When Immorality is Moral – Lessons from Bonhoeffer

On May 31, 2009, George Tiller, a physician from Wichita, Kansas who was nationally known for being one of the few doctors in the United States to perform late-term abortions, was shot and killed by Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion activist. Tiller was killed during a Sunday morning service at his church, where he was serving as an usher

If the comments on the Tiller murder are any guide, the Pro-life movement seems to have lost its moral bearings. Robert P. George’s comments are illustrative. He sees in this act a threat to our tradition of the rule of law. No where does he acknowledge that (1) The murderer was caught, (2) he will be tried and, (3) even though the state has decided not to seek the death penalty, the Fed probably will[1]. Justice for both the murderer and Dr. Tiller will be served. Prof. George’s comments are one of many that advance the same theme — condemning the murder of Dr. Tiller with but a passing acknowledgment to the evil that was Dr. Tiller’s specialty.

I would admonish the pro-life community to seriously ponder whether the pursuit of a moral end can  sometimes justify the use of immoral means?  Insofar as the biblical witness is concerned, the answer seems to be unambiguously yes. Immoral means can, in some circumstances, be used to achieve moral ends.

From Exodus 22 (the law of Rodef or Pursuer) and the Levitical admonition that we are “not to standby while your neighbor’s blood[2]” is shed”  teach that circumstances arise when a moral end requires an immoral means. Detriech Bonhoeffer weighed exactly this question in terms of obedience to institutions that were abrogating the moral rights of those they were ostensibly to govern.  He once asked, “if a teacher says to a child, ‘did your father come home drunk again last night?'”, is the child bound to tell the truth?” Bonhoeffer decided no, the teacher [institution] had intruded beyond her purview, and therefore the child, to honor his father, is not obligated to subject him to judgment or mockery, or for that matter governmental intrusion.

Bonhoeffer was, in the course of a terrible war, able to extrapolate that medium, defensive lie into a plot to assassinate Hitler.

After years spent openly opposing Adolf Hitler and encouraging Germans to turn against his regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a Christian minister, theologian, pacifist and German citizen—made a deliberate turn from civil disobedience to secret participation in a cabal whose aim was to assassinate the Führer. Bonhoeffer laid aside his Christian pacifism when he woke up to the fact that Hitler was engaging in genocide. This outraged Bonhoeffer, who held the deep religious conviction that the Jews were a people precious to God and deserving of protection, whatever the personal cost.

But then Bonhoeffer was that rare theologian who was at once brilliant AND knew his Scripture. Contemplating the murder of Hitler in the service of a higher end he undoubtedly recalled that God had exalted a deceiver (Gen 38:14-19), rewarded lying (Ex 1:15-21), protected a self-serving liar (1 Sam 12:12-13, 20:1, 26:6-7), and instructed Samuel to lie (1 Sam 16:2-3).

Extraordinary means are sometimes required to prevent great evil. Moral clarity requires the kind of prudential reflection exhibited by Bonhoeffer if only because God did not create a black and white universe.The existence of an existential threat to our neighbor presents exactly the moral dillemas through which God expects us to navigate.

For Scott Roeder, the fog had lifted. In the moral clarity of Mr. Roeder’s view, Dr. Tiller suffered a just and righteous demise. At the same time, Mr. Roeder will be punished according to civil law and it is right and just to punish him.

But, if Mr. Roeder is consigned to oblivion, I suspect that it will be for stealing from God the pleasure of wrecking vengeance on an unspeakably evil man.

  1. [1]This has not proved out. Mr. Roeder was sentenced to fifty years in prison with no possibility of parole and, at this writing (6 Feb, 2012), the Fed has not indicated it intends to pursue the case any further.
  2. [2]Lev 19:16b
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