Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Biblical Interpretation and Christian Domestic Terrorism: The Exegeses of Rev. Michael Bray and Rev. Paul Hill

Dan Clanton

Most scholars who examine the relationship between religion and violence agree that one of the most important factors in using sacred texts to justify violence against another person, community, or institution is the process of making them an "Other."[1] Religiously speaking, these others serve as the discordant example of belief and behavior over and against which the people of God are to be constructed, and thus it is easy to see why violence is often employed to remove, punish, or defend innocents from these others.[2] The emphasis on defending innocents from the "Other" is central to the most common form of scripturally justified violence in America: violence in the radical anti-abortion movement(s). This essay examines the use of biblical texts dealing with violence by two of the most important figures in these movements: Rev. Michael Bray and Rev. Paul Hill. The former's 1994 monograph, A Time to Kill: A Study Concerning the Use of Force and Abortion, is often cited as the main ideological text by violent pre-born activists, and the latter was the first person executed in the United States for the murder of an abortion provider. Given the prominence of the abortion debate in the United States, probing the biblically interpretive underpinnings of the most radical of abortion opponents would seem to be a necessary task.

In his work on religious violence, Charles Selengut notes, "The radical Christian abortion opponents . . . consider the bombing of abortion clinics and the planned murder of abortion providers to be a religious obligation for faithful Christians."[3] These believers, he claims, adhere to a specific type of theological understanding, viz.:

Reconstruction Christian theology, which teaches that it is Christians' duty to transform secular materialistic society into a Christian theocracy which will eventually be able to welcome Jesus Christ when he returns in triumph to establish the Kingdom of God. . . . [Thus] Followers of reconstruction theology have a postmillennial view of Christian history.[4]

Additionally, it seems that many of these groups also hold a very dim view of the U.S. government, which they see as at the least tyrannical, and at the most satanic. All of these theological underpinnings stem from particular understandings of sacred texts.[5]

These sentiments have been expressed also by one of the most notorious figures in domestic anti-abortion movements, excommunicated Presbyterian minister Paul Hill, who was executed on 3 September 2003 for the murders of Dr. John B. Britton and his security escort, James Herman Barrett, at a Ladies Clinic in Pensacola nine years earlier. Hill was famously unrepentant, claiming that "I expect a great reward in heaven," and "I am looking forward to glory. I don't feel remorse."[6] As Hill's statements make clear, his actions were religiously motivated; in one case, he calls "defending the unborn with force . . . a biblical duty whose time has come."[7] In his writings, he frequently points to scriptural citations as proof texts to justify his actions, especially Gen 9:6 and Num 35:33, texts that appear prominently on his official webpage.[8]

Also on this webpage is a personal recollection, titled "I Shot an Abortionist," in which Hill describes his decision to use violence; this testimony is filled with scripture and biblical language. In this essay, Hill refers to five different biblical stories or citations to place his actions within the context of what he sees as a biblical view regarding defensive violence.[9] The two most important of these are Gen 14 and the story of Esther. Hill references Esther twice, and both times his point is that "using force to stop abortion is the same means that God has used to stop similar atrocities throughout history." He connects Esther to his own cause by noting that when the order was given for their execution

the Jews didn't passively submit; their use of defensive force prevented a calamity of immense proportions. . . . In much the same way, when abortion was first legalized in our nation, if the people had resisted this atrocity with the means necessary, it would have saved millions of children from a bloody death.

Similarly, Hill mentions the story of Abraham's military escapade in Gen 14 three times. His interest in the story lies in Abraham's rescue of his nephew Lot. Hill notes, "Under these circumstances, lethal force was necessary. It certainly prevented those killed from later regrouping and returning to threaten Abraham or Lot." The most curious use of Gen 14 comes under the heading "The Burden of Proof," in which Hill argues that judgment of his murderous actions is necessarily perspectival: "It's easy to see why someone who supports abortion would accuse me of murder: those who took sides with the men Abraham killed when he rescued Lot would have responded similarly to Abraham." Hill is here self-consciously drawing an analogy between himself and Abraham. Lot then becomes the pre-born children he set out to save, and the abortion provider and his security escort he killed become the kidnappers of Lot. The outcome of this analogy and its implications for Hill's apologia become evident in the following passage:

The many people Abraham saved could have borne convincing testimony to the virtue of his actions. The lethal force Abraham used would have appeared reasonable and necessary to them. They almost certainly joined with God in blessing him for his decisive action. In much the same way, the many unborn children whose lives are being threatened today bear self-evident witness to the morality of intervening with the immediate means necessary. As in Abraham's case, if we don't overcome all objections, and respond in faith, the innocent will continue to suffer irreparable loss.

Thus, Hill's use of sacred texts is rooted in his understanding of his mission as divinely ordained, as he writes, "I was not standing for my own ideas, but God's truths—the same truths that have stopped blood baths and similar atrocities throughout history. Who was I to stand in God's way?" As such, his understanding of the biblical justification for his violence depends on strict categories of "otherness," as well as the theological bases I mentioned earlier.

A great admirer and friend of Paul Hill, the Rev. Michael Bray is no stranger to the above issues. An outspoken member of the Army of God, one of the most militant domestic anti-abortion groups, Bray served almost four years in prison from 1985-1989 in connection with ten abortion-clinic bombings in the Washington, DC, area. Following his release, he returned to Bowie, Maryland, to lead the Reformed Lutheran Church and set to work on his most famous writing, his book A Time to Kill. In this work, Bray sets out a carefully argued case for reexamining the doctrines of the Christian pro-life movement.[10] One of the most important of these doctrines is the use of force, which he sees as amoral in that it can be used for either good or evil purposes. Bray claims, "Just as it is ethical to use force for good, it is on the other hand immoral to refrain from using force on some occasions."[11] Bray examines the concept of force, and takes as his starting point both Gen 14 and Exod 2:11-14, in which Moses kills an Egyptian who is abusing a Hebrew. Bray notes that in the biblical text, "we find neither explicit approbation nor condemnation of this homicide"; he then claims that "Moses exemplifies the use of lethal force authorized by God for anyone defending the innocent from the threat of possible imminent death."[12]

Bray uses the actions and teachings of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount, to argue that "Force, even lethal force, is not only commanded by God and performed by Him on innumerable occasions in the older Scriptures, it is also prescribed in the Law for citizens' participations."[13] He first discusses Jesus' actions in the Temple. Conflating John's account with Mark's, Bray claims Jesus "cleansed" the Temple twice. Writing about the latter account, in which Jesus enters the Temple at the end of his ministry, Bray notes:

As He approaches His ultimate expression of mercy—His substitutionary atonement for the sins of the world—He retains His zeal for righteousness. . . . And there are, in this principle, ramifications for God's people. There is a time to kill to protect oneself and others, and there is a time to suffer and die voluntarily.[14]

Here Bray also examines what he calls "the error of pacifism"—this, he claims, is the rejection of the use of godly force—which is a result of misunderstanding the Sermon on the Mount.[15] According to Bray, one should not interpret the Sermon literally because that is not the way Jesus intended it. In this Sermon, Jesus "brings to His listeners the central issue of attitude."[16] However, this "central issue" is often found in ethical prescriptions, several of which Bray claims have been "taken out of context to argue against the godly use of force."[17] The first, and most important, is contained in 5.38-42. Bray argues that Christian pacifists have taken this prescription to mean "that Christians should not use force to resist the harm which evil doers would perpetrate against the innocent."[18] Rather, Bray argues that Jesus is not denying the principle of Lex Talionis and writes, "The dominant disposition of the offended citizen is not to be one of retaliation, but of forgiveness."[19] However, this in no way means that an individual should not use godly force to protect another's safety and life, and thus Bray is able to retain his claim that godly force is biblically mandated in spite of the most famous "pacifistic" New Testament text.[20]

It should be clear that both Bray and Hill view the Bible in a specific way. For them, the text serves as what Bruce Lincoln calls a transcendent discourse upon which they base their practices, that is, "embodied material action [that] render religious discourse operational."[21] These practices affect both the way(s) in which believers encounter the world and the way(s) in which they shape their own identity. That is, given the assumptions that believers like Hill and Bray hold about the Bible, it is not surprising that they would seek answers to perceived problems in its pages, but what is not so obvious is that "prior familiarity with the text—and the sedimented familiarity of others, which he experiences as an interpretive tradition—provides the lens through which he understands and responds to the problem."[22] Lincoln calls this situation one of "mutual mediation," that is, one's devotion to a specific religious discourse and/or sacred text both colors and in turn reinforces the way in which one views the world in general, and specific issues in particular. With Hill and Bray, it is obvious that they both hold the view that the Bible is a repository of wisdom, a handbook for living due to their understanding of their particular brand of evangelical Christianity. This view allows them the exegetical freedom to turn to their sacred text with real-life issues and situations, such as the plight of the "pre-born," and find viable instructions and paradigms for action, where others may find only thematic or tangential parallels. Similarly, their investment in the Bible also allows them to view their present situation through an interpretive grid developed through years of study and an imbededness in a particular interpretive tradition. Thus, the Bible serves as the font of action, belief, and identity for them, as well as providing the matrix through they perceive their own political, social, and ideological location in the world.

With an examination of Hill and Bray behind us, the question now becomes: How should we, as academic scholars of religion and Bible, constructively engage these readings, attitudes, and actions? Charles Selengut—in my opinion echoing some of the work of Stephen L. Carter—notes that a potential solution lies in "a recognition and empowerment of religion so that religious communities, particularly unpopular ones, do not have to struggle for recognition and respect from governmental institutions."[23] The thinking here is that "Empowering religion as a central element of political and economic discourse will . . . help introduce religious themes to societal decision making and defuse religious resentment over marginalization and noninclusion."[24] As some scholars see it, the problem with this position has to do with the accepted bases for public discourse, that is, if we allow positions to be stated that historically are not appropriate for public discourse, more severe polarization could occur. Carter's reply to this view, as well as my own, is twofold: (a) "In holding, as we must, that religion is part of the purely private arena that the state must never disrupt, we run the risk of disabling the religiously devout from working seriously in the realm of policy"; and (b) building on the work of Tocqueville, Carter sees two main functions for religions in a democracy: "First, they can serve as the sources of moral understanding without which any majoritarian system can deteriorate into simple tyranny, and, second, they can mediate between the citizen and the apparatus of government, providing an independent moral voice."[25] Thus, plurality and potential polarization are simply part and parcel of democracy as a system of government. As such, one way to decrease religious violence could be to heighten the awareness and presence of religion in our society, especially in the public sphere of policy making.

Along with this emphasis on increasing the role played by religion in the public square, almost all scholars agree that one of the most basic and important ways to counter religious violence is to have an educated and informed laity. In his work, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer argues for an increased level of learning, specifically by listening to those we usually deem as "Others."[26] Similarly, Selengut notes:

An informed laity can question the legitimacy of religious violence and can object to religious confrontation on religious grounds. A pious and committed laity cannot be easily ignored or viewed as outsiders who object to violence on purely secular humanistic grounds without appreciating the sacred dimensions of religious faith. The power of a worldly, economically advantaged, and religiously sophisticated laity is in its ability to hold a dialogue with and challenge the militants from within the theological tradition itself, and additionally, if necessary, threaten to withhold its continued financial support.[27]

To wit, there are those within Christian anti-abortion movements who have taken the time to publicly rebuke the views and actions of believers like Hill and Bray.[28]

In his work, John J. Collins takes a different approach. Above, I made mention of the process of "othering" found in many acts of biblically justified violence, and Collins comments upon that process in the conclusion to his work. He notes:

The biblical portrayal of human reality becomes pernicious only when it is vested with authority and assumed to reflect, without qualification or differentiation, the wisdom of God or the will of God. . . . To recognize this is to admit that the Bible, for all the wisdom it contains, is no infallible guide on ethical matters.[29]

If this sounds like an attack on religious maximalism itself, it is. Religious maximalism is "the conviction that religion ought to permeate all aspects of social, indeed of human existence."[30] As such, a religious maximalist would be someone who, like Hill and Bray, interprets reality through an interpretive grid provided by a sacred discourse or text, which is in turn buttressed by a tradition of interpretation. Collins then discusses the "certitude" that many believers confer upon biblical and other sacred texts:

Here, I would suggest, is the most basic connection between the Bible and violence, more basic than any command or teaching it contains [i.e.] certitude leads to violence. The Bible has contributed to violence in the world precisely because it has been taken to confer a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation.[31]

How does this fit in with my above emphasis on education? Collins concludes his book with the following suggestion, "Perhaps the most constructive thing a biblical critic can do toward lessening the contribution of the Bible to violence in the world, is to show that that certitude is an illusion."[32] In my opinion, this solution could be helpful for what we call minimalist religious believers, but will have little effect on maximalists because their entire existence is predicated upon this certitude. I find the suggestions of Selengut more useful in that they address the problem of a supportive base, in terms of the economic, social, political, and religious support perpetrators of religious violence need in order to operate. This internal critique will carry far more weight than the academic intrusions of scholars seeking to shatter the worldviews of religious believers from outside faith groups. Put differently, if we want to have an impact on scripturally based violence, we must expose and educate ourselves and others about the history, literature, and methods of interpretation found within religious traditions. Then individuals, both within and without faith traditions, can decide for themselves whether or not they will support scripturally justified violence.

Dan Clanton, Doane College


I presented a version of this essay at the 2007 National AAR/SBL Meeting in San Diego under the auspices of the History of Interpretation Section. I wish to thank those present for their attention, comments, and questions. Special thanks go to Robert Atkins of Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville, Ill. for his helpful suggestions after our session.

[1] See, e.g., Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 4-5 and passim. See also the comments of Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible and the Quran (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 2003), 112-13.

[2] See John J. Collins, "The Zeal of Phineas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence," JBL 122 (2003): 11: "Identity is defined negatively by a sharp differentiation of Israel from the other peoples of the land, and positively by the prescriptions of a covenant with a jealous sovereign god." See now Collins, Does the Bible Justify Violence? (Facets Series; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 15. See also "The Zeal of Phineas," 18; Does the Bible Justify Violence? 27: Collins sees this construction of the "Other" and the divinely guaranteed absoluteness of that category as "the root of religious violence in the Jewish and Christian traditions."

[3] Selengut, Sacred Fury: Understanding Religious Violence (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira, 2003), 36.

[4] Selengut, Sacred Fury, 36. See the comments on these views by James L. Holly, A Matter of Life and Death: What the Bible Has to Say About Violence in the Pro-Life Movement (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 102-5 and 115-16.

[5] This seems clear from the purpose statement of Operation Save America, an organization related to Operation Rescue; see

[6] Quoted in Manuel Roig-Franzia and Catharine Skipp, "Murderer Expects 'Reward in Heaven'," The Denver Post 3 September 2003, sec. A p. 3.

[7] Taken from Hill's essay "I Shot an Abortionist," available at PHill_ShortShot.html. All subsequent quotes from Hill are taken from this website.

[8] See

[9] These include Exod 20:13; Acts 5:29b; Esther; Rom 14:23b; and Gen 14. Steiner examines Hill's rhetoric in The Rhetoric of Operation Rescue, 128-33.

[10] See Bray, A Time to Kill: A Study Concerning the Use of Force and Abortion (Portland, Ore.: Advocates for Life Publications, 1994), 15.

[11] Ibid., 28.

[12] Ibid., 33. See Holly's response to this claim in A Matter of Life and Death, 132-33.

[13] Bray, A Time to Kill, 41.

[14] Ibid.l, 43. But see the view of Holly, A Matter of Life and Death, 46: "Jesus was not an activist." See also Holly's specific rebuke to Bray's claims on 134-135: "Bray's application of this passage of scripture is not supported by any other teacher of the gospel."

[15] See Bray, A Time to Kill, 47.

[16] Ibid., 49.

[17] Ibid., 50.

[18] Ibid., 50-51.

[19] Ibid., 51.

[20] Contra this position, see Holly, A Matter of Life and Death, 134.

[21] Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 6.

[22] Ibid., 35; ee also 47.

[23] Selengut, Sacred Fury, 236. See also Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (updated ed.; New York: Doubleday, 1993). Note the claims by Dallas A. Blanchard and Terry J. Prewitt, "Violence against Abortion and the Abortion of Violence," in Religious Violence and Abortion: The Gideon Project (Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 1993), 260: "the escalation of violence in the anti-abortion movement is an important indication of its failure to mobilize popular support"; and 268: "In short, if the anti-abortionists are seeking increased public support, violence is non-pragmatic and counterproductive to that goal."

[24] Selengut, Sacred Fury, 236. Holly echoes this sentiment; see A Matter of Life and Death, 37-38 and 55.

[25] See Carter, The Culture of Disbelief, 21 and 36-37.

[26] See Nelson-Pallmeyer, Is Religion Killing Us? 117-26.

[27] "Selengut, Sacred Fury, 232-233.  For a similar recommendation, see the report published in October 2007 titled “Countering Violent Extremism: Lessons from the Abrahamic Faiths,” (online at by the East-West Institute: “The ideology of violence must be replaced, and the only people capable of executing this feat are leading persons within the faith” (78).  For a summary of the report, see Shaun Waterman, “Analysis: Violence in Abrahamic Faiths,” from UPI; 20 October 2007; reprinted in WorldWide Religious News; online at"

[28] Holly, A Matter of Life and Death, passim, takes both men to task, arguing that their positions are biblically untenable because they usurp the judgment of God and seek to coerce believers and non-believers alike to accept the Rule of God.

[29] Collins, "The Zeal of Phineas," 20; ibid., Does the Bible Justify Violence? 31-32.

[30] Lincoln, Holy Terrors, 5.

[31] Collins, "The Zeal of Phineas," 20-21; ibid., Does the Bible Justify Violence? 32.

[32] Collins, "The Zeal of Phineas," 21; ibid., Does the Bible Justify Violence? 33.

Citation: Dan Clanton, " Biblical Interpretation and Christian Domestic Terrorism: The Exegeses of Rev. Michael Bray and Rev. Paul Hill," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2008]. Online:


© 2016, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.