Roe V. Wade and another wasted life
Benjamin S. Cole
September 3, 2003
At 6:08 PM on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2003, inmate no. 459364 was executed by lethal injection at the state prison facility in Starke, FL. With a group of more than 50 protesters gathered outside the facility, and attended by a small group of clergymen, 49 year old former Presbyterian minister, Paul J. Hill, closed his eyes to the face of his executioners and opened them to the face of his eternal Judge.
Hill ended his life just as he had lived it during the past nine years of his incarceration for the violent murder of an abortion doctor, John Bayard Britton, 69, and the doctor’s bodyguard, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Barrett, 74. Convinced that he had acted righteously when he emptied four shotgun shells at point-blank range into the bodies of his victims, Hill remained quietly defiant of the Florida judicial system at every stage of his trial and subsequent sentence. In his last moments, Hill repeated his confession of guilt and called on others to act just as he had with the promise of heavenly reward for what he called “justifiable homicide.”
So ends the sad story of Paul Hill, former ordained minister turned vigilante. But the issues that his case raises are going to be with us for a long time to come. Of this we can be assured: Paul Hill is not a martyr. Neither is John Britton. Both men were murderers, and both of them have died for their crimes.
A few years ago I had a fellow minister put the question to me like this: If I was standing in a maternity ward and saw a doctor smothering to death baby after baby in their cradles, would I drop to my knees and pray that God would stop him? Would I start a petition to have the laws changed? Would I write a letter to my congressman? Or would I do anything within my power, using lethal force if necessary, to stop him from murdering even one more child?
To be sure, murder inside the womb is just as insidious as murder outside the womb. The images which that scene creates in my mind are disturbing indeed. I hope I would do the right thing. And the more I think about it, the more I am committed to working within the law to see to it that I am never faced with such an ethical dilemma.
Let me be perfectly clear about this. The state-sanctioned slaughter of babies in our nation is a sin so great, a moral perversion so beyond justification, that even a wordsmith such as I finds it difficult to convey the gross and visceral repulsion that is mine when I think of it. Furthermore, it troubles me no less that those who name Christ as Lord would defy his Word, act outside the clear mandates of Scripture, and take for themselves the penal responsibility which by divine decree belongs solely to civil authorities.
Perhaps the great need of the hour is for the church to reexamine and rearticulate the doctrines of civil obedience and disobedience. Whether believers are laying their bodies down in front of state courthouses, or chaining themselves together in front of clinical slaughterhouses, there must be a moral certainty about when the Lord’s army must take up their swords, and when it must lay them down.
For the eternal pacifist who sits in his cloistered prayer chamber, there are texts of Scripture that should stir him to the alarming realization that the faith once delivered to the saints requires an earnest contending on his part. For the strident zealot who rattles his saber at the first threat of conflict, there are corresponding texts that arrest him on the road to civil disobedience, be it violent or nonviolent.
The same Jesus who said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” also said, “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” For every Peter who is told to “put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword,” there is another disciple instructed to “sell his garment and buy a sword.” (Mt 26:52; Lk 22:36)
The reality is that the church in the 21st century does not have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. We are the recipients of 2000 years of teaching concerning these matters, and it seems to me we are ill-advised to ignore that contribution. So allow me to list some ideas that are informed by our historic confessions regarding the respective duties of church and state.
It is never within the jurisdiction of the church to execute penal and capital punishment even against the most violent offenders who defy the laws of God. We must never advocate violence as a tactic for advancing the kingdom of God or his laws among men. Those who act violently, even with the noblest of intentions, should never be excused from the just hand of the civil authorities which they subvert in their cause.
Every Christian has a moral duty to defend life at every stage of existence. There is a fundamental difference, however, between justifiable force in defending ones own person or household against violent aggression and an individual taking it upon himself to become judge, jury, and executor in the life of another.
One more thought in this regard seems appropriate. There is a frightening disconnect between the church’s hot resolve to speak prophetically against the social ills of our day and its hesitance to act redemptively toward those who foster those social ills by committing crimes against the laws of God. Perhaps a little less civil disobedience and a little more spiritual obedience is in order when it comes to how we use our tongues or our bodies in fighting the culture war around us.
In any event, Paul Hill is dead. More than likely Eric Robert Rudolph is soon to follow him. Their names can now be added to the names of their victims and the unknown names of the millions of innocent lives lost since America saw fit to abrogate the sanctity of human life.