[NOTE: This column ran in The Chicago Tribune in yesterday’s edition (read it here). I wrote this editorial column in the aftermath of the murder of Dr. George Tiller. An extended note is found at the end of the column, dealing with the arguments found in the essay.]
The murder of Dr. George Tiller presents America with yet another reminder of the violence that exists within our midst. This is not the way the pro-life movement wanted Dr. Tiller’s life to end. Our mission is to convince Americans of the sanctity of every human life—born and unborn. The murder of Dr. Tiller does not serve that cause.
George Tiller was one of the most recognized abortion doctors in America. This nation has known few doctors who would perform the late-term abortions for which Dr. Tiller was infamous. He was known for his willingness to perform almost any abortion—even to abort babies that would safely survive outside the womb. He saw himself as a champion of women’s rights. To others, he was an agent of death who was personally responsible for the deaths of thousands of unborn human beings.
The murder of Dr. Tiller was a grotesque denial of the sanctity of human life. This is not a cause that can be served by violence in any form. The abortion procedures employed by Dr. Tiller are horribly violent. Proponents of abortion want to keep the nation’s attention diverted from what abortion really means—and especially from what happens in a late-term abortion.
That violence is what we desperately want to see end. For this reason, the violence that was murderously deployed in Wichita requires us to be first in line to make clear that violence in the womb will never be overcome by means of violence outside the womb. Dr. Tiller’s murderer has blood on his hands, and he has bloodied the cause of human life and human dignity.
As many press reports have made clear, the pro-life movement is predominantly Christian, mainly led by committed Catholics and conservative Evangelicals. The Christian tradition claims a rich tradition of moral reasoning. The sanctity of human life and our duty to defend the innocent comes within a context of respect for the rule of law and the acknowledgment that it is the duty of government to use its own means to protect life and to serve justice. Nothing in the Christian moral tradition justifies the act of murdering an abortionist. There is no justification for taking the law into our own hands and arrogating to ourselves the rightful role of government as exercised through its laws, courts, and institutions of state.
In 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested for his opposition to the Nazi regime. The Lutheran pastor, a prominent leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church, had been involved in espionage and an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This pastor and theologian sought to defy the regime that was murdering the Jewish people and destroying human life with homicide on an unprecedented scale. Bonhoeffer acted in defense of human life, and for this he was executed in the Flossenburg prison camp in the final days of World War II.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed abortion with full force. In his Ethics he explained: “The simple fact is that God had certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”
When it came to defying Hitler’s regime, Bonhoeffer saw that several excruciating moral questions were on “the borderland” and could not be settled with absolute certainty. Eventually, he was convinced that the Nazi regime was beyond moral correction and no longer legitimate. Christians, he then saw, bore a responsibility to oppose the regime at every level and to seek its demise. He acted in defense of life and was finally willing to use violence to that end.
America is not Nazi Germany. George Tiller, though bearing the blood of thousands of unborn children on his hands, was not Adolf Hitler. The murderer of Dr. George Tiller is no Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dr. Tiller’s murderer did not serve the cause of life; he assaulted that cause at its moral core.
There is no justification for this murder, and it is the responsibility of everyone who cherishes life and honors human dignity to declare this without equivocation or hesitation.
For years now, this great nation has been engaged in a great and heart-rending debate over abortion. For the first time since Roe v Wade, polls now indicate that a majority of Americans are pro-life. This issue is far from settled, but even as the pro-life movement seeks to work within the political process in defense of life, our greater task is to reach hearts and minds toward the goal that no woman would seek an abortion. The murder in Wichita makes that challenge more difficult.
The horrible lesson of Wichita is this: Those who would use violence do not serve the Culture of Life. They are agents of the Culture of Death.
NOTE: I deal with the Bonhoeffer issue in this essay because I have received so many questions about the historical analogy. So many readers are familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to take action against Hitler. Fewer are familiar with the moral and theological reasoning that led Bonhoeffer, quite reluctantly, to this conclusion. Even then, Bonhoeffer was not certain he was acting rightly. He felt that this decision, made under extreme moral conditions, was the best he could understand.
Other readers have seen the film “Valkyrie,” and jump to some of the same conclusions. We must realize that Bonhoeffer did not come to his decision to resort to violence against the regime out of a moral vacuum. He and his brothers and sisters in the Confessing Church had long before come to the conclusion that they must oppose the Nazi regime in totality, risking imprisonment and far worse. It is nothing less than embarrassing to see American Christians make arguments citing Bonhoeffer while they fail to engage his moral and theological reasoning — and when arguments are based in sloppy analogies from a position of cultural comfort.