The Synagogue Shooter

At Living Hope’s leadership meeting last Sunday security was the dominant topic. The day before, John Earnest, 19, had assaulted a San Diego synagogue, killing 60-year-old Lori Kaye and wounding 3 others, including a young girl. A week prior, bombers killed Christian worshipers in Sri Lanka. A month ago, Muslims were massacred in Christchurch, New Zealand. Six months ago, 11 worshipers were killed at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

Our church, like many others, has been preparing for this kind of incident for years. In every meeting, it is a shock to contemplate what murder would look like in our building.

John Earnest, however, raises an additional problem for evangelical pastors. He was raised in an Orthodox Presbyterian church. In eighteen months, he rejected his evangelical faith, and radicalized himself to such a degree that he tried to burn down a mosque in March, and began planning his assault on the synagogue.

Terrorists are not “them” anymore. The lone gunman may be hanging around evangelical churches. Self-radicalization is now so unpredictable that law enforcement is struggling keep up. And California, in a fact that belies its self-image, leads the nation in the number of organized hate groups that encourage him. Evangelicals, like many other subcultures, are stirring their political opinions into a cocktail of racial ideologies.

A few months ago, I got a message from a man who has been in and out of our congregation. It was a chain email (“Do you have the guts to forward this?”) protesting black pride. White pride is not racism, it said, and whites have been too ashamed to stand up for themselves. “That’s why we have LOST most of OUR RIGHTS in this country [caps original].”

The narrative in the man’s email plays right into the theology that Earnest espoused in his manifesto. Kinism, which Earnest wished he had been taught by his church, claims that God created ethnic groups, and that ethnicities must remain pure. Ethnic pride is his new religion. Lots of people are ready to convert to this sort of piety and to use fake-intellectual jargon to label people who disagree with them, terms like “cultural Marxism.” (Joe Carter’s post is essential reading on these issues.)

The man who messaged me had been subjected to the most powerful accelerator of racial hostility in our nation: the prison system. Some of our men have described to me the pressure to conform to racial identity in prison. “It’s how you survive,” said one. California’s incarceration rate may have more to do with its high number of hate groups than anyone wants to admit.

I don’t mean to suggest that this man will become the next shooter, or that his chain email is at the same moral level as Earnest’s manifesto. But if he wants to feed his racial grievances, he will have plenty of help.

Further, converts to the religion of race just as easily come from the upper middle-class. Constricted sources of information—approved cable news and YouTube channels—are enabling people of every demographic to live in their own heads.

Many evangelical pastors find it hard to imagine that racism might be strengthening among professing Christians. Many others are tired of their social and political views being equated unjustly with racism—enough to have stopped listening to the alarms going off around us. But we have to engage far more deeply on matters of race and theology.

John Earnest will not be the last terrorist to have dropped out of an evangelical church.

Facebook and Human Nature

After dark revelations about how we use Facebook and how it uses us, we want someone held accountable. We have shared lies packaged as news. The lies came from shadowy groups seeking power. Facebook sold our information to some of these groups, like Cambridge Analytica, that enable other groups to microtarget their lies. Facebook and these groups, we think, have harmed our institutions and civility.

The story provokes three theological observations about human nature.

First, we look away from the obvious. The facts we “learned” about Facebook after 2016 are only “revelations” in the sense that we finally looked at what we already knew. We knew that information on Facebook was sketchy. We knew that Facebook was using our private data. But after 2016, we decided to be shocked—shocked—at what we had been doing all those years.

Second, we shift blame away from ourselves. The bad guys in Russia did evil. I can’t be blamed for my own online behavior. I can’t help feeling passionate about my causes. So when I troll people, heaping abusive names on them like “crisis actor” or “bigot,” I’m just telling “the truth.” The truth is that I joined a mob, and it’s my own fault.

Third, we imagine that technology will fix us. The Facebook and Google founders surveyed the world from under their hoodies, sincerely believing that they were making a global community where human goodness could finally blossom. Instead, they created a smarter delivery system for toxicity, and were surprised when the system worked. Telling ourselves not to be evil is not enough.

What makes these observations theological? The issue of accountability.

Suppose a pure, neutral observer were watching all of us online. That observer would only need a few minutes to form a judgment. We are all guilty of self-deception about our actions. We all invent ways to reject accountability for ourselves and demand it for others.

The observer exists, and has been watching us a lot longer than a few minutes.

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