A Tiller Kind of Love, Transforming Our Movement


On the third anniversary of Tiller’s murder at the end of May, I was thinking about the kinds of things that his patients and colleagues said about him —and what sticks out the most is how so many people spoke about Tiller’s kindness and compassion. 

Kindness and compassion in the midst of legal battles, protesters, and death threats. Not only did Tiller provide services that few others would, but he and his staff did so with compassion and kindness—somehow, they did not let the endless harassment harden their hearts.  Their care was tender, but not weak—it was firm, wise, and steady.  And that love, embodied in radical acts of compassion, transformed many lives.

In the past year, I have been part of quite a few conversations about how we in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements can transform ourselves into a movement that is more effective, persuasive, and compelling.  Like Tiller, I think we need to ground ourselves and our work in a fierce and radical love, lived out in ways small and large, within our organizations and beyond.

In my training to work with congregations, I have been told before one can help a congregation transform itself, one needs to love the congregation. Before people will honestly listen to challenging insights or feedback, we must feel cared for.  Now, I know that we progressives really prefer to depend on cool rationality, logic, and critical analysis in our activism—and there is no doubt that our liberal commitment to the scientific method and fact has been a strength of our movement. Often, issues like love are one of those things many think we should keep in the ‘private sphere.’ And, in my experience, transformation requires more than good analysis.  We humans are driven by far more basic emotional impulses. At least, this is what the neuroscience seems to be revealing.  Older parts of our brain, the unconscious are far more powerful in our decision making than we ever thought. And when it comes down to it, before we can transform, we need to feel cared for and trust that we will be treated with a minimum level of respect.

But how do we get to this love, a Tiller kind of love, a fierce, compassionate, kind, and transformative love? Well, here is another word we progressives shy away from, though I know Tiller did not: faith.

Faith? Well, at this moment in time, when women, families, and children are bearing the brunt of the burden of economic turmoil and conservative scorn; after a hard year like 2011 when we saw unprecedented numbers of legislation restricting women’s access to health care — faith is exactly what we need. We need to have faith that despite the dreariness of today’s situation, our efforts to create a just and compassionate society are not in vain. And the only way I know of growing faith is when people gather together and share about what is most precious, hard, and wonderful in their lives. Faith grows when we invest in relationships and community. Faith grows when we gather together and, if only for one moment, are able to feel that we are part of something much larger than ourselves and our egos. 

As theologian Catherine Keller puts it “Faith is not about certainty but about courage.”  Facing this past year and half, facing the morally complex issue of sex selection and the clever “Prenatal Discrimination Act,” perhaps this will be a ‘bottom’ for the reproductive rights, health, and justice worlds — perhaps this bottom will compel us to try different approaches to our work. Transformation requires faith, courage, and love.  I know we liberals are people who like to trust what we can see and touch—and yet transformation requires a willingness to risk faith in what cannot be seen or experienced just yet. 

Three years ago, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in his church.  Tiller was a man of profound faith — yes, he had a religious faith — but I suspect he also had faith in the women he served and the community he served. I share Tiller’s faith—I have faith in the reproductive rights, health, and justice movements’ ability to evolve and transform, as well as to preserve what is healthy and strong. I have faith in women. I have faith in families.  May we grow in faith, fierce love, and compassion. May these faiths give us courage for transformation.

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