The Fundamental Conflict
As a teen, I found a “safe place” in the church. It wasn’t that there were no risks at all. We did the usual number of stupid, risky, things that kids of that age do.
But in contrast to other settings — school, scouts, sports — the church was a place I experienced as emotionally and psychologically safer. Some of that had to do with the adults who provided oversight. Solid, wonderful human beings. They didn’t do a lot. But they were present. That made a difference.
Those adults were key, but there was something more. In some small way, the usual pecking orders — so defining in other settings — seemed to fall away, at least a bit, at church.
I note this as a I try to fathom the attacks on the mosques in Christchurch. These attacks follow shootings in other churches and houses of worship: Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Linking these three, you might conclude the common denominator is not religion but race. While that is a linking factor for these three, there have also been shootings in predominantly white churches. E.g. Fort Worth, Texas not long ago.
Is the church more of a target than other places? If so, why?
Perhaps because, despite everything, in church we do let down our guard. The shooter in New Zealand was greeted at the mosque with the now poignant words, “Welcome Brother!” As I recall, Dylan Roof was welcomed to the bible study and prayer group in Charleston. It is in our DNA, as church, to welcome the stranger. Thank God.
Another reason for the church/ synagogue/ temple/ mosque being a target is that these are gathering places. There will be group of people. This churches have in common with schools, theaters and concert venues, also targets of mass shootings.
But I can’t help but wonder if there is another element, one more primal and spiritual.
Is there something demonic about these shootings? The culprits seem, in some way, possessed. Possessed by their fears, their fantasies, their delusions.
The conflict between God and the demonic in places of worship has a long history. Early in his ministry, Jesus encountered and did battle with demons in and outside houses of worship. The demons, unlike people, recognized Jesus and his power. His power threatened their own.
Is the succession of these hideous shootings in houses of worship, not only about race. Surely that’s part of it. The shooters themselves have made that clear.
But is there also something demonic, here? Some primitive conflict between good and evil, light and darkness (yes, I recognize the problems with this metaphor), between hope and fear?
There are at least two elements that are suggested by a word like “demonic” that differ from other possible frameworks. The supernatural. Some other dimension. And then there is a kind of energy associated with the “demonic” that is frenzied, “crazy” or, possessed.
The downside of framing things this way is that you may reduce human responsibility and agency. Instead of human beings, you have demonic forces. (e.g., “The devil made me do it.”)
Is there also an upside to this framing? The recognition, possibly, that there is more here than the psychological, political or the sociological. There is a spiritual power and cosmic battle to be reckoned with.
Are we, at this historical moment, in the midst of a conflict that is not just political or sociological, but spiritual? A battle between fear and faith.
If we are in such a spiritual conflict, then we need not just laws or education (though those are important), we need spiritual power. Modernity and scientism have been at work for a long time to strip away and deny the spiritual dimension. Is it now coming back, albeit in a deeply disturbed and distorted form?
As I said, as a young person, I experienced the church as a safe place. Every child, every person, needs safe places in order to grow and to thrive.
The demonic would eliminate all such sense of safety and of shalom or peace, leaving us. our children and grandchildren, anxious and fearful everywhere and at all times.
That is a demonic agenda: pervasive fear.
Is this fundamental conflict of our age: faith, meaning trust, versus fear.