Another shooting in a house of worship. This time by a white, churchgoing young man named John Earnest at the Poway synagogue in San Diego. Earnest tragically killed one person and wounded the rabbi and a few other worshippers.
When I heard of this tragedy, I was surprised by the surprise people expressed. Many wonder, how is it that a churchgoing son of an elder at a Presbyterian church could be radicalized in such a hateful way? How is it that he could hear solid theological truth, yet come to espouse a white supremacist, anti-Semitic ideology? How is it that this deep-seated worldview could be at work when he is surrounded by a community of Christians?
I’m surprised by the surprise.
A couple of days after this heinous act, a pastor from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination the shooter belonged to, honestly and rightfully took some responsibility. In a Washington Post article, he said,
We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him — he was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church.
This confession by Rev. Mika Edmonson, is critically important to ponder as we continue to think through Christian discipleship and spiritual formation in our local churches. As a pastor myself, I’m well aware that there is always a possibility that a congregant of the church I give leadership to, can do something that is diametrically opposed to what we believe the gospel to be. And on some level, I too, would be held responsible. This is a terrifying thought, but one we need to honestly face.
The surprise that many feel reveal a few things about our approach to Christian spiritual formation. Let me name two particular beliefs we might consciously or unconsciously carry. I name these beliefs, not as an indictment against the leadership of the Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church Earnest attended, but as a wake-up call to all who belong to local church communities.
We (wrongly) believe “good theology” is enough for character formation
In the manifesto Earnest wrote, he articulated Christian theology that most Christians would deem as orthodox and consistent with the historic faith of the church, which disturbed many people. How could a person believe the right things, but do something this wrong? Well, in short, because right thinking doesn’t equate right living. This truth is not applicable only to the senseless violence Earnest committed, but to many other situations we find ourselves in. I’m reminded of what the Apostle James says in his epistle, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” In the testimony of scripture, we see that Satan knows the Bible too!
Somewhere along the road, we have placed an inordinate amount of credence to intellectual assent, trusting that one’s ability to name the salient beliefs of Christian faith is sufficient for character formation. But for the Christian, who is being shaped by the love of God, the reading of the Bible must be shaped by the cruciform love and character of Jesus. Otherwise, the Bible easily becomes a tool of hatred and oppression. I’m all for Bible literacy. But let’s not fool ourselves. We can be biblically literate, and still be spiritually degenerate. I'm all for Bible literacy. But let's not fool ourselves. We can be biblically literate, and still be spiritually degenerate. Click To Tweet
We (wrongly) believe that the gospel can be preached without the specific naming and unmasking of systemic powers
This shooting is a stark reminder that the gospel is not to be proclaimed exclusively with an other-worldly mindset, but with a vision that encompasses the current powers and principalities in our broken world. In this respect, the violence that has come from the church (whether explicitly or implicitly) throughout the ages often derives from a particular view of the gospel. If the gospel is all about what happens in the afterlife, the realities of this life becomes an afterthought.
To be faithful to the gospel is to announce on one hand that Jesus Christ is Lord, and on the other that the destructive powers of the world are not. The gospel is the message that “time is up” for the powers. Something else is breaking through. This requires an explicit articulation of sin that goes well beyond private behavior modification. The gospel requires us to name the very powers that seek to damage the world God so deeply loves. It requires us to courageously give voice to the personal and systemic sin that has destroyed many lives. The gospel is God’s emphatic “Yes!” to God’s creation, and God’s unambiguous “No!” to the powers that seek to steal, kill, and destroy.
This is why, especially in the US, any gospel proclamation must consistently name the demonic power of White Nationalism. Our country, for centuries, has been infected with the disease of White Supremacy and this ideology is one that finds itself internalized and expressed in a myriad of ways.
Would a clear articulation of this gospel have dissuaded Earnest from his act of violence? We will never know. However, as the gospel gets proclaimed in the midst of hostile powers and ideologies, the possibility of a transformed heart becomes that much more possible.
A Gospel-Shaped Life
In light of these two prevalent beliefs found in local churches across this country, what does this tragedy invite us to live into? Minimally, a cruciform community marked by deep formation habits.
As a pastor, I regularly am reminded that I can’t just tell the people I lead to read the Bible. Unless people are being taught to recognize assumptions, idols and biases, they will (unwittingly) use the Bible to confirm deeply held values that might oppose the kingdom.
We can read the Bible every day and still have our hearts firmly against the ways of the kingdom of God. Until we read Scripture through the lens of the crucified Christ, our exegesis becomes subject to personal, ideological or political preference.
It’s along these lines that I’ve been trying to articulate pastoral questions for this cultural moment. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a small sample of questions that require serious reflection, followed by thoughtful action.
Perhaps you would benefit to ponder these as well:
- Is the gospel I preach this-worldly, other-worldly, or both?
- Is the gospel this-wordly enough to name and denounce powers like Nationalism, White Supremacy, and the like?
- Is our community shaped by spiritual formation habits that confront us with ourselves?
- Have I mistakenly assumed that good teaching by itself would guarantee the formation of Christian character?
- Are the leaders of our community regularly being equipped to live out gospel values such as love, justice, mercy, hospitality, and repentance?
While these questions might come across as elementary, beneath much of the violence of our world are assumptions we hold about how people change.
I have a lot of work to do.