Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what

At this point, I think reporters have no choice but to dig into the Calvinist themes in the manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused shooter at Chabad of Poway.

It’s crucial to find out, of course, what he learned during his many hours in the pews at Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It would appear that Earnest then blended pieces of Calvinist theology into the white supremacist beliefs that he says that he learned elsewhere.

Here is the key question at this point, as I see it: Was there an online website (a specific writer, even) that twisted Calvinist doctrines into the form that Earnest blended into a radicalized, violent white nationalism that embraced some things that he heard at church, while rejecting others?

Let’s take this one step at a time, starting with the following, from my first GetReligion post on this subject:

Yes, reporters … need to note that Earnest said, in that same manifesto, that he didn’t soak up this twisted version of Christianity while frequenting church pews with his family. His hateful, deadly heresies grew out of a private, secret life online, listening to true radicals. Church members tried to talk to him, but he turned away.

Nevertheless, there is no question that reporters will have to deal with two clashing versions of Christianity when covering this story — that white supremacist brand proclaimed in this digital testimony and the Orthodox Presbyterian — uppercase “O” is part of the name — faith taught in his family’s congregation. In this case, the accused gunman did everything that he could to put the word “Christian” into play.

This brings us to two Washington Post stories that can — by savvy readers — be read together. They cover two parts of the same equation.

Here’s the headline on the first one I’d like readers to study: “Ancient hatreds, modern methods: How social media and political division feed attacks on sacred spaces.” And here is the overture, which covers the crucial ground:

Inspired by the devastating impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and enabled by the largely unchecked freedoms of social media, individual extremists have launched a steady series of assaults on religious institutions around the world, the latest at a California synagogue. …

In the most recent wave of assaults, over the past six months, attackers have targeted Jews as they worshiped at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October and at the Chabad of Poway near San Diego during the end of Passover; Christians at Easter services in Sri Lanka; and Muslims praying in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The nature and frequency of these attacks have raised urgent questions about how to fight extremism in a time of political polarization, largely unregulated social media and diminished trust in community organizations, including religious and political institutions.

As I wrote the other day, reporters are trying to figure out how Earnest spent his time, how he spent his money (if he paid for any websites, for example) and how he made his decisions (in terms of specific books, websites and teachers). This is the same process journalists should use when dealing with violent believers who are serving up radicalized forms of any major faith.

The journalism goal here is to find the roots of his manifesto, with its hellish white supremacist doctrines, elements of Calvinist theology and old-school, deadly anti-Semitism.

Read this second Post story carefully: “The alleged synagogue shooter was a churchgoer who talked Christian theology, raising tough questions for evangelical pastors.” Here’s a crucial passage in a long, detailed discussion.

At the church where Earnest belongs, Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the San Diego suburbs, members expressed shock and horror at the action allegedly committed by one of their own. The pastor hosted a discussion the day after the attack, after the Sunday service, and vowed to see how he could support the grieving synagogue nearby. Earnest’s family, which includes five siblings, published a statement saying their son’s beliefs do not match their faith and horrified them; in the manifesto, the writer said that he did not learn his white supremacist beliefs from his family.

The manifesto, which circulated online after the attack and before numerous mainstream social media websites attempted to remove it, reeled off grievances against Jewish people, many of which had little to do with religion. But the writer also spoke of biblical justification and of Christian belief throughout the document. The two main themes were: Jews’ guilt in the biblical narrative, and his own salvation.

If you know anything about Calvinists, you know that it’s very common for debates to break out in their ranks. These disputes often center on very complicated, even mind-numbing doctrinal disputes — occasionally claiming the ability to answer eternal questions that older forms of Christianity consider “mysteries.”

Thus, the Calvinist threads in Earnest’s manifesto ignited online debates — a totally valid source of material for a story of this kind. Let’s keep reading:

Several pastors said they found the manifesto’s parts about salvation significantly more troubling. Because when it came to what it said about salvation, they agreed with it. “I did not choose to be a Christian. The Father chose me. The Son saved me. And the Spirit keeps me,” the writer said, espousing a Reformed, or Calvinist, theology. He also wrote that his salvation was based not on his actions or lack of sin but on God’s will.

In the manifesto, “you actually hear a frighteningly clear articulation of Christian theology in certain sentences and paragraphs. He has, in some ways, been well taught in the church,” said the Rev. Duke Kwon, a Washington pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, another evangelical denomination which shares many of its beliefs with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Reading on, we hit another important passage that has a truly unfortunate — some would say “biased” — transition statement.

Kwon said he does not think most people should read the manifesto, which calls for its readers to also go out and attack Jews and tries to convince them they can do so without getting caught. But he found the letter darkly instructive for pastors. He tweeted snippets of it, and before Twitter removed those tweets, they prompted intense debate among evangelicals. Some castigated Kwon for casting blame on the church in any way. Some argued Earnest must be mentally ill; many sought to make clear that anti-Semitism is incompatible with biblical belief.

Kwon disagreed. He pointed to the evidence that the writer shares the Reformed theology of evangelical Presbyterians: that only God can offer salvation to those he preselects.


Did Kwon disagree with statements “that anti-Semitism is incompatible with biblical belief”?

No. That’s a horrible transition and Post editors should consider making a correction.

Kwon’s key point is that Earnest was making a troubling and disturbing claim — that his salvation was assured, no matter what he did in that synagogue. The alleged gunman took one key point in Calvinist theology and applied it to a truly radical decision. (Yes, I hear those whispers: Would Earnest argue that he had no choice but to launch this attack?)

Let’s carry on, following Kwon’s discussion of the parts of the manifesto that made him the most uncomfortable.

It wasn’t the white supremacist drivel taken from online chat rooms, totally foreign to the church, that chilled him most. It was the familiar theology, the parts where the writer showed he did believe what he’d been hearing in the pews as well as what he’d been hearing online.

“It’s possible to teach people in the church about personal individual salvation in Jesus Christ and still fail to instruct them regarding the ethical implications of that faith,” he said. Going forward, Kwon called for “a vision of the gospel that includes implications for the love of neighbor and those that are different from ourselves, to teach it as an essential feature of the gospel of grace and not just an add-on or an appendage to more important matters.”

Now, there are other parts of this Post story that are, I would say, tone-deaf when it comes to the nuances of what Calvinists are arguing about. However, let me stress that these arguments are very complicated and the participants are used to talking to insiders who know all of the twists and turns in centuries of debates inside this flock. This is tough sledding.

The key is that these two Post stories, when read together, should point reporters deeper into this clash between those who defend standard Calvinist doctrines and the online bile offered by white supremacists who defend their actions by linking them to bites of scripture.

But I’ll ask my main question a second time: Was there an online website (a specific writer, even) that twisted Calvinist doctrines into the form that Earnest blended into a radicalized, violent white nationalism that embraced some things that he heard at church, while rejecting others?

There will be conservative Christian academics who have studied these clashes for decades and have produced documents outlining their findings. As I did the other day, I would suggest that reporters talk to Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention who were involved in writing a strong 2017 resolution condemning white supremacy as a heresy. Keep talking to OPC and PCA academics, as well.

Someone out there may know the acidic, heretical wells from which Earnest was drinking.

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