Friday, June 5, 2009

A Kierkegaardian approach to the Tiller murder...

Over at the Inhabitatio Dei blog, there has been a discussion of the political/ethical issues raised in the recent murder of the abortion provider, Dr. Tiller. The discussion has centered primarily on when, if ever, people ought to stand up and oppose their government -- the assertion being that if abortion truly is the murder of millions of innocent lives, then it can be argued that most pro-life supporters really aren't radical enough. That got me thinking.

My own approach in assessing situations like this tends to be heavily influenced by Kierkegaard's "suspension of the ethical." In other words, the decision to kill Dr. Tiller (assuming, of course, a genuine ethical dilemma for his murderer, rather than a response out of vengeance or insanity... keep this in mind) is somewhat similar to Abraham's dilemma: Do I obey God and commit this crime in order to save innocent lives, or do I obey the ethical imperative (instituted by God as well): Do not murder?

This, of course, leads to at least two other vital questions. One, how does the person know that God is actually commanding him/her to kill? Two, is the person ready to face the consequences for their actions? Because, as SK so vividly describes in "Fear and Trembling," suspending the ethical will most likely result in one becoming a universal pariah. This second question, I think, is actually the more important of the two.

What I mean is this: Let's begin with the assumption -- and, to be fair, there is considerable reason to believe that the Bible does NOT advocate such a thing, though that discussion is for another day -- that we have a mandate in Scripture to protect innocent life, even if it means killing an evil person to save innocent lives. If so, then it reasonable to conclude that God may reveal to a person that they ought to kill someone. After all, according to a prima facie interpretation, God told people in the Old Testament to kill all the time. Here, I say - and I realize this may sound terribly cruel and wrong - do it!

If you really believe that God is asking do to this thing to stave off genocide, don't shrink back. Do what you must. But - and this is important! - don't try to get away with it, either! The fact that Dr. Tiller's killer attempted to escape the scene, and is now attempting to defend his actions, shows that he was never completely committed to the act. There is reason to doubt that his act was, in fact, a genuine suspension of the ethical. This is precisely why he is guilty. If he was truly following God's command and suspending the ethical, he would refuse to defend his actions (indeed, he cannot!) and accept his fate - even if it means death - as the retaliation expected from the ethical system that he chose to suspend.

Further, as the discussion referenced above suggests, if abortion is indeed a genocide, as pro-life advocates claim, then they ought to be bold enough to stand beside the one who has heard from God, even if it means their own persecution or punishment. The fact that most pro-life supporters have not stood by Dr. Tiller's killer indicates that either they 1) don't really believe the murderer has heard from God, 2) don't take the abortion problem seriously enough, or 3) think there is another, better way to deal with the abortion problem.

I would guess that most pro-life people opt for option 3. The question then becomes, what is this better option? Here is where "the rubber meets the road," in my estimation. If we are unwilling to accept the radical horror that comes with the potential suspension of the ethical, then perhaps we who are pro-life (and, yes, I am pro-life) ought to also admit that our own motives are conflicted at best, and not be so quick to ascribe evil motives to those on the other side of the abortion issue.

It seems clear, in situations like the Tiller murder, that there is a level of inconsistency within the pro-life position. If we oppose government-sponsored murder, how can we not rise up against it? Is it really possible to consistently oppose genocide using non-violent means? Some have done a better job of articulating this than others. But I think there is still a lot of work to be done in this area. There needs to be more consistency if the pro-life message is going to resonate with those who see abortion as their best alternative. If we aren't consistent, why would we expect more from anyone else? This, I think, is one of the lessons of the horrible tragedy of Dr. Tiller's murder.


Roy said...

"If you really believe that God is asking do to this thing to stave off genocide, don't shrink back. Do what you must. But - and this is important! - don't try to get away with it, either!"

This is really, really messy waters to wade out in. First of all, there are people who would be quite willing to do many atrocious things that they think God is telling them to do AND stand by them. This is precisely the reason that agnostics such as myself come to this crossroad of belief and can not ethically go any further. Many people have come and gone claiming to hear from and do the will of God. Some of those acts have been graceful, loving and edifying while others have been hateful, degrading and even murderous. Your example employs a form of relativism (it seems to me) that many of us simply can't accept. However imperfectly, we have to draw lines of acceptable behavior based on ethics, morals and logic. God is none of these. God simply is whatever you believe it to be. There is no standard. The Christian, Jew and Muslim might say the standard lies in scripture but what a mess we are left with there!

Rebekah said...

Interesting post, Geoff. I definitely am a strong pro-lifer... actually got into a discussion about it last night.

I think the Bible clearly states that life begins at conception. So while I don't believe murder is the key to fixing the issue of abortion, I do believe Tiller was a serial murderer and should have been arrested and tried. (still not sure what I believe about the death penalty). He boasted of killing 60,000 innocent lives, and that, to me, means he should face judgment. Maybe that justice was being murdered. I'm not sure.

Anyway. Interesting blog, and I agree more has to be done. I wonder how many people who still be pro-choice if they witnessed what happens in a late-term abortion. I'm willing to bet most people would agree it's wrong and he was a murderer.

Geoff said...

Hey Roy, I totally agree... this is a really messy and dangerous approach. I'm NOT at all recommending that people just start acting out. In fact, given the consequences, I think this approach should actually make people MORE cautious. But, I also think it's more honest.

Bek, to be fair, I think it's important to note that Dr. Tiller wasn't just casually performing late term abortions. They are only allowed in cases of rape, or if the mother's life is in danger. I'm not saying that makes it right, but I think we need to note that fact. Of course, if abortion is murder, then that's a moot point.

That's one of the big problems with this issue: there is no agreement on how to decide what constitutes "murder" since there is no agreement on exactly when "human life" begins. Until that happens, the problem will not be resolved, IMO.

Thanks for the comments!

Bobby Grow said...


Good post!

If life exists, and "innocent life" is involuntarily taken; wouldn't you say that is murder (I really don't know the "legal definition of murder")?

As far as I know "levels of murder" (or "man-slaughter") are tied to the said "killer's" intent and premeditation.

I was also under the impression that ALL parties (on either side of this debate) agree that biological life is present at conception (chromosomes and such); so the question and debate is over what constitutes "personhood" (Peter Singer seems to be the most consistent on this---on the pro-choice side). And sense Christians and non-Christians start at different places axiologically it seems that there will never be any kind of consensus here.

I would certainly follow your #3, and would continue to advocate non-violent rallies, movements like Crisis Pregnancy Centers represent, and continuing to proclaim the Gospel which is the most Pro-Life thing any of us could do.

Thanks for the post!

Bobby (your local racist, argh . . . ;-).

Geoff said...

Hey Bobby, thanks for the comments... I'm not sure about the consensus on "biological life" - I suppose that might be the case, but I think most people on both sides of the issue would also add that the mere existence of biological life does not confer upon it any special rights or freedoms.

If someone is pro-life, they must hold that there is some unique aspect to a human life that allows for the attachment of the "right to life", so to speak.

As for the "involuntary" taking of life, no, I wouldn't call that murder. That doesn't excuse it, but I don't think it would be called murder, at least not as defined biblically (according to my interpretation!).

Bobby Grow said...

Yeah, I see what you're saying on the involuntary point --- per scripture. How would you define murder?

And I agree with everything else that you said, that's what I was getting at with the "personhood" point; when I said: . . . so the question and debate is over what constitutes "personhood."

Anyway good one!

P.S. I was accepted to Fuller (I'm originally from S. Cal); unfortunately the funds (lack) were prohibitive :-(.

Geoff said...

Well, typically, to be considered murder - and I think biblical mandates back this up - there is understood to be some sort of intentionality, "malice aforethought" as the law dictionaries say. This could mean that some abortions are not necessarily murder, which is why the "life of the mother" and similar clauses are so vital.

If the situation is such that there is no malice aforethought, then the category of killing might change from murder to something else. I suppose this could be possible in at least some abortions, though I would argue that the majority, if we agree a human life with rights has indeed been taken, should be called murder.

Abortion is a more complicated issue that either side's "mouthpieces" typically wants to admit. (Maybe they need some new mouthpieces?)

Bobby Grow said...


I agree with you, and I think intention and premeditation are certainly aspects of what makes murder, murder. And if this is so then I agree that most, if not all, abortions fit this classification; viz. murder.

zoli said...

Hi, My name is Zoli, and If you go to Mars Hill church I would like to get to know more about it.

I am a church planter in Budapest, Hungary and I'd like to know what are the things that drive young men to MH?
my email adress is

Geoff said...

Sorry, Zoli, I don't go to MH... I could give you my opinions, but I'm not sure they'd be what you're looking for. :-)