The tragedy in Orlando is something I haven't commented on in public because I don't have any personal connections to it – it happened in a distant land, to people I don't know and in that sense was no different to the many tragedies that regularly occur around the world where people are wickedly slaughtered. I don't have a perspective that would add something new and helpful to the many conversations already happening.
But over the past few times I've seen a lot of comments popping up on Facebook and blogs that have made it a more relevant issue.
- Professing Christians saying things in the name of Christ that I profoundly disagree with.
- Columnists and bloggers calling for a change in culture with implications for our society.
- Friends making connections between Christianity and the attack.
It all leaves me wondering what I would say in a face to face conversation with such people who I know. What would I say to members of my congregation who may be trying to make sense of all this? How should Christians engage with the call to change culture and society in response to all this? So here are a few of my thoughts.
First of all, there are professing Christians who seem to delight in what happened in Orlando, seeing it as God's judgement, and implying that they'd like to see more of this. That appalls me on many levels and I would ask such people, if they claim to be Christian, to consider a few portions of God's Word and whether their actions are in keeping with what God has said to us.
Jesus was asked once (in Luke 12) after some tragic deaths, what the role of sin was in their death:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Death is not the time to focus on the sin of others, but our own, to remember that we are all sinners in need to repentance. Not a time to strut and holler and gloat, but a time to be sombre and considered. Not a time to condemn the immorality of the dead, but a time to consider our own mortality. No a time to debate where others stand with God, but a time to wonder where we ourselves stand. Not a time to judge, but a time to seek God's mercy, asking to be spared from judgement ourselves, and give thanks for Christ who saves us.
We could consider the example of David, who was persecuted by Saul, hunted down and threatened with death. Yet when Saul was at his mercy (in 1 Samuel 24) what did he say? What did he do with his enemy?
May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you.
And when Saul died at the hands of the Philistines, David wept.
Now there was something special about Saul – he was an Israelite, and more than that, the Lord's anointed. But we find similarly merciful attitudes elsewhere.
- God says in Ezekiel 33, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked."
- As Jesus gazed over Jerusalem, thinking of the prophets they killed, he wept – not over their evil primarily, but over their refusal to come and be gathered by Jesus within is loving arms.
- In Romans 12–13 Paul calls us to love our enemies. The state bears the sword, it has a role to uphold justice on earth, and God himself will avenge injustice in eternity. So the role of the church is simply to love, to forgive, to show grace to enemies.
There is no room for Christians to delight in the death of anyone. Christian or nonchristian; friend or enemy; moral or immoral. To delight in this massacre as some do is to depart from God.
But then there are people whose reactions are very different.
In the Guardian Owen Jones calls this the worst attack on the LGBT community since the Holocaust, rebukes newspapers that didn't have it on their front page and condemns those who prefer to describe it as an attack on humanity, rather than the LGBT community.
I think there's some validity in the notion that we should acknowledge this was an attack in the LGBT community. That certainly seems to be a strong motivation for the attack, and the choice of target. It's an important perspective that should not be ignored. But there's also a wider perspective. Because this is the worst attack since the holocaust, it is understandably a particularly awful tragedy for that community. Yet there are other communities, other groups, that have faced far worse tragedies since the Holocaust and do not make the front pages of our papers. If this is the reaction when nearly 50 people are killed in a gay club, what should our reaction be when 200 are killed in a Baghdad marketplace? When 100 are killed in a church in Nigeria?
Then in the Huffington Post Connor Doherty says that tolerance is not enough.
If you are a person who believes “tolerance” is enough, you are contributing to the problem. You don’t need to beat up an LGBTQ+ person to commit a hate crime or encourage another person to do so. If you misgender Caitlyn Jenner, say problematic and incorrect things about bathroom equality, cringe at the thought of gay affection, or use phrases like “no homo” or “that’s so gay” you are contributing to the culture that fostered this crime.
“Tolerance” isn’t a real thing; anything but acceptance is just gross indifference or suppressed hatred. Loving Neil Patrick Harris, but finding gay sex “gross” is not acceptance. Embracing white cisgender gay men while rejecting trans people is not acceptance, and every time you commit one of the above acts you are telling criminals like Omar Mateen that they are not alone in their thinking. You are sending out the message that LGBTQ+ folks are a nuisance and an intrusion only meant to be tolerated for social appearances. By doing these things you are not only dehumanizing an entire group of people; you are providing the social ammunition needed to commit these kinds of atrocities.
If you think gender is a biological attribute rather than a psycological one, then you are dehumanizing people. If you think that homosexual activity is immoral, then you're telling violent murderers like Omar Mateen 'that they are not alone in their thinking.'
It's a stark choice – get on board with everything, or be a supporter of terrorism. I imagine that the hope of the author is that people will think 'I don't like terrorism, I don't want to be associated with terrorist, so I'll get on board.' But I wonder how many will hear words like this and react the other way: 'I can't get on board, so my only option is violent opposition.' When you take away the middle ground of principled disagreement with robust debate – what tolerance should really look like – then you drive people to extremes and as much as you might hope that people will run to your own extreme, the reality is that many will run the other way.
Ironically, having accused Christians of creating a culture of hate that implicitly condone violence, it is actually words like these that polarise and encourage conflict.If you tell people they can't disagree, they they can't even think differently about moral and philosophical issues, what room is left for discussion in society? Or indeed for freedom itself? Who decides what we're allowed to think and say and do? Whose view of the world is to be the unquestioned view of all? And what happens when someone does dare question? In a world where those in power can't be engaged in discussion, why would we expect to see less violence and conflict? (Incidentally the ever-insightful Marxist Atheist Brendan O'Neill has written an excellent article for Spiked.)
The fruit of that is evident. Where Christians have reached out in love, shedding tears, offering prayers, there has been an angry reaction from some quarters, saying that only people in the LGBT community – those who in some way share the victimhood of the slaughtered – are able to weep and Christian tears are no better than crocodile tears. But if only the community of the victim can weep, where does that leave the world? The western world has in large part discarded the notion that we are made in the image of God and having lost that common origin we see humanity fracturing into communities who are actively discouraged from sharing sorrows and sympathies, instead competing for status of greatest victim to claim the right to reshape society. Few today would know the words of Paul, in Ephesians where he describes Jesus as the one who breaks down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, or the words of John in Revelation where he describes a tree in the new creation whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. Their is a purpose in Christ's reconciling work, not just of making peace between man and God, but also as a consequence of that, making peace between nations, peoples, communities. That is the trajectory of redemption history and it is a tragedy to see people fighting against that, trying to fracture mankind further still. In fact it is utterly perverse, sickeningly cynical, that some would use the murderous actions of a gay muslim to condemn Christian bakers.
In the life to come there will be people from every tribe and tongue, from all sorts of backgrounds and communities, redeemed at different points in their lives, delivered from all manners of lifestyles and sins. All wrongs will be righted, all victims avenged, all persecutions ended, all those raised to eternal life brought together as one glorious, global, godly community. All will be well. And so although I am sad to see the reactions of some, concerned about the negative, polarising, divisive influence on society, I am still hopeful and confident that better things are yet to come. And even now we see glimpses of that coming kingdom. On Sunday as thousands from the LGBT community queued to give blood, the Christian-owned restaurant chain Chick Fil A opened its doors – normally shut on a Sunday – fired up, the ovens, made thousands of meals, and handed them out for free.
A most wonderful example of the love Paul calls us to in Romans 12, or the goodness Jesus speaks of in Matthew 12:
He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
Far from being the problem, Christianity, the gospel – Jesus Christ himself – is the solution. May Jesus bring healing and hope to our divided, violent world.
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