Christian History Home > Blog > 2009 > June > 'A Wicked Means'
'A Wicked Means'
The troubling Christian forerunners of Tiller's killer.
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"The shooting of abortion physician George Tiller continued a long, dark tradition in American politics," Jon Shields wrote in a fascinating op-ed for Christianity Today earlier this month. "Radicalism on the fringes of social movements has been a surprisingly enduring phenomenon in American politics. There were violent abolitionists, axe-wielding temperance crusaders, Black Panthers in the civil rights movement, Weathermen in the New Left, and eco-terrorists in the environmental movement."
Indeed, in the wake of Tiller's murder I've seen more discussion of Christian history than I've seen since The Da Vinci Code movie came out. Shields points to various social movements, but in the blogosphere over the past few weeks there has been a focus on two particular moments in history: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's participation in an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler, and the violent abolitionism of John Brown, Nat Turner, and others.
"When it came to defying Hitler's regime, Bonhoeffer saw that several excruciating moral questions were on â€˜the borderland' and could not be settled with absolute certainty," Al Mohler wrote in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune. "Eventually, he was convinced that the Nazi regime was beyond moral correction and no longer legitimate. Christians, he then saw, bore a responsibility to oppose the regime at every level and to seek its demise. He acted in defense of life and was finally willing to use violence to that end."
He immediately added this: "America is not Nazi Germany. George Tiller, though bearing the blood of thousands of unborn children on his hands, was not Adolf Hitler. The murderer of Dr. George Tiller is no Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dr. Tiller's murderer did not serve the cause of life; he assaulted that cause at its moral core. There is no justification for this murder, and it is the responsibility of everyone who cherishes life and honors human dignity to declare this without equivocation or hesitation."
Later, on his blog, Mohler seemed uncomfortable even discussing Bonhoeffer in light of the Tiller killing. "I deal with the Bonhoeffer issue in this essay because I have received so many questions about the historical analogy.," he said.
So many readers are familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer's decision to take action against Hitler. Fewer are familiar with the moral and theological reasoning that led Bonhoeffer, quite reluctantly, to this conclusion. Even then, Bonhoeffer was not certain he was acting rightly. He felt that this decision, made under extreme moral conditions, was the best he could understand. â€¦ We must realize that Bonhoeffer did not come to his decision to resort to violence against the regime out of a moral vacuum. He and his brothers and sisters in the Confessing Church had long before come to the conclusion that they must oppose the Nazi regime in totality, risking imprisonment and far worse. It is nothing less than embarrassing to see American Christians make arguments citing Bonhoeffer while they fail to engage his moral and theological reasoning - and when arguments are based in sloppy analogies from a position of cultural comfort.
Elizabeth Scalia made a similar point in First Things:
Bonhoeffer understood that his uniqueness in no way excepted him from the fact that what he was attempting was an evil - his evil, wholly distinct from Hitler's own evil - and one for which he would be held to account," she wrote. "Bonhoeffer knew that he could not rationalize his evil or make it less evil in the sight of Hitler's monstrous regime, and that in the end he would have only God's grace in which to hope. In another mind, another heart, particularly one beset by decades of politicized, often overheated rhetoric, who knows if such balance and genuine accountability would be possible? â€¦ When we start thinking that we know the heart and mind of God so well that we may decide who lives and who dies, we slip into a mode of Antichrist.
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