How much empathy can people opposed to abortion find for George Tiller, the Kansas doctor shockingly murdered on Sunday morning while serving as an usher at his church? Driving home from work tonight, listening on Minnesota Public Radio to various defensive, lukewarm statements from anti-abortion spokespeople, I heard little empathy for the victim, a man shot in cold blood in a church narthex as worship was beginning and his wife prepared to sing in the choir.
During the day, I had received an e-mail from my dear friend Cathy, letting me and others know that our friend Lowell Michelson is one of the pastors at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, where the shooting occurred. His wife, Tera, and their three children arrived at the church just after the shooting but before the police arrived. As a clergy spouse myself who is often hustling to get to church on time with children in tow, I recoiled with vicarious horror at what the shocking scene in the narthex (the “foyer,” to the secular press) must have been like.
When I got home, and (with my spouse at a church meeting) got the kids to bed, I picked up Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled from my bookshelf. When the Gospel’s message of nonviolence and empathy for victims has begun to influence a culture but has not yet prevailed, Bailie writes (p. 75), “inept sacrificial systems tend to resort to greater violence in an effort to achieve the results they could once achieve with minimal violence.” Desperate for a catharsis, they try to revive their sagging social solidarity by targeting those whom they deem to be victimizers to be the victims of their version of righteous violence.
Though Bailie was not referring to abortion, the thread of his reasoning applies to the shooting at Reformation Lutheran. Those who espouse the “justifiable homicide” of abortion providers claim to be killing to defend victims. But isn’t someone who is killed for providing legal abortion services also a victim?
To Dr. Tiller’s killer, and others on the far right, the way around this contradiction is to deny the humanity of those with whom they disagree. They reach for toxic slurs about Nazi concentration camp doctors, instead of seeing real human beings. Take away the Mengele mask the killer tried to put over Dr. Tiller, and we find a man who took over his father’s clinic in 1970 and was so committed to his patients that he continued on despite violent attacks. The clinic was bombed in 1986 and he was shot in both arms in 1993.
Seeing Dr. Tiller’s humanity does not mean denying the wrenching nature of late-term abortion. Having recently watched the darkly disturbing film Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, I am aware this is a subject fraught with agony for all concerned. But the way forward has to start with empathy, and this includes empathy for Dr. Tiller and everyone else harmed, directly or indirectly, by his terrible, unjustifiable murder.