The Tiller murder has caused the pro-choice movement to legitimately question what the label "pro-life" means. Meanwhile vocal pro-lifers are screaming: "That's not who we are!" But I wonder... because in a cold, calculating logic, killing abortionists makes a kind of sick sense if you believe that abortions kill innocent babies.
I've spent years next door to that kind of conviction and so did Jon... We explored the edges of what it meant to really believe that abortion was murder (similar to how I really believed people were going to hell and couldn't sit home comfortably in America while millions of Muslims were flashing Fastrak passes to hell). I mean, if babies are being killed in the womb through no choice of their own, isn't that... murder? Wouldn't killing an abortionist be "defense of an innocent life"?
Jon and I were active in Operation Rescue back in the late 80s and early 90s. Jon spent Easter weekend (1990) in jail along with 300 Christians for blockading an abortion clinic in downtown Los Angeles. I stood with picketers on the sidelines with a baby in a backpack and a toddler in a stroller. An angry pro-choice woman walked by me, pointed at Johannah in the pack, and said to a friend of hers (so I could hear her), "There's one that should have been aborted."
The protest that weekend was peaceful. Think of "sit-in" and you'll have the right idea. Hundreds of men and women sat down on the steps and across the front of the clinic, singing worship songs, mostly, and praying. We'd been instructed to not shout epithets or to engage in verbal battering or debate. The idea was to follow the lead of Ghandi or MLK Jr. Civil (meaning "with civility" in addition to "civic") disobedience meant we would not create violent conditions of any kind and would receive without retaliation any violence dished out against us.
The protesters were rounded up and arrested, of course. The police used num-chuks to wrench the arms of the OR participants behind their backs, for the cuffing. Jon had a strained wrist for years following.
I still remember going to court for the arraignment. Jon had been front and center on the cover of the Orange County Register with his arms raised in worship in front of a clinic. The court found him guilty of trespassing and let him off for time served (LA County jail for a weekend with 300 others who worshiped God over stale burritos).
The heyday of Operation Rescue resulted in little rescue. I mean, we heard about women who turned back from particular clinics. But that wouldn't have prevented them from seeking out other ones. Over time, the arrests led to longer record sheets and fathers in particular, who had families to feed (usually large ones created without birth control), found it harder and harder to risk their jobs (jail time especially created a tension between convictions and practicalities) in order to stop abortion.
Yet the zealously committed (the ones who really did to their very bones see abortion as the murder of an innocent child) couldn't bear that all this effort resulted in... well, nothing. No changes in legislation, no awakening in the culture, no real shift in values among those who professed to be pro-life (you'd be astonished how many pro-lifers have either had abortions or have paid for them secretly).
The first tentative conversations I heard about murdering abortionists happened over dinner at one of the Operation Rescue leader's homes. Jon and I sat among the large family of kids with our own growing one (there were at least 9 kids among us) and Jeff (staffer) said that clearly the movement needed to escalate. Passive resistance was not effective. There needed to be graphic symbols and social/shaming pressure on abortionists to make them give up their abortion practices. This is when picketing abortionist homes became popular (using those graphic signs of aborted fetuses). But Jeff went further. He said if that didn't work, he could understand the need to take this cause all the way to murder (though quickly added that he didn't yet feel led that way himself).
It was a breath-taking statement followed by breathtaking reality when we heard of the first abortionist murder not many months later. Jon and I were rocked back on our heels. The leadership in OR was quick to distance themselves saying they didn't approve of those tactics.... but really? One of our best friends, an avid pro-lifer and missionary, shared on the QT with us that he felt this act was justified, and used Bonhoeffer to defend the position.
From there, I began to hear the drip drip drip of private, quiet support for these heroes, regardless of how the publicity from the pro-life camp was framed for news media and pro-choicers. Behind the public statements of 'we condemn this activity' was a deeper sense of 'this is what it comes to when you follow Christ' and Bonhoeffer served the purpose of theological support very well.
During my thesis writing, I ran across numerous articles about Bonhoeffer and how he did or didn't relate to the pro-life movement and their choices to oppose what they see as immoral (as evil). Most scholars decried the Bonhoeffer connection (saying that those relying on his example hadn't really bothered to study his theology or to examine his historical context or even his role in the resistance!).
Since Bonhoeffer is my main theological squeeze, I thought I'd share a bit about what I learned and read as a way to off-set this erroneous connection between being "pro-life" in an act of civil disobedience, versus being pro-life in an act of "conspiring to overturn evil in a nation."
First of all, Bonhoeffer's mission to overthrow the Fuhrer was philosophically supported by the similar objectives of a concert of nations in the war effort. Bonhoeffer didn't act as a lone agent of justice, but rather cooperated with a consensus of justice-seeking governments, individuals and organizations bent on ending the evil plot of the Third Reich (a mission created by one individual leading a nation and abusing his power to coerce the extermination of entire races, as well as taking over sovereign nations through acts of war).
Though erroneously called "the culture wars," the debate about abortion is not a war! It isn't even war-like. The right to an abortion is rooted in respect for the individual's ability to exercise choice at the deepest level of personal conviction. The choice to have an abortion is not coerced by a tyrant, but is made within the privacy of an individual woman's heart, in concert with her beliefs, her physician's recommendations and her spiritual/ethical values. To prevent this "choice" is to coerce. Certainly the baby (or fetus - you choose) has no choice and is coerced into birth or death based on that choice (the crux of the debate is really - does the fetus/baby have rights? Not, is it a baby or is it alive?). Still, the question isn't about the abortionist. It's about what individuals believe about conception and pregnancy (which is nothing like the death camps of Nazi Germany!).
Whether or not you agree with abortion, and even if you see the fetus as a baby from conception, abortions are not required of any woman and therefore, it is within the context of freedom that she makes that decision (even if it disagrees with your point of view).
Hitler's Germany coerced Jews to be exterminated, required ordinary citizens to participate in their executions and eliminated the possibility of difference of opinion on the topic of the "Jewish question." There is nothing even remotely similar about the conditions in Germany versus the conditions related to the abortion debate in America today.
Secondly, the enemy in World War 2 was a specific target with tyrannical power. Bonhoeffer didn't get a gun and stalk concentration camp guards. His participation in the assassination plot had to do with cutting off the source of power, not merely targeting local neighbors caught in the program of destruction. Killing prison guards would not have resulted in the end of the war or the death camps.
Killing abortionists is like killing a prison camp guard. It doesn't actually eliminate what a pro-life person sees as evil. It may stop abortions that day, but it doesn't change the nature of the laws, or address the reasons that abortion exists. To identify with Bonhoeffer's theological convictions means to wrestle through the complexity of what the topic is, rather than glossing over differences and justifying the murder of individuals acting in freedom.
For the record, I am pro-life. That does mean all life: including the lives of doctors who provide abortions as well as the young women who are overcome with the deepest of agony in making such a difficult decision as well as the babies (that's what I call them) in utero. Bonhoeffer's admonition to future generations was to wrestle through the ethical dilemmas of our time and to take full responsibility for our actions in shaping history. Killing a few abortionists over a thirty year period has more in common with vigilante justice than deeply explored ethical dilemmas and risk taking action for the common good.