The congregation could hear the gunshot as Dr. George Tiller was murdered in the narthex of his own Lutheran church in Wichita, Kan., on a sunny Sunday morning. His wife, who sang in the church choir, also heard the single shot that killed him on May 31.
Tiller was serving with two others as ushers for the church where he and his family had worshiped for years. After the shooting, his alleged killer was arrested two hours north of Wichita as he approached Kansas City on Interstate 35. He was traveling at the posted speed limit, and the officers who arrested him surrounded his car with their weapons drawn. Without a word, the suspect got out of his car and raised his hands compliantly above his head. He seemed expectant this would happen before he reached his home.
Tiller had been assassinated in front of a handful of fellow members who witnessed the shooter aim and fire. No one else was hurt as the shooter kept Tiller’s friends at bay with threats of shooting them. While no one else was shot, Tiller’s family (wife, children and grandchildren) and friends, his church, his community and even the nation have been wounded in grief.
No matter what one may think about the complicated moral and ethical issues of abortion, Tiller was apparently abiding by both federal and state laws that severely restrict how and when an abortion may be done.
Phill Kline, a well-known Kansas City attorney was elected several years ago as Kansas attorney general running on a right-wing pro-life platform that held Tiller as the poster child for the cause. Once elected, the attorney general consistently hounded Tiller for records with counter-charges that Kline’s office exceeded the rights of privacy normally accorded patients in his efforts to stop “Tiller the Baby Killer” from serving women who chose to have an abortion.
Kline’s open conflict with Tiller left him as a political victim to the backlash of voters who perceived the attorney general’s efforts had been more personal than legal. Kline was replaced in the fall elections, and Tiller was subsequently acquitted of all charges.
What set Tiller apart from others who provide reproductive services was his willingness to conduct third-trimester abortions for the women who needed them for medical reasons related to the mother’s health or the medical viability of the fetus. Tiller had endured decades of harassment in order to serve women and the social, moral and physical complications of pregnancy. He had been previously shot in both arms in 1993 by a woman who is still in prison serving a sentence for that crime.
Because he was willing to do abortions, Tiller worked as a medical provider with few peers. Some of those peers have been harassed out of practice unwilling to live with the threats from the minority fringe of persons so opposed to abortion they regularly talked in violent terms about those who legally provided reproductive services. One can imagine how cautiously medical students might think or feel about any practice that even remotely addresses the reproductive needs of women.
In the aftermath of his death Sunday, a casual reading of the strident voices from extremist bloggers and other cultural voices of the far right play like a view into the dark side of Christian fundamentalism with its loud claims and less-than-subtle violent threats to those who become targets of their tactics. An argument that connects those extremist views to the actions of this middle-aged extremist with mental problems should be considered.
How shall we measure the profound grief we feel over Tiller’s murder? How shall we declare the unquestioned condemnation this shooting deserves? How do we account for the voices of the secular right-wing press, who consider Tiller’s death as the moral harvest of his chosen medical practice? The terrorists have silenced one of their targets, but will their tyranny over law prevail?
Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He holds degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife, Wanda, have a son and daughter, Ben and Alex.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).