Last Sunday, late-term abortion doctor George Tiller was gunned down in the foyer of his Lutheran church, where he served as an usher. As anyone with even a cursory understanding of Lutheranism in America could surmise, that church was a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Of the various Lutheran church bodies in America, the ELCA is the most mainline and has the most supportive position on legalized abortion.
As soon as the terrible news about Tiller’s murder hit the wire, many bloggers and liberal pundits noted that Tiller’s active church membership was at odds with the stereotype of how abortion and religion are related. It didn’t take long for that same meme to make it to the mainstream media stories.
What none of these stories have explained is that Tiller had previously been excommunicated by a Lutheran congregation on account of his lack of repentance about and refusal to stop his occupation. That Lutheran congregation was a member of my church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Excommunication doesn’t happen terribly frequently in this day and age but it’s not unheard of. I don’t know any of the specifics about his past congregation or what led to the discipline and anticipated learning more about it when it was covered by the mainstream media. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.
When the news broke, I had many people who know that I’m Lutheran ask how it was possible that his church had not disciplined him or otherwise encouraged him to stop performing abortions. I had hoped that there would be stories exploring Tiller’s religious beliefs and church membership and that the stories would explain the difference between the ELCA and the LCMS. There is obviously quite a difference between a church body that would discipline a practicing abortion doctor and one that would welcome him in membership.
While we did get some stories about his religious views, none of them seemed to have any clue about his religious history. Note, for instance, this piece from the Salt Lake Tribune that was written Religion News Service’s Lindsay Perna and Tiffany Stanley:
Dr. George Tiller’s murder last Sunday morning in the lobby of his Lutheran church counters the secular image of a late-term abortion provider, pinning him more as a churchgoing “martyr” than a godless murderer.
Shot and killed while passing out bulletins in the lobby of his Wichita, Kan., church as his wife sat in the choir, Tiller is already challenging popular perceptions of both abortion providers and the abortion-rights movement.
“It shows a dimension of the movement that a lot of people don’t know about,” said the Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. “This man was castigated for what he did — but he was a faithful member of the Lutheran church and that gives a different view of him and his work.”
Veazey sees the face of Tiller as more of “a martyr in the same sense that Dr. [Martin Luther] King was.”
The story goes on to quote various people about how Tiller’s church membership changes the dynamics of the abortion debate. How can they not mention that he was previously excommunicated for his abortion work? It’s such an interesting and significant part of the story! That’s just a huge hole.
Also, the pro-life people who are quoted in the story are of the Randall Terry variety. With the typical pro-choice activists and typical pro-life activists quoted, the story remains in the muck of “bumper sticker” rhetoric. It’s disappointing. (Robin Abcarian’s piece in the Los Angeles Times dealt solely with the Tiller funeral, which means its sympathetic tone is more appropriate. It also took the ‘Tiller busts stereotypes’ approach.)
After Dr. Tiller’s murder, some pundits were confused about how people who see abortion as the unjust killing of babies could also oppose the murder of someone who killed those babies. Here was one such essay written by a fellow libertarian. I saw one letter to the editor written by clergymen in my church body that addressed just that issue:
There is an old saying: Two wrongs don’t make a right. This does not appear in the Bible but it certainly reflects a scriptural idea. This concept, that two wrongs don’t make a right, is certainly true in the case of the murder of Dr. George Tiller.
Dr. Tiller was an infamous abortionist, who was one of the very few in the country who would perform late-term abortions. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod is strongly pro-life, and condemns the practice of abortion. Dr. Tiller, a former member of a Missouri Synod congregation, was excommunicated by that congregation for his abortion practice. (The congregation he was currently attending is part of another Lutheran body.) We stand by that action. Our sister congregation acted properly in disciplining Dr. Tiller. Such action is always intended to lead a person to see their sins and come to repentance. Excommunication is never intended to bring that person harm.
While we condemn Dr. Tiller’s actions as an abortionist, we just as strongly condemn the actions of the person who took his life. Murder, even of a murderer, is never acceptable. God teaches us in Romans 13 and other places, that the government is in place to enforce justice. We are never to take private vengeance. This is simply not given to private individuals. Murder in any circumstances is a grievous sin. It was our utmost desire that Dr. Tiller come to repentance, and perhaps in time he may have. We do not know. Only God sees all ends. Sadly, because of this heinous act of violence, Dr. Tiller no longer has that opportunity.
I can’t help but think that some enterprising reporter should look at how the two Lutheran church bodies handled Dr. Tiller’s occupation differently. It’s disappointing to read that RNS story in light of this rather dramatic back story.