The murder of abortionist David Gunn in March of this year ought to sharpen the focus of the national debate on abortion, although partisans on both sides may be slow in getting the point. The New York Times, in a ponderous exercise of soft journalism, portrayed the event as a study in character contrasts. Michael Griffin, who according to police confessed to the crime, is a “loner with a bad temper.” A Pentacostalist who joined an extremist abortion protest group. Griffin was having marital troubles. In other words, he is the sort of dispossessed misfit that characterizes right-wing protest movements.
Dr. Gunn, on the other hand, is described by friends and relatives as a gentle and compassionate man who loved children. A member of the Church of Christ—a sect opposed to abortion—Gunn gave up his private practice and devoted himself full-time to terminating the lives of unborn children. One proabortion activist described him as a “laid-back 60’s kind of guy” who was “thrilled that Clinton had been elected.” But if Mr. Griffin was having trouble holding his marriage together, Gunn had already been through two marriages and was “seeing” a practical nurse who plies the same grisly trade. The family that slays together . . .
This is a study in contrasts but not of the type the limes imagines. Griffin, if we can believe the newspapers, is a passionate man on the edge, a man of limited understanding who wanted to do what was right. Gunn, on the other hand, was the classic 60’s refugee: a hypocrite who said he was proud of his work but never told his parents anything about it. Although his friends spoke of the sacrifices and efforts Gunn had made for the cause, the truth may be simpler. For an unambitious physician, it is easier to make a living by taking lives than by saving them. Of course the money is usually less than in private practice, but so is the responsibility. Real doctors usually have to worry about losing patients, but for the abortionist, that is the whole point.
From the Christian perspective, from the perspective of the doctor’s own church, David Gunn was a killer who deserved to die long ago. From the same perspective, Michael Griffin should be executed for committing a first-degree murder without a scintilla of justification for his crime.
But if Dr. Gunn deserved to die, why was it wrong to kill him? That question, I fear, is secretly being asked by many activists in the life movement. After all, some of them have been regularly engaging in noisy protests, blocking entrances to private businesses, storming abortion facilities to destroy equipment. In previous discussions of abortion, I warned the extremists that crimes against property would lead to crimes against life itself, and although David Gunn may be the first abortionist to be murdered by a pro-life activist, he is only one of many to have received death threats.
Christian activists who engage in acts of civil disobedience think they can draw a sharp line between crimes against property and crimes against persons, between destruction of things and destruction of life. Some of them are even against the death penalty, a position that is entirely at odds with both Scripture and tradition. There is no seamless garment, as some Catholics like to pretend, that can be fitted upon innocent children and the devils who rape and murder them. I suppose it is a clever dodge that enables a liberal theologian to oppose abortion without forfeiting his status as an intellectual. “See, it’s not just babies I’m defending but everyone and (why not?) everything.”
But if life is a sacred, albeit revocable gift from the Creator, a man can do worse things than take someone’s life. There are teachers and theologians who systematically corrupt the innocent; there are ministers and social workers who abuse their authority to seduce the young. It would not, m fact, be difficult to draw up a long list of pornographers, drug-dealers, slum lords, counselors, and tax collectors beside whom a simple murderer, who kills in a moment of passion, looks like an honorable man. “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea” (Mark 9:42).
The pro-life fanatics are driven by the fallacious and unchristian assumption that mere life is everything. It is not, at least not for Christians. The abortionists’ cynical appeal to “the quality of life” would be, for Christians, a true argument. Better to die in the faith than to live in apostasy, and for the seducers and betrayers who delude simple people into thinking of abortion as a way out of their difficulties, it is better for them never to have been born. They are worse than dead, and they shall suffer worse, many of them even before they die.
If I believe this is so, that abortion doctors and propagandists are worse than murderers, why is it wrong to kill them? I do not say that. If we lived in a free country, in which a state was allowed to recriminalize abortion and to do to physicians what they have done to others, I would cheerfully consign the whole lot of them to the firing squad—or something worse, along with the journalists, feminists, and lawyers who make their dirty business possible.
Since abortion will never be recriminalized in my lifetime, what redress do we have? By “we” I include the father and grandparents of babies whose mother was pressured into having an abortion in a moment of panic. I also include the mothers, if and when they repent of their folly. Let us set aside the complexities for a moment and consider the simplest scenario: a pregnant but unwed girl whose high school counselor refers her to an abortion clinic. The girl is scared, but she thinks abortion is probably a bad thing; nevertheless, the counselors and doctors talk her into it. A few months later, filled with remorse, she tells her fiancé and father, who file a legal complaint. Their rights in the matter, after all, were never consulted. Nothing is done, and one afternoon the two men terminate the lives of the counselors and the physicians.
While I do not recommend such an action to anyone, I cannot condemn it either. If the law will not protect us and vindicate our rights, we may do it ourselves, even if that means making ourselves the victims of a corrupt and oppressive legal system. We may also, for very good reasons, choose not to shoulder our natural obligation to protect our kin and avenge their murder, but when the law is itself unjust, it cannot bind our conscience.
This is not, please note, a doctrine of civil disobedience. It is the law of blood, a law that precedes all political and legal systems, the principle that is their foundation. The state exists to protect us from violence, but when the state is the accessory to murder, we are free—I would say obliged—to take the justice that the state refuses to give.
The power to exact justice can only be reassumed by an individual who is either a victim or his protector. There is no evidence that Mr. Griffin or his family were the victims of David Gunn’s ministrations. Like many would-be rescuers of unborn children, he was standing up for a cause in which he had no personal stake. The defense of life is a principle, they argue, that transcends statutes, legislatures, and judges. If the law protects the property—and, so it would seem, persons—of murderers, then “the law is a ass,” which for conscience’s sake they must publicly defy. Whenever a traditional Christian brings up scriptural injunctions to obedience, they set those aside in favor of a higher law.
The most frequently heard defense of civil disobedience in these cases is a sloppy bit of casuistry that goes like this: if your neighbor were drowning in his bathtub, surely it would be permissible to kick in his door to rescue him. They conclude from this that one may break a good law protecting property in order to protest the bad law that legalizes abortion. On these grounds, one would be free to play Robin Hood, robbing from the rich in order to give to the poor, or to slander an enemy of the church or to seduce a rich widow who might contribute her late husband’s life savings to the building fund. “Let us do evil that good may come.” St. Paul gave the answer to that one long ago.
God has the power to make good come out of evil, but man may not knowingly do evil in the expectation that it will lead to good. Like so many of the most corrosive sins, acts of civil disobedience are undertaken in rebellion against the God who has established authority for our own good, and—what is worse—they represent an arrogant assumption, a usurpation of a power that belongs only to the Creator and not to the created. In playing God, the civil disobedient—whether he is working for minority rights or for the rights of unborn children—is following the advice of the serpent who told Adam and Eve they could be as gods, and the pop theologians and self-ordained religious leaders who inspired Mr. Griffin are no less guilty than the journalists and judges who have made abortion a fashionable form of birth control. Both have corrupted the hearts and minds of simple people, and both have earned the millstone.
If anti-abortion activists want to save lives, if they are actually so concerned with the mere fact of a million or so babies being killed every year, they might better spend their time feeding the world’s hungry or improving health care in Africa. Closer to home, they could form vigilante groups and clean out the rats’ nests that harbor the thugs and muggers who terrorize American cities. Better still, they could target and eliminate all the killers that are turned loose by the legal system. The results would be, in sheer quantity, thousands of times more successful than their rescue missions.
It goes without saying that I am opposed to all of the above and all for the same reason. It is no part of Christian doctrine or of the older ethics that a man should undertake the problems of strangers. We are obliged to take care of our children and our aged parents; to cherish our wives (or husbands) and be faithful to them; to take care of the widows and orphans in our community; and to care for the poor, the hungry, and the sick that come to our attention. Of course we can in good faith commit trespass to save our neighbor’s life, precisely because he is our neighbor, and because we would be doing what he actually wants us to do. But we should not be justified in breaking down his door to preach the gospel to his children or in going about the world as “house-breakers for Christ.” Jesus praised the Samaritan who took care of a robbery victim as a good neighbor, but he did not tell us to abandon our primary responsibilities in a quest for victims all over the world.
Most of us, as individuals, are barely able to live up to the obligations of everyday life, and the attempt to shoulder responsibilities for the entire world, while it may on rare occasions raise a man to sainthood, will more often make him descend to something lower than the merely human. The practitioner of what Dickens called “telescopic philanthropy” devotes her energies to the natives of Borrioboola Gha, while neglecting her own children. Who is minding the children, I wonder, of all those right-to-lifers who devote themselves to protesting the deaths of other people’s children? Some of them are demonstrating with their parents; others are rotting their brains in public schools. In either ease, mother might better occupy her time in taking care of them and attending to their education. We are not called upon to lead other people’s lives for them, to make their choices, to keep them from folly, and it would be a vain religion or a merely academic philosophy that preached such a doctrine.
Before the 20th century, the concept of universal obligation was embraced by only a handful of visionaries, and a good part of the whole duty of man consisted of minding one’s business. In that land of “once upon a time,” the duties of ordinary people were restricted to the tiny sphere of everyday life. It was enough to take care of our own, to be as fair as we knew how in all our dealings, and to be loyal to our country and to the gods. In his usual platitudinous manner, Plutarch said that the object of teaching moral philosophy to children was to enable them to learn basic responsibilities:
what is good and what is base, what is just and what unjust, what generally is to be chosen and what avoided; how one ought to deal with the gods, with his parents, with his elders, with the laws, with strangers, with rulers, with friends, with women, with children, with servants; that one must revere the gods, honor one’s parents, respect one’s elders, obey the laws, give way to rulers, love one’s friends, exercise restraint toward women, be affectionate with children, and not mistreat slaves.
It was the common opinion of ancient peoples that there are specific duties, arising out of one’s station in life, owed to neighbors, relatives, friends, and political allies. Greeks and Romans, Jews and Assyrians all made the obvious distinctions between neighbors and strangers, kin and non-kin, compatriots and aliens, noble and base-born, and—most sweeping—between friends and enemies. Prohibitions on theft and killing applied to friends and compatriots within a society and not, necessarily, to strangers. Piracy and brigandage were honorable occupations among early Greeks, and it is not rude when strangers ask the wandering Odysseus if he is a pirate.
Greek poetry and proverbs make it clear that universal benevolence was not the Greek ideal. Friends were expected to assist each other in a variety of ways, but as a famous line of Archilochus put it, “I know one thing but it’s important, to punish terribly the one who has done me wrong,” and this attitude was prevalent enough in Athens during Plato’s time that one of the speakers in The Republic interprets “giving every man his due” as owing good to friends and evil to enemies.
A Greek was not supposed to go to law against family members and friends, if he could avoid it, but was obliged to seek revenge from enemies. In Athens homicide remained a family affair as it was for ancient Jews, and it was up to a victim’s family members to prosecute his murderer. (It was, however, legal for an Athenian to kill a thief in the night or his wife’s lover, if he caught them in adultery.)
Justice, in most parts of the ancient world, depended on the efforts of a man’s friends. The old conservative Theognis prays for powerful friends to avenge him, “Thus would I seem to be a god among men.” In his book Greek Popular Morality, K.J. Dover sums up the moral perspective of the average Athenian of Plato’s time:
It may be said in broad terms . . . that an Athenian felt his first duty was to his parents . . . his second to his kinsmen, and his third to his friends and benefactors; after that, in descending order, to his fellow-citizens, to citizens of other Greek states, to barbaroi, and to slaves.
Even so systematic a philosopher as Aristotle makes all the routine distinctions and regarded at least some foreign races as fit for slavery. Universalism was introduced by an Oriental immigrant named Zeno, who founded the philosophical school later known as Stoicism. Inspired, so it is said, by Alexander’s dream of universal empire, Zeno preached a doctrine that “men should not live divided into different states and peoples, each under its own law, but in a world state, of which all men are to be citizens . . . “
The early Stoics advanced such novel doctrines as the brotherhood of men, the equality of slaves, and cosmopolitanism, e.g., world citizenship. “Never say,” says the ex-slave Epictetus, “when you answer the question what country do you belong to, that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian, but that you are a citizen of the world.” In their Utopian moments, the Stoics advocated a community of property and wives, but even the founders of the sect insisted upon the fulfillment of primary obligations to family and country, and in Roman hands, stoicism became an unofficial doctrine of the empire—which claimed, after all, to be the world. The stoic emperor Marcus Antoninus was more ambivalent. Dividing his nature into a social and a rational being, he acknowledged that insofar as he was Antoninus, his country was Rome, but as a man, his country was the world.
The Stoics’ insistence on the brotherhood of man has much in common with St. Paul’s declaration that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” But it is easy to overstate the Christian position on this point. The first Christians were practicing Jews living under a law that emphasized God’s exclusive contract with his chosen people and the inferiority of all other nations. Even the Torah, in forbidding usury, had exempted loans made to foreigners, and among the worst punishments proclaimed against disobedient Israel was that the alien would rise above the Jew. The Samaritans, who deviated no more from the standard Judaisms than one sect of Protestant does from another, were regarded with contempt.
How far are Christians obliged to go in doing their duty? The Apostles, time after time, enjoin loyalty and obedience from wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters, subjects to empire. John the Baptist was content with telling the Jews to share their food and clothing with the destitute, the tax collectors not to collect more than was due, and the soldiers not to extort money. Similarly Jesus (Matthew 19:16-26) told the rich young man that to gain eternal life he had only to honor his father and mother and obey the commandments. It was only when pressed that the master added, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” The rich, Jesus concluded—and among the rich he might have included over half the population of the United States—have as much chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven as a camel going through the eye of a needle. The heroic task of giving one’s goods away to the poor was apparently too much even for the disciples, who wondered, “Who then can be saved?” The obvious answer is, in human terms, no one, because “with men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”
Even the Son of God distinguished between the ordinary goodness of day-to-day moral life and the supererogatory works that characterized a saint. Throughout most of the first two Christian millennia, theologians and philosophers continued to make these distinctions, and Christian princes, with the blessings of their church, carried out crusades against pagans and heretics and waged wars against even Christian enemies. Only in recent centuries has Christianity been identified as the philosophy of timidity and nonjudgmental benevolence that Nietzsche derided.
Without going deeply into intellectual history, one can see that the universal benevolence of contemporary Christianity derives not from the Bible directly but from the attempts of Enlightenment philosophers to purify Scripture of its more “barbaric” elements and to universalize its teachings. To cite only one example, the deist Thomas Jefferson prepared his own edition of the Bible, which was expurgated of all Jewish particularities and theological interpretations. As he explained in a letter to John Adams (12 October 1815), Jesus’ purpose had been the reformation of this “wretched depravity” of peculiar duties, and it was Jefferson’s intention “in extracting the pure principles which he taught” to “strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms.” In one way or another, the moral doctrines of Voltaire, Kant, and the New England Transcendentalists all derive directly or indirectly from the sort of bowdlerization that Jefferson undertook. It was during the same period—the 18th century—that Stoic conceptions of universal brotherhood, international law, and world government reemerged.
The doctrines that inspire Christian disobedience are not derived from Christianity; they spring from the same polluted source that has also given the world the pernicious doctrine of universal rights that resulted in Roe v. Wade. In murdering a stranger, Michael Griffin was only carrying the logic of disobedience to its logical and diabolical conclusion.
If Christians wish to take the law into their own hands, then it is not Mr. Griffin they should be imitating but the California woman who walked into a courtroom and killed the homosexual who had molested her son. According to press reports, the local response has been strongly in favor of a mother who, despairing of the American system of organized injustice, asserted the right to defend and avenge her children. Far from being an act of disobedience or a protest against child abuse, this killing was the fulfillment of a primary obligation and an expression of natural justice. Instead of interfering in other people’s lives, she attended to her own, and taking care of your own obligations leaves little time to shoulder the burdens of strangers. “If you’d mind your own business,” Hank Williams once suggested, “you won’t be minding mine.”