The world can be a dangerous place. We have fire drills, earthquake drills, and tornado drills. When I was a schoolkid we had bomb drills. We were worried we might have to head for the hills like Patrick Swayze when the Soviets invaded in the original Red Dawn.
But the old “duck and cover” bomb drills (along with people building “bomb shelters”) are now a part of history. Now a new and bizarre spectre haunts public spaces: the “active shooter.” The same amount of time and effort that once went into bomb drills is now dedicated to the possibility of a novel sort of threat that has become trendy in our sick society.
This new and surreal phenomenon – an average citizen on an average day, either known to the site or a stranger to it, showing up armed for war and spraying bullets into as many bodies as he can – is now a regular enough occurrence to require standardized protocols for every school and business across the U.S. It’s the kind of “new normal” that, if our forefathers could have looked into the future and seen it, would have convinced them that we are in an end times dystopia.
And maybe we are.
Beliefs about God
The same confused culture that spawns a trend like this finds itself inadequate to account for it. There’s lots of worry about it, but not much discernment. The primary topic of public debate, in the face of multiple incidents of active shooters in public places, is gun control. That’s no surprise. In an age of creeping “statism,” the frightened public has no recourse other than to the government.
This is not to say that some changes in laws governing who can buy what kinds of weapons might not be wise and add a level of prevention, but I perceive something more at the root of this strange phenomenon. It begins with one of life’s most fundamental questions:
What do you believe about God?
A person’s theology informs almost everything else. Belief about God is tied inextricably to beliefs about human beings, the world, the future, the afterlife, and the overall goal or purpose of existence. Even if it hasn’t been thought through carefully, there exists some kind of loose-fitting web of beliefs – some of which are theological in nature – that operate in the background of all of our decisions. My title, “The Theology of Active Shooters,” should be understood as what grammarians call a “subjective genitive.” It does not refer to our theological view of gun-wielding murderers, but to the murderers’ theological views themselves.
When we consider the perverse assemblage of shooters coming in painful succession over the last several years, nearly all of them seem to fit into one of three categories:
- Radical Muslims
- Anti-government white supremacists
- Angry & depressed narcissists
I am excluding a third category of people who are completely insane. You could argue that everybody who kills civilians in this way has a mental illness of some sort and to some degree, but those in the three categories above have been mentally capable enough to do things like plan their murder sprees and leave behind manifestos as to why they committed their atrocities. The ones I am excluding are those who are sufficiently wrecked in the mind to imagine that the people they killed were demons planning to eat their babies (or something along those lines).
So what does theology have to do with each of these types of mass shooter?
The Crazy Jihadist
This shooter has been most common of the three, and is the easiest one to analyze. His view of God is pretty clear, and his motive for killing people directly and obviously tied to it. It is so straightforward, in fact, that the media typically cannot bring itself to admit the connection. It is their custom to be blind to things as glaring as this. When people wonder why so many radical Muslims of different nationalities seem to commit so much brutality so regularly around the world, the answer is that this same debauched theology is so widespread. The belief precedes the acts and the relationship is causal.
I am not suggesting that the typical jihad-inspired shooter has a sophisticated or well-thought-out theology. Most of them are brainwashed simpletons, either raised in the bubble of radical Islam and nursed with the milk of psycho death cult ideology, or maybe recruited over the internet where weak and confused minds can be overtaken after hours of cyber-submersion in a dark, propagandistic corner of the internet. The leadership typically possesses a much more defined set of theological beliefs, and as a result a more coherent ideology, but they are far less numerous and they don’t get their hands dirty with the actual killing sprees they command and inspire.
Whatever other factors are at play, the overarching motivation that guides and directs these killers is a belief that the Supreme Being of the universe has chosen and commanded them to kill infidels as part of a righteous war, the reward for such participation being paradise and the glories of “martyrdom.” Remove this belief and everything changes.
That is, replace this specific view with any other theology – including your average Muslim’s theology that does not include the belief that Allah has commanded the faithful to shoot up or blow up public facilities for his cause – and the result is simply this: no killings take place. The global majority of Muslims, we can be thankful, do not subscribe to the murder mandate. They may believe non-Muslims are infidels; they may believe we will all be sent to hell by Allah after this life; too many of them seem to me to be neutral or apathetic about what groups like ISIS do in the name of their religion, but they have no plans to join up and be part of the atrocities, and most likely they fear their own fate should a group like ISIS take over their own part of the world, since such groups have made it very clear how easily and casually they will slaughter Muslims who are not on board with their program.
The Anti-Government White Supremacist
Another unfortunate trend in the recent history of active shooter incidents involves the disgruntled American who believes that everything is going straight down the crapper and that he needs to take action – deadly action. I combined the two terms “anti-government” and “white supremacist” as part of one category. Clearly they are distinct, and not all of the one type is the other type. But so often do the people in this category satisfy both criteria that I blended them.
An ideological godfather for this type might be Tim McVeigh, whose notorious 1995 OKC bombing was a wake-up call when it comes to people who think this way. More recent examples of this type include:
- Neo-Nazi Michael Page, who in 2012 killed six people that he wrongly and stupidly thought were Muslims in a Wisconsin Sikh temple.
- 21 year old Dylann Storm, who in 2015 killed nine people in a historic black Charleston, SC church, and whose very lucid internet manifesto makes it plain that he was motivated by white supremacy. The long treatise says nothing at all about God or anything religious in nature. But it says plenty about what he thought was an epidemic of black-on-white crimes.
- A married couple (the Millers) who, one summer evening in 2014, after executing two cops eating in a Las Vegas CiCi’s Pizza, left behind a swastika & “Don’t Tread on Me” flag so everyone would know their motivation; they then stormed into a nearby Wal-Mart and yelled “The revolution has begun” while firing into the air; the wife shot and killed a shopper who confronted her husband during the incident.
Do some googling and you will find other examples like these in the last few years. So what is the view of God that these types of killers tend to have? Do they, like the jihadists, believe that they have been given a divine command to carry out their shootings? Not exactly. It’s not quite a simple as that in their case.
But my point remains the same: how these people see God makes a world of difference. In nearly every case their god is their race or some perceived “way of life” associated with their race. Believing that this “pure” way has been violated and besmirched by a corrupt government and society overtaken by other forces (i.e., Jews, blacks, Hispanics, gays, etc.), they believe it is a righteous act to protect this thing they deem sacred in some way.
Despite the fact that people of this kind sometimes refer to God or even use the name “Christian,” as certain Aryan groups have done in the past, the view of God they loosely maintain is anything but a Christian view. I have never heard or read any sort of coherent theology from them. Their god is a cultural idol that their small cult perpetuates and of which the members have only a hazy understanding.
The so-called “Christian Identity” movement, for example, has a thin concept of God as favoring the superior Aryan race, which is his true Israel. He forbids interaction with the corrupt lesser races and certainly allows for violence. As one scholar for the Christian Research Institute points out here, this racist group blends all sorts of spiritual heritages into their self-serving concoction of dogmas, including elements from classic Neo-Nazi writings, zodiac astrology, teachings from mystics and New Age writers, earth-wisdom from ancient Germanic and Druid traditions, and the occult.
It is worth noting that some shooters have belonged to this general category who were not specifically white supremacists. For example the gay, black reporter Bryce Williams, who shot his white co-workers on live air, sent a long, rambling letter to media affiliates explaining how he felt discriminated against and bullied by the white, straight establishment represented at his workplace. He cited the aforementioned Charleston church shootings as pushing him to get personally involved in the “race war” that he perceived to be underway.
The Angry and Depressed Narcissist
The third type of senseless public shooter is more difficult to comprehend than the other two, and in my opinion represents a more disturbing trend. While the other two types are engaged in what they perceive as a larger battle, these shooters live in a very small and self-absorbed world. They have no great ‘cause’ for which they are fighting, despite occasional reference in their delusional rants about systemic injustice and fighting for all of those who have been downtrodden or done wrong.
A prime example is the Korean-American graduate student who shot and killed 32 people on his Virginia Tech campus in 2007, making it the deadliest active shooter event on record. Treated for anxiety and depression, he was not socially adept and did not make many friends. His English was imperfect and his demeanor on the dorky side. He had been removed from a creative writing course for basically giving at least one girl the creeps in his behavior and writings. His angry manifesto, which he paused to mail to MSNBC in the middle of his pre-planned shooting spree, contained numerous references to his being victimized by a rich, snobbish and hedonistic culture.
The narcissism of this shooter is abundantly obvious in his numerous references to his own mistreatment without any mention of his numerous victims, the manifesto accompanied by staged photos of himself with guns, as though imagining himself to be a Hollywoodesque vigilante hero for people bullied by society. He also aligns himself with the Columbine shooters as part of his delusional screed, characterizing them as crusaders for the unpopular or forgotten members of society.
He wrote, “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscious again and again … Thanks to you, I die, like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the Weak and Defenseless people … Like Moses, I spread the sea and lead my people – the Weak, the Defenseless, and the Innocent …” The rant ends with this: “Are you happy now that you have destroyed my life? Now that you have stolen everything you could from me? Now that you have gone on a 9/11 on my life … Now that you have gone on a hummer safari on my life … Are you happy now?”
This is typical of this kind of shooter. He has a myopic obsession with having not been liked enough by everyone or having been rejected by girls. He is the quintessence of a culture of victimhood. Everyone has done him wrong. His homicidal suicide plan is justified due to his having been bullied in so many ways by the world. He has, in some sense, elevated himself to the position of the most important being in the universe. He cannot see beyond his own tiny selfish world. There is no room for much of an understanding of God in such a frame of reference. He needs no suffering Messiah, for he is the suffering Messiah.
A Right View of God
Some of the truest statements are rarely uttered these days due to the unfortunate constraints of political correctness. You are not likely to hear any reference to the theological or otherwise religious views of people who commit atrocities. The voice of common sense, however, cannot be muted within our own minds. We all know that a person who believes wholeheartedly that God has commanded him or her to kill someone is a thousand times more likely to do so than a person who holds no such belief.
When a media story describes yet another murder by a radicalized Muslim, and mentions only tangential factors like poverty, without reference to the killer’s religious beliefs, every rational reader or viewer knows better. As I said before, there remains one supreme and overarching reason why the world has been subject to a long series of civilian murders at the hands of people professing belief in Islam: their theology.
A pluralistic world has room for every kind of concept of God – almost. No sane Christian wants to see people compelled by force to profess belief in our God (even if belief by compulsion were actually possible). But there is a view of God which none of us should tolerate, and that is a view in which God commands murders. Religious tolerance need not extend that far. Is anyone willing to see his own loved ones blown to pieces or lying in a blood puddle in order to preserve a tolerance for murderous theological teachings?
Christians believe that there is indeed a correct understanding of God, even though we think God is inexhaustible so as to remain out of reach to some extent. Enough has been revealed, we think, for human beings know the basic character of God, despite the mystery in which God will always be shrouded. If the mission of the Christian Church were carried out as we believe she has been instructed, then the world would slowly transform to a place with far fewer murders, much less hostility overall, resolutions of old grudges, dissolution of petty racism, and a whole lot of other things that are unquestionably beneficial for everybody. And it would all be theologically driven.
People would remain frail and prone to the same temptations to all of the same sins since the beginning of time, of course, but a right view of God’s purposes and commands would mean that people who decide to murder other people would at least know full well that they are inviting the condemnation of their Maker. And this last point leads to something crucial in our view of God.
A Healthy Fear of God
What about the murderers in the non-Islamist categories? They don’t kill because they think God told them to do so. But they still lack the right understanding of God which would work directly against their carrying out their depraved acts. The secularism of our age has replaced a healthy sense of God with a dysfunctional substitute or perhaps with just a void.
People have always experienced vindictive feelings toward people who they believe have done them wrong. There has always been jealousy and bitterness toward those who are rich, popular and privileged on the part of those who are not. Angst and sorrow have been part of life since the beginning of time. People in past generations had more reasons to experience depression than we do. They lived with far more pain and death as regular parts of their lives.
But one very important thing about our cultural ancestors that sets them apart from us is that they possessed a shared sense of the justice of God as prevailing in the universe. Long before Western culture became secularized to the point where a paid ad by the Anglican Church (still the official church in England) featuring children quietly saying the Lord’s Prayer is banned by London theaters as too offensive, things were very different across the Western world.
Believe it or not, just a couple of generations prior to ours, the population shared a basic Bible knowledge and derived their moral framework from the worldview passed down and rooted in Christian theology. It doesn’t mean they were all committed and avowed Christians in the true sense. It means that when they thought about life’s problems, they saw them through the lens of a biblical perspective whether they fully acknowledged it or not.
There was a time when even the most despairing and depressed person would be given legitimate pause when he or she considered suicide, simply on the basis that God might damn them for such an act. Shakespeare’s famous “To be or not to be” speech demonstrates this perfectly, as Hamlet contemplates why people live with so many troubles when they could end them all on a knife’s point:
“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, …
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, …
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”
A few scenes prior to this one he had wished “that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon gainst self-slaughter.” This was a common frame of reference for people in late medieval and Renaissance England, as it had been for a long time in all of Christendom. People were bound to consider the judgment of God when thinking about the possibility of suicide. And that’s just killing themselves, to say nothing of also killing a group of innocent or random people.
I am not proclaiming that all of the beliefs of this or any period are totally accurate. Few Christians see a warrant for the belief that suicide is an automatic ticket to Hell, as was traditionally thought in bygone eras. Still God is to be feared and it would be highly unwise to pass from this life to the next with grievous sins to answer for. Again, referring back to the play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him how horrible it was that he was assassinated without being able to fully confess all of his sins and make a more substantive peace with God prior to his appearance in the heavenly court.
Our society is so far removed from this way of thinking that suicidal people no longer entertain the concern that upon taking their lives they will have to give an account for that and all other deeds they’ve done. A secular culture has removed this important consideration from people’s deliberations.
This is evident in the cases of suicides that also become homicides for no discernible reason. In 2015 German commercial airliner pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed a Lufthansa-owned Airbus into the French Alps, killing over 150 people. Why did he do it? He was depressed. He had researched suicide, cockpits, rapid descent methods, etc. But this was much more than a suicide. Lubitz went out of this world with the blood of 150 people on his hands. He had no specific grudge against any of the passengers; he just decided to take 150 people with him when he committed suicide.
Nobody with any fear of God would do such a thing. If you were looking to escape the difficulties of this life, would it make any sense to bring the heinous crime of mass murder with you to the next one? Imagine you had an important court appearance in which a judge was to make the final determination for whether you would serve the rest of your days in a dungeon or be a free man; imagine that just minutes before the decision would be handed down you walked into the lobby outside the courtroom with a semi-automatic weapon and murdered several people.
Those whose suicidal despair leads them to mass homicide either have no awareness of God or they are hoping to exchange their current level of suffering for something a thousand times worse. The fear of the Lord, we might say, is not just the beginning of wisdom, as the proverb testifies. It’s also the beginning of sanity.
To Conclude …
The active shooter trend is a flashing neon sign that ought to remind us that human beings are broken in a profound way. Our minds have not evolved from barbarism to enlightenment, as is still often presumed. We’re still filled with false and confused beliefs and perspectives. Whereas once upon a time certain people believed that some of the women among them were bringing evil and disease into the community and thus hung them as witches, so today there are people who believe either that God has commanded them to commit atrocities or that there is no God or truth or meaning anyway, and thus murders are not wrong in any sense that transcends human opinion or civil law. One type believes that after slaughtering people and killing himself, he receives the reward of paradise; the other believes, presumably, that he escapes his perceived difficulties into the permanent silence of utter non-existence.
The right view of God would correct the psychotic theology of murder that guides the trigger-fingers of Islamic death-cultists. The right view of God would teach those with anger against the government or justice system how to address it and protest it in the ways God approves and advises. The right view of God would certainly obliterate the self-serving racist ideologies that convince fools that people of the ‘enemy’ race are justifiable targets. And the right view of God would be a stabilizing intellectual and emotional force for people feeling desperate and depressed; it would give them perspective that offers them hope and a way forward.
A healthy fear of God would be an integral part of this. I’m not talking about a childish fear of a celestial tyrant like the false deity worshipped by brainwashed jihadists; for a being who can only strike terror is the kind of being who is likely to command terror. In this way a corrected understanding of God is necessary for a corrected sense of what the fear of God should mean. A true and right fear of the true and right God would make cultists’ lives completely different in every way. They would become different people operating from a different worldview that gives different perspective and motivation for a totally different concept of life’s greater purpose.
Yes God is Great, but not just any god.
Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade plus. He long ago attended a fine theological institution. Later his doctorate focused on famous arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas, Idaho, & Utah before coming to Oklahoma. They have six kids & several species of animal. You can find him ascending weekly unto the Free Methodist pulpit on Sundays & continuing to teach at local universities.