Magazine article The Christian Century

The Abortion-Clinic Vigilantes: Responding to the Pro-Violence Argument

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Abortion-Clinic Vigilantes: Responding to the Pro-Violence Argument

Article excerpt

THE SHOOTINGS at the Brookline and Norfolk abortion clinics demonstrated--if more proof was needed--that the crisis over abortion continues to worsen. Whatever their views on abortion, Christians need to understand the forces behind abortion-related violence and move rapidly to offer a response.

I write as one with firsthand knowledge of the state of mind of those who consider the use of violence against abortion clinics and their personnel morally justificable. In August of last year, after the Pensacola abortion-clinic killings for which Paul Hill has now been sentenced to death, the Southern Baptist Convention Christian Life Commission asked me to draft a moral argument that would reject the resort to violence but would do so from an unmistakably pro-life perspective. The resulting document, "The Struggle Against Abortion: Why the Use of Lethal Force Is Not Morally Justifiable" was released in September.

In preparing my draft, I read everything I could find from and about the "justifiable homicide" or "pro-violence-against-abortion-doctors" perspective. Since the release of our statement I also have had an unexpected and not entirely welcome personal correspondence with a person representing a major "justifiable homicide" group. The group responded to the SBC's 12-page statement with a point-by-point counterargument. This rebuttal was followed by further correspondence.

Who are the pro-violence advocates? Some are people who have sincerely come to believe that their principled opposition to abortion now entails the possibility that they might be called to use violence as one part of a conscientious response. These people appear, almost uniformly, to be deeply committed Christians--evangelicals, fundamentalists, Catholics and so on. In most respects these are thoroughly average Christian people, and most of them wish that they could read their faith-convictions and their social context in such a way that violence would not be morally "required" of them.

But the "pro-violence" group also contains maladjusted-loner types--people who tend to be attracted by conflict, and who in their distorted and ill frame of mind seek to make some kind of statement with a rifle or a firebomb. The man arrested in connection with the Brookline and Norfolk shootings, John C. Salvi, appears to fit this profile. Pro-life activists long have noticed this kind of person on the fringes of the movement, shouting obscenities and harassing women outside abortion clinics and then disappearing until the next event.

Another dichotomy among the pro-violence advocates that may or may not correspond to the distinction just identified is between those whose perspective resembles the "just war" approach and those whose rhetoric reflects more the "crusade" or "holy war" tradition. The just war types argue that the use of violence should be targeted against abortion doctors in particular, in order to prevent them from performing abortions. Thus, the killing of receptionists rather than doctors in Brookline marks a move toward the "holy war" perspective. On this view, one is morally free or even obligated to kill anyone associated with an abortion clinic, as a divinely sanctioned act of retribution and/or moral cleansing. If the "holy war" crowd wins out, the abortion-clinic violence we have seen thus far may be only a foretaste of what is to come.

The pro-violence advocate begins with the conviction that the activities occurring in abortion clinics can only be described as the murder of children. The abortion of a two-day old, two-week old or two-month-old fetus is viewed as being morally no different from the murder of the reader or writer of this article. The government of the United States, the argument continues, inexplicably decided in 1973 that this particular class of human person is not entitled to the right to life or to the protection of the state from threats against that life. This is invariably seen by Christian pro-violence advocates as a radical abandonment of government's God-given vocation; indeed, some consider it a descent into evil. …

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