Bloody Kansas

By Don Rollins

I don’t know any abortion jokes. I just don’t. Sure, the often inane, American zeitgeist, is rife with funny stuff, but abortion is never funny.

What happened in the back of that Lutheran church down in Kansas last week—the assassination of a doctor whose practice included late-term procedures— certainly wasn’t funny. Gratefully, it was an abomination. Consummate pro-lifer and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry notwithstanding, the vast majority of anti-choice Americans do not defend the use of small arms as secondary tools of the Almighty. They might lobby their legislators to beat hell, orchestrate protest marches in weather fit for neither fish nor fowl and write obscenely large checks in support of one or another anti-choice “ministry”, but they don’t get their kicks from homicidal zealots who besmirch the cause by shooting people in the head.

Still, I understand the temptation to generalize and blame the pro-lifers; words have the power to shape minds, and Lord knows the opponents of reproductive freedom have verbally been at George Tiller for years. We can be excused for at least wondering to what extent their words contributed to that massacre in the church foyer.

But irregardless of the powerful words, Tiller is for now suspended in our collective conscience—left, right and center—as a human metaphor for one of the most polarized, ongoing moral issue this nation has ever known. Expect over the coming weeks to hear Tiller’s name alongside that of Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, so fitting an archetype is he for our great abortion divide. If Obama’s big invite to speak at Notre Dame touched our national nerve, Tiller’s death has touched our entire nervous system. Little surprise that both the pro- and anti-choice armies have fired up the rhetoric and the counter-rhetoric machines: interviews laced with well-worn hook lines; blogs and talk radio shows featuring recycled sound bites; press releases infused with leftover spin.

Deep down, the murder of George Tiller says at least as much about the current chasm over abortion as it does about him or his alleged killer. But it also reminds a few of us old newshounds of a time in which abortion did not dominate our domestic moral stage. Permit me a quick trip down Memory Lane.

In my Paleolithic, Fundamentalist preacher, pre-Moral Majority salad days, abortion hovered well below the American moral radar screen. Back in the early ’70s, the Good Bookers that trained me for evangelical ministry were more concerned about your soul than your daughter’s back alley abortion. Why address an “invisible” political issue? Why raise hell about worldly stuff when the Lord is due back any day?

Honest, kids, there was a time when abortion did not consume us like this. While I set about saving sinners, the less religiously inclined of my generation had a shooting war to end. They had a cold war to win. They had a bourgeoning presidential nightmare on their hands. Change was still in the air. Think women’s rights. Race equality. The beginnings of an organized gay rights movement. Scarce could we imagine a day when a man could get killed for performing abortions.

And then came Roe. A national dialogue was short-circuited, sparking the theological/moral firestorm that has done nothing but intensify and spread.

In many parts of the nation, Roman Catholics and born-againers had been mingling only on church league softball fields, but the Court’s 7-2 decision changed all that. Jerry Falwell and his minions first shanghaied far-right Christianity, then far-right Republicanism. Meanwhile, Rome brought to bear on the issue its considerable and sustained influence. (This, despite surprising apathy in some quarters of the Church in this country.) A strictly literal, utterly idolatrous, highly selective reading of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures was cited as definitive theological authority for getting political.

Anti-choice Catholics and Protestants were in business. Together—or at least simultaneously — they lowered the boom of righteous indignation on everything from “the gay lifestyle” to feminism. A “culture war” was declared. And into that war was dropped the moral equivalent of a nuclear bomb: abortion.

But enough barn yard philosophy and history. Understanding how we got to this point is important, but Roe is not to blame for George Tiller’s brutal murder; level-headed opponents of abortion rights know that. Operation Rescue and its four decades of predecessor organizations didn’t put the gun in his killer’s hand; level-headed proponents of abortion rights know that. But for now, it looks like we’re in for more of this moral impasse.

Every nation has its narrative—its unfolding story—and ours, despite two foreign wars, a train wreck economy and potential environmental Armageddon has a habit of coming back to this deeply divisive equation: Two Intractable Sides + No Clear Answers = More Tragedy.

I don’t know any abortion jokes. I just don’t.

Rev. Don Rollins is interim minister of the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bloomington, Minn. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2009

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