Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tiller, "Operation Rescue" and Bonhoeffer

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.


RosieRed23 said...

Thanks for posting this, very interesting read.

Michelle Beckham-Corbin said...

Wow! Extremely enlightening post, not only in terms of subject matter, but from your unique vantage point of being active in the movement. So very cool when we come across the myriad sides of people we meet through other venues. Thanks so much for posting!

debbie p said...

Fascinating! Wish I could see that picture of Jon with his hands up, worshiping. This all makes sense. I think sometimes people's passion takes over their ability to see things rationally.

brian said...

Excellent post, Julie. I have never been "pro-life". But, I can understand that, from the position that you believe innocents are being murdered that anything including homicide is justifiable in stopping the practice.

You do an excellent job of pointing out the impracticality of killing abortion doctors as a way of stopping abortion in addition to the fact that it's morally wrong. But, for people who take the Bible literally and believe that G-d commanded the Jews to wipe out their enemies, for people who support the death penalty, for people who think G-d will eternally torture G-d's enemies, I think they have a long, long way to go before they can really understand what you are saying here. When the stakes are what the stakes are in their minds (whether it comes to abortion or to converting people), any tactic is justifiable in "winning the war". Somehow we've got to get them past the whole "war" mentality.


Leslie said...

I like to consider things from 1st person (I tell you my story) 2nd person (let's share our stories and notice our shared values and the places we diverge) and 3rd person perspective (what are the objective statistics?)

Here is a link to an article with interesting statistics on abortion rates and attempted murder rates with "pro-life" presidents and "pro-choice" presidents:


Kansas Bob said...

I so respect your writing and clear thinking on this topic Julie. IMO militant and inflammatory "baby killer" language is part of the problem and needs to stop.

Hope it is okay that I linked back excerpting a few of your thoughts at my place. Look forward to reading comments here.

Maria said...

Interesting perspective. The parallels between Bonhoeffer's situation and the contemporary debate over abortion break down for me because there isn't anyone "in charge." There is no one person (Hitler) you could kill to stop the madness, whereas that might have worked in Germany during WW2. I wonder if abortions are chosen as "freely" as you suggest, but the driving forces -- individual autonomy, personal comfort, economic prosperity, etc -- are values that are rooted in our culture and shared by those on both sides of the debate.

Kacie said...

Julie, yesterday when I watched your speech I actually wondered how you would respond to this issue. I know many who liken abortion in the U.S. to genocide, and in that line of logic in approval of Bonhoeffer's actions(as you pointed out), murdering an abortion doctor makes a sick sort of sense.

I guess that some might combat what you said about abortion doctors by saying that a more effective move would be to kill a liberal Supreme court judge while a Republican was president.

Where I fall off the pro-life wagon is when people say life begins at conception. How do you know? Based on what authority, what science? You can use horrific images and out-of-context scripture all you want, but I don't see a hard and fast case for this being true. With that in mind, I'm not comfortable condemning all abortions. I'm also not comfortable with Roe v. Wade. It IS such a personal philosophical and theological issue, and a blanket statement isn't particularly helpful.

Logikal said...

One woman on the radio said, "If you saw a man one morning, and somehow knew he was on his way to killing, say, five innocent babies that day. And you knew the authorities considered his actions legal. And you had a gun in your hand. Wouldn't it be your moral obligation to kill him?"

That might be considered similar to killing a Nazi prison guard (instead of Hitler himself), but I doubt too many people would consider killing a Nazi guard an immoral act if it took place in 1945 Germany in order to rescue a few Jews from a concentration camp or at least delay their death, hoping they might be rescued. In fact, such an action would be considered heroic.

I've always wondered about pundits and others who claim that abortion is murder. Do they actually believe that? Their mild actions don't reflect that belief. Their actions seem more aligned with the belief that murder is wrong, but not as bad as murder.

PS. I am pro-choice myself.

Mike said...

Although I understand and appreciate the difference in the situtations you describe it seems to me however that they both come down to the same fundamental question..i.e. when it is OK as an individual or as part of a larger group to use force (even deadly force) to prevent a greater harm to society...particularly for those of us who use the moniker christian? I realize this question oversimplifies both situations but it gets to the heart of why I do see some similarities here. Is it our christian duty to act to stop an evil to society even when it means going outside the established law? I suspect you might say that the obvious difference in 1)legal abortion in the U.S and 2)Hitler's Germany would negate the obligation to follow the law in latter case but where does one draw the line? When have we drifted over from a "just" gov't law (even though we may disagree with it vehemently) to an unjust one that should not be followed and requires action? Who makes that decision? just curious what your thoughts are. I don't have good boundaries for this.

julieunplugged said...

Wow. I just heard from an email that this blog entry was linked on the Drudge Report yesterday!?! I'm sort of stunned... wondering if that is good or bad! lol

brian said...

That's great, Julie. It is a post that will force people to think. That is always a good thing.

something akin to drowning said...

I agree with you entirely. This was a great post. I also enjoyed reading Brian’s thoughts on the subject. There are so many contradictory beliefs in the typical Christian theology. “Vengeance is the Lord’s” and all that, but we are justified in killing others (death penalty, abortionist killings, Iraq, etc.)?—it is almost hilarious to me the lack of education and biased “hand-picked” morals of the Church. They will defend to the death something that they are either taking out of context, or have been spoon fed by a religious leader into thinking. Murder is murder, either way you frame it. I don’t think the law should enforce or prohibit a woman’s deeply personal, horrible painful choices about her body/unborn. I have never been in the position myself, but I have watched/been there as friends have gone through it, and from what I experienced vicariously through them, I realized I could never judge anyone for something so visceral and so difficult. Ever. I am pro-life, but not pro judgment. And congrats on the Drudge report publishing! That is awesome!

Davis said...

I'm "pro-life" - that means I hate the very idea of abortion. What that doesn't mean, however, is that I judge any woman's right to make her own thoughtful decision.

The horrifying murder of Dr Tiller brings shame on the whole community of Christians.