This past Friday, Scott Roeder was sentenced to life in prison for last May's shooting death of George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country who performed partial-birth abortions. Tiller was a doctor only in the legal sense of the word. He was not a healer, but a killer---a callous monster who could hold a baby in his hands as the child emerged from the mother, puncture its skull, and suck its brains out. Tiller was a mass murderer, though the unjust laws that govern that practice in America sanctioned his butchery.
It does not follow, however, that Roeder was justified in what he did, as almost every Christian opponent of abortion would agree. Nonetheless, is there any opponent of abortion who has not asked himself, "If I truly believe this is murder and that these abortionists are mass murderers, why do I not put actions to words and physically stop them, even kill them, sacrificing myself for these helpless innocents?" But having explored that train of thought, we have all (but for a tiny handful) pulled back from it. Why? Is it just cowardice and hypocrisy? Or do we sense intuitively the ungodliness of that course?
I find that evangelicals, like most Americans, are divided within themselves on this question. Our political heritage is one of rebellion and self-assertion, and yet also one of law governance. At its heart, this is a question of authority, submission, and trusting God.
The reason for rejecting the final premise in the argument for assassinating abortionists is a theological one that is clearly stated in Scripture. It is found in Romans 13:1-5:
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience."
In short, it is not the place of private individuals to execute justice. God has established governments, and He has entrusted that responsibility to them and to them only. You are no more justified in killing abortionists who practice their hideous trade under the cover of law than you are to gun down your daughter's killer after a corrupt or incompetent legal system failed to convict him.
Each semester, I confront my students with this teaching, and invariably they bristle. Should a people not rebel against an unjust government, or even a murderous one? What about genocide? What about Hitler? I tell them that they are expressing utilitarian ethical views, not Christian ones. Never mind what God says. That's so unclear, especially when we're confronted with strong moral passions. Isn't it clear enough that if there is evil happening, and the appropriate government is not stopping it (if there is an overseeing government), then anyone who is willing and able to step forward and get the job done should do so? As Scott Roeder said, "If someone did not stop [Tiller], these babies were going to continue to die." Or I suggest that they are simply distrusting of God. What ought to be done is obvious. Kill Hitler or the abortionist before either of them kills again. If God will not act, I must push Him from his throne and do it myself.
If a private individual is justified in assassinating Hitler because Hitler is obviously evil and undeserving of the civil magistracy, then would that moral liberty have extended also to someone who was equally convinced that George W. Bush was a usurper of power and a war criminal? I suspect that those who would believe it their moral obligation to fire off a round at Hitler from a crowd, given the opportunity, would have recoiled at the notion of encouraging their angry left-wing neighbors to follow through on their moral convictions and attempt to fell President Bush by whatever violent means seemed most likely to succeed.
After Roeder was convicted, the Los Angeles Times reported, "Advocates for abortion rights praised the verdict." Christians can and should (and many do) also praise the verdict as God's just judgment faithfully pronounced. With uncompromising hatred for the evil of abortion, we can say boldly that God did not entrust the power of the sword into the hands of every individual for use when we are really, really sure and deeply appalled, but solely into the hands of the civil magistrate.