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Notebook Religion

‘Terrifying mystery’

Earnest (right) looks toward public defender John O’Connell (left) as he appears for his arraignment hearing in San Diego. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)


‘Terrifying mystery’

How can Christians grapple with a church member becoming a mass shooter?

When Pastor Zach Keele stood in the pulpit on the Sunday morning after Easter, his opening words spoke of death rather than resurrection. “This is an evil day,” he told the congregation. “A child of our church has gone forth and committed a horrible, wicked act.”

That member of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) is 19-year-old John Earnest, who is also the son of an elder in the congregation.

On Saturday morning, April 27, Earnest burst into a synagogue in nearby Poway, Calif., and opened fire. He wounded a rabbi and two other worshippers. He killed Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, a wife, mother, and beloved member of the local Jewish community.

In the manifesto he apparently posted online before his rampage and arrest, the shooter proclaimed extreme hatred of Jews, and he embraced white nationalism. He said he was inspired by the March attack on Muslims in New Zealand that killed 50 people.

He also professed belief in Christian doctrines of salvation—a confounding and painful claim for evangelicals who know that racist views and violent actions are utterly incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Back at Escondido OPC, the pastor read from Ecclesiastes 7, including, “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.” At some point, Earnest rejected the wisdom of the Bible and embraced the song of fools.

But where did he hear such an evil song? 

In his manifesto, he said he didn’t learn it from his family. His family released a statement saying, “How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us.” His local church leaders said the congregation deplores and resists “all forms of anti-Semitism and racism” and was “wounded to the core” by Earnest’s actions.

And the OPC, a 30,000-member denomination formed in the 1930s in response to liberalism in the mainline Presbyterian church, posted its own repudiation of the shooter’s racism and violence as being anti-Christian and having no place in the church.

One religion writer wondered if a form of “weaponized Calvinism” had motivated Earnest. It’s certainly possible the shooter twisted Reformed doctrines for evil ends. Carl Trueman, a professor at Grove City College and an ordained minister in the OPC, noted, “Any belief system can be picked up by a wicked person and used wickedly.”

Still, law enforcement and others will be exploring the “terrifying mystery” of what motivated the attack. Before the shooting, it appears Earnest posted his manifesto on a web forum known for harboring racist and extreme content. The document said he had “been lurking” there for a year and a half. 

In a separate case last year, the shooter who murdered 11 people at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh had frequented an online platform known to draw white nationalists and other extremists. 

It’s one of multiple platforms in a sinister and complex web of extremist sites and forums pumping out hate ideology, white nationalism, racism, and alt-right conspiracy theories—and creating its own culture that can especially lure young and older white men to its perverse causes.

Churches, parents, and pastors should watch, warn, and preach against any hint of racism or extremism among their members, whether in person or online. If such notions surface, church leaders should repudiate them as antithetical to the Bible’s teaching and the gospel of Christ.

Just as pornography can infiltrate any device in any home, the church should know that a world of racist and radicalizing content is also crouching at the door.


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  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Fri, 05/10/2019 06:59 am

    Do we see Chiristianity as a certain set of rules and beliefs which we promise to adhere to or do we see Christianity as a real a spiritual change of heart that transforms a person into what they ought to be (one might say instantly and gradually)?  Does coming into contact with Christ change us or are we only required to say that it does?   

  • DaRev
    Posted: Fri, 05/10/2019 11:38 am

    This is a tragic, ungodly situation. Most certainly the comments by my fellow pastor, and our denomination (the OPC) and this article bring out important and undeniable truths. I do have a concern about an issue that is perhaps hiding in the shadows. A dear brother, Carl Trueman wrote an article in Christianity Today that was insigthful and wise.. In that article he states "Pastors in particular need to take care in how they speak and write, lest their words be seized upon by those who might twist them to a violent purpose for which they were never intended." There is wisdom in that statement - and yet.. it concerns me. One of the consequences of an event like this is the incilination it can produce to withdraw from speaking the truth - in social media, other outlets and from the pulpit. We are to "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15) but we are to speak the truth. A twisted mind can take any statement - no matter how accurate, respectful and lovingly expressed, and make it a motivation for vile behavior. I pray neither this, nor any other event, would cause those called by God to preach to dilute their prayerful, considered, truthful declaration of the Word of God.

  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Fri, 05/10/2019 11:52 am

    Christians need to be careful to not join the world in blaming ideaology for the evil among (and within) us.  We all tend to be surprised when someone does something evil and look for an ideaology to blame for their alarming behavior.  Worldly goodness is a shallow veneer covering our inherant evil that is transformed only by God's Powerful Grace.  The greater surprise should be when someone demonstrates "Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and self-control."  In the process of Genuinely loving one another we ought not be content with admiring a veneer of goodness but prayerfully, graciously, and boldly press for lives being truly transformed in an atmosphere of mutual submission to God, His Word and to one another.  This heartbreaking story is another reminder that "there is none righteous," and that as individuals who claim to be Followers of Jesus Christ we must "not present our members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present oursleves to God as those who have been brought form death to life, and our members to God as instruments for righteousness."  The ideaology that needs changing is the most popular one that says people are basically good and just need to be encouraged in the right direction.

    Posted: Fri, 05/10/2019 03:53 pm

    So much like Judas Iscariot...


  • CovenantWord
    Posted: Sat, 05/11/2019 09:25 am

    The astonishment and grief expressed by the parents involved is undoubtedly genuine, for they realize that the life of the family is permanently scarred. In hopes of not deepening their misery, while yet drawing a helpful lesson from this tragedy, I suggest that this event constitutes a call to Christian parents to closely monitor, and faithfully pray about, the online and gaming activities of their children. In the high school where I teach, I daily witness this unedifying waste of time, distracting from the high calling of preparing for life. Their power to absorb the soul is disturbing.

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Sat, 05/11/2019 03:10 pm

    We don't know the motive of this murderer.  His Christian upbringing probably has nothing to do with his evil act.  We need to be careful not to use the world's language, that this murderer was "radicalized", as if to draw parallels with actual religious terror.  Islam is a religion of terror created by a terrorist.  Muslims who commit acts of terror according to the Quran are behaving like Muhammad.  So-called Christians who commit acts of terror are acting contrary to Jesus.  Throughout history Christians have condemned heinous acts by so-called Christians, as we are doing now.  When Muslims commit acts of terror, there are calls to defend them from backlash.  Let's be careful not to fall into the trap that all religions have their terrorists.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 05/17/2019 10:00 pm

    I think it would be appropriate to use the word "radicalized" to describe what happened to his belief system, as long as it's understoond that his beliefs don't represent radical Christianity, but radical white supremecy (or whatever). But I suppose we can't necessarily take that understanding for granted either.