Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Frank Schaeffer on Anti-Abortionist Responsibility for Tiller’s Murder

I urge everyone to read this article by Frank Schaeffer.  I don’t support any claim that ALL pro-life groups support anti-abortion violence.  Just the opposite.  Nor do I want to infringe on the civil liberties of anti-abortionist groups.  I supported the Free Access to Clinic Entrance legislation, but I do not want to oppose silent (or even noisy) vigils outside clinics where abortions are performed.  Even if you are very pro-choice, far more than I am, please consider the consequences–we don’t want to lose the right to protest peacefully outside military bases or recruiting centers, right?  Free speech, even offensive or violent free speech, is to be protected.

But there is a far-right network of groups that supports anti-abortion terrorism that operates on the fringes of the pro-life movement.  Groups like Operation Save America, Operation Rescue, Missionaries to the Unborn, etc. celebrate people like the murderer of Dr. Tiller as HEROES–comparing them to those who tried to assassinate Hitler in order to stop the Holocaust or to John Brown who tried to incite a holy war against slavery.  They are NOT trying to persuade citizens to change the laws.  They are not trying to create the climate in which most abortions are rejected because babies are welcomed.  They are not trying to prevent unwanted pregnancies or make adoptions easier.  They are not, as Feminists for Life and others do, connecting abortion to the second class status of women, to male sexual predation (including date rape, incest, and much more).  They are not even trying to get <i>Roe v. Wade</i> overturned.  They are, instead, trying to create an atmosphere of fear in which women fear to seek abortions because of threatened violence, doctors and hospitals fear to provide abortions because of threatened violence, and even churches and other faith groups fear to welcome pro-choice members like Dr. Tiller because of threatened violence.  They are advancing their goals by means of terrorist violence–and it is working.

Frank Schaeffer shows that while most Religious Right leaders did not directly participate and usually condemn the murders, they contributed to the atmosphere that encourages this violence.  I remember reading Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto in 1980–it encouraged the overthrow of the American government by force if all else failed in saving “Christian civilization.”  It justified violence against abortion providers and pro-choice politicians if all legal and nonviolent means failed.  The Religious Right still has members and even leaders who promote this–and far more who give ambivalent voices.

Dr. James Dobson gave away 100,000 copies of Frank Schaeffer’s A Time for Anger which counseled anti-abortion violence as a last resort.  During the 1990s, I engaged via the email list of  the Society of Christian Philosophers, a young student at Jerry Falwell’s school, Liberty University.  I was a seamless garment, consistent-ethic-of-life person at the time and, in dialogue with me, this student became one, too–eventually going to Duke Divinity School to study with famed pacifist theologian Stanley Haerwas.  But the student also revealed to me that the “bomb the clinic/kill the abortion doctor” view was widely held among both faculty and students at Liberty University.  When Jerry Falwell himself retreated from this view after a series of bombings in the ’80s and ’90s and called on Christians to use ONLY LEGAL MEANS to end abortions, the student (before I became his friend) led a petition drive among students to reverse this policy, calling it a sell-out to the unborn.

There are websites where rightwing anti-abortion groups make heroes out of the assassins of doctors who perform abortions–getting others to write to these assassins in jail, and even to emulate their actions.

If terrorism is the use of violence and the threat of violence to intimidate others for political gain, then this is terrorism.  And if al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah are terrorist groups who promote terror tactics using warped forms of Islam, then many of these anti-abortion groups are terror networks who appeal to warped forms of Christianity for their justification.  They are Christian terrorists.

Suppose I am wrong in claiming that while all abortions are tragic, some are the lesser of evils.  Suppose the pro-lifers are right that all abortions are the moral equivalent of murder.  Then they are right to oppose this and to try to change this.  But they cannot do so by adopting violent means.  Violence just begets more violence in a downward spiral.

I have seen this before.  In the early 1960s, I saw the assassinations of the brothers Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more martyrs in the struggle against segregation.  By the late ’60s and into the early ’70s, the Left in America (including factions of the peace movement and the student movement, along with the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement) had adopted the same kinds of violent terror tactics that the White Citizens Councils and KKK and John Birchers had done earlier.  The bombings of black churches led to the bombings of ROTC buildings and National Guards barracks–until by 1974 one had police in many cities as practically occupying armies.  The very fabric of our society threatened to unravel.

I don’t want to see this repeat–by either the right or the left.  Yet. the first reported arson on a clinic offering abortion goes all the way back to 1976.  Since that time there have been over 200 arsons or bombings of clinics and hospitals where abortions are provided.  Beginning with the assassination of Dr. David Gunn in 1993, there have been at least 10 assassinations and attempted assassinations in the U.S. and Canada of health personnel connected with providing abortions. (Dr. George Tiller himself was shot in both arms in 1993 and now has been killed in his Withita, KS church.)  Both clinic personnel and women seeking abortions have been attacked with acid in over 100 cases since 1993.  From 1998-2002 over 500 letters containing or threatening to contain the deadly virus Anthrax have been mailed to clinics and health care providers connected to abortion services.  Women seeking to enter clinics offering abortions have been punched, kicked, beaten (all the while people yell, “We love your baby!”), given abusive speech, and much else.

The result of this terrorism has not been to change the laws–but it has reduced greatly the number of places where women can seek legal abortions in this nation.  U.S. Marshals are having to provide protection to vulnerable doctors and other clinic personnel in the wake of Dr. Tiller’s murder.

If you and your church oppose abortion without making clear your opposition to all such violence, then you are part of the problem.  If you use terms like “Tiller the killer” and make comparisons to Nazis or talk about the the murder of abortion providers as “justifiable homicide,” then you are part of the problem.  You are contributing to an atmosphere of violence.

But you aren’t ending abortions, but merely driving them back underground.  You are not creating the kind of culture which can welcome life.  And, like the Left wing zealots that bombed ROTC buildings or the Rightist racists which bombed black churches, you are threatening the fabric of our democratic society.

Vigorous debate, yes.  Political organizing, yes.  Peaceful protests, yes.  Creating alternatives, yes.  In all issues of conscience this is our duty.  But violence, no.

Christians in this nation have been shocked by the recent Pew Report showing that all churches are declining and that “none of the above” is a growing religious category.  I’m not.  When the German churches backed Hitler, the next generation grew disillusioned with the churches–and they have never fully recovered.  When the American churches of the 50s and 60s supported segregation and the Vietnam war, they lost the next generation.  Now we have a generation which has seen huge church support for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, for torture, for the demonization of Muslims and gays, and for anti-abortion violence.  So, we look to lose another generation. 

U.S. Christians,  it is time we took a long look in the mirror.  In the words of the famous Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

 Operation Rescue is a group that constantly tries to have it both ways.  It always bemoans clinic violence, but spends more time saying that the doctors like Tiller had it coming (Randall Terry,”He reaped what he sowed.”).  They also tend to share membership overlaps with the crazies in the fringe groups.  For instance, it seems that people in Operation Rescue helped Dr. Tiller’s assassin track his victim’s movements.

Groups encouraging anti-abortion terrorism in the name of being “pro-life” include:

The Army of God; American Coalition of Life Activists; 34 signers of the “Justifiable Homicide” statement celebrating the murder of Dr. David Gunn in 1993.  Operation Save America; Missionaries to the Unborn (has deck of “black heart” cards with “death merchants”–doctors who perform abortions–on them; rebukes pro-life groups for denouncing Tiller’s murder or for offering to aid the police in capturing those who would commit clinic violence);

June 2, 2009 Posted by | abortion, assassination, atheism, Christianity, civil liberties, human rights., terrorism prevention, violence | 10 Comments

Are We Back to Assassinating Abortion Doctors?

Well, it appears that Dr. George Tiller, M.D., of Witchita, KS, a physician who would perform abortions, has been assassinated in his church by a “pro-life” activist.  We’re back to this.  A number of clinics where abortions were performed were bombed in the ’80s and there were a number of doctors and clinic personnel killed in the ’90s by anti-abortion activists.  This form of domestic terrorism then died out.  Anti-abortion activists stopped comparing such actions to attempts to assassinate Hitler during the Holocaust. 

But we’re back to it, it seems. 

I don’t think this is typical of the pro-life movement, but I have talked to many in it who seem happy that this kind of violence intimidates many doctors and hospitals into refusing to provide abortion services.  It is terrorism which works.

I connect this murder not to the mainstream movement against abortion, but to the rise in rightwing extremist violence that began late in last year’s presidential campaign–and includes the mass murder in a Unitarian church in Tennessee just after the election because “liberals gather there” and the murderer could not get to high profile liberals like Obama.  This kind of rightwing violence is being fomented by the ravings of those like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh who dominate much of American airwaves.

There is nothing “pro-life” about assassinations. It is not “justifiable homicide” no matter what one’s views of abortions are.  It is domestic terrorism. 

There is also nothing Christian about this.  I understand opposition to abortion.  For most of my life I believed all abortions were morally wrong and I still believe that most abortions are immoral, but some are tragically the best of bad options.  But killing “the born” to prevent killing “the pre-born” (as anti-abortionists refer to gestating fetuses) is a betrayal of anything pro-life.  It simply adds to the cycle of violence.

June 1, 2009 Posted by | abortion, assassination, terrorism prevention | 23 Comments

Update: Hersh Walks Back “Cheney Death Squads” Story

I had previously reported veteran investigative reporter’s Seymour Hersh’s claim that high-ranking intelligence officers told him off the record that former VP Dick Cheney ran “assassination rings” out of his office.  The story was that Hersh expected some of these sources to speak on the record, even before Congress or the Dept. of Justice, now that administrations have changed. Now, Hersh is walking this story back, claiming that bloggers and other reporters have distorted what he said.  Thanks to commenters for pointing out this walk-back to me.

Cheney, by his own admission, is guilty of enough crimes (though he refuses to acknowledge that they were crimes) that I feel no need to add ficticious crimes to his record.  My apologies for passing on a story that could not be verified, although I did source it as a claim and not an established fact.  Hersh’s repudiation is in strong contrast to what it seemed he said earlier and I have no way to reconcile the two statements.

May 19, 2009 Posted by | assassination | 5 Comments

Political Assassination: The Violent Enemy of Democracy

The U.S. likes to pride itself on its regular peaceful transfer of power every 4 or 8 years when a new president is elected.  But our nation also has a long history of political violence.  Whereas Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former British colonies gained their independence through renegotiating their social contracts with the mother country (and India had a nonviolent revolution), the U.S. defended its declaration of independence by means of a war.  And we began with two huge contradictions: a policy of genocide and assimilation toward the indigenous population (“First Americans” or “Indians”) and chattel slavery toward kidnapped Africans and their descendants–both policies of great structural violence.  So, it is probably not surprising that political violence has had deep roots in U.S. history: Shays’ Rebellion, the Trail of Tears, waves of anti-immigrant violence (directed at different times at the Irish, Jews, Slavs and people from Southern  Europe, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, Arabs, Muslims, etc.), the War with Mexico, the military theft of Hawai’i, the Philippines, and much else.  The record is far too large to recap here.

But one example of the dark side of our history that we need to remember today is the history of political assassination in this country.  Political assassination is an act of violence and of domination. It is inherently anti-democratic as it claims to know better than the people who elected someone (or were about to elect someone) who should lead the people–and a willingness to violently impose this “greater wisdom” on the populace.  Democracy is more than elections, but clean, non-fraudulent elections (even in situations with limited choices) are a nonviolent, anti-authoritarian, anti-domination  practice.  The more thoroughly a given society is a participatory democracy, the more it rejects political violence in a very practical way (even if a person or party is elected whom no democrat and no peacemaker would celebrate). Process–practices–matter as much as individual results of elections.

I would argue that a series of political assassinations from my early childhood (Pres. John F. Kennedy in ’63; Malcolm X in ’65; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy in ’68) derailed progressive social movements and ushered in a political deep freeze for 40 years–a time which saw the nation repeatedly come close to proto-fascism. I say that not because any or all of these men were saints–each had his own set of major faults.  But their violent deaths greatly damaged the country (and, because of U.S. power abroad, the world).  In 2 cases (JFK and RFK), the assassinations deliberately negated the electoral will of the people. 

The U.S. has lost four (4) presidents to assassination:

  1. Abraham Lincoln (1865)
  2. James A. Garfield (1881)
  3. William McKinley (1901)
  4. John F. Kennedy (1963).


But this is not the whole story, even  restricting ourselves to U.S. presidents.  The list of failed assassination attempts on sitting presidents is much longer.

  1. Andrew Jackson (1835)
  2. Abraham Lincoln (1861)
  3. Theodore Roosevelt (1912)
  4. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–a month before his inauguration!)
  5. Harry S. Truman (1950)
  6. John F. Kennedy (1960, 1961, in addition to the successful assassination in 1963)
  7. Richard Nixon (1974)
  8. Gerald R. Ford (2 attempts in Sept. 1975)
  9. Jimmy Carter (1979)
  10. Ronald Reagan (1981)
  11. Bill Clinton (2 attempts in 1994)
  12. George W. Bush (Feb. 2001, Sept. 11, 2001, 2005)

There are also presidential candidates who have been assassinated such as Sen. Robert Kennedy (1968) or assassination was attempted (e.g., arch-segregationist Gov. George Wallace of Alabama), or threatened with assassination (e.g. Barack Obama).  And some presidents died in mysterious circumstances that may have been assassinations such as:

  1. Zachary Taylor (1850–although exhumation and testing for arsenic in 1991 may have laid this rumor to rest)
  2. Warren G. Harding (1923–Mrs. Harding refused to allow an autopsy to determine cause of death).

Other major political assassinations and attempts in the U.S. include:

  • Sec. of State William Seward (1865) who escaped an assassination attempt by a co-conspirator of Lincoln’s assassin.
  • Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago (1933), killed in the assassination attempt on FDR’s life.
  • Sen. Huey P. Long (D-LA) (1935)
  • Gov. John Connally (D-TX) (1963), injured in the assassination of JFK.
  • George Moscone, Mayor of San Francisco and Harvey Milk, Supervisor of San Francisco (1978).  (Milk was the first openly gay man elected to office in the U.S.  Sen. Diane Feinstein’s political career was launched in response to these assassinations, dramatized in the new film, Milk.)
  • Vernon Jordon, civil rights activist (1980).

This is just a small sample of the way that political violence, especially assassination and attempted assassination, have distorted U.S. society and politics, replacing democratic action with authoritarian domination and violence.  It doesn’t even count the long history of lynchings, either. 

This background is a major reason I found the “terrorist” accusations made by John McCain and Sarah Palin about then-Sen. Barack Obama to be so dangerous.  Such demagoguery could well have resulted in nutcases attempting to kill him out of a warped sense of patriotism. (Criticisms of policies are legitimate, hate-speech is not.)

Let us work to put an end to such political violence here and around the globe.

February 2, 2009 Posted by | assassination | 5 Comments

Prayers for the Pakistani People

Former Prime Minister and current opposition leader Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan has been assassinated by a suicide bomber.  At least 20 others were killed in the attack.  While Ms. Bhutto was not without flaws (she had been accused of corruption before the coup which brought Bush’s friend Musharraf to power and sent her into 8 years of exile), she represented the best hope for change–for a return to democracy and the rule of law. She threatened both the secular dictatorship of Musharraf and the Islamist (not Islamic, Bhutto was a faithful Muslim) extremists and Taliban supporters in Pakistan.  Someone found her too threatening and eliminated her.  Pray for her family and for the Pakistani people.

I have further reflections on Ms. Bhutto’s death and what it means that so few in North America are willing to take such risks in democratic struggles for justice here.  The struggle may have a setback in Pakistan, but ultimately that struggle will continue. I worry more about our society where people would rather watch “Dancing with the Stars” or “WWF Raw,” etc. than follow the issues in an electoral campaign.

December 27, 2007 Posted by | assassination, democracy, elections, human rights. | 1 Comment