treason, and he was found guilty in a court of law and punished. Thoreau would refer to Brown as an “angel of light,” but Thoreau never had to live with the consequences of his own attempt to justify murder, nor did he ever acknowledge the true character of the man.
The pro-life movement in America must not wage war against abortion by following the example of John Brown. Nor can we allow ourselves the luxury of the logic of defending the indefensible along the lines of Thoreau. We must confront this great evil of abortion from a higher plane, and know that the battle is ultimately in God’s hands.
Murder is murder. The law rightly affirms that the killing of Dr. George Tiller is murder. In this we must agree. We cannot rest until the law also recognizes the killing of the unborn as murder. The killing of Dr. George Tiller makes that challenge all the more difficult.