By Rev. Terry Williams, Ohio RCRC Faith Organizer
Ten years ago today, amidst piles of worship bulletins and while his wife in the choir looked on from her seat in the sanctuary, Dr. George Tiller was murdered by an anti-abortion Christian extremist at Wichita’s Reformation Lutheran Church. Dr. Tiller was shot while in the narthex of his home church where he was serving as an usher, spending his Sunday welcoming anxious latecomers — providing the warm greeting to reassure them that they were both loved and wanted there no matter their tardiness that morning.
Having operated the Women's Health Care Services clinic in Wichita, Kansas for more than 30 years, Dr. Tiller’s work touched the lives of countless people throughout his career. Within his funeral service, Tiller was remembered as a man devoted to the health of families and of women. Within his church, George was mourned as a man of faith deeply devoted to a religion that taught mercy, understanding, and compassion for others above all else.
The gunman who carried out the assassination of Dr. Tiller was a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian who later recounted in gruesome detail the litany of ways he had fantasized about maiming and killing Tiller over several years leading up to the attack. After a thorough consideration of his methods and means, the assailant acted on the impulses of his hatred, ending the life of one of the most compassionate, tender men of faith who had ever earned a medical degree.
I can remember going to my church several Sundays after Dr. Tiller’s murder, gathering with the choir to rehearse, and then going to the front door to welcome people to worship. We prayed for Dr. Tiller’s family that Sunday, and I can remember one older woman in the church who was completely distraught at the coffee fellowship hour after worship. She had watched the news about Dr. Tiller’s funeral, and she saw footage of people protesting outside the church during the service.
“God Sent the Shooter,” one protester’s sign said.
She couldn’t understand how, at the funeral of a man gunned down in his own church, someone could hold up a sign with a message that so clearly didn’t represent the God she knew and loved. Still just a student in seminary and a lay member of my congregation, I was at a loss for anything that approached an explanation as I heard this woman’s questions. All I could do to comfort my dear elder sister was to sit with her, hold her hand, dry some of her tears, and be sure she got something to eat in the midst of her sorrow and grief.
Now that I am ordained and have been serving as a pastor of a local congregation for a while, I am still at a loss for words when I think about that horrid sign. “God Sent the Shooter” is such an offensive, malignant sentiment for me even these many years on from Dr. Tiller’s murder. I still have little in the way of explanation or understanding for the values system that could compel someone to put that sentiment on a sign and stand over top of a murdered man.
“God Sent the Shooter” is the root theological statement of the anti-abortion movement. It claims a position that is so absolute and so decisive, even the mercy and grace of almighty God is swallowed up in its wrathful, hateful vengeance.
It is the rallying cry of every extremist who seeks to steal a person’s right to an abortion. It is the slogan of those who will stop at nothing — even murder — to achieve their self-declared purification of other people’s lives. It is an agenda that is hell-bent on the control and subjugation of other people, and it is an agenda that has only grown more virulent in the decade since Dr. Tiller’s murder.
Ten years on from the murder of George Tiller, we can see all too well in our own state the pernicious effects of the theology of violence that so-called “pro-life” extremists have tried to sell in our society. Like street-corner drug dealers pushing their wares, anti-abortion radicals continue to use any means necessary to attempt to manipulate our systems of government and education into accepting their anti-science, anti-life message.
From sleights of hand that intentionally misuse terminology, to outright science fiction lies about ectopic pregnancies and the viability of 20-week fetuses, the extremist crowd is continuing to pull out all the stops to get their way at any cost, forcing their narrow ideological and religious views on broad swaths of Ohioans who don’t agree with their radical agenda.
Daily it seems we witness new abortion bans and restrictions being signed into law — all of them an extension of the same hateful ideology that left Dr. George Tiller’s blood on the church house floor 10 years ago today. At its heart, all anti-abortion extremism leads to the same gruesome end: killing the people who stand in the way of that ideological agenda and proudly blaming God for it all.
On this anniversary, in honor of the life of faith that Dr. George Tiller lived, let’s have the courage to stand up boldly and proclaim God’s innocence in the hateful actions of anti-abortion extremists.
Let’s speak plainly the truth that God never sends a hit man to work violence on people. No matter if that hit man wields a gun in the course of a murder as did Dr. Tiller’s killer, or if the assassin kills more slowly — with six-week abortion bans or laws that unfairly target regulation of abortion providers — we know that the shooters who wield these vile weapons aren’t send by God.
As we remember Dr. Tiller’s legacy of faith, may we honor his memory by renewing our commitment to be faithful voices in troubling times — speaking words of peace and comfort to a world that is still burdened by extremist ideological agendas and terribly abusive theology.
May we have the strength to honor George Tiller by living our faith out loud, supporting those who seek abortion care services and challenging those who would strip rights of reproductive choice away.
On this anniversary day, may we be a part of the ongoing legacy of Dr. George R. Tiller, choosing compassion and mercy as pathways to justice no matter the danger or cost.
When you think of the martyred Dr. George R. Tiller, remember: “God Sent the Healer.”
May we always carry his memory and never forget his name.