John Salvi, Paul Hill, and the use of violence to end abortion in the United States.
Jefferis Kent Peterson
Jesus told us that his kingdom was not of this earth. And every Christian should be cautious when seeking to use earthly means to accomplish divine ends. That is especially true when using violent force. For the Lord said that those who live by the sword will also die by the same. And anyone who presumes to remedy sin by force of arms should weigh heavily any action he intends to take by the measure of our Lord’s words. For if he is wrong in his motives or his deeds, he may suffer eternal consequences.
Though we desire peace, in our fallen state we often find ourselves in places where any choice we make involves a choice between two evils. A policeman may be forced to kill a crazed individual to save the life of another. If he shoots, the criminal dies, but if he does not pull the trigger, an innocent person is killed. In either case, by action or inaction, someone is killed. So for him to claim freedom from personal sin, simply because he was not the one to pull the trigger, does not make him guiltless. Now, his inaction has contributed to the death of an innocent person. In fact, it could be argued that because he was given the responsibility of bearing the sword to punish evil (Romans 13), his unwillingness to exercise that authority makes him guilty in the eyes of God. His inaction now becomes an act of rebellion. And his quest for personal innocence at the expense of the life of another has instead caused him to be guilty in the eyes of God.
Every Christian in government, in the military, or in the police forces of a nation faces the inevitable contradiction of the use of power. Force can bring harm or justice, and sometimes its use brings both. This was not a problem for the early Church, because there were few Christians in the military. Christians were encouraged to leave military service upon conversion. But whenChristianity became the religion of the Empire under Constantine, government officials were expected to be Christians as well. And by their duty to God as ministers of government, they were required to use force of arms to ensure justice for all citizens. From the time of Constantine until now, the paradox of a Christian’s role in government has been hotly debated with no easy answer. And the contradiction of power remains.
If answers were easy, then there would be no disagreement about methods, means, and tactics. Today, few argue that fighting Nazi Germany was immoral. Other wars are in dispute, but few question the need to battle the anti-semitic ravings and imperial designs of the Nazis. In that light, the French Underground, the Resistance, which bombed and destroyed German targets in France, is considered a heroic and patriotic movement. Although they used means which are similar to terrorists, they are seen as heroes in the light of history. Their cause was just, and they used the imperfect means of war as their weapon in this fallen world. Yet few would call their fight sinful. Evil yes, and perhaps a necessary evil, but sinful? No.
In our own history, the Civil War became a necessary evil to secure justice and end slavery. The loss of life in war was accepted as inevitable in this world of sin and selfishness as the necessary means of bringing about justice. In fact, Abraham Lincoln implied that the war was God’s response to the sin and selfishness of the nation. The war was God’s instrument of justice: “…if God wills that it [the war] continue until all the wealthy piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.
God’s hand in the Civil War may be evidenced by the eventual victory of the North and by freedom for the slaves. The terrible price paid in human lives for that justice may speak of his judgments on the sin of a nation that let wickedness continue for so long. In the course of human events, war may sometimes be necessary and our only option to stop wickedness and to end the reign of evil. If ever we find ourselves so engaged, may God have mercy on us all.
Yet do any of these examples apply to the murders of abortion clinic doctors? It could be argued (and I accept) the slaughter of the innocent babies is no less a crime in God’s eyes than the slaughter of the Jews in Nazi Germany. If the babies are human beings, as Christians believe, then the life of one is equal to the life of another. All human beings bear the image of their Creator, and each is equally entitled to life and the protection of the laws of the State. If the slaughter of 6 million Jews was a just cause for war, then certainly the murder of 30 million babies is no less a just cause. To argue anything else is to imply that the humanity of the unborn babies is somehow less valuable and less real than that of the already born. To argue that it is not right to fight for the babies but that it was right to fight the Holocaust, is to buy into the pro-abortion assumption that the babies are not really human and so their death is less important in the eyes of God. In short, the argument is hypocritical for anyone committed to the prolife cause.
However, is the murder of the individual practitioners of abortion an appropriate or just response to this evil? My response is that it is not for three reasons: 1) because the act of one lone gunman is the illegitimate usurpation of the sword of government by the individual; 2) it hinders the prolife cause and its effectiveness to bring about change through less final means; and 3) it misses the heart of God.
1). The history of debate in the Church over the legitimate use of force is an ancient one. As early as AD 410, Augustine defended the right and duty of the State to protect its people from unjust attack and used Romans 13 as justification for the use of the sword by civil magistrates.
“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:4, KJV).
John Calvin, during the Reformation of the 16th century, allowed that an unjust ruler could be overthrown through the legitimate authority of civil magistrates. Because magistrates were given responsibility by God, they were to use their authority protect the people, to ensure justice, and to secure an environment for the preaching of the gospel. That authority could even be used to check the power of an unjust king who overstepped the authority given him by God. But only elected officials and kings had such a divine mandate according to Romans 13. No individual could claim that right for himself. Therefore, according to Calvin, any revolution or any punishment of evil must be under the direction of legitimate civil authority. Individual acts, unsupported by legitimate authority, could not be considered justified under any circumstance. But even in the case of a just war, every interpreter from Augustine to Calvin and beyond believed that use of force was only justified as the last resort of a Christian people. Because of the sacredness of life, it is better to endure injustice than take human life. The burden of proof lies upon those who presume to use violence as the means of combating evil.
Neither John Salvi nor Paul Hill are able to shoulder that burden of proof. First of all, they have no support from legitimate, elected officials. Like John Brown before them, who attempted to start a war to free the slaves, but who was hanged instead, their timing is off. John Brown thought the time was ripe for a just war to free the slaves. But the hearts of the American people were not committed to such an endeavor. So, John Brown took matters into his own hands and marched off to free the slaves through violence.
If his timing had been right, it would not only have been one individual to take up the sword, but he would have been supported by some of the legitimate civil rulers. If the dissatisfaction of the American people had been raised to a level of urgency, then even elected leaders like Senators and Governors would have been willing to fight for the abolition of slavery. If such a majority had been so roused, then conditions would have been ripe for such a call to arms. However, in John Brown’s case, the critical mass of support by the populace had not been reached, so the possibility of success did not exist. That made John Brown’s act an act of madness, not of heroism. His lone act actually disgusted the majority, freed no slaves, and caused the death of several innocents. It was a failure, even if the goal of liberating slaves was a worthy one, and it was an act of rebellion.
Likewise, the bullets of anti-abortion zealots have not brought forth a climate of change. They have presumed for themselves a divine mandate. But lone individuals have no authority from the scriptures to execute the Lord’s vengeance. Without the support of legitimate civil authority, their “political” violence is the act of crazed and deranged individuals without biblical or legal justification.
Paul Hill has attempted to use the “justifiable homicide” defense. This well accepted argument in law basically states that if you kill someone who is attempting to murder an innocent person, it is not murder. You are defending the lives of the innocent, and therefore your action is justified. In one sense, Paul Hill’s action did conform to the justifiable homicide defense; he was protecting the lives of a few unborn children from death. However, the guilty party in the crime of abortion is not the abortion doctor alone, it is the entire citizenry of the United States who have passively accepted and even condoned the legal statutes which allow the murder of the unborn. God’s judgment therefore is not directed against the doctors alone, but against the whole community. To single out the doctor is to miss the point that the crime is being committed against the unborn by the consent of the whole nation. And therefore, the murder of the doctor does not even begin to address the structures of evil in the country which allow such evil to take place. Paul Hill’s actions were not only misdirected, they were entirely ineffective in eliminating the problem. Like John Brown, he has also failed.
2) The second reason the acts of Salvi and Hill are unjustified is that their acts were politically & socially ineffective, and they had not yet exhausted other avenues of change. The extreme character of their acts had the opposite result of their intent and the cost of human life is too high a price to pay for such ineffectiveness. The single crazed act of an unstable person does nothing to create the climate for change or repentance. It only hardens the opposition and weakens our attempts to bring about peaceful change through persuasion and prayer. Persuasion and prayer and the ballot box should be the first means of a Christian in bringing about the change of society. As long as peaceful change has a reasonable chance of success, the use of the sword is not justified because other means have not been exhausted. Salvi’s and Hill’s resort to violence speaks as much of their lack of faith in the effectiveness of prayer and the power of God as it does of their hatred of abortion.They jumped to action but did not use all other available means at their disposal first. Therefore, they failed the criterion of the use of violence as a last resort. And their actions are further unjustified.
While Paul Hill’s act has all the earmarks of calculated premeditation to ensure a specific, if short term goal, Salvi’s act has all the markings of a very unstable person… shooting the patients! No pro life person would ever do that. But together, their acts have set back the prolife movement substantially; destroying much sympathy and causing many who practiced less confrontational methods to withdraw their support for the movement in general. If such methods have indeed backfired, they make it more difficult to pass legislation that will protect life.
3) Finally, these self-appointed deliverers have missed the heart of God. I had the thought that maybe these murders might at least have the benefit of scaring abortion practitioners out of killing babies. But when I asked Keith Tucci, the former head of Operation Rescue, for his reaction, he told me that when he heard about the murders, he began to weep for the doctor and his family. The Lord showed Keith His compassionate heart towards the doctor, who would be eternally lost because he did not know Christ. His death ended his chances of repentance. God’s mercy far exceeds our capacity for compassion. So woe unto us if we take upon ourselves the role of executioner! No matter how just the cause, we walk in grave danger when we presume to pass sentence on behalf of the Lord, especially when we have been given no legal and legitimate authority to do so. “Vengeance is Mine, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19), so who are we to stand in the place of God and take vengeance on our own authority?
Furthermore, we miss the heart of God who desires “all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth…not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” (1 Timothy 2:4. & 2 Peter 3:9). We, in executing the “guilty,” may have committed the greater crime. Surely Paul Hill and John Salvi committed murder, not only in their hearts, but with their hands. And yet, the very crime they judged in others, they have been found guilty of themselves! The irony of their actions seems to make clear the Lord’s words: “judge not lest you be judged,” (Matthew 7:1). It matters not whether we murder adults or children, the motive of the heart is the same and the loss of life is still a cause for the Lord’s grief. God wants to save both the babies and the abortionist! While there is still time and hope, we should not move towards more final means. That is not our calling before God.
Finally, it would have entirely different if an unarmed and innocent Paul Hill or John Salvi had been shot by the abortionist in front of a clinic! How different would have been the outcome! They would have modeled Christ protecting the unborn with his life. Instead, they more resembled Barabbas.
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