Wednesday, June 3, 2009

George Tiller Murdered . . . in His Church

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD!”

Psalm 122:1

Dr. George Tiller was murdered last Sunday morning. For anyone who follows the debates about abortion, it was not a great surprise. Dr. Tiller was one of the few surgeons willing to perform late term abortions. He was vilified by the pro-life movement at “Killer Tiller,” or “Tiller the Killer.”

I have supported a woman’s right to choose abortion for more than three decades. Years ago I had a leadership role in “The Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights.” My name was often attached to public statements and I frequently testified at the State House. But like many of those who support a woman’s right to choose, I have done so with a deep sense of regret at the number of abortions. Abortion is never a “good” choice. It may be the lesser of two evils, and it may be the best choice available, but it is never “good.” And with late term abortions, the level of moral ambiguity, and my own discomfort with the process, increases dramatically.

Although I had heard a great deal about Dr. Tiller, I had never seen a picture of him, or heard him speak, or even read a single word that he had written. I imagined him to be committed to the cause of legal abortion with a stern zeal. I imagined him as cold and clinical. And I imagined him to be a staunch secularist.

I never imagined that he went to church. It never occurred to me that he might be a serious Christian.

Ironically, his killer did know that. His killer knew that he could be found on Sunday mornings at Reformation Lutheran Church, handing out bulletins, welcoming fellow Christians to worship and helping them find their seats.

He was killed in his church, where he was an usher, where his wife sang in the choir.

Andrew Sullivan, a devout Christian who is pro-life, described the killing as an attack on Christianity. The sanctuary, he said, should be respected. The killing would be wrong anywhere, but because it was in the sanctuary of a church, it should be felt as an attack on all Christians. He went on to say that in his blog, when he decried the murder while re-stating his own opposition to late-term abortions, he received many responses from women who told heart-wrenching stories about their own struggles and the necessity of that last resort.

Murder is always tragic. The pain is always immense. I do not mean to suggest that somehow this is more tragic than some other loss of life. But this feels personal. It makes me think of the dedicated surgeons and physicians who are part of our congregation. None of them is involved in anything so controversial, and yet there are zealots who can find things they believe to be wrong almost anywhere. And medicine has become inherently controversial.

I would like to have had the chance to speak with him about his faith and his work. He knew it was dangerous, but he believed that the needs of his patients out-weighed the personal danger. And I suspect he also may have had deep thoughts about the moral ambiguity of the choices we make.

Martin Luther said that we should love God and sin boldly. By that he meant that sin is unavoidable, and that we need to trust in God’s grace. Sin is the necessary but unintended consequence of our living. It would have been less controversial if he had said that we should love God and live boldly, but it also would have been, for Luther, less than the truth. My guess is that they talked about that more than once at Reformation Lutheran Church.

I have copied the “Welcome” from the Reformation Lutheran Church web-site. The last sentence says, "We respect varying points of view and consider diversity to be one of our attributes." We could say that about our church. It is ordinary, and wonderful, and now poignant.

Welcome to Reformation Lutheran Church! We are a family of warm, welcoming people who enjoy sharing the love of Jesus Christ with each other and new friends.

As a Christ-centered church, we worship one Lord and Savior, confess our faith together, and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. We trust deeply in the power of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of God’s grace.

As caring Christians, we respond with love to the needs of others. You will find comfort and acceptance here—the security of support in times of joy and sorrow and when struggling with life’s challenges. We respect varying points of view and consider diversity to be one of our attributes.


  1. Thank you for this. I came to your blog after reading pages of comments on the NYTimes article about Dr. Tiller's murder. I am thankful to see compassion from a religious person, when I see so much hatred and anger directed from churches toward those who think differently. You give me hope.

  2. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, not love them when they agree with you or love them when it's easy but love them always. Just because someone supports a woman's right to choose doesn't mean they are "for abortion". I think it is a great act of love when you reach out to those in need regardless of how you feel about what they are doing. I think that when you can see life in this way, you are free to love people the way God intended rather than being locked into rejecting people because they are doing something "wrong". This way compassion and empathy can replace judgement and punishment.