At a blog called “Brutally Honest,” the proprietor Rick is, well, brutally honest as he ponders and works out the moral questions concerning the murder of late-term abortionist Dr. George Tiller. It is not easy reading. Rick quotes from this piece at Another Think:
After years spent openly opposing Adolf Hitler and encouraging Germans to turn against his regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a Christian minister, theologian, pacifist and German citizen—made a deliberate turn from civil disobedience to secret participation in a cabal whose aim was to assassinate the Führer. Bonhoeffer laid aside his Christian pacifism when he woke up to the fact that Hitler was engaging in genocide. This outraged Bonhoeffer, who held the deep religious conviction that the Jews were a people precious to God and deserving of protection, whatever the personal cost.
. . . Bonhoeffer aided and encouraged these [assassination plots] from his post inside the Abwehr. Pretending to be a loyal servant of Hitler's Reich, Bonhoeffer was in fact a double agent working towards Hitler's forcible overthrow.
You need to read it all, of course, but Charlie ends his musings with this:
Are these times, and the circumstances we find ourselves in, really so different from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's day?
While non-violent, political opposition to evil is always the default position for Christians, the lesson of Bonhoeffer seems to be that there are times when the heart and soul of a government becomes hardened against the prophetic outcry of God's people. At such a time, far more may be required of us. Is this such a time? How far should we be willing to go to stop the killing of the innocents?
I go back to yesterday's post and in particular William Saletan's piece:
Several years ago, I went to a conference of abortionists. Some of the late-term providers were there. A row of tables displayed forceps for sale. They started small and got bigger and bigger. Walking along the row, you could ask yourself: Would I use these forceps? How about those? Where would I stop? The people who do late-term abortions are the ones who don't flinch. They're like the veterans you sometimes see in war documentaries, quietly recounting what they faced and did. You think you're pro-choice. You think marching or phone-banking makes you an activist. You know nothing. There's you, and then there are the people who work in the clinics. And then there are the people who use the forceps. And then there are the people who use the forceps nobody else will use. At the end of the line, there's George Tiller. Now he's gone. Who will pick up his forceps?
George Tiller used forceps and other instruments to pluck, literally pluck, the unborn from the wombs of mothers in their third trimester. 60,000 times as some outlets are reporting. 60,000. In your mind, line those unborn babies up in neat little rows of one hundred babies per row. . . . How long would that tasking take? Once completed, would you continue to think that Tiller's death was heinous?
Honestly . . . would you? I don't understand the mindset, the logic, the mental manipulations necessary to consider it so.
Bonhoeffer was a brilliant theologian; his book The Cost of Discipleship is one of those books a Christian reader goes back to again and again in the course of growth. In weighing the moral question of obedience to institutions who were exceeding their own rights, he once argued, "if a teacher says to a child, 'did your father come home drunk again last night,' is the child bound to tell the truth?" Bonhoeffer decided no, the teacher [institution] had intruded beyond her scope, and therefore the child, to honor his father, is not obligated to subject him to judgment or mockery, or for that matter governmental intrusion. Bonhoeffer was, in the course of a terrible war, able to extrapolate that small, defensive lie into a plot to assassinate Hitler.
Rick and Charlie’s questions are sound, but one fears where their
thinking may lead. Bonhoeffer was a unique individual with a very healthy mind and tremendous depth of faith, and he was coming at his issue without carrying forty years of political baggage that could further influence his thinking to a place of imbalance. As extraordinary as he was, Bonhoeffer understood that his uniqueness in no way excepted him from the fact that what he was attempting was an evil—his evil, wholly distinct from Hitler's own evil—and one for which he would be held to account. Bonhoeffer knew that he could not rationalize his evil or make it less evil in the sight of Hitler's monstrous regime, and that in the end he would have only God's grace in which to hope.
In another mind, another heart, particularly one beset by decades of politicized, often overheated rhetoric, who knows if such balance and genuine accountability would be possible?
The question is natural, but every bit as dangerous as the increasingly large forceps on Saletan's table. If you can use the millions of dead unborn to justify a murder, this time, then you can use other rationales for other murders. Once you have justified the killing of a George Tiller, what is to stop you from finding a means to justify other killings, or the whole concept of assassination?
In a so-called late-term abortion, a baby is delivered vaginally, and feet first. The body and shoulders are delivered, but the infant's head is held within the birth canal, until the doctor can slip a scissor into its skull and suction out its brains, at which point he will deliver a dead child and avoid a charge of infanticide. We are told that these abortions are necessary to spare the life or mental health of a fragile mother who may not be able to endure the physical or psychological rigors of childbirth. The American Medical Association has quietly conceded that—as we do not live in the nineteenth or even the early twentieth century, when a cesarean section was all but a death sentence for a woman—there really is no medical reason for such an abortion. One may additionally argue that delivering a baby feet first, then shoulders, is by no means a simple or easy sort of delivery, so the dangers it purports to spare a woman are not obvious.
George Tiller specialized in aborting advanced pregnancies and he is being held up as a hero and martyr by those who can read the previous paragraph and not find the word savagery forming on their lips. Those of us who call ourselves pro-life take a very different view, and cannot call Tiller a hero, but neither can we support his murder.
Tiller, despite his choices, was still a created creature of God, and his life was God's to take, not man's; who is to know at what point in a man's life he will suddenly, like Paul on the road to Damascus, be brought to his knees with an encounter, and then seek out mercy, forgiveness, and the saving blood of Christ he will need to wash away the blood he has himself spilled? There is no man or woman on earth who is beyond this redemption while they live. If you take his life, have you interrupted the time and opportunity that, in Christ's plan, in Christ's fullness of time, would have been his moment of clarity? If so, then what have you done to your own soul, in cutting short the opportunity for his soul to find its redemption?
One of the reasons so many Catholics struggle with the death penalty is because we do believe that life is sacred, and that redemption must always be given its day, thus we cannot allow ourselves to indulge in relativism over the issue of life. Benedict XVI correctly called relativism a dictatorship and it is easy to see why: to reflect on matters of life and death in the fun-house mirror of relativism is to succumb to the allure of our own human (and thus faulty) reasoning. Relativism is to be avoided because we can so easily use the threads of relative thinking, no matter how thin they may be, to weave for ourselves some protective cover for the evil we do, and so we must guard against it.
Most people have not read Paul VI's short, prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, but everyone has an opinion on it. But all who identify themselves as pro-life should read it. It demonstrates with startling clarity the way in which small ideas that some may call "unpleasant but necessary," grow ever larger. Once you read it you can see how the seeds of the culture of death can reside in the tiniest tools doing what some would call the least damage. A pill grows to an IUD, an IUD grows to a suction or curette, that grows to a row of ever-larger forceps, all to deliver death, death, death—death with which we have quickly become so comfortable that we don't even realize the tools of destruction have grown so large or become so light in our hands.
We are all currently watching the inexorable creep from the largest of forceps to the next step: large human beings who will be refusing medical treatments to the expensive-to-keep-alive elderly, or injecting "compassionate" needles to the terminally ill or the children whose quality of life they deem insufficiently productive, or to people with an extra chromosome.
Slippery slope is a useful cliché, particularly on this issue. The same slippery slopes that call for the manufacture of those ever-increasing-in-size forceps exist in the idea that Bonhoeffer or Tiller's murderer, Scott Roeder, should be emulated. They should not. George Tiller's life may not have been a life any of us would have wanted, or admired, but it was the life he had, and he was entitled to it.
Of course, while many hundreds of thousands of words are being written about the murder of George Tiller, and much political hay is being stacked against so-called Christianists, another murder followed Tiller's—and it is being mostly ignored, even by the same president who, within hours of Tiller's death, managed to express his profound sadness over it. A young recruit by the name of William Long finished his boot-camp training, stopped in at his Arkansas recruitment center, and was slain by a man named Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, whose name and religion routinely go unmentioned in press reports.
Why should we care about some dumb hick named William Long, who was only a soldier and not a hero abortionist? And why should his assassin's name or religion matter? Because William Long was as entitled to the life he had, as was George Tiller. And Long's death, at the hands of a man who used his religion to justify his actions, is the ultimate reminder of why Christians cannot emulate Bonhoeffer, for all his brilliance, or Tiller's murderer: When we start thinking that we know the heart and mind of God so well that we may decide who lives and who dies, we slip into a mode of Antichrist.
The Pauline paradox "when I am weak, then I am strong" carries a flipside: "When I am strong, then I am weak." Relativism is dangerous because we can too easily slip into the belief that we so well comprehend God's will that we can confuse our own will for God's, and thereby do terrible damage to one another. God's rain falls on "the just and the unjust," and it is one of the challenges of the life of faith that we must leave to God the rendering of his Justice.
The duty of a Christian—and it is a difficult duty—is to remain in the present moment that we might be alert to the promptings of the Holy Spirit ("continuing instant" in gratitude and prayer) while also taking the long view of things. This requires trust that however things look of a moment or a day, God is present and working: Nothing is static, everything is in a constant state of flux, all of it churning forward so that "in the fullness of time" Christ may restore all things to himself.
What is left? Well, prayer, which is the most subversive of powers; it is a self-renewing weapon that cannot be wrested from us, and it cannot be over-employed.
Saletan issues a challenge in his piece: He asks Christians to ponder whether they really believe that abortion is, in fact, murder:
Maybe it's time to ask yourself what you really believe. Is abortion murder? Or is it something less, a tragedy that would be better avoided? Most of us think it's the latter. We're looking for ways to prevent abortions—not just a few this month, but millions down the line—without killing or prosecuting people. Come and join us.
The words sound reasonable, but they follow an unapologetic celebration of a life lived in service to the largest of the forceps, and the suctioning of the smallest and most innocent brain cells. "Come and join us," is an insidious little invitation that wants you to feel comfortable in all you give up, made by people willing to give up nothing, themselves, not even the largest of the forceps, or the smallest of the pills. They say they want fewer abortions and believe they will get them with more and more contraception, bigger public-awareness campaigns. They don't seem to notice that forty years of more and bigger has not yet reduced the number of abortions. And they don't want anyone else to notice, either. They just want submission.
We must not submit. No matter how smooth the oration, no matter how appealingly the hand of invitation is extended, the culture of death, which promises everything, ultimately offers nothing.
But we know, as the angel tells Joseph, "with God, nothing is impossible."
We are dealing with an unfathomable mystery of life and love—the nurturing of both or the disallowance, the bringing forth or the refusal—the continual opening or the closing of the world. The wrestling between sides has been going on for thousands of years, even before Moses said to his people, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, choose life, that you may live." The struggle will continue until "the fullness of time." What is a believer to do?
If we are to err, let us err on the side of life. Let us choose life, that the world may live. And let us pray.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.