Last Thursday, when a shooter entered an English composition classroom at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, nine persons were executed by a lone gunman. According to various news reports and eyewitness statements given by survivors, the gunman asked his victims, “what their religions were” and “if they were Christian”. Those who answered in the affirmative were told, “they would be with their God soon enough,” said survivor Anastasia Boylan.
Christians are not a persecuted minority in our country. What we witnessed in Oregon would be typical in Syria or Nigeria. In the United States, this is not symptomatic of larger persecution toward persons claiming to be Christian of any denomination. Some might pretend it is but we must be honest. People are not regularly executed for their faith in this country.
I’ve been thinking about one question over the past few days. I wonder what it was about Christianity the shooter despised so much. What form of Christianity had he encountered which made him so angry at those who call themselves followers of Christ? No one will ever get the chance to ask him. We will never know. I cannot believe he ever encountered a community of forgiveness, grace, and love. I can believe he probably encountered so called followers of Jesus who offered mercy with guilt, grace with judgment, and love with strings attached. Clearly, the shooter had some sort of belief or understanding of God. It was a distorted, twisted image of Christianity, God, and faith taught by many. It is still believed by millions and is eating away at the Good News of Jesus like a cancerous tumor. Had anyone answered Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim would he have executed them all the same? Who knows? Or was it all about Christianity? I believe it was all about Christians.
Christians are not bad people. We are also incredibly flawed and sinful human beings. Though as a faith tradition, we have a serious image problem in this country and around the world. We say and do stupid things inconsistent with the words and teachings of man who founded our faith. Take this recent Facebook post from the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee; offered in the wake of the Oregon shooting. To those with indifference or even hatred toward organized religion, what message does this send about the priorities of the followers of Jesus?
Shouldn’t people interested in getting serious about their faith turn to the Bible? This (from a public official) says Christians (the dominant religious tradition in America) are not who Jesus proclaimed us to be. An inherent conflict has been created, is Jesus a gun toting American or a peace loving Rabbi from 1st century Palestine?
This places little confidence in scripture’s ability to speak for itself. The idea that serious Christianity is equated with handgun ownership is a horrific distortion of Jesus’ teachings. Somewhere, our priorities went wrong. We thought we found Jesus and we only found ourselves. Where do we find a relationship between Jesus, a man who never a carried a weapon and our world today? They are not found in the Bible. Would arming ourselves with the Sermon on the Mount be a better place to begin?
When one reads something like Lieutenant Governor Ramsey’s post, one understands how easy it might be for someone to get the wrong idea about their friendly neighbor who is a Christian.
None of this is a justification for this tragedy. The church has an image problem and it didn’t begin with the crusades. People held distorted views of Christians and the church before last Thursday in Umpqua. The church’s image crisis begins anew every Sunday morning when we ignore Jesus’ words, do more judging than listening, and decide our version of the truth is the only way to avoid a place some can’t let go of called “Hell”.