The Synagogue Shooter Attended a Christian Church; How Should Members Respond? May 2, 2019

The Synagogue Shooter Attended a Christian Church; How Should Members Respond?

The shooter behind the recent tragedy at a synagogue in Poway, California appears to be a devout Christian — albeit one who hates Jews just as much as he claims to love Jesus (ironic, given Jesus’ religion).

An article in the Washington Post reveals his apparent faith-based reasons for carrying out the attack:

Before he allegedly walked into a synagogue in Poway, Calif., and opened fire, John Earnest appears to have written a seven-page letter spelling out his core beliefs: that Jewish people, guilty in his view of faults ranging from killing Jesus to controlling the media, deserved to die. That his intention to kill Jews would glorify God.

It’s true that cognitive dissonance can be one powerful drug, but still, Earnest appears to not believe his own theology: That His own sins, and the sins of the world, were responsible for the death of Jesus, not a particular group of people. Either he hasn’t read the Bible, or (more likely) he believed an interpretation of it that has been distorted by those with an agenda.

All of this came as a shock to the leaders of the church that the shooter attended.

Days later, the Rev. Mika Edmondson read those words and was stunned. “It certainly calls for a good amount of soul-searching,” said Edmondson, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small evangelical denomination founded to counter liberalism in mainline Presbyterianism. Earnest, 19, was a member of an OPC congregation. His father was an elder. He attended regularly. And in the manifesto, the writer spewed not only invective against Jews and racial minorities but also cogent Christian theology he heard in the pews.

A “good amount of soul-searching” is long overdue for all Christians, regarding just how many anti-Semitic overtones can be found in some of their preaching and interpretations of the Bible. Before anyone can say #NotAllChristians, put it this way: If two adults can condemn all of humanity by eating a piece of fruit, then acts of anti-Semitism committed by Christians past and present can (and does) affect all Christians today. It should drive them to not only look at their doctrines, but perhaps seek out Jewish ears in their communities and discuss why the use of certain terms or phrases (“pharisee” is one) can be problematic.

Christian leaders across a wide range of denominations condemned the attack, saying violence against others and white supremacy are completely antithetical to Christian beliefs. “Anti-Semitism and racist hatred which apparently motivated the shooter… have no place within our system of doctrine,” the OPC denomination said in a statement.

But while some said Earnest’s background in the church has nothing to do with his alleged crime, and the church shouldn’t have to answer for him, others called for a moment of reckoning.

[Presbyterian Church in America pastor Rev. Duke Kwon] pointed to the evidence that the writer shares the Reformed theology of evangelical Presbyterians: that only God can offer salvation to those he preselects. “Obviously something went wrong. I think it’s important for Christians, both those in the pews as well as those in the pulpit, to take a moment for some self-reflection and to ask hard questions,” Kwon said.

This is a good place to start, and Kwon is moving in the right direction with his thinking. But it’s not enough for Christians to have these talks with each other alone. I firmly believe that interfaith dialogue is one way to stop anti-Semitic thinking before it can fully take root. But that only succeeds when one religious groups thinks it can learn something from people who aren’t already in their tribe.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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