Reflections of a former white supremacist
Race Issues | A Christian response to the return of extremist violence in the United States
by Thomas A. Tarrants
Posted 12/07/19, 11:36 am
The ideologically provoked mass shootings earlier this year that devastated scores of lives and shocked our country remind me of an era I would rather forget. It was a time of virulent and violent racism, when homegrown terrorists committed acts of cold-blooded barbarism out of the misguided belief they were rescuing America from racial, ethnic, and social trends that were destroying the country.
I was one of them.
I lived through the maelstrom of the 1960s, a period of social and political upheaval that has some similarities with today. Racist populism in the South was my undoing. I was a patriotic American and a nominal churchgoer who as a teenager was seduced by racist, anti-Semitic, far-right ideology. I became filled with anger and hate and took up arms to fight against what I mistakenly thought were the enemies of America, Christianity, and the white race. The consequences were disastrous, and I deeply regret having done so. Tragically, the same kind of seduction is going on again today.
Since the time of my capture, imprisonment, conversion to Christ, and ultimate release, I’ve had a long time to think about the social, psychological, and spiritual conditions that breed this kind of destructive, politically and racially motivated violence. Those conditions appear to be with us again.
Why do these shootings continue to plague our country?
Any attempt to answer this question will recognize that many factors are involved. A number of them have been cited by people across the political spectrum, including mental health issues, racist/anti-Semitic/extremist ideology, easily available assault weapons, social media run amok, and a toxic political climate.
Most Christians I know would see at least some of these as important contributing factors but would go on to say that mass shootings are ultimately symptoms of a deeper underlying cause. That cause is the fallenness of human nature and the consequences of living in a culture where more and more people are turning away from God, thereby eroding the spiritual and moral foundations of society. Dostoevsky’s character, Ivan Karamazov, saw the implications of such a shift, “Without God and the future life … it means everything is permitted now, one can do anything.”1 A few years later, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose long shadow is very much with us today (including in parts of the far-right), proclaimed that “God is dead” and observed, “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.”2
I suspect even secular people would find it hard to dispute that if there is no transcendent creator to whom people are accountable in a future life, and if human beings are simply the product of time and chance, without inherent value or purpose, then meaning and morality are a fiction (as Nietzsche held), and there is little internal restraint for those who seek fame and vengeance through a murderous rampage. Obviously, this does not mean that every secular person is going to become a violent extremist; far from it. But the combination of a godless worldview with either mental issues and/or extremist ideology and readily available assault weapons certainly goes a long way in explaining why America is experiencing extremist shootings.
The Bible’s worldview and moral principles have long influenced American culture, providing a kind of stabilizing consensus about spiritual reality, truth, and right and wrong. (This has been true in spite of the fact that a large percentage of professing Christians were Christian in name only, and even those who were genuine believers did not always live as God required—supporting slavery is just one example.) But that consensus began to unravel in the 1960s, as other worldviews started gaining traction and have now come into full bloom. As a nation, we have sown the wind and we are reaping the whirlwind. Growing moral nihilism is one result.
In America today, the consequences of turning from God are becoming increasingly obvious. Social critic Os Guinness said we are living in a “cut flower society.” Like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, we have been severed from the source of our spiritual and moral life and the many social and cultural fruits it produces. We are living on the legacy of the past, which is rapidly fading, and with it the vitality and stability we once enjoyed. In its place, a new barbarism is beginning to emerge as the dark impulses of the human heart find no restraint to their expression. This has a long history—just read the Old Testament.
In times of rapid change and social upheaval like we are experiencing now, the norms to which people have been accustomed are challenged, threatened, or overturned, causing disorientation. People then become vulnerable to all sorts of ideas as they try to make sense of the present and either defend the past or try to create a different future. Ideologies of the far-left and far-right are among those seeking to exploit the current chaos to gain influence and power. Far-right, racist ideology drove the shooter in El Paso, Texas, as it has done in a number of other recent acts of extremist violence. And media outlets have reported that the Dayton, Ohio, shooter expressed strong far-left sentiments on his Twitter account. Far-left thinking also drove the shooter who opened fire on a group of congressmen at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., in 2017.
Where are we headed? Over the past 10 years, nearly three-quarters of the deaths in domestic terrorism incidents were perpetrated by the far-right, and there’s good reason to think this will continue. But they do not have a monopoly on terrorism. And at some point, those on the far-left may well increase the tempo of their terrorism, as they did in the 1970s, becoming every bit as violent as the far-right. The increasing political polarization in America suggests we are on a collision course with even more serious internal conflict unless something changes.
What can Christians do in such a time as this?
When David found himself in a disorienting time of moral and social upheaval, he asked, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3, ESV). His answer was to take refuge in God. There is hope in God. He is our refuge and strength! And he says, “those who hope in me will not be disappointed” (Isaiah 49:23, NIV). Thus, the first and most important thing we can do today is to turn to God and refuse to give in to fear or hopelessness. We must put God first in our lives, cling to Jesus and the Scriptures, and seek to be continuously filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). Doing so puts us in the best position to be used by God as salt and light in a dark and decaying world.
The second action we can take is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12:28-31). In the Bible, as John Stott points out, “Christian love belongs to the sphere of action rather than emotion. It is not an involuntary, uncontrollable passion, but unselfish service undertaken by deliberate choice.”3 This means seeing others as God’s creatures and treating them as we would want to be treated if we were in their shoes (Matthew 7:12). And it extends beyond loving those who are like us and encompasses building friendships with those who differ from us in race, ethnicity, political views, and other attributes. As we do so, we will be changed. We will begin to see the world from a different point of view. Shedding our cultural blinders will enable us to see how to better love our neighbor, not just in word, but in deed and truth, as it did the Good Samaritan when He reached out at high risk and monetary cost to help a Jew who had been savagely beaten and robbed (in spite of the fact that Jews hated Samaritans). Loving our neighbors will also lead us to wisely and winsomely share the gospel with our neighbors if they don’t know Christ.
My blinders began to come off through friendships with African American brothers soon after I came to Christ and it continued through friendships with black Christian leaders like Sam Hines, John Staggers and Tom Skinner, John Perkins, and others. Jewish friends have also been a source of enlightenment and encouragement to me. Out of these friendships, I have gained a deeper understanding and discovered new ways to be a better instrument of God’s grace and love to those who are different from me.
In relation to ideologically motivated violence, like the El Paso and Dayton massacres and similar events, love for our neighbors will include practical preventive measures. A major one (and there are certainly others) is for individual Christians, pastors, and churches to recognize, reject and expose the ideologies that exploit prejudices and stimulate anger and hate. Christians must be alert to these things and not allow the church or patriotism to be hijacked by extremism or co-opted by political agendas. We may also need to repent of the ways our own fears and biases, however unconscious, have blinded us to the idolatry and power of these ideologies. And we should support the work of the FBI and local law enforcement in their efforts to protect us from them. Another obvious preventive measure is to support some kind of bipartisan legislation to keep assault weapons out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.
A third action we must take is to pray. Prayer isn’t the only thing we should do, but it is the first thing we should do. We mustn’t let the common phrase “You are in our thoughts and prayers,” which is often empty and trivializes prayer, obscure the reality that “the prayer of a righteous person has great power” (James 5:16, ESV). We don’t need to announce it, we just need to do it. We need to pray for God to comfort the victims’ families, who have a long and painful road ahead, and for Him to redeem their suffering and draw them to His Son. We also need to pray for the Holy Spirit to show us where we need to grow in our capacity to concretely love the neighbors who are part of our daily lives.
Another important focus for intercession is to pray for those who have been influenced by extreme ideologies, as well as those involved in hate and terrorism, that their plans would be thwarted and they would repent and turn to Christ. There is Biblical precedent for this. No doubt the early church was praying for the man who was terrorizing them—the ruthless, dreaded Saul of Tarsus. Earnest, believing prayer has been a vital key behind the conversion of many other unlikely people over the centuries. Fifty years ago, a group of godly women began to pray each week for a young man who was deeply involved in racism, anti-Semitism, and terrorism. He seemed to be a hopeless case, but after two years of prayer, he came to faith in Christ, repented of his sins, renounced white supremacy and hatred, and has sought to live a life of love ever since. That young man was me.
Finally, and more broadly, we need to go to the root of the problem and pray for a nationwide spiritual awakening that will transform our lives, restore our moral fabric, and inspire much needed social reform. Historically, this has been the fruit of genuine revival, which is our greatest need and should be our daily prayer. A classic example that can inspire hope today is the 18th century Evangelical Revival in England under George Whitfield and John Wesley, along with the decadeslong work of William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury, and the Clapham Group. This revival had a profound, lasting impact on the nation. Some historians believe that the reforms growing out of the revival helped protect England from having a violent revolution like France did in 1789.
Summarizing, what do we do in such a time as this? We lament the fallenness of our world and the resulting suffering. We look to God for refuge and hope. We love our neighbors well, especially those who are different from us. In fact, we intentionally seek out those who are different from us. We guard against the influences and idolatry of extreme ideologies that prey on fear. And we pray—for victims, for perpetrators, for our society, for the church, and for spiritual revival in our land. God answers prayer. Nothing is impossible for Him!
1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 589
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols, Expeditions of an Untimely Man, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, sect. 5
3. John Stott, The Epistles of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983 reprint), 206
Thomas A. Tarrants
Thomas is president emeritus of the C.S. Lewis Institute and the author of Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation (Thomas Nelson, 2019).