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Public Theology: How Could an Abortion Doctor be a Lutheran?
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How Could an Abortion Doctor be a Lutheran?
A Lutheran pastor explains the background on Lutheran ethical teachings that may have influenced how Dr. George Tiller understood himself and his vocation as a physician.

By Ed Knudson

Note: An edited and shorter version of the article below has been published at Religion Dispatches, a site for religious studies professors and others.

Many people may have been surprised that Dr. George Tiller, who performed abortions in the last trimester of pregnancy, was a Christian. He has been so vilified by the anti-abortion movement and attacked regularly by commentators, especially those on Fox News and right wing radio that many people conceived of him as a completely unethical and unscrupulous person, literally a baby killer. So the fact that he was shot and killed in his own church on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009, Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, caused many leaders of the anti-abortion movement to worry about the backlash that may occur against them because of this murder. These leaders do not want the general public to become aware of the fact that very large numbers of Christians do not share the anti-abortion position. Even the major media do not report in any detail the views of other Protestant churches such as Lutherans. So, there may be lots of people questioning how it could be that an abortion doctor was a Lutheran.

As a Lutheran pastor who has studied these matters extensively and participated in a bioethics committee of a major metropolitan hospital for several years, I will try to explain something about Lutheran theology and the Lutheran approach to ethical issues. The Lutheran approach is quite different from either the Catholic tradition or those churches influenced primarily by the Reformation leader John Calvin, such as Baptists and Presbyterians. I will also try to explain how abortion cannot be understood today without taking in view its political implications, that is, how the issue of abortion has been used in practical politics in this country. Abortion is not simply a moral issue, it has been very highly politicized by groups who have much larger motivations and agendas than abortion itself.

What I want to do here is explain how an abortion doctor could be a Lutheran based on the teachings of Martin Luther, the 16th century scholar and theologian who is regarded as the primary instigator of the Protestant Reformation. I have not studied the views specifically of Dr. Tiller. Rather I focus on the ethos of Lutheranism, the patterns of attitudes and beliefs, the habits of thought and common practices, that are likely to characterize most Lutheran congregations, at least to some degree, and which probably influenced Dr. Tiller. Lutherans have always taken theology and ethics seriously, and what our tradition teaches in any particular moment of history is always contested among us. But that very fact means that Lutherans enjoy an open tradition, open to the uniqueness of the present moment and the future, not closed in systems of absolute law or dead language, as we try to interpret the teachings of Martin Luther for our own times.

The Terrified Conscience

Martin Luther came to believe that the Roman Catholic Church of his time was an oppressive religious system that terrified the consciences of the people. He himself as a monk experienced the terror of fear of hell, never finding a gracious God even though he tried with all his might to follow the religious rituals and practices of that religious system. As the result of his biblical studies, especially the Psalms and the Pauline letters, Luther came to teach that justification of the sinner before God was the result of faith alone, not moral behavior, not intellectual effort, not assenting to right doctrine. Salvation is something God does for us, not something we can do for God. Lutherans such as Dr. George Tiller hear this sort of gospel message again and again in sermons in Lutheran churches.

It is important to understand where this salvation occurs, it happens in the internal subjectivity of the human self, as is emphasized in a recent book by German theologian, Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, and the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. The salvation is mediated not by the external institutional structures of the church, but God acts directly on the internal self through actual words of gospel preaching and participation in the sacraments. In worship an actual inter-subjective relationship between God and the believer is experienced and this relationship makes real the meaning of the word salvation. Luther became a fierce critic of the Catholic hierarchy because it placed itself between the believer and God and used its power over people for its own institutional advantage, such as selling indulgences, or certificates, by which a person was promised a place in heaven, in order to raise money to build great cathedrals. To increase its own institutional power the Catholic Church at the time terrified the internal consciences of the people. Unfortunately, that church is now again terrifying the consciences of people today in its false teachings about abortion.

Vocation in the Secular World

It is difficult to over-estimate the revolutionary changes in society caused by Luther's theology. He himself was relatively conservative in his social teachings about family and government. But his attack on the institutional power of the church caused great changes. Very large numbers of people were at the time engaged in religious occupations in monasteries, schools, and congregations. Luther told them to leave their religious occupations and do some honest work in the world. It was unnecessary to spend so much time trying to save their souls, they should go into the community and bake some bread, make some shoes, teach in a public school, build up the life of the community by serving the neighbor. This emphasis remains in our culture in the language of vocation and "calling." Luther rejected the distinction between divine church and secular world, the world was as much the realm of God's grace and preservation as the church. We learn through the gospel that the whole world is the place of God's creation. So Lutherans hear in sermons again and again that they are sent into the world to love the neighbor, to carry out their vocation in the world. The secular is not the place where God is absent, it is the place where Lutherans are called to serve, just as Dr. Tiller was doing in his medical practice. It is just this encouragement which may have undergirded his dedication to serve the needs of women who faced desperate circumstances in their pregnancies, even in the face of constant vilification and hatred by those who attacked him on a daily basis outside his clinic.

The Lutheran doctrine of vocation has had tremendous influence in creating the conditions for the development of modern society. The sociologist Max Weber's book on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism continues to be debated, but there is no question that the shift from a religious-oriented to a secular-oriented mental framework has influenced current understandings.

Free from All, Free for All

One of the most popular writings of Martin Luther is his pamphlet called "The Freedom of a Christian." There he says a Christian is "free from all," free from all earthly authority through the power of the gospel which establishes a reconciled relationship with God, a quite subversive political orientation since it relativizes all earthly authority. At the same time, this gospel creates in the believer a desire to serve the neighbor, not to satisfy any law or demand, but out of thanksgiving for the grace and mercy of a loving God. Luther taught that good people engage in good behavior. The gospel creates good people, free from fear, anger, or guilt, people able to act to meet the concrete need of the neighbor known through practical reason. It does not take much moral reasoning to see the concrete need of the neighbor. Here too, the institutional church with its detailed moral prescriptions is unnecessary and gets in the way of the ordinary Christian acting out of love for the neighbor, directly responsible before God for that action.

Even if they cannot personally articulate this theological and moral understanding, Lutherans live and worship within a community where such is the ethos. For example, if Dr. Tiller had asked his pastor for help in making decisions about whether he should engage in this or that medical action in relation to his clients, his pastor would have carried on a conversation but finally the pastor would have told him, if the pastor was functioning within the Lutheran tradition, that he has to make his decision within the context of his own relationship before God.

In other words, the significance of the subjective relationship referred to earlier extends to ethics as well as worship. The community of believers may help one another in moral deliberation, but finally each stands before God without ultimate authority given either to conservative deontological principle/law or liberal utilitarian calculation. Each individual is the bearer of moral agency in Lutheran understanding but it is not simply a matter of free choice, it is a matter of good persons freely doing what is good for the neighbor because of the grace and mercy of God. It is not an isolated individual making a choice outside of relationships, which is the tendency of liberal theory, but, indeed, it is living and choosing in the midst of concrete, inter-subjective relationships with both God and neighbor. From what I have read about Dr. Tiller's relationships with his patients he treated them with the utmost courtesy and compassionate understanding, entering into their ethical dilemmas rather than standing over and apart from them in self-righteous condemnation, respecting their own capacity for moral judgment.

One might understand this as an incarnational pattern, God did not finally stand away from human beings in judgment, but enters into the reality of human life through the real person Jesus Christ to connect with human beings on the level of their vulnerability and pain. God enters into the world not in the form of a judgmental father standing over us but as a friend standing next to us encouraging us in every way.

Natural Law

Martin Luther did not have as high a view of natural law as the Catholic Church then and now. Natural law is the short-hand term for the idea that God puts into the minds of all human beings a sense of right and wrong. The law revealed in the bible is summarized in the ten commandments or in Jesus' words: "love God and neighbor." But even if a person has not heard of the bible, according to natural law theory, he or she has been given a moral sense of right and wrong. Luther and John Calvin believed this was true, but Luther especially taught that natural law in the human mind is clouded by sin. That is why government is needed, to provide what we now call "positive law," law established by particular governments, so that human beings are forced to live within some basic order for the good of all, and so that the church has time to do its work of preaching the gospel which will lead people to do what is right by the power of the Holy Spirit working inside their subjective consciousness, as we talked about above.

The distinction between natural and revealed law is important to understand in relation to the so-called "evangelical" wing of Protestantism. Evangelicals, influenced by Calvinist traditions, place primary authority in the scripture itself and the idea that the law, including detailed prescriptions, presented in scripture is absolute. John Calvin in Geneva even had committees set up to study the bible to determine how best to build the city's sewer system! Martin Luther did not so believe. He saw the bible as absolutely authoritative concerning the gospel, but detailed legal prescriptions in the bible are for the people of that time. As indicated above, for Luther ethical imperatives come from each person's direct relationship with God (strange as that concept is for many people today). Evangelicals like to try to claim that they find prohibition against abortion in the bible, but it is completely obvious that the people of that time had no detailed knowledge of the reproductive process as we do today through biological science. So there is no convincing argument from the bible about abortion specifically.

And that may be one reason Catholics have especially become so enamored of the natural law argument. Since explicit religious or bible-based doctrine cannot be used as authoritative within a democracy with separation of church and state, they believe an argument can still be made on the basis of natural law, which supposedly is universal and so applies to everybody, Christian or not. But then they make a claim that they themselves are the ones who best know what makes for natural law. In fact, the Pope ultimately reserves to himself the authority to interpret natural law. Lutherans disagree with both these claims, the manner in which Catholics have traditionally conceived of natural law and the authority of the Pope to be its final arbiter. These differences have fundamentally to do with the whole question of abortion.

Both Catholics and evangelicals in their public rhetoric like to frame abortion as a war between Christians and atheists, believers over-against secularists. It is not that simple. Dr. Tiller was killed in his Lutheran church. There are strong and solid theological traditions among Christians that reject both the Catholic and evangelical viewpoints. There are differences among Lutheran pastors, scholars and laypersons on the abortion question. Some Lutherans do not know their own history and intellectual assumptions. Other Lutherans in their desire to affirm the ecumenical unity of the church have minimized differences with the Catholicism. I count myself as one of the latter, at one time even thinking of myself as an "evangelical Catholic". In the last years, however, the stakes on the abortion issue have grown so great, and have such implications for how the politics of the country have been conducted (and damaged by cultural wars), that I believe it is time to make very clear the differences between Catholics and Lutherans on this question. It is possible to be an abortion doctor and a good Lutheran.

A key distinction needs to be kept in mind between natural law and nature itself. Immense confusion will result without realizing the importance of this distinction. Natural law, to the degree it exists, exists inside the conscious subjectivity of the human mind and gives us a sense of right and wrong. The term "nature" refers to the external world within which we live, including our own biological bodies. How our internal minds conceive of external nature is a matter of great philosophical debate and influences how we think in terms of right and wrong. But the distinction is important to be able to understand how others are writing and thinking about abortion and biology.

One of the most prominent current proponents of Catholic natural law theory is Robert P. George of Princeton University. In a paper before the American Political Science Association George discusses his view of abortion. His views are based on Aristotelian assumptions mediated through the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas. That is, Aristotle taught that there is a basic rational structure that exists behind everything in the world. Through rational effort human beings can come to know this rational structure which presents the essence or purpose of everything. From this idea, for example, science likes to categorize everything, put the varied stuff of the universe into rational categories. Robert George argues that the human mind works in this way and builds up criteria for interpreting the external world. He concludes that the human mind "naturally" sees the essence and purpose of human life in the meeting of the sperm and the egg. In other words, to conclude that life begins at conception Robert George asks us to accept the foundational philosophical theories of an ancient Greek philosopher. And he further goes on to say that if we are not willing to do so we do not care about the sacredness of human life (see his presentation at the Catholic University of America). People following the Robert George way of thinking end up calling Dr. George Tiller a baby killer.

But Robert George goes further. He says that modern biological science proves that the natural law way of thinking is correct. Here George is making a very large intellectual mistake and placing himself in the camp of fundamentalists and others who try to use science to prove biblical or theological claims, such as the creationists or advocates of intelligent design. Biological science provides an account of the whole process of human reproduction. Biology itself, as a science, cannot determine when God acts; external methods of science cannot determine internal subjective beliefs. One can believe and understand the whole process as part of God's creative activity, but there is no absolute scientific method by which to make the claim that everything centers on conception as the point that God uniquely acts to create a human being. For Robert George to claim that science proves when God acts is an act of hubris, not careful reasoning, and no real scientist can make such a claim as a scientist.

Martin Luther didn't like Aristotle, not at all. He saw this philosophy as part of the oppressive religious system against which he was fighting. He did not like that the institutional structures of the Catholic church used abstract reasoning to intimidate and confound the conscience of the faithful and justify the power of the church over the individual. Luther was not a philosopher or systematic theologian, he was a biblical scholar and preacher concerned with the direct relationship between the believer and God. He believed each person could hear and respond to the gospel of God's gracious love, and then go into the world and see the concrete need of the neighbor.

That is exactly what Dr. George Tiller did. After earning his medical degree he helped his father in his medical practice, and discovered that his father occasionally did abortions for women in need. George Tiller's mind was not confused by abstract Aristotelian moral reasoning, he saw the practical need of his patients and acted to relieve their suffering. To attack him based on esoteric philosophy as a baby killer who disrespected life should be considered an outrage by anyone who thinks both seriously and compassionately about these matters.

Both Luther and Calvin maintained a strong sense of the holiness and otherness of God beyond human rational comprehension. This is one reason Lutherans are hesitant to make large claims about knowing the will of God in specific instances. God is God. Humans are fallible creatures who are constantly disobeying the first commandment not to worship other gods. The way people like Robert George talk about the biological process makes it seem as if the biology itself is a sort of divine power. They worship the biology rather than the source of life itself. But one of the most important traditions of all Christian faith is that the world, including the biology, is broken. Indeed, that is why the church has during the modern period supported the use of medical technology for healing. Women coming to Dr. Tiller did so as a last resort when the biological process was somehow broken. Medical technology now makes it possible for women to know the status of the fetus before birth, such as a fetus without a brain with no chance for viability. Physicians influenced by the abstract reasoning of Robert George would say, sorry, you have to go it alone even if having the baby threatens future chances for a successful pregnancy. Dr. Tiller would do an abortion for such a woman out of compassion and care and in spite of the fact that he experienced extreme hostility from people under the influence of the Robert George type of natural law thinking. Dr. Tiller wanted to use his medical knowledge for the benefit of women so that they could see new possibilities for their lives in the future.

Open Future for Creation

The implication of law is that the future will be more of the same as the past. Everyone follows the "law" which never changes. Lutherans are quite suspicious of law in this sense. Rather, Luther taught the gospel is a "living word" which opens life to be lived in the power of the spirit. Law is needed because of sin, but the promise of the gospel is new life, full, real, throbbing life. The future is not more of the same as the past but the place of the fulfillment of the promises of God. The future is fundamentally open through the power of the gospel. That does not mean that the law is unimportant, but, finally, Christians are not bound by it.

Luther teaches the exact opposite of what so-called "evangelical" Christianity promotes. The latter speaks about human beings needing to make a decision to accept the gifts of God in adult baptism or a "born anew" experience. Then they speak of the providence of God as if God mechanically controls every earthly process where human beings have no freedom. Luther taught the opposite. He says we have no choices about the grace of God. God gives the gift of grace, faith, spirit and human beings can do nothing to deserve it or control it. On the other hand, human beings are completely free to use their rational capacity to decide how to live within the world. In this way the world is fundamentally open to what human beings choose to do. That is why their vocation in the world is so important.

But as Lutherans engage in their vocation in the world they are not promised to be able to know any better than non-Christians what is right or wrong, well or bad. This is why Lutherans cannot, on the basis of any secret or esoteric knowledge, seek to tell the world how to run its business. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian killed by the Nazis just before the end of the second world war, says there is no distinct Christian or Lutheran ethics. A non-Christian ruler may well be wiser than a foolish Christian. Wisdom is not a gift given only to Christians. The God worshipped by Christians is the same God who has created all other human beings, and so Christians participate with them to determine how to order life together in community. This is why Lutherans today like to think of themselves as a "public church," a church not of an exclusive God, but a God who is the source of life for all. This means that as Lutherans enter the life of the world they do so with a certain humility, willing to learn from the wisdom of all others in the world. This is quite a different stance than that of either Catholics, who think they know natural law better than others, or fundamentalists, who think everyone should follow their interpretation of the bible.

This means Lutherans faithful to their own tradition will fight hardest against both Catholics and fundamentalists when they claim to exclusively know God's will concerning every detail of public life and governance. Dr. Tiller refused to give in to the extremist voices and actions that the religious right and those inspired by Catholic natural law rhetoric organized against him. The man had the courage of his convictions even if others associated him with atheists and secularists and attacked him in every way they could.

Martin Luther often became fierce in his attack of the oppressive religious system which was the Catholic Church of his day. In the pamphlet Against the Murderer of Dresden Luther engages in a form of public speech which sounds excessive to modern ears:
For I am unable to pray without at the same time cursing. If I am prompted to say "Hallowed by Thy name," I must add "Cursed, damned, and outraged be the name of papists and of all those who slander your name." If I am prompted to say, "Thy Kingdom come, I must perforce add, "Cursed, damned and destroyed must be the papacy together with all earthly kingdoms that are against your kingdom." If I am prompted to say, "Let there be Thy will," I must also add, "Cursed, damned, outraged and destroyed be all the ideas and attacks of the papists and of all those who strive against your will and decision." Indeed, I pray thus orally every day and in my heart, without intermission, and all those who believe in Christianity pray thus with me. And I am well convinced that God will hear our prayers."
With these words Luther attacked not secularists and atheists but the most dominant and powerful institution of his time, the Roman Catholic Church. That church in our time is not at all as powerful in society, indeed, not all bishops and priests and members of the Catholic Church today express themselves in the manner of Robert P. George. But he and others in the church have sought to return to the time when Catholic dogma on natural law is implemented in positive law enforced by the power of the state. George was a colleague of the late Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor who became a Catholic priest and leading exponent of natural law thinking through the journal he founded, First Things. Both Neuhaus and George rose in prestige in the White House of George W. Bush. In fact, Neuhaus sought to create a political alliance with Protestant evangelicals in his belief that abortion could function as a strong organizing issue in the culture wars of the past several decades. It is against such a domination of politics even today that the harsh words of Luther may still be appropriate, especially now that we have experienced the killing of a faithful physician by a man influenced by natural law rhetoric which portrays abortion as baby killing.

The Politics of Abortion

Catholics have not provided the primary energy for the anti-abortion movement. Though their thinking has provided that movement with a certain intellectual respectability (George holds a position at a prestigious university), the real energy of that movement comes from what is known as the religious right, constituted primarily by Southern religious groups such as the Southern Baptists and Pentecostals such as the Assemblies of God, especially the television preachers who emerged in the 1980s during the era of Ronald Reagan. Jerry Falwell, now dead, was a Southern Baptist, as is Rick Warren who seeks to be a major spokesperson today. Pat Robertson is Pentecostal. Using methods pioneered by Billy Graham, also a Southern Baptist, the so-called "evangelical" movement has put together a formula for building large churches that is less informed by the theology of the Reformation than a desire for cultural power, big audiences, nativistic religion, and a prosperity gospel which means lots of money in the offering plates. Evangelicalism has become an Americanized and commercialized form of religion far from the historic traditions of the Protestant Reformation. It has over these past decades aligned itself with a particular political party in this country, the Republican Party, which has dominated politics since 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon.

Abortion as a moral issue cannot be understood without the realization that it has been and continues to be primarily a political issue promoted by religious groups with a far larger agenda than simply abortion and driven by an energy that goes far deeper into the racial history of the country than most Americans want to admit. After the Civil War in the 1860s the white South was able to keep former black slaves from full participation in the society for another 100 years. Only in the 1960s were blacks given full legal rights in public life through the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King and the smart politics of Lyndon Johnson. Then in 1968 came the election of Nixon with his "Southern Strategy" which appealed to the white South. Ronald Reagan was the first president to explicitly seek the vote of the religious right which was emerging as part of a white backlash against the gains of blacks in the 1960s. It must be recognized that the South was forced to dramatically change its patterns of discrimination and segregation by the federal government. The Supreme Court had forced school integration in 1954. White churches set up their own religious schools rather than send their children to integrated public schools. This is the origin of the hatred of the religious right for public education which continues today.

In 1973 the Supreme Court, the same Supreme Court, made abortion legal. The white South already hated the Supreme Court, now it had another issue to fight about, abortion. It turned out to be a handy emotional issue, one which gave Southern religion a sense of moral superiority over Northern liberals who had forced integration upon the South. The energy of the cultural wars, then, and central political fights of the past decades, is centered on the one most important historical original sin of the United States, slavery and racism. Abortion, then, has little to do with natural law as something inside the human mind defining a sense of right and wrong. What was right and wrong in the minds of white Southerners was determined by their history as slave owners and their sense of themselves as racially and morally superior to blacks.

The racism in the public consciousness of the white South has been and continues to be a very major factor influencing politics today. The only area of the country which was unable to vote for a black president in 2008 was the white South. A Republican who is now trying to establish himself as a presidential candidate in 2012, Newt Gingrich, from a Southern state, is stumbling over his use of the word racist for his opponents who support equality for blacks.

I have provided just enough of this political history to demonstrate that abortion is less a moral issue than a political issue and the energy for it lies in backlash politics more than moral reflection. It gives me great pain and sadness to say that too many leaders of the Catholic Church have for what they construe to be moral reasons sided with evangelical religious expressions rather than with those Protestants such as Lutherans who do indeed consider moral questions to be important indeed, including the moral issue of racism, support for family life, economic justice, and concern for the environmental sustainability of the earth itself.

Lutherans organized in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have put together a social statement for its members in which abortion can be morally justified in certain conditions with a focus on the role of the woman as an agent of moral responsibility. Dr. George Tiller probably knew this statement well, for it supported his compassionate work as a physician who took seriously his moral responsibility to love the neighbor, just as Jesus said. Then people like Professor Robert George come along and use a form of natural law reasoning leading to use of the phrase baby killer for Dr. Tiller. I admit that makes me want to curse like Martin Luther did. It is time for the Roman Catholic leaders to stop using such inflammatory language in public. The Pope himself has stopped trying to get an anti-abortion law passed in Italy, the people there just will not do so. The only reason the Catholic Church is making such a political effort in the United States is the political presence of the religious right with its central energy coming from a racist history. That is not a good partner for Catholics. It is time to stop terrorizing the minds and hearts of the people over abortion. We should have no more abortion killings in any churches.

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Date Added: 6/4/2009 Date Revised: 6/11/2009

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