Dealing with the Shock of an Evangelical Terrorist

An abandoned church in Monowi, Neb., April 28, 2011 (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
Christian parents and pastors must learn more about counteracting online hatred.

Whenever we hear news of a mass shooting, we expect the shooter’s life to follow a certain kind of biographical script. Perhaps he’s long suffered from mental instability. Perhaps he’s from a troubled home, with a long history of suspect behavior. Deprived of purpose and meaning, he’s drawn to dark thoughts and evil places. The pattern of radicalization is clear — evil actors are drawn to broken men, and broken men are prone to evil deeds.

But then I read about the Poway synagogue shooter. He attended an Orthodox Presbyterian Church. His parents seem to be faithful believers. His father is an elder at the church. His pastor preaches the Gospel. Yet he was infected with vile and murderous anti-Semitism and white nationalism.

Wait. What?

This news hit home not just because the shooter is a Christian from a Christian family — and not just because he comes from an Evangelical church — but because he comes from my faith tradition. The OPC is a close cousin to my denomination, the much larger Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). We’re both from the Protestant Reformed tradition, we’re both broadly Calvinist, and congregants often move from one to the other with ease. I have friends in the OPC.

So, what should Christians — specifically, Reformed Christians — do with this news?

Ever since we learned more about the shooter’s identity, an online fight has been brewing in Christian circles. The Washington Post tells a part of the story today, framing the conflict as a debate between those who believe the church has nothing to answer for versus those who “call for a moment of reckoning.”

Put me in the category of those who believe the shooting should be an alarm bell.

Let me be clear: Barring unexpected or highly unusual revelations, the alarm bell isn’t over the theology of the church or the illegitimacy of the teaching of the church. No reasonable person can survey OPC theology (or the theology of its Reformed cousins) and think for one moment that it countenances white supremacy, anti-Semitism, or white nationalism. No reasonable person could sit in the pews of any mainstream OPC church and think such a thing.

The OPC put out a heartfelt statement condemning the violence, and the congregation’s statement is clear and unequivocal:

The atrocious crime of violence and hatred that took place at Chabad of Poway synagogue on Saturday, April 27, grieves us deeply and shatters our hearts. As a congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ, we devote our lives to the love and mercy of the Lord to all of God’s beautiful children, from every nation, language, and tribe. Our most sincere prayers, condolences, and cares go out to the victims, their loved ones, and the congregation of Chabad. We deplore and resist all forms of anti-Semitism and racism. We are wounded to the core that such an evil could have gone out from our community. Such hatred has no place in any part of our beliefs or practices, for we seek to shape our whole lives according to the love and gospel of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, any church’s adherence to so-called “replacement theology” does not imply that anti-Semitism is any way acceptable. At the risk of oversimplification, replacement theology (or supersessionism) advances the belief — to quote the OPC website — that “Old Testament Israel was the Church before Christ came,” and “the Church is now the Israel of God.” This doesn’t mean that the Jews are a lesser people than any other people, or Israel a lesser nation than any other nation, but that they are equivalent to other peoples and other countries. In other words, in the OPC’s view, the modern nation of Israel shouldn’thave specific religious significance to Christians.

I disagree with the OPC’s stance on this, and I disagree with supersessionism. I interpret scriptures applicable to Israel far differently from many of my Reformed friends, but supersessionism is not anti-Semitism, nor does it offer a justification for anti-Semitism.

So if the concern isn’t over theology — or any specific, known teaching of the church — then why the alarm bell?

It should warn us about our vulnerability. The shooting in Poway is a terrifying reminder that the church isn’t immune to any moral malady that stalks our land. It may land within the church with varying degrees of intensity and frequency, but it will land in the church. And as we see the spread of the very kind of online hate that seduced the Poway shooter, it’s incumbent upon the church to wake up and deal with this modern, deadly incarnation of the very old sin of white supremacy.

In 2015 and 2016, when my family was in the crosshairs of the alt-right — with my adopted daughter the subject of vile and vicious online memes — members of my church (and my Christian friends from across the nation) were shocked and appalled. The vast majority didn’t even know online communities such as 4chan or 8chan existed. Some were completely unfamiliar with terms such as “meme” or words like “sh**posting” or even “trolling.”

Even folks who were far more wise to the Internet’s ways assured me that there was no real risk. The sh**posters and trolls were in it for the “lulz,” the laughs. They just wanted to inflict — and mock — our family’s pain. In hindsight, that complacency was foolish.

Now we know. Now we have no excuse not to know. Among the many malevolent forces that stalk our children — including the children of the faithful — is a new form of an old evil. In the last five years, my wife and kids have heard shocking racism from young Christian mouths. Did they get those thoughts from home? Or from the device they hold in their hands?

Parents and pastors are alert to porn (though notoriously ineffective at combating its spread), and they’re alert to drugs. These more common challenges occupy an understandably large part of Christian instruction. But we cannot, under any circumstances, minimize the call to reject one of our nation’s most enduring, damaging, and vicious sins.

Pastor Duke Kwon (a pastor in my own denomination) was quoted in the Washington Post with  wise words. “It’s possible to teach people in the church about personal individual salvation in Jesus Christ and still fail to instruct them regarding the ethical implications of that faith,” he said. And he advocated for “a vision of the gospel that includes implications for the love of neighbor and those that are different from ourselves, to teach it as an essential feature of the gospel of grace and not just an add-on or an appendage to more important matters.”

We should take Kwon’s words to heart. And while one need not preach against every meme, parents and pastors need to learn more about this new online world. When even a Christian kid encounters 8Chan, sometimes 8Chan wins. And that’s a chilling thought indeed.

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