Guns to God

What the conversation emerging from the tragedy in Roseburg misses

“Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”—2 Timothy 3:12

Suppose there is a mass shooting somewhere in the United States and, before firing on his victims, the gunman asks them a question: what’s your religion? If they say that they are Muslim, he shoots them in the head, but if they are an atheist or profess faith in another religion, he shoots them in the leg.

Such a horrific incident would rightly precipitate a national dialogue on Islamophobia. In the coming days and weeks we would examine our culture and ourselves in an attempt to find the hatred from which the attack came. Perhaps we would scrutinize the language of articles that discussed the growing Muslim population in Europe or the growing fear about Sharia law in the US for hints of Muslims being otherized. Perhaps people like Bill Maher and Ayn Hirsi Ali, notable critics of radical Islam, would face public opprobrium and censure. Or perhaps people and public institutions–newspapers, television stations, universities–would make an effort to educate people about the dangers of religious discrimination generally, and anti-Islamic prejudice specifically. Certainly people would use the shooting as an occasion to locate and combat the bigotry that produced it.

Obviously and thankfully, an attack like that did not happen. However, last week, something remarkably similar happened in Roseburg, Oregon. A gunman, who as of my writing is responsible for 10 deaths, asked his victims about their faith, and specifically targeted Christians the way my hypothetical gunman targeted Muslims.

The massacre has predictably prompted conversations on gun control and mental health. And while these conversations are relevant and worthwhile, they seem incomplete without a conversation on anti-Christian bigotry. I am shocked that one of the central elements of the tragedy–that the killer discriminated between his victims based on their religion–has gone largely unnoticed, both by the President (whose statement did not mention the killer’s anti-Christian animus) and most of the media.


But more than shocked, I am frightened and saddened. What could have been a teaching moment that reminded us that even the ostensibly powerful can be subjected to fear and violence, and that hate knows not who is a member of the majority or the minority, has been squandered. Our collective response, or lack of one, demonstrates at best thoughtlessness, and at worst, callousness.

Someone might say that I am getting ahead of myself. The gunman, one might claim, was deranged, and one cannot extrapolate from his actions onto the broader community. That a crazy person acted to persecute Christians does not mean there is a larger problem of Christian persecution, either in America or elsewhere.

But even if this is true, which it might be, it does not explain the lack of interest in his bigoted remarks. That is, his anti-Christian motives merit attention for their own sake. In other national tragedies where the killer is undeniably deranged, we nonetheless examined his motives and tried to draw implications. In 2011, when a psychotic man killed six people and shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head, people on the left jumped to blame Sarah Palin and others on the right who used battle imagery to metaphorically described her recent election. Even when no evidence existed to suggest that he was influenced by conservative media, and even when evidence existed to suggest that he was not a conservative, and even when it was pointed out that the rhetoric Palin et al. used was not unique, the anger and blame from the left persisted.

The shootings nonetheless catalyzed a national conversation on the public discourse and political atmosphere that was not wholly unneeded or unwelcome. Just because the state of politics did not cause the shootings, does not mean that the shootings could not be a catalyst to change the state of politics.

But the same should be said about the tragedy in Oregon. It is not that America is experiencing a groundswell of anti-Christian rhetoric that caused the tragedy, but the tragedy should make us think about anti-Christian bigotry. When someone, even a crazy person, murders someone in the name of religion, how can a discussion on religious intolerance not accompany it (as was the case earlier this year when an angry, unemployed man, obsessed with parking and fixated with atheism, murdered three young Muslims)?

Globally, Christians are facing violence and severe persecution. Over the summer, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature titled “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?” which chronicled some of the abuses Christians face at the hands of ISIS: there are beheadings, crucifixions, and forced conversions; Christian women are forced to serve as sex slaves. Others have also documented ISIS’s systemic cleansing of the Middle East’s Christians, and their beheading of Christian children. But the persecution is not limited to ISIS.

Turkey is allowing its churches and Christian religious sites to be destroyed. Last year in Pakistan, a mob burned a pregnant Christian couple to death for allegedly violating the state’s blasphemy law. Also in Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, has been in prison for nearly five years on blasphemy charges. In April, terrorists killed 147 at a Kenyan university, specifically targeting Christians. I could go on with examples, but the point has been made.

All four of my grandparents came to America in the wake of the Holocaust. Most of their families and communities were destroyed. The town where my grandfather came from was completely wiped out. Growing up hearing these stories has made me particularly sensitive to religious persecution. As a Jew, I believe that religious freedom is a basic good, and a foundational principle of our Western politics and ethics. Anti-religious bigotry, even when it appears to be mild, even when it appears to be isolated, and even when it appears to be occurring in some far off land, cannot be ignored. Just because Christians constitute a global plurality, and a majority in America, does not mean that violence against them or indifference to their suffering is without consequence. What happened in Oregon is not equivalent to the genocides of World War II, but I do think there is something distressing in our indifference to the religious aspect of the Oregon murders.

Isaac G. Inkeles ’16 is a government concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.