Being involved in the promulgation and defense of abolitionist ideology, there are occasions in which scoffers attempt to ridicule abolitionists for not using physical force and violence to stop abortions from occurring. In addition, there are times when those interested in having an honest and substantive dialogue ask why we do not condone using force and violence to stop abortions, given the human lives are being extinguished daily. In this post, in order to answer these questions and objections, I present seven principles, following from and consistent with a Scriptural worldview, that mandate a non-violent approach to the abolition of human abortion.
The following seven principles both demand and provide a grounding for a non-violent approach to abolition.
1. God has instituted the civil magistrate as the one who has both the authority and the responsibility to use violence to restrain evildoers.
From Rom. 13:4-5, we have that God has instituted civil authorities for the sake of protecting those who do good, and punishing those who do evil. This is the primary purpose of government: to protect the innocent by using force (and violence, if necessary) to stop and punish those who do evil against them. From this, consider the following:
1.A. Using force (and violence, if necessary) to stop abortions is the responsibility of the governing authorities. The governing authorities may shirk their responsibility and refuse to deal with a certain class of evildoers (such as those who perform abortions), but this, in and of itself, does not give others the right or the responsibility to take up the sword in their stead. Thus, the primary goal of abolition is to work to effect change in the governing authorities so that the governing authorities will perform their proper function, and exercise their authority and responsibility to protect the most innocent and helpless members of our society from being slaughtered.
1.B. The person who takes it upon himself to make a mission of stopping evil with violence, without the authorization of the governing authorities, is in practice usurping the authorities that God has established, and as such, this is an evil. Thus, in general, vigilantism is an evil, because it is a rebellion against (or at least a lack of submission to) God’s ordained authority structure. The one who thinks that Christians should suddenly take up arms to go out and do the job of the governing authorities, without being imputed said authority, is either ignorant of, or purposefully suppressing, the truth of Scripture.
1.C. In extreme cases where the ordinary government is not functioning (such as in the immediate aftermath of a great natural disaster), the community may form a provisional government and use force to protect its members from violence (such as marauding gangs intent on raping and pillaging the victims of the tragedy). The formation of such a provisional government is justified because government is of the people, by the people, for the people. However, when there is an ordinary legitimate government in operation, to assemble in such a manner (except in such extreme circumstances where revolution is warranted, and even that approved on the authority of lower magistrates) is to be in rebellion against God’s ordained authority structure.
1.D. This has no direct relevance to the issue of self/home-defense, which is the right and duty of every responsible citizen. Defending oneself from an armed assailant is a completely different issue than murdering an unarmed abortionist (such as George Tiller), which is unlawful and immoral, as explained above.
2. The duty to preserve life must be taken in the context of other high-level duties, such as the duty to love, honor, and glorify God, the duty to provide for one’s family and be a good father/mother, and the duty to work to build up the Church and advance the kingdom of God.
Generally, the duty preserve life becomes applicable when a situation is arises in which you become aware that someone else’s life is in your own hands. When a person’s life is in someone else’s hands – especially when you have no knowledge and/or relation to the person and/or situation, then this duty does not take precedence. Rather, the other duties listed above take precedence. For example, it would be a violation of 1 Tim. 5:8 (as well as common sense) for a man to quit his job and let his family go hungry, for the purpose of wandering the streets at night to protect people from muggers. There are implicit limitations in the duty to preserve innocent life – namely that one should do what one is able in order to preserve innocent life, but within the context of other duties that God has placed upon that person.
2.A. Thus, simply because abolitionists have both the duty and the desire to preserve innocent life does not mean that they have the right to pursue the preservation of innocent life to the dereliction of their other God-given duties.
3. One must distinguish between an individual act of violence, and a greater societal problem that makes such violence acceptable.
The primary goal of the abolitionist is to correct the root societal problem that gives rise to practice of human abortion. The primary goal of the abolitionist is not try to stop individual acts of violence piecemeal. While we accomplish the second goal when we can (e.g. counseling pregnant women), we cannot seek to fulfill the second goal in a way that compromises our ability to fulfill the first.
Consider what would happen if abolitionists burned down an abortion clinic, or killed an abortionist. This would only serve to harden the hearts and minds of the general public against abolitionism, building up barriers to legal and social reform that would result in the protection of the life of man, by virtue of being created in the image of God. Such acts of violence would galvanize the general public against our cause, and do irreparable damage to our credibility and Christian witness. Which is the better way to fulfill the duty to preserve innocent life: to commit illegal acts of violence to prevent a few from being victimized, and in the process galvanize society against our cause, paving the way for millions more to be killed? Or to work within the law to change the hearts and minds of society such that this evil is recognized for what it is and legally abolished? The duty to preserve innocent life obligates us to act in such a way so as not to galvanize society in support of the evil of abortion, leading to millions more being killed.
3.A. One can seek to prevent individual acts of violence without resorting to illegal violence oneself. It is a false dichotomy to assert that one must either use physical force to stop abortions or sit back and do nothing.
3.B. Working to change society and its laws, and doing what one can within those laws to help the unborn is a far cry from “doing nothing.” On the contrary, for many people, such a course of action constitutes is all that they can legitimately and morally do, within the constraints of God’s established authority structure and the other duties that He has placed upon them.
4. The duty to preserve life, in the context of broad societal evils, is properly fulfilled in supporting and submitting to the governing authorities, established by God for the restraint and punishment of those evils.
Paying taxes, being a good citizen, supporting and cooperating with law enforcement officers as they perform the function of restraining and punishing evil, and participating in the civic process to work to establish and maintain government that restrains and punishes evil is the proper fulfillment of the duty to preserve innocent life, in the context of broad societal evils. When the governing authorities do not act to restrain a particular kind of evil, because society as a whole does not recognize that evil as evil, the proper course of action is to work to change the minds of society and to reform the government, such that the governing authorities will actively seek to restrain that evil. This is how broad societal evils are to be addressed: by addressing society. By working to change the hearts and minds of the people, so that government, which is of the people, by the people, and for the people, will also be changed so as to obey the will of the people and abolish societal evils.
4.A. One should also do what one reasonably can within the current laws so as to help prevent individual acts of broad societal evils. But, to focus solely on the individual acts and ignore the society as a whole is to do a grave disservice to all of those who will be victimized in the future, because the society remains unchanged and the evils remain legal.
4.B. One must also distinguish between governmental authorities that allow evil to continue unpunished, and authorities that command citizens to do evil. Certainly, Christians cannot submit to commands of the latter kind (Ac. 5:29). However, with respect to abortion, we currently live (in America) under a government of the former kind, not the latter. Inasmuch as government commands its subjects to do evil, we have a duty to resist government in that respect. But inasmuch as the government merely allows evil to continue unpunished, we do not have the authority to “bear the sword” (Rom. 13:4) in its stead. Rather, we must work for a change in the governing authorities, so that they will bear the sword appropriately against those who do evil.
5. We are to follow the example of Christ, and His apostles (1 Cor. 11:1).
Christ and His apostles never resorted to illegal violence to prevent others from commiting evil acts that were legal at the time. Rather, they sought to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16) and thus to convert and change the culture from the inside out, while doing what they could within the law to help in individual cases (such as adopting children left out to die, etc.). Thus, as Christians, we have no reason to resort to violence to stop abortion, and good reason not to.
5.A. One might object and point to Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple as a counterexample to this point. However, Jesus’ actions in this case do not provide a counterexample, since the Temple was rightfully directly under the authority of God, and not a civil magistrate. In this case, Jesus was not rebelling against God’s established authorities (as vigilantes do, for example), but rather exercising the direct authority and prerogative that God had over His own Temple.
6. Abortion cannot be effectively stopped with violence.
How exactly is abortion to be stopped with violence? One cannot harm the mother, for that would harm the child, and defeat the purpose of using violence in the first place. Should one bomb abortion clinics? Kill abortion doctors? Both are unjustified illegal acts of violence. If an abortion clinic is destroyed, it can be rebuilt. Abortionists are not poor (having become rich off of the murder of innocent unborn children), and likely have good insurance policies. Such a course of action would not be effective in the long run.
Rather, the only way stop abortion with violence would be to kidnap the woman seeking an abortion and force her to carry the baby to term. Yet, kidnapping is nowhere even hinted at in Scripture as ever being a justified act. Rather, it is strongly condemned (Ex. 21:16, Deut. 24:7, 1 Tim. 1:10). And besides that, the logistics of such an operation would make it completely infeasible for stopping abortion on any kind of substantial scale.
Thus, even with the moral dimension put aside for the sake of argument, there is no good practical or logistical reason to try to stop abortions with violence. Such a course of action would be ineffective and self-defeating. And beyond this, those few courses of action that might successfully result in a few averted abortions are unlawful, immoral, and condemned by Scripture.
6.A. Of course, if abortion is outlawed, and if the governing authorities faithfully enforce that law, then abortion can rightfully and morally be abolished with the use of violence, in the form of punishing those who continue to perform abortions in violation of the law. However, what is referenced as “violence” in the preceding paragraphs refers not to the legitimate exercise of civil authority by the magistrate, but to so-called “vigilante violence” – the act of taking the law into one’s own hands.
7. We are not to besmirch the Name of Christ.
Yet, committing illegal and Biblically unwarranted acts of violence would do just that. We are to make sure that God’s name is honored among the world, inasmuch as it depends upon us, by being scrupulous to act in a way that is worthy of and consistent with the Name that we bear.
Inasmuch as we do something, as Christians, then what we do reflects upon how the world sees Christ. And if we do something that is repugnant to Christ’s holiness and righteousness, then others will see Christ, represented through us, in a way that is repugnant to Him. This should be a great motivation to avoid doing things that are illegal and Biblically unwarranted, if we love and seek to honor our Lord.
7.A. Being faithful to Christ may require taking action that is unpopular with the world, and may lead them to reject Christ. Consider, for example, all of the instances in which the apostle Paul was run out of town by an angry mob for preaching the Gospel. So, the possibility that someone might think less of Christ for our performing a particular action X is not an absolute reason to not do X, especially if faithfulness to Christ demands that we do X (such as preaching the Gospel to those who will get mad and reject it). However, inasmuch as some action X is contrary to God’s Word, then the fact that the world will see Christ represented in us in a way contrary to His holiness and righteousness if we do X should be all the greater motivation against doing X.
The preceding seven principles provide good reasons for Christians to see the use of vigilante violence in the attempt to abolish human abortion as not only Scripturally unwarranted, but also Scripturally prohibited. Furthermore, anyone who would attempt to claim that abolitionists are somehow inconsistent for not utilizing vigilante violence must first dismantle these seven principles, if such arguments are to have any probative force.