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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.