The Nation's Pulse

Pruning the Narrative of Murder

Is the murdered Dr. Tiller a religious martyr?

By 6.8.09

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The Pentecost Sunday murder of Dr. George Tiller by a man who shot him to death in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, sparked a lot of commentary. Tiller was in a controversial line of work, and known for "pushing the envelope" even there.

I do not write to speak ill of the dead. My argument here is with the living.

More specifically, I have a quarrel with Rev. Katherine Ragsdale and those others who imply that anyone killed on church property automatically becomes a martyr. It presumes too much to hint that the crime scene tape used by police officers has sanctifying power, yet this muddle-headed version of "murder in the cathedral" seems to be the prevailing view in places where the memory of people like Thomas Becket and Oscar Romero faded long ago. You'd think the president of the Episcopal Divinity School would know better than to suggest such a thing, but Ragsdale had already called abortion a "blessing," so perhaps foolish consistency really is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Sadly, Ragsdale shares her peculiar definition of martyrdom with other progressive religious leaders. A rabbi named Arthur Waskow echoed her in telling a reporter that Tiller was "a religious martyr in the fullest classical sense, killed for acting in accord with his religious commitments."

That is a stunning assertion. People who think the Constitution tolerates abortion usually follow the late Justice Harry Blackmun in locating that tolerance among the so-called "penumbras and emanations" of a right to privacy implied by the 14th Amendment. As a result, even sympathetic readings of case law leave abortion two steps removed from the actual text of the Constitution. Rabbi Waskow's assertion eliminates one of those steps. By describing Tiller's career in terms of "religious commitment," the rabbi zips past the usual 14th Amendment "due process" jurisprudence to place abortion (Waskow calls it "healing with compassion") under the protection of the First Amendment's "free exercise of religion" clause.

If Waskow had made his statement in a comic strip, you would have seen the thought bubble over his head: Why defend the career of a man like Tiller by appealing to an Amendment that only lawyers care about, when enterprising re-definition can find sanction for abortion at the heart of the first and best-known Amendment in the Bill of Rights? The bonus from a progressive point of view is that if abortion can be called a religious commitment, then rhetoric like "if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament," is no longer necessary. In the unlikely event that non-theologians compare the involved terms, any difference between "religious commitment" and "sacrament" will seem trivial at best.

Some pundits used Tiller's murder to revisit the risks of child-bearing and scorn opposition to abortion as "reproductive ignorance." One writer with whom I am friendly described the killing as a consequence of willingness to take a stand against a powerful "patriarchal" mind-set. "Because the shooter and all those who believe as he does are incapable of acknowledging that women have the same moral authority and autonomy as men do, Dr. Tiller had to die," she wrote, thus confusing abortion with empowerment and ignoring mountains of evidence about what Christians actually think.

Speaking more accurately about Christian ethics, Phil Lawler and others noted that the wrongness of taking human life is not taught by wrongfully taking human life. Sudden death robbed Dr. Tiller of the chance to repent and reform. The blame for that rests with his killer, whose judgment has been condemned by every pro-life group.

Attempts to add this murder to the rap sheet of anti-feminine forces do not match the facts as we know them. Moreover, the alternative to patriarchy is matriarchy, and -- human nature being what it is -- that social arrangement also has dirty hands. In a column for Canada's National Post, George Jonas put it this way: "Living in an epoch that is selfish as well as matriarchal, our lifeboats are no longer marked 'women and children first,' only 'women first.' We invent euphemisms, such as 'choice' for killing, and sophomoric dilemmas, such as pretending not to know when life begins, to ensure that nothing hinders Virginia's quest for Santa Claus."

Jonas probably yells more than he should, but his argument answers anyone who would drape abortion providers in the mantle of heroism, or paint the gunman who shot Tiller as an agent of some vast conspiracy against women.

How then do we end the standoff that cheapens words by yanking them from their historic moorings to use them as shields in jousts with ideological opponents? Perhaps the rabbi, the divinity school president, and their fellow travelers could visit the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, NY. While there, they might get an inkling of real martyrdom by walking the ground where Jesuit missionary René Goupil and his companions were tortured and killed by Iroquois warriors in 1642. Goupil was felled by a hatchet blow for tracing the sign of the cross on a child's forehead.

Another possible remedy for the confused involves re-reading Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's classic Introduction to Christianity. Not for nothing did Ratzinger go on to become pope. Without mentioning abortion as such, he explained why it is gravely wrong by tracing the idea of human dignity back to its historic and theological roots. "Greek thought always regarded the many individual creatures, including the many individual human beings, only as individuals, arising out of the splitting up of the idea in matter. The reproductions are thus always secondary; the real thing is the one and universal," he wrote. In other words, it did not matter whether you were an ex-fetus in Athens or an ex-fetus in Sparta: when push came to shove, you were interchangeable with every other ex-fetus. But then came the radical change in outlook inspired by Jesus.

One reads the following summary feeling certain that Katherine Ragsdale slept through a few classes that Joseph Ratzinger did not: "The Christian sees in man, not an individual, but a person; and it seems to me that this passage from individual to person contains the whole span of the transition from antiquity to Christianity, from Platonism to faith," Ratzinger wrote. "This definite being is not at all something secondary, giving us a fragmentary glimpse of the universal, which is the real. As the minimum it is a maximum; as the unique and unrepeatable, it is something supreme and real."

Neither those paradoxes nor the implications of what God says in Jeremiah 1:5 lend themselves to sound bites, but they are worth pondering.

Against such wisdom, Ragsdale and Waskow bring only the sentiment they share with their progressive peers. The collective experience of every group from the Baker Street Irregulars to the Riders of Rohan and the Teamsters seems not to have taught them about the limits of acclamation, which is a pity. Had they paid attention, they might have learned that treating murder as a chance to whack at a piñata stuffed with praises is a risky business that demands more than sympathy for what the deceased did to earn a living.

Christianity holds that all human life is precious, and because God became man in Jesus, holy. But to jump from that to the conclusion that anyone who dies in church has lead a life of heroic virtue is to tumble down a rabbit hole into a wonderland where the meanings of words like "martyr" and "saint" fade faster than the body of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat. 

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.