Could it be sheer coincidence that the murderous attack on the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC on Wednesday by James W. von Brunn, an anti-Semitic Christian terrorist, occurred scarcely a week after an attack on a Wichita health clinic that performed abortions? Perhaps. Though it is also possible that these incidents, and a host of other threats in recent months, are the violent fringe of a new wave of religiously-motivated violence that might rival America’s Christian terrorism of the 1990s.
If, as it seems, Scott Roeder was indeed the culprit behind the ghastly killing of Dr. George Tiller last week in a Wichita church, the attack raises the possibility of the beginning of a new wave of Christian terrorism in the Obama era. Ruby Ridge and other incidents in the 1990s culminated with the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing, an event so horrendous that it seems to have sobered the radicalism of many Christian militia members. Then came the eight-year reign of President George W. Bush who voiced his support for anti-abortion activists and gave the impression that they had a friend in the White House. The violence abated.
All this may now be changing. A new president is vilified in the right-wing press not only as pro-abortion but as a demonic figure. The image is one of desperation: that the moral authority of the country has been taken captive by an evil enemy. This has the effect of giving moral license to an image of cosmic war, goading the violent urges of some of the most extreme of the Christian activists, whose world view is a melange of millenarianism and anti-abortion adventurism.
Scott Roeder’s religio-political stance is a disturbing example of the revival of this 90s-era Christian terrorism. Though Roeder has been identified with the right-wing Freeman movement, he is also closely related to one of the 1990s most vicious Christian extremist groups, the Army of God [warning: while this link leads only to the Wikipedia page, should you then decide to click through to the AOG website please note that it can be very disturbing]. Roeder has been associated with the movement for some years, and his actions—such as pouring glue into the locks of clinics that perform abortions—are straight out of the Army of God Manual, said to have been authored by Rev. Michael Bray, the Army’s “chaplain.”
Last week, soon after Roeder’s attack on Dr. Tiller, Bray wrote a publicly-published letter to Roeder, declaring that the assassin had acted in “righteousness and mercy.” Bray went on to praise Roeder for following the commandments of God as he “sought to deliver the innocents from the knife of a baby murderer.”
Bray is the author of A Time to Kill, the 1990s booklet that gave a theological justification for anti-abortion activism. One of Bray’s best friends, Rev. Paul Hill, was a Presbyterian pastor who killed several staff members of a Pensacola, Florida clinic that performed abortions. Hill was convicted by the State of Florida, sentenced to the death penalty, and recently executed for his crime. Bray himself served prison time for a lesser offense, bombing several abortion-related clinics on the Eastern seaboard.
Some years ago I interviewed Bray at his home in Bowie, Maryland [see Terror in the Mind of God, UC Press, 2003]. What I found was a likeable Lutheran pastor with a solid theological background whose worldview was much more sophisticated than simply an anti-abortion stance. Bray saw society at the brink of economic and moral decay, and envisioned a radical revolution that would usher in a Christian world order.
According to Bray, Americans live in a situation “comparable to Nazi Germany,” a state of hidden warfare, as the comforts of modern society have lulled the populace into apathy. Bray was convinced that a dramatic event, such as economic collapse or social chaos would reveal the demonic role of the government, and people would have “the strength and the zeal to take up arms” in a revolutionary struggle. What he envisioned as the outcome of that struggle was the establishment of a new moral order in America, one based on biblical law and a spiritual, rather than a secular, social compact.
Until this new moral order is established, Bray said, he and others like him who are aware of what is going on and have the moral courage to resist it are compelled to take action. According to Bray, Christianity gave him the right to defend innocent “unborn children,” even by use of force, whether it involves “destroying the facilities that they are regularly killed in, or taking the life of one who is murdering them.” By the latter, Bray meant killing doctors and other clinical staff involved in performing abortions.
Bray defended the 1994 actions of his friend, Rev. Paul Hill, in killing Dr. John Britton and his escort. Bray’s theological justifications were echoed by Hill himself. “You may wonder what it is like to have killed an abortionist and his escort,” Hill wrote to Bray and his other supporters after the killings. “My eyes were opened to the enormous impact” such an event would have, he wrote, adding that “the effect would be incalculable.” Hill said that he opened his Bible and found sustenance in Psalms 91: “You will not be afraid of the terror by night, or of the arrow that flies by day.” [NAS Bible]. Hill interpreted this as an affirmation that his act was biblically approved.
When I suggested to Bray that carrying out such violent actions is tantamount to acting as both judge and executioner, Bray demurred. Although he did not deny that a religious authority has the right to pronounce judgment over those who broke the moral law, he explained that attacks on abortion clinics and the killing of abortion doctors were essentially defensive rather than punitive acts.
According to Bray, “there is a difference between taking a retired abortionist and executing him, and killing a practicing abortionist who is regularly killing babies.” The first act is in Bray’s view retributive, the second defensive. According to Bray, the attacks were aimed not so much at punishing clinics and abortionists for their actions as at preventing them from “killing babies,” as Bray put it. He was careful to say that he did not advocate the use of violence, but morally approved of it in some instances. He was “pro-choice,” as he put it, regarding its use.
Bray found support for his position in actions undertaken during the Nazi regime in Europe. His moral exemplar in this regard was the German theologian and Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who abruptly terminated his privileged research position at Union Theological Seminary in New York City to return to Germany and clandestinely join a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bray also cited Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. Niebuhr began his career as a pacifist, but in time he grudgingly began to accept the position that a Christian, acting for the sake of justice, could use a limited amount of coercive force.
Once again Christian theological arguments are being advanced to support the most lethal acts of terrorism. In the imaginations of Scott Roeder, James W. von Brunn, and Michael Bray, they are soldiers in an awesome war, a grand struggle between the forces of good and the reign of evil—now incarnate in the Obama era of liberal society. Their positions might be taken as poignant reminders of the past if they were not so vividly in the present, and so gruesomely destructive.