Monday, June 01, 2009

Why Vigilantism is a Sin

Yesterday morning, George Tiller was shot in the lobby at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita Kansas, where he was serving as an usher. The 51-year-old killer, Scott Roeder, targeted Dr. Tiller because of his long career performing late-term abortions.

As with the pro-life killings of 1998, the media is milking this incident for all it’s worth, laying the blame at the door of the pro-life movement. Some journalists and bloggers have even implicated the entire pro-life community in the violence, using phrases such as ‘Christian terrorism’ to describe what occurred.

The irony is that implicating Christianity in the bloody deed is rather like cutting off the branch of the tree on which you are sitting. This is because the Biblical worldview, and not the relativistic ethics of the pro-choice movement, alone provides us with a consistent platform for condemning the murder.

Why the Murder of George Tiller Was Wrong

It was wrong of Scott Roader to kill George Tiller, but not because Dr. Tiller was innocent. On the contrary, if anyone deserved to die, it was Dr. Tiller. Medical director of Women's Health Care Services clinic in Wichita, Dr. Tiller was one of the only doctors in America providing abortions to women in the 21st week of pregnancy. Using a method he developed called MOLD, Dr. Tiller would pierce a baby’s beating heart with a long needle, injecting a deadly drug called Digoxin. By artificially dilating the cervix, Tiller would deliver the dead baby. Before disposing of the corpse, Tiller would then offer the mother the option to cuddle the corpse and have their picture taken together before disposing of the body.

Having performed this procedure hundreds of times in the course of his career, Dr. Tiller clearly stood in breach of the sixth commandment and was deserving of the death penalty. But while God entrusts the civil magistrate with the right and responsibility to execute lawful vengeance on those who practice evil (Romans 13:4), He does not give that right to individual citizens. Even when the state becomes rebellious and gives legal sanction to the murder of innocent life, that does not give Christians the right to take the law into their own hands. The Bible does not call for Christians to rise up as self-appointed executioners, disregarding the judicial and legal parameters God has established in this world. Such vigilantism, if consistently applied, must eventually lead to more than merely shooting an abortion doctor. Indeed, if it is really true that the Lord looks to any and all unauthorized individual to enforce justice through violence, then we would be obligated to gun down all the Supreme Court justices and legislators who have not voted to outlaw abortion, and to gun down the police who try to prevent such actions. The consistent vigilante need not even stop there, as the same logic could sanction the systematic killing of all the voters who support pro-choice politicians, since they are equally to blame for our culture of death. In short, a consistent outworking of vigilantism leads naturally to a declaration of war against the entire state. In fact, it must go even further: if Christians are authorized to defy the law and cleanse the world of abortions through violence, then national border have no more relevance than national laws, and lone-gunners not only have a mandate to roam the international community in search of abortion practitioners to assassinate, but they must seek to overthrow all the world’s legal systems that have allowed abortion in the first place. In short, they must be content with nothing less than worldwide anarchical revolution.

The Bible gives a different answer. God has established various spheres of authority in the world through which the lines of responsibility flow. When the state seeks to bypass its lawful sphere of authority and legislate on matters affecting the church and family that is usurpation. Similarly, Scott Roeder was usurping the role of the state when he assumed a role that belongs properly to the state-sanction public executioner.

The Arbitrary Ethics of the Abortion Lobby

We have seen that the murder of George Tiller is clearly incompatible with the Biblical worldview. A question which remains is whether the deadly deed is incompatible with the secular humanist worldview of the pro-abortion lobby. Having spent over half a decade trying to convince Americans that life and death issues should be matters of ‘choice’, the abortion industry has suddenly come out of the closet in defence of life. Why does the relativistic paradigm that has become a truism of pro-abortion ethics have a basis for pronouncing that the murder of Dr. Tiller is objectively wrong in a way that the slaughter of unborn innocents is not?

The common reply, of course, is that the murder was wrong for the same reason that the pro-life movement is wrong: because both fail to show tolerance to competing viewpoints. However, it is hard to know how seriously we are meant to take this line of reasoning, coming as it does from a liberal community that has been saying for the past 100 years that abolitionist violence was justified. Furthermore, if tolerance is taken to be an absolute, unmodified by any higher ethical principle, then shouldn’t we be equally tolerant of Mr. Roeder, who exercised his ‘choice’ when he decided to murder Tiller on Sunday morning?

Consider further: American abortion activists have built their case almost exclusively on an appeal to positive law rather than moral law (arguing that abortion is not murder because the Supreme Court, allegedly acting on the basis of the constitution, has declared that it is not murder). However, if there is no transcendent moral code to which even the Supreme Court must show deference, then on what basis do we assert that the Supreme Court can arbitrarily decide when murder is justified and when it is not? Now here’s the rub: when Scott Roeder murdered Dr. Tiller, he was doing nothing other than what the supreme court had already implicitly acknowledged that human beings can do. He was arbitrarily deciding that he was justified to murder Dr. Tiller, just as the Supreme court arbitrarily decided that murder is justified in the case of unborn babies. Doug Wilson commented on this irony, saying, “we condemn the murder of Tiller now, like good citizens, but we will only do so unless and until the targeted murder of such individuals is determined by the Supreme Court to be a consitutional right we didn't know we had.... Well, no, because the Supreme Court doesn't have the authority to declare murder okay, and only ghastly human beings like Tiller think they do. When such men take the Supremes up on their invitation to any slaughter that has been given the legal okay, they are helping to create a society in which lawlessness reigns. They cooperate with those who frame mischief with a law. But once this lawlessness has taken root, the bright boys running everything start to discover that lawlessness has certain shortcomings as a social theory.”

The Myth of Secular Tolerance

The murder of Dr. Tiller by a fundamentalist Christian has seemed to give credence to the growing idea that religious believers are instinctively intolerant, whereas tolerance comes naturally to the secular mind. Such stereotyping resurfaces every time a high-profile event of religious violence occurs, allegedly confirmation that Christianity and politics must be kept strictly separate for society’s safety. As Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee put it: “The horrible history of Christianity shows that whenever religion grabs temporal power it turns lethal. Those who believe theirs is the only way, truth and light will kill to create their heavens on earth if they get the chance.” Richard Dawkins has argued similarly: “To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.”

The most charitable response to these statements is that they are simply naive. Not only has the past three hundred years witnessed a long pedigree of secular and atheist-motivated violence, but the secular worldview offers no hedge against those who would use violence to try to create utopia on earth. While we can say that the Spanish Inquisition and the anti-Semitic violence of the Crusades were not consistent with the Christian worldview (and resulted, ironically, from a failure to impose true Biblical values onto society), Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro and Kim Jong-il and Dr. Tiller have all realized the logical consequence of a worldview in which there is no higher authority than the state. The philosopher John Gray (himself a non-believer) highlighted this when he pointed out that

"The role of humanist thought in shaping the past century’s worst regimes is easily demonstrable, but it is passed over, or denied, by those who harp on about the crimes of religion. Yet the mass murders of the 20th century were not perpetrated by some latter-day version of the Spanish Inquisition. They were done by atheist regimes in the service of Enlightenment ideas of progress. Stalin and Mao were not believers in original sin. Even Hitler, who despised Enlightenment values of equality and freedom, shared the Enlightenment faith that a new world could be created by human will. Each of these tyrants imagined that the human condition could be transformed through the use of science."


Although the guilt for George Tiller’s murder is being hung on the shoulders of the Christian community, it is only from the standpoint of a Christian ethic that we have any basis for saying that the murder was objectively wrong. Further, from the standpoint of all history, it is the secular humanists, not the Christians, who have blood on their hands. We should not allow this truth to be obscured merely because a vigilante Christian has taken it upon himself to kill the mass murderer Dr. Tiller.


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