On Killing Abortion Doctors – Just War and Enemy Love
Controversial abortion doctor George Tiller was shot and killed yesterday while attending Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas.
Tiller was known for being one of the few doctors willing to permit late-term abortions. Who knew the guy was an usher at a Lutheran church? His wife was apparently in the choir when the killing happened.
The pro-life movement is going to take a big hit for this in the press, and in the court of public opinion.
It doesn’t surprise me to find out that Scott Roeder, the man who allegedly murdered Tiller is a ‘pro-life advocate’ and a ‘Christian’. But just because it doesn’t surprise me doesn’t mean it doesn’t sadden and horrify me.
It saddens and horrifies me because it’s the latest in a long line of evidence that Christians in America have lost an essential component of their faith: the habit of thinking and speaking in such a way to sustain a specifically Christian critique of violence.
Historically, there have been two Christian disciplines in regards to violence: just war theory and non-violence.
Just War is a term thrown around a lot by Americans.What they typically mean is that they are justified in declaring war for whatever purposes seem right to them; a war is just if we say it is just. We have been taught from birth through education, entertainment and ritual that we are the bearers of freedom and democracy. As such, our cause is just.
But Just War is a hard discipline born in Christendom and preserved mainly within Roman Catholic theology. But you might ask how well the just war tradition is doing in the U.S.?
The Pope declared the Iraq war an unjust war…but the American bishops opposed him anyways. Was this based on their superior understanding of Just War tradition? Or, as William Cavanaugh might propose, was this based on some other peculiar aspect of modern American Christianity?
In 1994 Charles Rice, a moral theologian and professor at Notre Dame Law School, dealt with the question presented to us today, “Can the Killing of Abortionists Be Justified?” He proposed, based on Catholic moral theology, that the answer is No.
William Saletan at Slate.com asks the same question, noting that the alleged murderer admired the Army of God’s defensive action statement**, which says that “We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child.”
**WARNING: The Army of God link includes a graphic image of abortion)
Saletan proposes that the Scott Roedens and the Army of God-types are the ones that really believe that the unborn child is the moral equivalent of a child. The rest of the pro-life movement is play-acting.
Even though a better understanding of Just War theory could have prevented this murder, there is another solution to Saletan’s puzzle.
The question of using violence to stop abortion might not a matter of whether or not the unborn are the moral equivalent of the born. It’s possible even among the pro-life crowd to find varying answers about that dilemma.
You could concede to the Army of God that whatever force is legitimate to protect the born is due the unborn…and then deny that, for the Christian, the use of force is legitimate at all! This is the Christian non-violence discipline.
Just War theory arose under medieval Christendom through St. Augustine of Hippo under the peculiar circumstance of Christians finding themselves in positions of political power. And let’s face it…from Emperor Constantine until very recently, Christians have been in power in the West, for good or ill. And there are plenty of us that lean toward or ill.
Until Constantine Christianity was a minority religion, sometimes outlawed and often persecuted. Under those circumstances, why would Christians even wonder when it was okay for the state to go to war? Without the temptation of political rule, Christians maintained a strict rule of non-violence, in accordance with the teaching of Jesus and the witness of the Apostles, the Scriptures, The early church Fathers and the Martyrs.
Their disavowal of violence was so complete that they couldn’t even stand to see the pagan state punish criminals, let alone participate. Athenagoras, defending the church against false charges of cannibalism(!) c. 177 says that “We cannot endure to see a man put to death even justly, who of them would charge us with murder or cannibalism?” (Early Christian Fathers, Cyril C. Richardson, p. 338)
Roman soldiers that converted were not allowed to kill and, for the most part, followers of the Way were forbidden to even serve in government! In short, they were wary of the rule of force that had killed Jesus and instead lived by the rule of non-violent, self-donating love lived and taught by Jesus…even to love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).
It’s not accidental that the Church has martyrs rather than heroes. Heroes conquer through force, martyrs through gift.
In killing, Scott Roeder wanted to be a hero. Instead, he dies along with George Tiller as just another casualty of a ‘Christianity’ that denies the politics of Jesus.
If the American Church can recover the habits of thought and speech necessary to critique the world’s power, the hard discipline of theological, historical, sociological and ethical reflection (as if these can in any way be meaningfully separated), then maybe William Saletan and the rest of the world could know that Scott Roeder wasn’t pro-life enough.
For now, I will mourn this new evidence that the Onion takes the commands of God more seriously than God’s so-called Army.