When 19 year-old John Earnest walked into the Chabad of Poway synagogue and opened fire on April 27 — the last day of Passover, and six months to the day after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh — he had a particularly unsettling motivation. He believed he, as a Christian, was doing the will of God.
It doesn’t take a doctorate of theology — any theology — to know Earnest was horribly misled, somewhere along the way, about the nature of God and the central teachings of every major world religion, all of which unambiguously espouse love and forbid hatred and murder.
And yet, acts of violence committed in the name of God are nothing new. Christian history, from the Crusades to the Inquisition and the wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, is littered with millions killed in the name of the Prince of Peace. Islam today struggles with a radicalized fringe that has perverted its teachings to incite murder — mostly against Muslims, but also against Christians and religious minorities. Even Buddhists have seen their faith misused in recent years to justify the killing of Muslims in Myanmar. Calling down God for our own selfish desires to murder, maim and marginalize is not new.
We’ve seen this cycle of violence play out at an alarming rate in recent weeks. On March 15 two separate mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand claimed 50 lives. In turn, bombs ripped through Easter morning church services and hotels in Sri Lanka, killing more than 250. At home, a U.S. Army veteran was arrested April 26 after plotting to bomb Christians and Jews in Los Angeles. On April 23 another Army veteran — reportedly on his way to a Bible study — allegedly swerved his car, on purpose, into a family on a sidewalk in Sunnyvale, Calif. because he thought they looked Muslim.
The hatred that drives this bloody idiocy is all over the pre-attack manifesto Earnest posted before he attacked worshippers at Chabad of Poway. Like the Tree of Life shooter and the Charlottesville tiki-torchers before him, Earnest spewed the hate-driven vitriol of American white nationalism. He claimed Jews are undertaking “the meticulously planned genocide of the European race” and expressed hatred for Muslims, immigrants and feminists.
Earnest’s white nationalism is as unoriginal as it is hateful and idiotic. What stood out in his seven pages of hateful screed was his intermingling of white supremacist invective with Christian theology — theology in which he’s well-versed, and which would sound familiar in the pews of most Christian churches.
A regular churchgoer and son of a church elder, Earnest cogently spells out the theology of salvation through Christ, then twists and perverts that teaching to justify killing Jews.
When Earnest’s manifesto surfaced, Christian leaders from a wide variety of denominations scrambled to assert — rightly so — that white supremacism, hatred, bigotry and violence are an affront to Christ and antithetical to Christianity. Like Muslims across the world since 9/11, they were forced to spell out what should be obvious — that a violent lunatic does not speak for their faith.
These after-attack professions of the true teaching of faith are an unfortunate necessity. But, they all-too-often are voiced with far less intensity than the violence which necessitated them. And, condemnations after the fact, sincere and heart-wrenching as they may be, are not enough.
The Rev. Mika Edmondson, a pastor from the same denomination, but not the same congregation, as Earnest, lays out the responsibility for Christians of all stripes.
“We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him,” Edmondson said of Earnest in the Washington Post. “He was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church.”
As Christians, regardless of denomination, clergy or lay people, we need to be unabashed and unequivocal about the fact that white nationalism, racism, bigotry and murder have no place within Christian theology, and stand firmly against every teaching of Christ.
As people of faith — of all faiths — we need to understand the violence committed in the world today in the name of God is not a case of one faith against another, or against many. It is, rather, a struggle between faith and those who pervert and misuse our faith to inspire the worst kind of evil. It is a struggle between the love espoused by the true teachings of all faiths, and the hatred twisted out of perversions of those same faiths.
Violent acts committed in the name of God are never acts of true faith — regardless of which faith has been hijacked to inspire and justify the killing. Violent extremists who kill Muslims in Myanmar are not true Buddhists. Violent extremists who blow up churches on Easter are not Muslims. And violent extremists who burn black churches, drive cars into pedestrians and open fire on Shabbat worshipers are not followers of Christ.
In the face of this evil, people of faith — of all faiths — need to stand together. Because, ultimately, all of these attacks are attacks on us all. Any attack in the name of faith — in the name of any faith — is an attack on faith itself.