Life

Righteous Zeal and the Killing of George Tiller

June 10, 2009

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Righteous Zeal and the Killing of George Tiller

The recent slaying of the “abortion provider” George Tiller at Sunday services in his Lutheran congregation in Wichita, Kansas, has led to a heated discussion on this website and elsewhere about Tiller’s much-publicized death. Curiously, Richard Spencer, who has expressed minimal opposition to early-term abortion, has raised the fewest objections to the slaying of Tiller, who was personally responsible for over 60,000 abortions and who made a specialty out of destroying late-term fetuses. Richard has likened the non-stop condemnation of Tiller’s slayer by anti-abortion Catholics to the failure of some Germans to move against Hitler, even after they had convinced themselves that their head of state was a tyrant.

This may be an overly kind comparison. Even Hitler’s most hardened enemies in the German government did have to deal with the reality that they were acting against Hitler without any conceivable Allied support. Stauffenberg, Moltke, and other resistance leaders initially hesitated to act against the regime because of the probability that they would hasten the destruction of their country by overthrowing the government in place. The slaying of a late-term abortion provider has certainly not threatened the survival of Obamaland. In fact the former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, whose career Tiller had generously supported and who holds his odious view about late-term abortion, has recently been elevated to a cabinet post. From there she has joined other progressive Americans in calling attention to the religious fanaticism of the anti-abortion side. 

Note that Richard is not consistently in favor of the right to an abortion. But he does consider late-term abortion, which involves the destruction of an empirical human being, to be a homicidal act. This may not suffice for the anti-abortionists, but it does suggest that Richard has a moral stake in ending the kind of abortion practices associated with Tiller. Richard is curious about why those who have a religious commitment to end all abortions are unleashing tirades against Tiller’s killer. Wasn’t this slaying something comparable to killing those who helped in Nazi extermination programs? It does, indeed, seem strange that anti-abortionists should be screaming against someone who terminated the life of a mass murderer, and particularly when the media won’t even talk about a Black Muslim who just murdered two whites as an act of protest against white people.

Unlike our anti-abortionist Catholics, the social Left has never hesitated to glorify mass murderers, from John Brown to Mao. We’ve also elevated to compulsory national worship a self-styled social revolutionary who urged his followers to disobey laws they didn’t like. What is more, Martin Luther King never hesitated to threaten the objects of his selective disobedience by warning racial riots that were just around the corner if his latest list of demands were not met. Why is the anti-abortion Right now in a contest with the Left, and with our late-term abortion-happy Messiah, to express its horror at the slaying of Tiller? Heaven knows that these harsh judgments won’t win the opponents of abortion any favor with the media and entertainment industry!
With due respect to Scott Richert, who is praised on this website for having spoken the definitive word on Tiller’s killer, there is no firm theological ground on which to oppose the slaying, unless one takes a consistent position of non-resistance to violence. Alluding to Romans 13 won’t help Scott’s case: the type of rule (arxe) Paul famously commends is “a source of dread to evildoers.” Here the magistrate is “an avenger in anger against those who practice evil,” and not a facilitator of late-term abortion—and certainly not a president who lists among his accomplishments being in favor of exterminating fetuses that survive grisly late-term mutilation.

I agree with Richard that Scott is being excessively legalistic when he accepts the morality of killing tyrants but then insists that this moral judgment is only properly applied if one kills a head of state. To push Richard’s argument a bit further: Why wouldn’t it be defensible to waste the murderous agent of an evil government? Why would I be required to kill an actual head of state in order to meet the standard of tyrannicide? Such standards were not really observed when killing tyrants became the fashion among the Jesuits and the Calvinists in the late sixteenth century. Both groups were happy to go after their oppressors, whatever their titles, as enemies of the true faith. And if the Catholic or Lutheran opponents of Hitler killed Eichmann or Himmler but not Hitler, would Scott then object to this as an improper application of the Christian right to slay tyrants?

It is also misleading to try to build a theory of resistance to tyranny by relying as heavily as Scott does on Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. In the section of that work dealing with tyranny, “De Seditione,” Aquinas does permit opposition to a tyrant in a very particular case. He is addressing a personal regime (regimen principium) of the kind that Aristotle criticizes in the Politics, one that is based on serving “the prince’s private interest rather than the common good.” Even in this case, we are warned that “the disturbance caused by resistance may produce greater harm (detrimentum maior) than suffering further misrule.” But the problem of personal tyranny as understood by Aquinas and Luther and Aristotle is not the one we are suffering from now, which is a democratically based regime that corrupts its subjects, while enjoying their approval. Scott might be interested to know that Stauffenberg and other Catholic opponents of Hitler were unclear about whether they had a right to overthrow the Nazis on the basis of their Thomistic understanding of tyranny in the Summa. Although that understanding made sense in a thirteenth-century context, it lost its relevance in twentieth-century mass societies. Hitler was not the isolated, grasping tyrant depicted by Aristotle and the medieval scholastics.  

While, for the record, I do not applaud the slaying of Tiller, what was done was a profoundly moral but also reckless act. But there is nothing to be said in favor of those right-to-lifers who are falling all over themselves condemning Tiller’s killer. Like Richard, I am sick of their exhibitions of anti-abortion credentials. The emptiness of this preening among the self-appointed elect can be seen in their ostentatious ranting against the principled Christian who took Tiller’s life. From my point of view, this act was about as deplorable as a drug-trafficker getting shot while performing a legalized act of peddling coke to teenagers. At the very least, the Right should not be lending credence to the media lie that Tiller was only the victim of a crazed murderer. He was a lowlife!

On the other hand, no possible good can come out of this slaying. It is already being used by the media and public administration to make it harder to oppose abortion in the future. But this may well suit the needs of our right-to-life crowd and, of course, the GOP party hacks, who can reap further gain by presenting themselves as moderate “defenders of innocent life.” But my question remains: Are these groups really appalled about the professional activities Tiller became rich by performing? Reading Scott’s invectives against the morally driven killer of Tiller has only increased my doubts. One might have hoped that “social conservatives” would have showed the same verbal restraint that the media have imposed on us in regard to the murderous rampage of their protected Black Muslims.

Since I have thus far gone after Scott only for general mistakes, it may behoove me to note in closing a truly indefensible statement of his in his Catholicism blog on About.com. Here we are told: “Murder is murder. By taking Tiller’s life into his or her own hands, Tiller’s murderer joined with Tiller in his sin. Unlike Tiller, he or she will likely be brought to justice.” There is pitifully little truth in these words, which sound like what I’ve just heard on radio from Joe Lieberman’s obese sidekick and fulltime gambler, Bill Bennett. In Hebrew Scripture and under English Common Law, not all slayings constitute murder. The Old Testament, by the way, does not condemn all killing but only murder (rawtzach), which is what the Decalogue forbids (lo trzach).

There are many crimes in the Pentateuch that require capital punishment, and in Numbers, the Levite and grandson of Aaron, Phineas is rewarded for his “zeal” in slaying Zimri, a prince of Israel who is copulating before the entire community with a Midianite woman. A plague that is being simultaneously visited on the children of Israel for their licentiousness is stayed specifically because Phineas “was jealous for My sake and so I have not consumed the children of Israel.” Apparently God thought more favorably of such morally driven “murders” than Scott, because he subsequently rewarded Phineas for his violent act by conferring on his family the perpetual priesthood.

Note there were courts of law (bathei dinim) mentioned in Exodus that Moses and his father-in-law had already instituted. But Phineas did not avail himself of these courts before taking action against the immodest Zimri and his concubine. 

Given Scott’s professed opinions about abortion, I would expect him to view Tiller’s slayer as someone who did something that was morally but not politically defensible. The killer was not as reprehensible as the object of his wrath. And he is certainly a more decent person than the banshee Sebelius who is now in a position to abet and subsidize Tiller’s murderous successors everywhere in the United States. The killing, which is reminiscent of the zeal of Phineas, will not likely yield the same degree of divine favor, and particularly not in our morally decayed and badly mismanaged society.          

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