Two horrifying mass shootings over the weekend in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio shocked the nation and renewed an ongoing discussion about domestic terrorism, mental health, violent video games, and gun control. While details are still emerging about what motivated the Dayton shooter, a manifesto posted online by the El Paso shooter lists a litany of grievances and conspiratorial ideas underlined by white supremacist ideology.
Addressing the attacks in a speech to the nation on Monday, President Trump directly repudiated white supremacist ideology which has been linked to other domestic terrorist attacks around the world including Quebec (2017), Charlottesville (2017), Pittsburgh (2018), and Christchurch, New Zealand (2019).
The president explained, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul.”
In the wake of such tragedy, many are asking why mass shootings keep happening in America. Since Sunday, political leaders, pundits, and commentators have taken turns focusing on video games, congressional inaction, political rhetoric, the deinstitutionalization of mental health, gun laws, and the breakdown of the family.
While some of these factors may help create a toxic environment, none of them explain why mass shootings and other violent attacks occur. This is because these explanations overlook the underlying spiritual reality of human sin.
Objective Hatred Is at the Root of Ethnic Animus
Intuitively, something is clearly not right in the world; the reality of evil is evident and confronts us daily. In fact, evil is so pervasive that it is tempting to despair and become numb to the pain around us. However, the Bible explains that the intractable evil in society and our own disordered desires and corrupt wills are the result of the fall and humanity’s rebellion against God (Gen. 3). Sin separates us from God and each other.
Jesus warned about the evil that would spring from within us and be directed at fellow human beings: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). He warns even against anger with one another: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matt. 5:21-22).
Tragically, one of the manifestations of sin is hatred directed toward others based on our perception that they are from a different ethnic background from us. Referring to the El Paso shooting, Albert Mohler made the connection between the human heart and this type of animus, explaining, “Hatred has an object, in this case, a human object. It appears that Hispanic immigrants were at the center of that young man’s hatred.”
The Christian worldview speaks directly to the issue of the walls our sinful hearts might erect based on skin color and ethnicity. The Bible teaches that everyone is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Additionally, the gospel is for all people; Christ died for everyone, and in him believers from every tongue, nation, and tribe are reconciled to God and each other in “one new man” (Eph. 2:14-16). In terms of access to God, the Bible is clear: distinctions based on background and ethnicity are abolished in the new covenant (Gal. 3:28-29, Col. 3:11). In heaven, people from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and language” will praise God (Rev. 7:9). Consequently, any ideology that re-erects distinctions based on ethnicity are sinful, and most be strongly repudiated by the church.
The president is right to point out that this type of hatred “warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul.” Christians, who worship Jesus, a Middle Eastern Jewish man, must be clear that white supremacy—the absurd belief that those of European descent with lighter skin pigment are superior to others—is antithetical to the gospel and has absolutely no place in the church.
Social Isolation Dehumanizes Us
Another aspect of this story is the epidemic of young, white men who are increasingly disenchanted with society. This is clearly seen in the shooter’s manifesto where he reportedly talks of his fears that his dream job will be “automated” and that ethnic groups other than his own “will take control” of the government “to better suit their needs.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board noted this disturbing trend of young men who feel left out of society. They write, “This is the rant of someone angry about a society he doesn’t feel a part of and doesn’t comprehend. It is all-too-typical of most of these young male killers who tend to be loners and marinate in notions they absorb in the hours they spend online. They are usually disconnected to family, neighborhood, church, colleagues at work, or anything apart from their online universe.”
This disenchantment with society, fueled by a lack of meaningful community, corrodes our ability to see dignity in other people. When we fail to appreciate the value of human life, it becomes easier to engage in dehumanizing behavior. Thus, at a time when the mediating institutions that formerly provided cultural and social cohesion are in fast decline, it is imperative for Christians to cultivate a culture in their churches that prioritizes relationships with those on the social periphery who feel alone, threatened, and upset.
Welcoming All into the Family of God
Along these lines, Andrew Walker issued a challenge to Christians:
The local church must be a place where a culture of love for God’s authority, God’s creation of humanity, God’s plan for an individual’s industry, and God’s design for the family are heralded without embarrassment. The church must be a place that speaks to the patterns of American culture that are failing people. This means that the church must be a place that is less concerned with bourgeoisie sermons about coaching Americans into a happier American dream and more concerned with pulling a culture back from the cliffs of despair.
Ultimately, human sin explains why mass shootings and other tragedies continue to occur in America and around the world. Moreover, human sin is responsible for the larger spiritual crisis that threatens to destroy unity in our nation and churches along ethnic, economic, and religious divides. In these defining moments, Christians must weep with those who weep and point to the hope of the gospel. Wicked acts of violence like the mass shootings over the weekend are the effect of a deep pathology that’s only cured by a relationship with Christ and inclusion in the family of God.