For the last two days, a steady stream of press releases has poured into my inbox—all of them from pro-life organizations rightly condemning the murder of late-term abortionist, Dr. George Tiller. I would like to join their chorus. From our inception, Abort73 has publicly denounced all such actions. They are cowardly, immoral and ultimately, damaging to the cause. Our official position statement reads: "Abort73 does not support or condone violence against abortion providers nor associate with groups that do."
Condemning the murder of Dr. Tiller is the easy part. Explaining why his death is condemnable is a bit harder—which may be why so few of the press releases I've read even made the effort. The tension is this. George Tiller was an abortionist. He made his living killing the most helpless members of the human community. The Washington Times estimates that over the course of his life, Dr. Tiller performed 60,000 abortions, often on fetuses old enough to survive outside the womb. It is hard to imagine a more sinister vocation (how many other men can you think of who have personally killed upwards of 60,000 human beings?)!
Had Dr. Tiller's life continued, he may well have performed thousands of abortions more. We can only assume that the man who killed Dr. Tiller rationalized his actions this way: "If the law won't intervene, I will." You see the moral tension. The fact that our government currently protects an abortionist's "right" to kill human beings in the womb creates HUGE ethical and philosophical problems. So how do we demonstrate the fallacy of taking the law into your own hands, when the law fails to protect the lives of helpless, unborn children? Most of the statements of condemnation I've seen read something like this:
"It is never consistent with the pro-life ethic to take the life of another human being made in the image of God."
"A true, pro-life person respects human life as a gift from God, and leaves all life and death decisions to God Himself."
The problems I have with these statements is that they seem a bit too simplistic. I'm not sure they adequately deal with the philosophical underpinnings that drive this sort of vigilante justice. Consider this scenario. What would have happened if the man who killed Dr. Tiller didn't flee from the church after the murder? What if he had stayed there and continued to shoot other church members? What if he had set his sights on the nursery? If any of us were faced with the question of either allowing a gunman to shoot at helpless children or using deadly force to stop him, would we still say that "it is never consistent with the pro-life ethic to take the life of another human being"? If not, then is that really a sufficient rationale for condemning the murder of Dr. Tiller? If it is legitimate in one instance to use deadly force to keep someone from killing helpless children, we must be able to explain why it is NOT legitimate in this instance. Of all the statements I've read this week, I think the NRLC's comes the closest. They say:
"The pro-life movement works to protect the right to life and increase respect for human life. The unlawful use of violence is directly contrary to that goal (emphasis added)."
The primary difference between killing children in the womb and killing children in the nursery is that the law allows for one, but not the other. Even for those of us who claim allegiance to a higher authority than the state, that is not an insignificant distinction. Romans 13:1 tells us that all governing authorities, good and bad, have been instituted by God. Whoever resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed (13:2). Though the Bible does provide some legitimate examples of civil disobedience, it is clearly a measure of last resort. More to the point, none of the biblical examples endorse violence or imply that violence is a legitimate means of resisting unjust laws.
Perhaps the clearest scriptural indictment against violently taking the law into your own hands comes from the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:47-54). Jesus the Christ, God incarnate, creator of the universe, has just been betrayed. To protect him from a death that can be called nothing less than the greatest injustice in human history (an injustice that far exceeds even the destruction of unborn children), Peter draws his sword in defense of innocent human life. He swings at the head of the high priest's servant and cuts off his ear. If there was ever a situation that necessitated violent, civil disobedience, surely this was it. But all Peter earns for his efforts is a rebuke from Christ:
"Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?"
God the Father could have rescued Christ from the cross, just as he could have rescued all the children that have lost their lives to abortion. For some reason that's not his plan. And not only that, but He tells Peter to put the sword away. Looking back, we can see God's design in allowing his own Son to suffer and die. Someday we'll look back and see God's design in allowing so many unborn children to die. Abortion, as I've said before, is both deserving of God's wrath and an outpouring of God's wrath. God's hands are not tied. He doesn't need individual citizens to kill people in the name of justice. Every life is at his disposal already.
Why was it was wrong to kill Dr. Tiller? Because Dr. Tiller was a law-abiding citizen. He did no more than the law allowed him to do. You don't kill a man for doing something that the law (even an arguably unjust law) allows. You work at changing the law. Though killing children inside the womb and killing children outside the womb are for many of us, moral equivalents, for many others they are not. By and large, there is no debate over the morality of killing human infants, but there is a huge debate over the morality of killing human fetuses. You don't bridge that moral gap by killing abortionists, you bridge it by demonstrating why abortion is morally akin to infanticide.
There are times when the state must decide whether it is legitimate or not to employ deadly force in the service of peace, but citizens are not endowed with that same authority—at least not outside of those extremely rare circumstances where an assailant is breaking the law and threatening the lives of other people. Because punishing the guilty is the state's responsibility, the state is accountable to God for rightly executing his judgment. We are not. That doesn't mean we can take a pass when faced with suffering and injustice. It simply means that we must work within the many legitimate, God-given means for enacting change. God's people do have a responsibility to intervene on behalf of abortion-vulnerable children (see A Biblical Mandate to Do Something About Abortion), but part of that responsibility is to intervene in ways that are both righteous and wise. Killing doctors is neither.
The main problem is not the individual men who perform abortions. The problem is the system that allows them to legally kill children. Abortionists can be replaced. In fact, Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) believes that "[the murder of George Tiller] will inspire another doctor to take up the torch, and another, and another." She's probably right. There's something sympathetic, even heroic about dying for your cause. As a result of one shortsighted, cowardly, "one and done" act of violence, an otherwise shameful doctor suddenly becomes a martyr. His killer will spend the rest of his life in jail—useless to his family, useless to his friends, and useless to the cause he claims to support. The rest of us are left to pick up the pieces as we fight off all the accusations trying to link non-violent, pro-life activism with the barbarism of one man.
I will grant that the murder of George Tiller likely spared the lives of some children. It is reasonable to assume that in the months to come, children will be born, who would have been aborted had Dr. Tiller not lost his life. That, however, does not justify the act. It is a remarkable mercy of God that good things can result from wicked actions. Out of wedlock births are a prime example of that. The Bible is clear, sex outside of marriage is sin, and yet how many blessed children have been born out of sinful unions? In the United States, we have historically unprecedented opportunities to peacefully, lawfully remedy all manner of injustices. We must use them, because killing abortionists is not the way to end abortion!
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.