The Magazine

What Abortionist Killers Believe

The consequences of a fringe theology.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By JON A. SHIELDS
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For inspiration, the radicals turned to Bray's A Time to Kill (1994), a book that could not have been more different from O'Keefe's A Peaceful Presence. As Risen and Thomas report, Bray became the "national spokesperson for violence and retribution" and his book "must reading among extremists."

One of these was Paul Hill, a radical Presbyterian minister, a graduate of the Reformed Theological Seminary, who quickly rose to leadership in the Army of God. He was the author of the group's infamous 1994 "Defensive Action Statement," a petition endorsing violence that was signed by 29 radicals. Hill would be executed by the state of Florida in 2003 for killing an abortion doctor and a clinic escort.

Shelly Shannon also found inspiration in Bray's writings. A housewife, Shannon bombed clinics in four states before wounding George Tiller in an attempt on his life in 1993. She is now in prison. In her diary, Shannon described her religious experiences just prior to various acts of violence. Hours before she bombed a clinic, for instance, she wrote: "If I die doing this, I die in Christ, walking obediently in a work He gave me." And hours before shooting Tiller, she reflected, "This morning in bed it seemed God asked, Is there any doubt?" "No, Lord. Please help me do it right."

Others, whether or not they were directly influenced by Bray's writings, shared his disregard for the legitimacy and authority of the American government. Scott Roeder, who has been charged with Tiller's murder, is a member of the Montana Freemen, a Christian organization that has declared itself outside the authority of the government and engaged in an armed conflict with the FBI in 1996.

Whatever the shades of difference among them, virtually all the radicals have cherished a bellicose reading of a handful of Old Testament verses, especially Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." The fringe seemingly ignore the New Testament, particularly the passages enjoining respect for civil authorities.

In the aftermath of Tiller's shooting, pro-life organizations were quick to denounce vigilante justice and reaffirm their well-established fidelity to American democracy. As post-1960s activism goes, the pro-life movement is unusually patriotic.
Its many Catholic and Protestant participants, moreover, obviously do not understand their faith to require them to kill doctors or nurses--or mothers or fathers--involved in the great evil of abortion. On the contrary, their behavior is generally consonant with orthodox Christian teaching on murder ("Thou shalt not .  .  ."), civil government ("Render unto Caesar .  .  ."), and the duty of believers to do good and resist evil by all legitimate means.

Jon A. Shields is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (Princeton University Press, 2009).