A defense in the name of Christ

Just before Thanksgiving, someone messaged me and said he saw a car at the top of the steps of the War Memorial, one of the big, beautiful buildings with huge staircases near our apartment in downtown Indianapolis.

I thought it was a joke, but we found a dozen firetrucks, police cars and an ambulance along one of the main streets. I watched from the park across the street as a man draped in a flag stood with a cross and a book for about an hour before police coaxed him down the steps. He had poured gasoline down the steps of the memorial and lit it on fire.

Later, a few media reports wrote as though the man was troubled, but a local television station has an update with an interview with the man that has a bit of religion in the angle.

He called RTV6 to say he wanted to tell his side of the story.

“What I was trying to do with whatever I had was to try to get everybody to stop and think of Christ and his ways and to be nice to each other and love each other,” Whitaker told RTV6.

Whitaker, brandishing a large book and a blue pole, pulled a handgun from his waistband at one point during the standoff, police said, prompting officers to hold him at gunpoint.

“I said, ‘If you come and join us in Christ, I’ll lay my weapon on the ground,’” Whitaker said. “Three of them were brave enough to come up, and I put my weapon on the ground, and they gave me a hug.”

What’s completely unclear from this report is more details from the man about his faith and what provoked his reaction. It’s as though the reporter talked to him for five minutes to get a few quotes with no real substance. In other words, the piece doesn’t spell out the deranged nature of his call. How did he get access to a phone to talk to a reporter if he is being held in a hospital’s detention unit under psychiatric evaluation? As you read on, you see a little different picture from the police.

Whitaker mooned police before he threw his gun down the memorial steps and was taken into custody, about an hour after the incident began.

Police credited State Capitol Police Sgt. Russell Growe with establishing a bond with Whitaker.

“He worked on that bond to establish a rapport, and what happened was that this was a very potentially lethal situation. I mean, you had gasoline, you had matches, you had a weapon,” War Memorial Director Brig. Gen. J. Stewart Goodwin said shortly after the arrest. “You had a person that was not real stable.”

Here, we get the sense that this man is a bit deranged but says he has a religious motivation for the public standoff with police. He was charged with arson and criminal recklessness instead of something more serious, so perhaps it was worth asking the police whether they saw religious motivation here. If he truly wanted to tell his side of the story, could a reporter have probed his motivations a little bit more? It’s a truly strange story.

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  • Dave

    “You had a person that was not real stable.”

    Quote of the week!

    My question about the press and the cops was how different it would have been had the nutcase been Moslem and done more or less the same things. (No cross, of course.) How deep would the story have gone into his faith? What would he have been charged with?

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    Since the “motivation” involved Christ, it might have been helpful (and balanced) to interview a local Christian leader. This would have provided the Christian response: We obviously don’t encourage this sort of thing and we wish this troubled man well. (And thank you to the first responders for their handling of the situation.)

  • Stephen A.

    It is truly a weird “religious motivation” indeed that starts with brandishing a handgun and ends with “mooning” police. The first question I have is not about his religion but about his mental history.

  • sari

    This guy’s behaviors scream mental health problems, not religion. Local laws may allow him contact with the outside while undergoing involuntary assessment -or- he may have asked a family member or friend to contact the media. Either way, I see no religion angle to the story other than the contrast between the absurdity of his message and his behavior. It is probable that charges were or will be reduced if he is determined to be unbalanced but willing to undergo treatment.
    I had a friend who worked county crisis, which handled the unbalanced, usually off their meds and straight out of the cop cars. At one point, he had three John the Baptists, a handful of Jesuses, two virgin Marys and one woman who referred to herself as the Mother of G-d (with a big G, not Mary, mother of Jesus), all waiting to be evaluated. MoG had been arrested for walking out of a department store with an overflowing basket of unpurchased merchandise. Her rationale? I created it, so I don’t need to pay for it.

  • carl jacobs

    A cynic might suggest that journalists struggle with stories like this because journalists find it difficult to separate mental illness from religious belief. When considered from a certain perspective, one can sound pretty much like the other. Yes, I might suggest that motivation. If I were a cynic, that is.

    There seems to be an assumption in certain quarters that religion is uniquely capable of inspiring people to perform what would otherwise be considered an irrational act of an unstable mind. If a man says “I am trying to kill scientists to rid the world of technology” we all say he is mentally unstable. If a man says “I shot 100 kids to start a race war against Islam see we can re-establish Christian Europe” then many say “He is an expression of the danger of fundamentalism.” The former is considered to exist in his own world. The later is held up as normative for a group. This pattern is repeated so often, it just can’t be a coincidence.


  • All we are

    Regardless if he is mental or religious, the result isn’t much different. They see things that aren’t there, believe the irrational, base “truth” on feelings that given normal circumstances would be laughed at, and usually push their thoughts on others. Mix the two together and watch out.

  • carl jacobs

    All We Are

    Why, thank you for that excellent illustration of exactly the perspective I was describing. There now remains only the necessity of considering whether that perspective is endemic among journalists. I shall keep an open mind on the matter lest I be accused of cynicism.